This post is brought to you by Canon Fodder: a musicology blog that takes a humorous, vernacular, and belligerently educational approach to classical music. Canon Fodder is written and produced by Molly Phelan and Lydia Zodda, former Bay Area residents and performers, and active Awesöme Orchestra admirers.
Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin features unquestionably his most famous music, the wedding march from Act III (aka THE wedding march from every standard wedding music playlist). Today we're focusing on the little gem right before that wedding march, where Wagner condenses a whole wedding party into a less-than-five-minute prelude. So yeah, we're gonna focus on the party today.
PIECE: Prelude to Act III from Lohengrin
COMPOSER: Richard Wagner
GOOD FOR: Hasty weddings , excessively fancy processions
Since we're only focusing on the Prelude to Act III today, and since Wagner is not a man known for his short operas*, I'm going to give a very condensed version of the saga.
Tenth-century Antwerp is wracked with political upheaval (and subplots we won’t get into here). The Duke’s sister Elsa goes to pray about the whole situation when suddenly, a (super hot) knight appears before her in a boat pulled by a swan. He gets some really beautiful background music and declares himself her champion and her husband.
Elsa is into aaaalll this Swan-Man has to offer, but in opera most good things come with a catch and this is no exception. It turns out Swan-Man (He-Swan?) has one condition: Elsa can never ask him his name or where he comes from. That's generally the bare minimum for marriage in my book, but I guess she must really be into birds, because she accepts his proposal.
Literally, AS Elsa is walking into the church to get married, a political rival (Ortund) pops up and begins to sow seeds of doubt in Elsa’s head about why Swan-Man might want to hide his identity (although honestly, it seems more concerning that she hadn't thought about this).
Once Elsa finally realizes there might be a sinister reason behind why her husband doesn't want her to know his name or where he's from, she understandably but belatedly gets a little freaked.
It doesn't take long before she asks him the fatal questions. By "it doesn't take long", I mean she asks him on their wedding night, and by "fatal questions" I mean "what is your name" and "where are you from". This does not go over well with Swan-Man. He makes them trudge over to the King's palace where he reveals that he is Lohengrin, Knight of the Holy Grail sent to protect Elsa. However, if a knight’s identity is revealed he must remove himself from human sight. So a dove descends from heaven and pulls his boat to the Kingdom of the Holy Grail, and Elsa is so struck with grief she dies right on the spot.
Other, superior, fictional Elsas would have just...
So, at the heart of this story is an unending pull and tension between the earthly and the holy realms. Lohengrin, like the holy grail itself, exists on Earth but is not truly OF this Earth. Wagner accentuates this contrast through clear musical differences between the heavenly and earthly realms, and a good way to hear that contrast is by comparing the Prelude to Act I and the Prelude to act III.
Heavenly music for Wagner means shimmering strings, and sparing use of brass and percussion, saving them for big punctuating moments. The harmony develops continuously, winding in and out of different keys, so that it creates a sense of perpetual movement and a sense of timelessness, invoking the eternal nature of heaven/holiness.
And now we all have this cemented in our subconsciouses as "holy grail" music forever, thanks to John Williams who definitely borrowed some ideas from Wagner's Prelude to Act I when he was scoring this scene...**
In the full opera, the "heavenly" Act I Prelude is immediately followed by a big brass fanfare, which signals to us that we are heartily back on earth. Fanfares, dotted rhythms, and prominent brass and percussion are for earthly folk; very high strings, slow builds, and magically-never-quite-resolving harmonies are for holy people.
Now let's talk about the Prelude to Act III. We see Elsa and Lohengrin go into the church at the end of Act II. Everyone has a couple drinks during their 30-minute intermission and when we return, the orchestra plays the Prelude to Act III and the curtain opens on the chorus singing the famous "Bridal March". Only, while we now use this piece of music to march people down the aisle to get married, in the opera it serves to march the couple out of their bridal feast and into their bridal chamber *WINK*. So now you have a really awkward fun fact to bring up at weddings and make everyone uncomfortable!
The point is, the Prelude to Act III represents the wedding celebration itself, and the bridal march is the end of the night. Most of this music is the total opposite of the Prelude to Act I. This one starts out and ends loud, gaudy, and bawdy like any great party anthem.
The brass bust out the opening fanfare and then lead the charge melodically, which makes sense to anyone who has every partied bunch of brass players. That brass business combined with the constant tremolo in the strings and the pulsing rhythmic drive throughout create excitement right from the start . There’s even a tambourine in there, so you know it’s gotta be a good party.
In the middle, you’ll hear the brass and percussion drop out, and the oboe picks up a sweet little melody that resembles the famous bridal march melody. It’s a brief moment to remember that this is a wedding and not just a great party. But it's not long till the mood picks up again and soon our opening party theme busts out for one last dance at the wedding party.
So while there probably isn't an open bar or an official dance floor at the Wagner concert, and even though Wagner himself would have hated people dancing to his music (but he has famously stupid/bad/wrong/offensive opinions), I think listeners and players alike should take on the challenge to revel in this music and see if you can cram a whole wedding's worth of party into three minutes. GO FORTH AND WEDDING PARTY!
*Music History Fact/Drama! The titular lead tenor in the premiere performance of Lohengrin was apparently a total vocal mess. He had some sort of lingering infection and took everything so slowly that the performance ended up being a full hour longer than Wagner anticipated. Yikes.
**John Williams scores are basically a scavenger hunt for bits of other classical music, and I am all about it.