The Wesendonk Lieder are a cycle of songs composed by Wagner in the course of the year 1857 to five poems written by Mathilde Wesendonk. The work is entitled Five Poems for the Female Voice and Piano (Fünf Gedichte für Frauenstimme und Klavier) although they are now usually performed with the orchestra. “I have done nothing better than these songs,” Wagner is reputed to have said. The composition was Wagner's Christmas gift to Mathilde in December 1857. Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse) is the third song in the cycle.
The introduction of Im Treibhaus - In the Greenhouse - most closely resembles music in Act III of Tristan. It is a rehearsal for that mood of the wounded lover waiting for the final embrace and for death. The heaviness of the afternoon which we feel in Act III of Tristan, as the wounded hero lies in his island of Kareol in Brittany, is here felt im Treibhaus, as the humid heat of the hothouse, the greenhouse, or Wintergarten, of the Victorians. Wagner uses almost the same music to express the same idea. In the Wintergarten, the plants are strangers therein, as is the protagonist of the poem in her life. The lament of the plants, their anguish in the form of exotic fragrance, the desire to embrace the ‘horrible void,’ precede the protagonist’s realization that she too is alienated in the hothouse and a foreigner there. She understands the quiet suffering of the plants in that darkness which is the silence in the hothouse. The plants respond with heavy drops, tears, of empathy.
The music of this song seems to emphasize that heavy sexually aroused, though repressed mood, which may be the key to the entire cycle of songs, as well as to the relationship of Wagner and Mathilde. The lovers are in the hothouse. They are both unhappy in their marriage, or at least this, again, is what I suggest Wagner was reading into the poem when he composed the music for it, the evidence being that he used the same music for his own Tristan. The attraction of Wagner to these poems is crucial, for otherwise the contradiction of his setting the music to the words of another, for him, contrary to his entire body of theoretical principles, cannot make any sense. What can be more sickeningly Romantic than to picture the beloved alone in a green-house, alienated from her environment, longing for release, for a return to her real home, wherever that may be, and pining for her love in identification with the plants that surround her, the ‘children of distant zones' (Kinder ihr auf fernen Zonen)?. We can envision in our mind’s eye, the stuffy Victorian hothouse full of exotic plants that is depicted in the photograph above, and within that hothouse, repressed sexuality. In other words, the impossible circumstances of Wagner's and Mathilde's erotic relationship.
Ann Evans sings at the 1994 Proms, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.
Hochgewölbte Blätter kronen,
Baldachine von Smaragd,
Kinder ihr auf fernen Zonen,
Saget mir warum ihr klagt?
Schweigend neiget ihr die Zweige,
Malet Zeichen in die Luft,
Und der Leidenstummer Zeuge,
Steiget aufwärts süsser Duft.
Weit in sehnendem Verlangen
Breitet ihr die Arme aus,
Und umschlinget wahn befangen
Öder Leere nicht’gen Graus.
Wohl, ich weiss es, arme Pflanze:
Ein Geschicke teilen wir,
Ob um strahl von Licht und Glanze,
Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!
Und wie froh die Sonne scheidet,
Sich in Schweigens Dunkel ein,
Still wird’s, ein säuselnd Weben
Füllet bang den dunklen Raum:
Schwere Tropfe seh’ ich schweben
An der Blätter grünem Saum.
In the Hothouse
(trans. Emily Ezust)
High-vaulted crowns of leaves,
Canopies of emerald,
You children of distant zones,
Tell me, why do you lament?
Silently you bend your branches,
Draw signs in the air,
And the mute witness to your anguish -
A sweet fragrance - rises.
In desirous longing, wide
You open your arms,
And embrace through insane predilection
The desolate, empty, horrible void.
I know well, poor plants,
A fate that we share,
Though we bathe in light and radiance,
Our homeland is not here!
And how gladly the sun departs
From the empty gleam of the day,
He veils himself, he who suffers truly,
In the darkness of silence.
It becomes quiet, a whispered stirring
Fills uneasily the dark room:
Heavy drops I see hovering
On the green edge of the leaves.
Wagner in 1860