About fathers and daughters, Wagner has much to tell us, about fathers and sons, much less. Sons who have lost their mothers have a fierce hold on his imagination. But the bond of brother and sister leaves him mostly indifferent. What about Siegmund and Sieglinde, someone will object, but what sort of brother and sister are they? A mystic achetype: mortal offspring of a god, holy transgressors, doomed yet radiant, no one we will ever meet.
There are other, more lifelike, brother-and-sister pairs in Wagner, but only one worth dwelling on: Lohengrin's Gottfried and Elsa, mere mortals. As a pair, they have drawn little attention. Gottfried himself, heir to the dukedom of Brabant, is all but ignored -- and no wonder, really. In the opera house, Lohengrin plays out as his big sister's story. In the first act, the very prototype of the maiden in distress is rescued by the very prototype of the knight in shining armor. The subsequent action centers on a trial of her faith. In the course of these interlinking stories, not much is seen of Gottfried. Yet in the rigorous hierarchy of dramatis personae, he follows only the king, Lohengrin and Elsa, preceding Telramund and Ortrud (whose roles of course make considerably larger demands than his).
As the swan that draws Lohengrin's boat across the waters, Gottfried enters the action twice. In his own shape he appears just once, moments before the final curtain. In a gesture that conjures a rebirth in baptism, Lohengrin lifts him from the waters of the Scheldt, "a lovely boy clad in silver." Ortrud, whose wicked spells transformed him in the first place, collapses, whether to revive or not Wagner does not say. Of Elsa's fate, however, he leaves no doubt: momentarily transfigured with joy, she dies in Gottfried's arms, calling out for her vanishing bridegroom.
Of all the tales of heartbreak Wagner weaves into the tapestry of Lohengrin, none is sadder than that of Gottfried. "Mein armer Bruder!" (my poor brother), sighs Elsa, at last breaking her silence when called before the king to answer Telramund's charge of fratricide. The motive ascribed to her -- elimination of the boy and seizure of the dukedom, in tandem with an interloping lover -- is the true motive of Ortrud, the undiscovered villain. But once Elsa's innocence is established, she embraces her savior and forgets all about the child, for all the world as if the accusations were true. Three days hence, Gottfried's plight will have grown much worse.
If Wagner had written Lohengrin at the time of Tristan und Isolde or Die Meistersinger, with the musical revolutions of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and two acts of Siegfried behind him, Gottfried might well have gained a palpable presence in the score. He might have had a leitmotif of his own -- even two, perhaps, contrasting his natural state with his state of enchantment. As it is, Gottfried's reality resides chiefly in language (he is much spoken of) and stage pictures. For the literal-minded coup de théâtre that Wagner imagined, contemporary directors have substituted others, more troubling and more suggestive. In at least one production, the young duke has assumed the guise of a miniature Lohengrin, sparkling in armor yet imperfect, one arm still unliberated from a limp wing. In another, he rose in a diaper from a patch of reeds, a baby John Barleycorn, his arms folded, pale as death. Traditionalists may scorn such last-minute enigmas, but they serve a vital purpose, taking the spectator back to the first and final victim of the drama, a vulnerable, forgotten pawn in a dynastic power play.
Like the little princes of Shakespeare's Richard III, slaughtered in the Tower, Gottfried has a special claim on our compassion. Certainly Lohengrin thinks so. Consider his instructions to the wife he is forced, through her fault, to abandon:
O Elsa! Nur ein Jahr an deiner Seite
hätt ich als Zeuge deines Glücks ersehnt!
Dann kehrte, selig in des Grals Geleite,
dein Bruder, den du tot gewähnt.
