The Knight of Swan is a German medieval legend about a knight led by a swan to save a lady embroiled in political intrigues, with a condition of having his name never to be asked and questioned. The story appeared in various forms under different medieval tales, and its fascinations are captivating enough to have many modern musicians and composers retelling it in today’s performing halls. In this week, I had the opportunity to know the Knight of Swan in Before Brabant and Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera Festival) in the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Before Brabant, performed in concert, is a prequel to the Knight of Swan legend, written and composed by Jeffrey Ching. The origin of the knight and the swan has always been elusive and here, Ching based his concert on The Knyght of the Swanne written by Robert Copland in 1512. The full story is available here. Briefly, the Swan Knight was one of the seven children of King Oryant and they were all born with silver chains worn around their necks. When the silver chains were taken away, they transformed into swans. By chance, Helyas was spared of this fate and he set his mission to find them back. He managed to find five of them but not for his sixth brother who flied away in grief. Heylas was later invited by his father to take up the throne but all of a sudden, his swan-brother returned with a silver boat pulling after him. Understanding there was greater deed yet to be done, he followed his swan brother to ‘wherever his heroic destiny calls him’.
The Knight of Swan was, with little doubt, a distinctive legend of the occidental culture. Yet the composer used oriental music from China for some of the scenes. In his words:
“The music for the Eremite on Scene II of Helyas’ transformation in Scene III not only will seem Asian but are so, being directly from the music of Song dynasty China roughly contemporary with the Crusader romances. The transplantation is not merely an homage to the Asian birthplace of the opera. Intrinsic to the tale is the spiritual gulf separating the worldliness of town and court from the mystical detachment of a life closer to nature, the latter symbolised by a musical tradition proximate in time to Helyas’ Europe but in geographical origin as remote from it as possible”
In other words, he wished to achieve the effect of a secluded and magical world by blending the Song-styled music into scenes in which the stages were set in isolated and remote forest. Mr. Ching has kindly replied to my enquiry on the finer details of the music. To untrained ears, the music was a smooth wave of exotic sounds, but it turned out to be quotations from a number of sources in the Song dynasty, among which are Wénwáng (文王) by Xióng Pénglái (熊朋来), Gǔ yuàn (古怨) by Báishí Dàoren (白石道人) and Níshang zhōng xù dì yī (霓裳中序第一 ) also by Báishí Dàoren (白石道人).
This blending was quite fascinating not the least because the music was produced by western musical instruments: flute, bassoon, percussion, violin, piano and celesta. (A rough feel of mixing oriental musical tradition into occidental musical instrument can be glimpsed from Debussy’s Clair de Lune.)
The Hong Kong Arts festival had the good sense of arranging Before Brabant before Wagner’s Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera Festival), so that we can know the heroic destiny that the Swan Knight was heading to.
Lohengrin was Wagner’s last romantic opera before he departed romanticism for his revolutionary ‘total artwork’. Wagner seemed to base his version of Swan Knight on a number of sources but the influence of Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach was particularly strong.
The Swan Knight in this opera was not Heylas but a hero with a name too holy for earthly men and women to pronounce. Elsa, the daughter of the deceased Duke of Brabant, was accused by Friedrich of Telramund to have killed her brother, Gottfried, so that she can marry her secret lover and become the sole heiress of her father’s estate. King Henry Fowler ordered justice by ordeal. At the critical moment, the hero appeared in a boat drawn by a swan. He offered his help to Elsa on the conditions that he can marry her and that she will never ask for his name. Elsa quickly consented, and the unnamed hero duly defeated Telramund.
Ortrud, the wife of Telramund and the priestess of the pagan gods, knew the holy origin of the mysterious hero. She directed her husband to cut a piece of the hero’s flesh in order to dispel his miraculous power while she went to plant the seeds of doubts on Elsa to the name and origin of the hero. Initially unconvinced, then wavered, and finally succumbed to her own weakness, Elsa asked the hero twice. Upon the third time, the hero can hold no more but to summon King Henry Fowler and all the soldiers of Brabant to disclose the secrets:
‘He comes from an enchanted place, Monsalvat, where the most sacred relics, the Holy Grail, is kept. He keeps guard over it. His father is Parsifal, rule of the holy lands, and the name Elsa was never to pronounce – and never will – is Lohengrin‘
With his name and origin disclosed, his code with the brotherhood of the Holy Grail resumed and he must return. At this moment, Ortrud revealed her evil plot: it was she who used dark magic to transform Gottfried into the swan – the same swan that brought Lohengrin to them and was going to take him away. Upon hearing it, Lohengrin prayed. Miracle happened. The swan dived into water and emerged as Gottfried. Lohengrin then vanished into the air. Elsa cried, and died in despair at her brother’s feet.
Many commentaries viewed Lohengrin as a personal testament of Wagner. Lohengrin found himself misunderstood in spite of his miraculous power because he was bound by the code not to have his name revealed. Like Lohengrin, Wagner felt that his artistic genius has not been properly appreciated. As Lohengrin was finally forced to disclose his secrets and must, reluctantly, leave, Wagner, in the words of Thomas May, ‘bids a pained farewell to the art of opera as he has known as it’ (in Wagner ‘s “Beautiful Dream” and the Tragedy of Lohengrin).
Unlike Lohengrin, however, Wagner did eventually find an outlet to unleash his musical genius. Lohengrin, on the other hand, is a hero that is always awaiting for his next heroic mission. In Before Brabant, the little kingdom of his father was unworthy of Heylas (the Swan Knight)’ attention. Something much greater is waiting for him.
In Wagner’s Lohengrin, it turns out that the hero’s journey is to Brabant for saving a little princess called Elsa. To Elsa, Lohengrin’s demand seems like a blackmailing: ‘Don’t ask, otherwise I will leave’. This is like Jesus saying ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’ (Mark 5:36 NIV). In other words, what Lohengrin wants is unquestioned faith in him. As a hero from the holy lands, he is all-powerful and not to be doubted and questioned. Elsa failed. She had questions where his miraculous power comes from. Was it black magic? Was he a reincarnation of Satan? How can I bind him, so that he will not leave me?
As soon as his name is uttered, Lohengrin must return to the holy lands. Elsa revealed herself, just like the little kingdom of the Swan Knight’s father, as unworthy of his attention. The Swan Knight is still residing somewhere beyond the cloud, awaiting for his heroic destiny.
Extended Reading: Lohengrin (Opera Journey Mini Guide Series) by Burton D. Fischer