I recently joined the Salt Lake Men’s Choir, and one of the songs we have started rehearsing is Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner. I had heard the piece a number of times and was thus familiar with the tune. I had not, however, ever focused on the lyrics of the song.
After my first rehearsal, I went home and downloaded several of the songs we are going to be learning for our spring concert. One of these was the Pilgrim’s Chorus. I chose two performances, one in English by the Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from their recently released CD, and the other a 1981 performance in the original German by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC). That week, I listened to each performance several times.
At the second rehearsal, we broke into sections, and one of the pieces we worked on was the Pilgrim’s Chorus. It was then that I really focused on the lyrics for the first time, and I was frankly moved, particularly as I sung the words to the second and third verses:
Once more with joy O my home I may meet
Once more ye fair, flowr'y meadows I greet
My Pilgrim's staff henceforth may rest
Since Heaven's sweet peace is within my breast.
The sinner's `plaint on high was heard
On high was heard and answered by the Lord
The tears I laid before His shrine
Are turned to hope and joy divine.
O Lord eternal praise be Thine!
The blessed source of Thy mercy overflowing
On souls repetant seek Ye, all-knowing
Of hell and death, I have no fear
O my Lord is ever near
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
As I sang these words, I felt the peace of the pilgrims as they returned home, their missions accomplished. I felt their humility, their frank acknowledgement of their weaknesses and the joy they found in their redemption. The words, combined with the music, were to me quietly powerful. I had also felt some sense of this emotion while listening to the SFGMC recording, but of course I couldn’t understand the lyrics because they were in German.
I was a little puzzled, however, because I had not felt any of this when listening the previous week to the recording (in English) by the Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (MTC). In fact, I wondered whether the choir was possibly using different lyrics because I hadn’t felt or heard the plaintive pleading or the redeeming joy that the lyrics and the SFGMC recording had conveyed to me. So as I headed home from rehearsal that evening, I listened more carefully to the MTC recording and discovered, to my surprise, that these were indeed the same lyrics.
In the ensuing days, as I traveled out of state for the long weekend and had the opportunity to listen a number of times to both recordings I had downloaded, I thought about what I had experienced the previous week at rehearsal. I wondered why I had mistakenly thought the MTC had sung the song to different lyrics and pondered how the two recordings differed and what these differences, in a way, represented or symbolized.
In order to better under the piece, I decided to do a little research on both the song and the opera from which it comes.
I learned that Tannhäuser, the main character, was a German knight who was lured into Venusberg, the mountain home of the goddess Venus, whose greatest joy was to entice into the mountain the knights of the Wartburg region and there hold them captive to her beauty. Any knight who entered the Venusberg and succumbed to the pleasures of Venus’ court was considered consigned to perdition.
Tannhäuser, however, was able to escape from Venusberg and eventually went on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness from the pope, in which mission he failed. He thereafter returned home to Germany with a group of pilgrims, dejected and resigned to his fate: damnation. The Pilgrim’s Chorus is sung by these pilgrims at this point in the opera as they pass through Tannhäuser’s town.*
With this additional knowledge and understanding, I again listened to the two recordings, and I am presenting them here in order for you to listen and make your own judgment. First, the SFGMC performance, followed by the MoTab Men.
I attempted to articulate what to me were the differences between these two recordings and also why the MTC performance had left me so unaffected. Some thoughts gradually took shape. In short, I found the MTC performance very professional, controlled, measured, uniform, perfectly blended, a pleasure to listen to, beautiful even – but totally devoid of any emotion; pleasing, but – in a sense - plastic.
On the other hand, I found the SFGMC performance beautiful as well, but also full of feeling: reverential and prayerful during the first verse and first half of the second verse, turning to joyful in the second half of the second verse, thence to exultant in the third verse. The sound of the SFGMC was also very different from that of the MTC: while polished, it was clearly “human”; imperfect; much differently blended than that of the MTC performance. Individual voices, though harmonizing beautifully, were clearly audible, each singer contributing to the texture of the whole. I feel the difference in feeling is also reflected in the differences between the orchestral accompaniment in the MTC recording - mirroring the choir’s controlled professionalism - and the wildly emotive piano accompaniment of the SFGMC performance.
As I came to these conclusions about the two performances, I also realized why the MTC recording had left me so unaffected – to the point where I had actually wondered whether the choir was perhaps singing lyrics that were different from those I had sung. I simply had not felt the peace of the pilgrims as they returned home, their humility, their frank acknowledgement of their weaknesses and the joy they found in their redemption – which to me is the heart and soul of this piece and, indeed, of the whole opera: redemption through love.
Beyond this, however, it occurred to me how some might view the two performances to be reflective of differences between the general membership of the Church and elements of the society in which we live. The Church is obviously composed of individuals who, taken as a whole across the world, represent an extremely diverse group of people. However, perhaps in part because of this very diversity, the Church puts a premium – both in terms of its organization as well as its theology – on uniformity, on systems, on control, on blending together. Differences are not celebrated. Only certain kinds of emotions are encouraged or tolerated. Freedom of thought and expression are not viewed as ends in themselves. The end result of this is can be and often is, in general terms, similar to the MTC’s performance of Pilgrim’s Chorus: controlled, uniform, measured, blended; beautiful, yet bland; correct, yet corrosively conformed.
These are, of course, only one man’s thoughts, i.e., mine. But I am entitled to my opinion, as are you. In my book, San Fran Gays win. What do you think?
* For those who are interested, here is a link to a video on YouTube that features the scene from Act III of Tannhauser containing the Pilgrim’s Chorus. The scene is described as follows: “The third act displays once more the valley of the Wartburg, the same scene as that to which the Venusberg changed in the first act. Elizabeth [who loved Tannhäuser], arrayed in white, is kneeling, in deep prayer, before the crucifix. At one side, and watching her tenderly, stands Wolfram [another knight and friend of Tannhäuser]. After a sad recitative from Wolfram, the chorus of returning Pilgrims is heard in the distance. They sing the melody heard in the overture and in the first act; and the same effect of gradual approach is produced by a superb crescendo as they reach and cross the scene. With almost piteous anxiety and grief Elizabeth scans them closely as they go by, to see if Tannhäuser be among them, and when the last one has passed and she realizes that he has not returned, she sinks again upon her knees before the crucifix and sings the prayer, "Almighty Virgin, hear my sorrow," music in which there is most beautifully combined the expression of poignant grief with trust in the will of the Almighty.” [Source: http://www.musicwithease.com/tannhauser-synopsis.html.]