The opera’s plot is Wagner’s reworking of an old German legend. Tannhäuser, Knight and Minstrel, in a moment of weakness enters the grotto of the Venusberg, wherein Venus reigns over everlasting revels and the eventual destruction of the souls of men. Happily, he is rescued by his fellow Minstrel Knights.
Entering a “Tournament of Song”, the prize being the hand of the Maiden Elizabeth, he unwisely chooses to sing the praises of Venus and the assembled Minstrels threaten to kill him. Elizabeth intercedes and saves him.
For his past sins he joins a pilgrimage to Rome, only to return unpardoned and to find Elizabeth dead. Striking his pilgrim’s staff into the ground he resolves to return to the Venusberg but dies before the miracle happens – his staff blossoms, a sure sign of God’s pardon.
In the overture the two elements of sacred and profane love are clearly set out. Firstly the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Act III, then the music associated with the Venusberg Ogres, the brother Knight Wolfrans’ “Hymn to Elizabeth” and a reprise of the Pilgrims’ Chorus.
The Opera was first performed in Dresden in 1845, not to any great acclaim.