Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t’: A counterfactual analysis of Richard Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser’

I. Chrissochoidis, H. Harmgart, S. Huck, W. Müller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

The eponymous hero of Wagner’s Tannhäuser treads a path of stark contrasts and rapid swings that culminate in the opera’s central episode, the song contest at Wartburg. Instead of securing his reintegration within the court with a brilliant performance, Tannhäuser spoils the event with insolent remarks and the exhibitionist disclosure of his Venusberg experience. His behaviour offends his peers, scandalizes the court, breaks Elisabeth’s heart, and brings him to the edge of death. Why would he sacrifice everything for nothing? Existing interpretations of Wagner’s Tannhäuser blame either the hero’s flaws or the young composer’s unconvincing dramaturgy, and take for granted Tannhäuser’s hyper-emotional impulsive nature. This essay offers a radically new perspective on the opera by drawing on game theory, the dominant methodology in the social sciences. Through a detailed analysis of the hero’s decision-making, it argues that his seemingly irrational behaviour is actually consistent with a strategy of redemption. Musical evidence in the score indeed suggests that Tannhäuser may have consciously disrupted the contest, knowing that only a public disclosure of his sinful past can force him to make the pilgrimage to Rome and secure a permanent union with Elizabeth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)584-602
JournalMusic and Letters
Volume95
Issue number4
Early online date13 Nov 2014
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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