The real story behind Wagner's Bridal March
(Here Comes The Bride)

It's a staple at probably 70% of the weddings in the United States.  By far more bride's have walked down the aisle to this piece of music than any other.  

However, are you aware of the context from which the music was taken? I'm not passing judgment of course, but I thought you might be interested.

The piece of music commonly known as "Here Comes the Bride" is the opening number to the third act of Richard Wagner's opera "Lohengrin". 

The opera was written in German and is in three acts.  The work first premiered in Weimar in 1850, while Wagner was in exile. The first performance was conducted by Franz Liszt, Wagner's father-in-law-to-be.

Apparently Wagner was amused when the Bridal Chorus made its way into church services. The reasons for this will become clearer as you read on.

The opera takes place in the 10th century. Count Telramund has asserted to be the rightful ruler of the Dukedom of Brabant by virtue of marrying Ortrud of Friesland. However, the circumstances of his claim are somewhat in question. The true heir is a boy named Godfrey, Duke of Brabant. He and his sister Elsa we last seen out in the woods together. No trace of Godfrey could be found, and Elsa was accused by Telramund and her sister Ortrud of having murdered him.

Elsa is summoned and comes in, the picture of innocence, all dressed in white. She sings the famous aria, "Elsa's Dream", in which she tells of having seen a handsome knight who promised to come to her in time of need. 

The dispute, it is agreed, must be tried in the good medieval tradition of trial by combat. When nobody answers the call to fight on Elsa's behalf, she and her handmaidens pray, and lo, in the distance, appears a knight in a boat, drawn up the river by a swan. (Remember this swan, he's an important part later on). A proverbial knight in shining armor lands, thanks the swan, then turns to greet the King, and to offer his services to Elsa.

But first she must make him two promises. First, that she must agree to marry him, should he prove victorious, and second, she must agree never to ask his name or where he has come from. To both terms she consents.

The fight doesn't take long. Telramund is struck to the ground, but the knight spares his life, and everybody sings in praise of the champion with the unknown name. It would hardly violate a secret to say that the name of the unknown knight is Lohengrin.

Elsa and the knight are to be married the next day. Telramund, with his life spared, and his wife, Ortrud, are disgraced, and they spend the night arguing on the steps of the cathedral of Antwerp, where Elsa and her rescuer are to be married.

Dawn breaks and everyone is gathered. Elsa, being the innocent she is, appears on the balcony and invites Ortrud in to be given an honorable place at the wedding. As the Bridal Procession begins, (nope...not the Bridal March you've been wanting to find out more about...not yet), Ortrud interrupts everything and taunts Elsa for not knowing the name or the origin of her fianc´┐Ż. (Right in the middle of the processional! See if SHE gets invited to any more weddings!)

King Henry and Elsa's knight in shining armor step in and orders Ortrud away. The procession begins again only to be interrupted once more by Telramund. He is even more vehement than Ortrud. He demands that the King himself put the questions of name and origin to the stranger. Now, the knight speaks up and says the he will answer to no one but Elsa herself. For a long time, Elsa waivers, being only human, but proceeds with the ceremony without asking the fateful questions.

Now to the words of the song. The scene is the bridal chamber in the palace. The act opens with the Prelude to Act III- The Wedding March, played by the orchestra. Yup...that's the one...the song you've been waiting for. However, as you now know, the wedding is now over and it's time for the...well...consummation.

As the curtain rises to Act III, you see the bridal chamber. The strains of the Wedding March continue, but in a mellower mood. The doors open, and the bridal party enters, the ladies leading Elsa and the King and nobles conducting the knight in shining armor (aka Lohengrin, but we don't know that yet, remember?) They come to the front and the chorus begins:

Faithful and true, we lead thee forth
Where Love, triumphant, shall crown ye with joy!
Star of renown, flow'r of the earth,
Blest be ye both far from all life's annoy!
Champion victorious, go thou before!
Maid bright and glorious, go thou before!
Mirth's noisy revel ye've forsaken,
Tender delights for you now awaken;
Fragrant abode enshrine ye in bliss;
Splendor and state in joy ye dismiss!

(For obvious reasons these lyrics have been translated from original German, no doubt with some liberties taken).

The party goes slowly out, leaving the bridal pair alone, while the strains of the nuptial air die away in the distance. Elsa and her still-unnamed knight-now her husband, have a little talk in which Elsa's doubts begin to assert themselves. And here we thought you should get the cold feet BEFORE the wedding!

Her husband tries to allay them with an aria that compares her to the sweetest fragrances of nature. The doubts will not go away. Sternly he reminds her of the trust she owes him, and he repeats his love for her. A madness seizes upon her, and over the protest of her husband she finally asks the fatal questions: "Tell me thy name...Whence dost thou come?...Where is thy home?"

Before he could answer, Telramund and four cronies burst in the Bridal Chamber. Talk about a bummer of a wedding night.

Elsa gives Lohengrin a sword and with a supernatural stroke of the blade, Telramund is killed. The knight orders the body to be taken to the King. The scene changes to the kingly presence and Telramund's body is carried in, and his slayer explains to the King about the assassination attempt. Then Elsa comes in; and now the knight prepares to answer her question.

In one of the most dramatic moments in all of opera, he tells of his home on the wondrous Mont Monsalvat, where a band of knight guards and serves the Holy Grail. Once every year a dove descends from heaven to renew the Grail's powers, and all its knights are guarded by it in their fights for innocence and truth. 

His father, says the knight, is Percival, king of all the knights of the Grail, and his own name is - Lohengrin. But now, he adds, that his secret is known, he must leave, not only his bride, but King Henry.

This revelation causes a great stir among the people. Suddenly, a cry is heard from those nearest the shore. The swan is seen returning with the boat. Lohengrin goes to greet the swan and then turns once more to Elsa. He tells her that there was a one year long probationary period for her trust in him. If she had waited to ask the questions, then her brother, (remember Godfrey, the boy lost in the woods, the rightful heir of Brabant?) whom the Grail defended would have been returned safely.

Now, should he return, Elsa must return to him Lohengrin's sword. With a final farewell he turns to the swan. Then a miracle occurs. The swan sinks into the river, and in his place comes the young Duke of Brabant- Godfrey. Bitterly the sorceress Ortrud relates how she had transformed the boy into a swan. Lohengrin, thereupon, falls upon his knees and prays. A dove is seen descending from the sky and  tows the boat off with the knight aboard.

Elsa cries after him, "My husband, my husband!" and then sinks lifeless into Godfrey's arms as the curtain falls.

Sure, it's a great piece of music, but considering the way this particular wedding worked out, use it with caution!!!

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Copyright 2007 by Steve Kimbell