Skip to main content
Heldentenor

Wolfgang Windgassen, German Heldentenor

By February 19, 2024No Comments

I have a confession to make. There was a time that if an opera wasn’t one of Wagner’s operas, then I couldn’t listen to it. Fortunately for me, my Wagner obsession has diminished, but I still have a slight obsession with heldentonors. Today’s posting is about Wolfgang Windgassen, one of the 20th century’s greatest heldentenors. If you listen for nothing else, listen for the legato in his phrasing. The roles that he sang were very big, dramatic roles, and he is able to sing them with beauty and expressiveness. We do not have anyone like him today.

Wagber, Parsifal, “Nur eine Waffe taugt”

PARSIFAL:

Nur eine Waffe taugt:
die Wunde schliesst
der Speer nur, der sie schlug.

(Amfortas’ Miene leuchtet in heiliger Entzückung auf; er scheint vor grosser Ergriffenheit zu schwanken; Gurnemanz stützt ihn)

PARSIFAL:

Sei heil entsündigt und entsühnt!
Denn ich verwalte nun dein Amt.
Gesegnet sei dein Leiden,
das Mitleids höchste Kraft
und reinsten Wissens Macht
dem zagen Toren gab.

(Parsifal schreitet nach der Mitte,
den Speer hoch vor sich erhebend.)

Den heil’gen Speer
ich bring’ ihn euch zurück!

(Alles blickt in höchster Entzückung
auf den emporgehaltenen Speer,
zu dessen Spitze aufschauend
Parsifal in Begeisterung fortfährt.)

Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!
Der deine Wunde durfte schliessen,
ihm seh’ ich heil’ges Blut entfliessen
in Sehnsucht nach dem verwandten Quelle,
der dort fliesst in des Grales Welle.
Nicht soll der mehr verschlossen sein:
Enthüllet den Gral! – Öffnet den Schrein!

(Parsifal besteigt die Stufen des Weihtisches, entnimmt dem von den Knaben geöffneten Schreine den “Gral” und versenkt sich, unter stummem Gebete, kniend in seinen Anblick. Allmähliche sanfte Erleuchtung des “Grales”. Zunehmende Dämmerung in der Tiefe bei wachsendem Lichtscheine aus der Höhe)

ALLE:
(mit Stimmen aus der mittleren,
sowie der oberen Hohe,
kaum hörbar leise)

Höchsten Heiles Wunder!
Erlösung dem Erlöser!

(Lichtstrahl: hellstes Erglühen des “Grales”. Aus der Kuppel schwebt eine wetsse Taube herab und verweilt über Parsifals Haupte. Kundry sinkt, mit dem Blicke zu ihm auf, langsam vor Parsifal entseelt zu Boden. Amfortas und Gurnemanz huldigen kniend Parsifal, welcher den Gral segnend über die anbetende Ritterschaft schwingt.)

(Der Vorhang schliesst sich langsam)

Wagner, Parsifal, “But one spear serves”

PARSIFAL:

But one weapon serves:
only the Spear that smote you
can heal your wound.

(Amfortas’s features light up in holy ecstasy; he seems to stagger under overpowering emotion; Gurnemanz supports him.)

PARSIFAL:
Be whole, absolved and atoned!
For I now will perform your task.
O blessed be your suffering,
that gave pity’s mighty power
and purest wisdom’s might
to the timorous fool!

(Parsifal steps towards the centre,
holding the Spear aloft before him)

I bring back to you
the holy Spear!

(All gaze in supreme rapture
at the uplifted Spear
to whose point Parsifal raises
his eyes and continues ecstatically)

O supreme joy of this miracle!
This that could heal your wound
I see pouring with holy blood
yearning for that kindred fount
which flows and wells within the Grail.
No more shall it be hidden:
uncover the Grail, open the shrine!

 

(Parsifal mounts the altar steps, takes the Grail from the shrine already opened by the squires, and falls to his knees before it in silent prayer and contemplation. The Grail gradually glows with a soft light. Increasing darkness below and growing illumination from above.)

ALL:
(with barely audiable voices
from the middle and apex
of the dome)

Miracle of supreme salvation!
Our Redeemer redeemed!

(A beam of light: the Grail glows at its brightest. From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal’s head. Kundry slowly sinks lifeless to the ground in front of Parsifal, her eyes uplifted to him. Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage to Parsifal, who waves the Grail in blessing over the worshipping brotherhood of knights.)

