Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture

Wagner was born in 1813 and completed his Tannhäuser opera in 1845. The opera was premiered in Dresden on 19th October the same year. Tristan and Isolde was completed 1859 and premiered in Munich on 10th June 1865. Wagner was in his early thirties when he composed Tannhäuser, and in his mid forties when he composed Tristan. Between these two works Wagner was exiled from Germany for a decade, separated from his first wife, and completed most of his mammoth ring cycle.

The Tannhäuser overture is very nationalistic, featuring the formal and Germanic pilgrim’s chorus. Tristan and Isolde is more passionate, and has a tension that is resolved by a fabulous climax towards the end of the Liebestod. The two pieces combine well to showcase the breadth of Wagner’s orchestral style.

Wagner highlighted the new chromaticism of brass instruments, made possible by the invention of valves, and the horns are used prominently in many of his works. It is said that he consulted J R Lewy (a leading valve horn player of the time) regarding horn part writing.

The horns in use at this time were the first generation to include valves. Many designs retained the detachable crooks used to change the instrument’s length and key. Tannhäuser is printed for four horns in E, and Tristan is printed for a pair of horns in F and a pair of horns in E – all the parts require valves for proper execution. His writing style often alludes to hunting horn calls, that are playable on valve-less hand horns, whilst enjoying the freedom of adding chromatic phrases.

Wagner had reservations about the quality of the new valve horns. In his preface notes for Tristan he expresses his belief that horn makers will learn to build valve instruments that provide the beauty of tone and smooth legato of the hand horn.

Tonight’s horn section are using valved double horns. These were invented around 1900 and provide the flexibility to play on a tube length of 9 feet (Bb alto) that can be chromatically extended to 17 feet (C basso) using a double valve system. We read music pitched in F and transpose the E parts by reading each note down one semitone. Early horn parts are pitched in the key of the piece, presenting the player with a part that contains accidentals and no key signature. Transposing music back into F is a challenge faced by modern horn players the world over, but to re-write these early parts into F would separate us from our instruments’ valve-less ancestry.

Often described as French horns, our modern instruments have broader proportions and could more correctly be described as descending from Bohemian style horns, having a darker tone quality than the narrow tapered French style horn.