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Myth and Legend in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Part Three

By Karl E.H. Seigfried

The castle of the Wartburg was a symbolic touchstone for German nationalists of the Romantic era. In 1521, after Martin Luther had been declared an outlaw for defying the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he hid at the Wartburg under the protection of Saxon elector Frederick the Wise and threw his inkpot at the devil who tried to distract him from his new project – a German translation of the Bible.

On the three hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, young radicals of the 19th century rebranded the castle from a symbol of the struggle for religious reform to one of their own struggle for political freedom when the Wartburg was the site of the first large-scale, inter-state student political protest. The Wartburg was a well-known symbol of German nationalism as Wagner was finishing his Tannhäuser libretto, six years before his own involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849.

Wagner makes the political symbolism of the Wartburg in his opera quite clear. When Elisabeth greets the hall, the “beloved place,” in which only the songs of Tannhäuser can awaken her from “gloomy dreams,” Wagner is also saluting the nationalist cause and positing himself as the artist who can write the music of the revolution.

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