Wagner, Die Walkürie, Erste Aufzug, “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond”

SIEGMUND
Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,
in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz;
auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich,
Wunder webend er sich wiegt;
durch Wald und Augen weht sein Atem,
weit geöffnet lacht sein Aug’: –
aus sel’ger Vöglein Sange süß er tönt,
holde Düfte haucht er aus;
seinem warmen Blut entblühen wonnige Blumen,
Keim und Spross entspringt seiner Kraft.
Mit zarter Waffen Zier bezwingt er die Welt;
Winter und Sturm wichen der starken Wehr:
wohl musste den tapfern Streichen
die strenge Türe auch weichen,
die trotzig und starr uns trennte von ihm. –
Zu seiner Schwester schwang er sich her;
die Liebe lockte den Lenz:
in unsrem Busen barg sie sich tief;
nun lacht sie selig dem Licht.
Die bräutliche Schwester befreite der Bruder;
zertrümmert liegt, was je sie getrennt:
jauchzend grüßt sich das junge Paar:
vereint sind Liebe und Lenz!

Wagner, The Valkyrie, Act I, “Winter storms . . .”

 

SIEGMUND
Winter storms gave way to the merry moon,
Springtime gleams in mild light;
On bland airs, gentle and lovely
It sways by doing wonders;
Through woods and meadows blows its breath,
Its eye laughs widely apart: –
It chimes from overjoyed bird’s sweet singing,
It exhales lovely fragrances;
Delightful flowers reflourish its warm blood,
Germ and sprout arise from its strength.
With tender weapon’s ornament it conquers the world;
Winter and storm gave way to the strong fight:
Even the rigid door
Which defiantly and rigidly separated us from it
Had do give way to the brave strokes. –
He came here to his sister;
Love tempted springtime:
It hid deeply in our bosom;
Now it smiles overjoyed at the light.
The brother unchained the bridal sister,
Whatever separated them lies in ruins:
The young couple welcomes each other with jubilation:
Love and springtime are united!

Die Walkürie, Erste Aufzug. “Ein Schwert verhiß mir der Vater”

Siegmund
Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater,
ich fänd’ es in höchster Noth.
Waffenlos fiel ich in Feindes Haus;
seiner Rache Pfand, raste ich hier:
ein Weib sah’ ich, wonnig und hehr:
entzückend Bangen zehrt mein Herz.
Zu der mich nun Sehnsucht zieht,
die mit süßem Zauber mich sehrt,
im Zwange hält sie der Mann,
der mich wehrlosen höhnt.
Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert?
Das starke Schwert,
das im Sturm ich schwänge,
bricht mir hervor aus der Brust,
was wüthend das Herz noch hegt?

(Das Feuer bricht zusammen; es fällt aus der auf-
sprühenden Gluth plötzlich ein greller Schein auf die
Stelle des Eschenstammes, welche Sieglindes Blick
bezeichnet hatte, und an der man jetzt deutlich einen
Schwertgriff haften sieht.)

Was gleißt dort hell im Glimmerschein?
Welch’ ein Strahl bricht aus der Esche Stamm,
Des Blinden Auge leuchtet ein Blitz:
lustig lacht da der Blick.
Wie der Schein so hehr das Herz mir sengt!
Ist es der Blick der blühenden Frau,
den dort haftend sie hinter sich ließ,
als aus dem Saal sie schied?

(Von hier an verglimmt das Herdfeuer allmählich.)

Nächtiges Dunkel deckte mein Aug’,
ihres Blickes Strahl streifte mich da:
Wärme gewann ich und Tag.
Selig schien mir der Sonne Licht;
den Scheidel umgliß mir ihr wonniger Glanz,
bis hinter Bergen sie sank.

(Ein neuer schwacher Aufschein des Feuers.)

Noch einmal, da sie schied,
traf mich Abends ihr Schein;
selbst der alten Esche Stamm
erglänzte in gold’ner Gluth:
da bleicht die Blüthe, das Licht verlischt;
nächtiges Dunkel deckt mir das Auge:
tief in des Busens Berge glimmt nur noch
lichtlose Gluth.

(Das Feuer ist gänzlich verloschen: volle Nacht.)

(Das Seitengemach öffnet sich leise. Sieglinde, in
weißem Gewande, tritt heraus und schreitet leise,
doch rasch, auf den Herd zu.)

Wagner, The Valkyrie, Act I, “A sword, my father foretold me”

Siegmund
A sword, my father foretold me,
should serve me in sorest need.
Swordless I come to my foe-man’s house;
as a hostage here helpless I lie:
a wife saw I, wondrous and fair,
and blissful tremors seized my heart.
The woman who holds me chained,
who with sweet enchantment wounds,
in thrall is held by the man
who mocks his weaponless foe.
Wälse! Wälse! Where is thy sword?
The trusty sword,
that in fight shall serve me,
when from my bosom outbreaks
the fury my heart now bears?

