February 15, 2013
In our recent posts on traditional wedding music, we’ve examined the enduring popularity of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and tracked the changing fortunes of Pachelbel’s Canon but today’s piece of music is perhaps the most controversial of all wedding favourites. Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’ - or ‘Here comes the Bride’ as it’s more colloquially known – is often used to announce the entrance of the bride and thanks to regular appearances in popular culture, has become a seminal part of traditional wedding ceremonies.
The piece was composed as part of the 1850 opera Lohengrin – a medieval German romance in the ‘Knight of the Swan’ Tradition, in which a mysterious knight arrives to protect a damsel in distress on a boat pulled by a swan, his only condition is that he is never asked his name. In Lohengrin, the damsel in question is Elsa who is accused of killing her brother in order to become the Dutchess of Brabant. The knight Lohengrin, appears on his swan drawn boat to defend her – defeating but not killing her accuser Telramund who was kind of hoping he’d be named Duke by the King. Instead Telramund marries a witch who turned Elsa’s brother into the very swan on which Lohengrin rode in and... still following? If not, you can read a full synopsis of the opera here.
The Bridal Chorus does indeed appear during a wedding but interestingly, not at the entrance of the bride. Instead, the piece features at the end of the wedding and is sung by the bridesmaids as Elsa enters the bridal chamber to consummate her marriage with Lohengrin. The piece’s association with paganism (witches, boys turned into Swans) and its context within the opera (appearing just before the death of a number of characters) has led many to exclude Bridal Chorus on the grounds of religious beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church regards the Bridal Chorus as a secular piece associated with sentimentality rather than worship thanks to its prominence in TV and Film weddings.
In fact Wagner was reportedly amused that a piece from an opera in which suspicion triumphs over love and a marriage falls apart immediately after the ceremony, would become such a fixture in weddings.
But regardless of its history, the Bridal Chorus has become a seminal part of many wedding ceremonies and unless your friends and family are devoutly religious opera/German fairytale buffs, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. The associations people have with the Bridal Chorus are strong enough that they’re more than likely to outweigh any misgivings about the piece’s origins. The Bridal Chorus’ relative simplicity and instant recognisability mean that it can be played by a number of different ensembles and on different instruments though favourites remain String Quartets, Church Organs and Harps.
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By Alice Chorley