By Jessica Barbour
The summer wedding season is in full swing and many of us will have attended a ceremony or two by the time it’s over. My little sister was married on July 15, and the months leading up to the event were very busy ones for my family members, who planned and prepared the entire event themselves.
Like many brides, my sister paid particular attention to the ceremony music. She chose the processional on her own (the second movement of “Winter” from the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi), and the other pieces were suggested either by the organist or by me, the singer. After some deliberation, she ended up with a combination of the more well-known (George Frideric Handel’s “Hornpipe” from Water Music) with the fairly obscure (“Hands, Eyes, and Heart” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs, which I first heard in an art song repertoire class in graduate school).
If a bride and groom don’t wish to spend time creating a personalized repertoire, they can always default to the standard fare for the ceremony—pieces like the astutely nicknamed “Here Comes the Bride,” an organ arrangement of the bridal chorus (“Treulich geführt”) from Richard Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin.
This excerpt can seem to be either an obvious selection for a wedding or a ridiculous one, depending on how you look at its context in the opera. In Lohengrin’s third act, this chorus accompanies the newly married Elsa and Lohengrin’s entrance to the bridal chamber, “where the blessing of love shall preserve you.” This is shortly followed by the bride declaring her misgivings about the groom, the groom’s mounting remonstrations, and (not surprisingly, for a 19th-century opera), a homicide.
As you may have guessed, Elsa and Lohengrin’s marriage doesn’t turn out to be a long lasting one. So while a couple looking for a musical benediction of wedlock may find “Treulich geführt” a perfect choice for their wedding ceremony, those looking for something that in its original context augured a long, happy, murder-free union may find it doesn’t quite fit the bill. (Images of Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of the opera at Bayreuth, in which members of the cast were costumed as giant lab rats, make the bridal chorus feel like an even more unnerving selection.)
The tradition of incorporating Lohengrin’s bridal chorus into wedding ceremonies began only eight years after the opera’s première. The wedding ceremony of Princess Royal Victoria and Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia on 25 January 1858 was followed by a concert offered by Queen Victoria of nine musical selections, including “Treulich geführt”. Wagner, who was in exile in Switzerland for his participation in the Dresden insurrection when the opera was first performed, didn’t hear the work in performance himself until 1861.
In spite of tradition (or perhaps because of it), some presumptive brides and grooms consider the piece too much of a cliché to use in their own weddings. In 1963, Jessica Kerr put an ad in the Musical Times asking ministers and organists to write in with information on the kinds of music they used in weddings. In her resulting 1965 article on English weddings, she wrote that many reported using processional hymns instead of “Treulich gefürht,” which “provides a solution (among other advantages) for those who object to the Lohengrin Bridal Chorus, either because they consider it hackneyed, or because of its secularity.” For those who didn’t want to include expressly secular music in the wedding service, Kerr wondered why the bridal chorus, which is sung as Elsa and Lohengrin enter their bedroom, wasn’t replaced by the Procession to the Minster from the opera’s second act.
Yet almost 50 years after Kerr’s article was published, “Treulich gefürht,” continues to be requested. An organist friend of mine says she plays it for about 30–40% of the weddings she accompanies. It’s often paired with the “Wedding March” from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another work Queen Victoria requested for her daughter’s wedding celebration.
For most of us, the bridal chorus doesn’t conjure up the story of Elsa and Lohengrin any more than the Mendelssohn makes us think of Oberon or Titania. What both pieces do bring to mind is weddings in general — a vaguer, happier idea that’s still congruous with the original musical narratives. What’s more, I don’t know that most people preparing to get married care about the context in which the music they pick was written anyway. (The ones I’ve known that did care were musicians themselves and couldn’t help it.)
For that reason, and for the sake of tradition, I imagine “Treulich geführt” will continue to be used in wedding processionals for some time. May the marriages be happy ones, and may the subsequent rat attacks be few.
Jessica Barbour is the associate editor for Grove Music Online. You can read more about Wagner and Lohengrin on Oxford Music Online.