(The fire falls together. From the flame which
springs up a bright light strikes on the spot in the ash
stem indicated by Sieglinde’s look, on which a sword
hilt is now clearly seen.)

What gleams there from out the gloom?
What a beam breaks from the ash tree’s stem!
The sightless eye beholdeth a flash:
gay as laughter its light!
How the glorious gleam doth pierce my heart!
Is it the glance of the woman so fair
that there clinging behind her she left
as from the hall she passed?

(The fire now gradually sinks.)

Darkening shadow covered mine eyes,
but her glance’s beam fell on me then:
bringing me warmth and day.
Blessing came with the sun’s bright rays;
the gladdening splendor encircled my head,
till behind mountains it sank.

(Another faint gleam from the fire.)

Once more, ere day went hence,
fell a gleam on me here;
e’en the ancient ash tree’s stem
shone forth with a golden glow:
now pales the splendor, the light dies out;
darkening shadow gathers around me:
deep in my breast alone yet glimmers a dim,
dying glow.

(The fire is quite extinguished: complete darkness.)

(The door at the side opens softly. Sieglinde, in a
white garment, comes out and advances lightly but
quickly toward the hearth.)

Wolfgang Windgassen

June 26, 1914 – September 8, 1974

Wolfgang Windgassen was the leading Wagnerian tenor of the post‐war generation. Although he sang infrequently in the U.S.  (six performances in the Metropolitan Opera’s 1957 “Ring” cycles and a few Tristans in San Francisco in 1970), Windgassen was long considered an, indispensable participant in important Wagner performances in Europe, particularly at the Bayreuth Festival where he appeared 159 times between 1951 and 1966. The late Wagnerian conductor Hans Knappertsbusch once summed up Windgassen’s unique position in the meager ranks of Heldentenors when a critic asked him: “What in the name of God would Bayreuth do without Windgassen?” Knappertsbusch merely shrugged and growled back: “What else? Go and fetch him at once.”

Windgassen made his début at Pforzheim as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. After army service he became a member of the Stuttgart opera company, and succeeded his father as principal tenor. Stuttgart opera remained his home base throughout his career, and for the last two years of his life he was its artistic director.

Windgassen’s voice was not as heroic as pre-war Heldentenors such as Lauritz Melchior or his immediate predecessor Max Lorenz, but he used it with such skill and musicianship that he is generally regarded as the most accomplished Wagner tenor of the second half of the twentieth century.  Windgassen’s special strengths lay in the lyrical beauty of his unmistakably personal timbre and, when the spirit was upon him, in the passionate intensity of his declamation.  Windgassen demonstrated with a sturdy, poised, utterly dependable vocal line of rare expressive plasticity that could instantly communicate the delicate tenderness of Lohengrin’s Farewell or the sarcasm and despair of Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration.

Windgassen recorded all his major Wagner roles save Walther von Stolzing in “Die Meistersinger” and these are the mementos by which we will remember his art. Unfor tunately not recorded are the many non‐Wagnerian parts sang throughout his career. The Windgassen repertory included well over 50 roles by other composers, and visitors to Stuttgart, his operatic home‐base throughout his career, might catch him singing Cavaradossi one night or Hoffmann or Otello or Bacchus or even a delightfully comic Fra Diavolo on another. But Windgassen made his international impact as a rare kind of Wagnerian Heldentenor—a lyrical Heldentenor whose musical and vocal qualities are in short supply on the operatic stage today. Birgit Nilsson, Windgassen’s colleague at Bayreuth, Vienna and the other principal opera houses of the world, has contributed the accompanying reminiscence of an artistic partnership that became paradigm of Wagner performance standards throughout the fifties and sixties.

Wolfgang Windgassen (26 June 1914 – 8 September 1974) was a heldentenor internationally known for his performances in Wagner operas.

Born in Annemasse, France, he was the son (and pupil) of a well known German Heldentenor, Fritz Windgassen (who was also the teacher of Gottlob Frick). His mother was the German coloratura soprano Vali von der Osten, sister of the much more famous soprano Eva von der Osten, who created the part of Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Both Windgassen’s parents were longtime mainstays of the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

Windgassen sang at all the important opera houses all over the world. He was invited to perform at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 and continued to appear there till 1970, singing all the great Wagner tenor roles: Erik, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Walter, Loge, Siegmund, both Siegfrieds and Parsifal, his debut role in 1951.