Kommt er dann heim, wenn ich ihm fern im Leben,
Dies Horn, dies Schwert, den Ring sollst du ihm geben:
dies Horn soll in Gefahr ihm Hülfe schenken,
in wildem Kampf dies Schwert ihm Sieg verleiht;
doch bei dem Ringe soll er mein gedenken,
der einst auch dich aus Schmach und
The first lines of the passage defy literal translation: "O Elsa!," it begins, "I would have wished but for a year by your side as witness of your happiness! Then your brother, whom you thought dead, would have come back, blessed in the protection of the Grail." Hearing the lines in real time, one is apt to go astray on two points. First, the happiness to which Lohengrin refers is not (as it would seem initially) the happiness of wedded bliss, but Elsa's happiness at the miraculous return of her brother. Second, that return is not (as might at first be reasonably construed) contingent on the imagined year of wedded bliss. These matters become clear as Lohengrin continues: "When he comes home, and I am far away, give him this horn, this sword, and the ring. The horn will aid him when in danger, the sword will lend him victory in raging battle, but by the ring let him remember me, who once freed you too from disgrace and misery."
In words and music, the tenderness of this passage greatly exceeds virtually all Lohengrin has to say to Elsa in the course of the entire opera. (Especially wrenching, somehow, is the peculiar phrase "wenn ich ihm fern im Leben" -- literally "when I am far from him in life," more freely "while life keeps me from him"). Note too that while Lohengrin appears in Act I almost as the emanation of Elsa's fantasy, called into being by the depths of her own despondency, Lohengrin's revelation here suggests that his mission from the start concerned Gottfried no less than it did his sister. (And though the prospect of Lohengrin's departure plunges her back into despair, he is leaving right on schedule. Except for the summons back to the Grail, he would this very day be saddling up to join King Heinrich's wars against the Hun.)
As striking as Lohengrin's tone, however, is the matter of his legacy to Gottfried: his horn, his sword and a ring. Horn, sword and ring are the attributes of Siegfried, listed in the order Siegfried acquires them, in his case by his own industry, determination and courage. From this, may we deduce that Gottfried's destiny (or at least his future, as envisioned by those who wish him well) in some sense runs parallel to Siegfried's? Perhaps so, to the extent that a ruler and a lone superman (both orphans) can share a job description. If Siegfried blows his horn to seek companionship, for instance, it is flatly inconceivable that he would sound an S.O.S. The sword's purpose is the same for both (but bear in mind the fallibility of weapons, particularly -- and this would apply to Gottfried's -- magic weapons bestowed by higher powers).
Most mysterious of Lohengrin's bequests is the ring. What ring is this? None has been spoken of before. Has Lohengrin reclaimed the ring he gave Elsa at the altar? To be sure, he does not take it back. Whatever it is, from this moment forward, Elsa holds it in trust for her brother. Thus Gottfried's return, and her surrender of the ring, will seal the dissolution of her marriage. Lohengrin bequeaths it to the boy in exactly the spirit in which Siegfried gives Alberich's ring to Brünnhilde. Whatever its inherent powers -- and so far as we know, Lohengrin's ring (unlike Alberich's) possesses none -- Siegfried and Lohengrin bestow their jewels simply (and supremely) as tokens of love.
One further correspondence between Gottfried and Siegfried may lie encrypted in their names. "Siegfried," as glossed by Brünnhilde, means "he who rejoices in victory" (that victory having less to do with prowess in battle than with a triumph over the ego). By analogy, Gottfried would be "he who rejoices in God" -- a contemplative rather than a warrior. In happier circumstances, the young Duke of Brabant might, like Lancelot or Joan of Arc, grow up to wield force with a godly right arm.
By the end of Lohengrin, such hopes seem folly. Born to rank and honor, Gottfried proceeds from loss to loss. First to go is the protection of his father; then the protection of his guardian, duped by a witch; next the protection of his brother-in-law, who would have been up to the job; finally, even (for what it might be worth) the comfort of a shattered sister. He is still a boy. Who is left to stand by him? Ortrud's malevolence has done for Gottfried as well as for Elsa. The tactic against Elsa -- a sexual rival as well as a political one -- was character assassination. Against the boy, it was black magic: soul murder. What trauma lingers from the spell we will never know. In the final reckoning, Gottfried's interim in swan's plumage may in truth be the least of his evils. While it lasted, he was ward to the Grail, comfort of the blameless. But then, so was Elsa until she fell. In the end, that far-off beneficence could not save her from present evils. Doubt invaded her soul; she lost her innocence.
Elsa grew up. Will Gottfried live that long?