AGNER'S opera Lohengrin was the work which first made the young and enthusiastic King of Bavaria a warm and devoted admirer of the so-called Music of the Future. Of this remarkable friendship Wagner himself wrote: "In the year of the first performance of Tannhäuser, a Queen bore me the good genius of my life, who raised me from the direct necessity to the highest joy. When but fifteen years of age, he witnessed a performance of Lohengrin, and since then he has belonged to me. He calls me his teacher, the dearest for him on earth. He was sent to me from Heaven. Through him I am, and understand myself."
That young poet-minded king would stand on the balcony of his favorite residence, the mountain castle Hohenschwangau, and gaze at the clear moonlit lake below him while a courtier sang the Swan Song; and it is the same Hohenschwangau that is one of the legendary homes of the Swan Knightan alpine paradise, and almost as inaccessible as the fabled Monsalvat. The swan is the legendary bird of the Schwangau, and flocks of them may be seen sailing in all the pride of their beauty and dignity of the deep blue lake that lies at the foot of the hill on which Hohenschwangau is perched. The beautiful birds undoubtedly gave the name to the valley and the castle; and in course of time the Swan-legend was transplanted from the Scheldt to Bavaria.
The first performance of Lohengrin [click on thumbnail to the left] was given under the direction of Franz Liszt at Weimar on August 28, 1850, the anniversary of Goethe's death. In 1871 it was performed for the first time in Italy, the home of opera, at Bologna. It was then taken to New York, and although it had been heard there before in the original German, it was given at the Academy of Music in Italian. Afterward, it went to London where the role of princess Elsa was performed by Mademoiselle Albani at Covent Garden and by Madame Nilsson at Drury Lane.
THE LEGEND: In the dark ages there lived in the castle of Schwanstein (now Hohenschwangau) a princess of the purest and noblest character, mistress of the castle and the valley. One day she stood upon the parapet of the Schloss and looked far into the valley. Her eye rested upon the Swan lake. There she saw a snow-white swan, gracefully sailing over the waters, and drawing after it a golden boat in which a handsome knight lay asleep.
When the knight awoke and stepped on shore, he greeted the princess in such friendly wise that she immediately conceived great confidence in him, and asked him to protect her against her enemies, especially against her wicked uncle, who had accused her before the Emperor of unbecoming conduct, and on this ground had claimed her wealth. The Emperor commanded that the uncle should do battle with any champion the young lady could procure. The day of the tournament arrived, and the Swan knight appeared in the arena to uphold the cause of the lady, and slew the avaricious uncle on the spot. In great thankfulness the princess chose the knight to be her lord, and he accepted the honor on one condition, namely, that she should never seek to find out who he was or whence he came, otherwise their bliss would at once come to an end. But curiosity was ever the weak point of the daughters of Eve. Irresistibly inquisitive to know something about her knight, she asked him about his descent. Immediately on hearing these words he became silent and moody, and without more ado hurried to the lake. The swan was in waiting with the golden boat; the knight stepped into the fragile shell, and while the princess stood wringing her hands in agony on the turret, her mysterious lord was swept over the sad waters, out of sight forever.
This legend, embodied by Wagner in Lohengrin, has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Longobardian legend of Sceaf. An Anglo-Saxon story says: "A ship once arrived on the coast of Scandia without rudder or sail. In it lay a boy asleep upon his arms. The natives took and educated him, calling him Scild, the son of Sceaf (the skiff). In course of time he became their king." In Beowulf it is added that Scild reigned long, and when he saw that he was about to die, he bade his men lay him, fully armed, in a boat, and commit him to the sea. Other legends say that the boat which bore him away was drawn by swans. He forbade questions to be asked about his home, but his wife heeded not his hest. The legend is related of many places and noble families in Germany. Says one chronicler about this time: "Otto, Emperor of Germany, held court at Neumagen, there to decide between Clarrissa, Duchess of Bouillon, and the Count of Frankfort, who claimed her duchy. It was decided that their right should be established by single combat, provided some doughty warrior would do battle for the lady. But none would meddle with the affair. In answer to her prayer, however, the Swan Knight appeared. Lords and ladies were scattered along the banks of the Meuse. The knight is Helias, who overcomes the Count of Frankfort, and becomes the Duke of Bouillon."
The story is very ancient and popular. It is told of Lohengrin, Loherangrin, Salvuis, and Gerhard the Swan, while the lady is Beatrice of Cleves, a princess of Hohenschwangau, or Else of Brabant. [The white swan was the badge of the House of Cleves, which professed to be descended from the "Knight of the Swan." When Ann of Cleves went to England there was a play given in her honor in which the appearance of a knight drawn in a boat by a swan caused great astonishment. Lord Berners wrote a novel in the sixteenth century called "The Knight of the Swan."]
The engravings and text are taken from The Legend, The Poem, The Musical Gems of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin, translated and arranged by John P. Jackson, with voice and piano arranged by Frances Manette Jackson (pub. Edward Schuberth & Co. New York, circa 1890). Click each thumbnail to view image: