Wagner based Tannhäuser on two separate medieval sources: the story of the song contest at the Wartburg and elements from stories connected to the historical Tannhäuser, a knight and minnesinger (the German version of the troubadour tradition) of some renown. Wagner’s first introduction to the story of the Wartburg Contest probably came from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Singer’s Contest which tells the story of the minnesinger Heinrich von Ofterdingen who, according to the story, makes a pact with the evil Klingsor (who appears as a character in Wagner’s opera Parsifal) and wins a minnesinger contest with a new, revolutionary and youthful song style. The story is itself based on characters who were, in fact, real minnesingers in the service of the Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia at the end of the 12th century: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Walter von der Vogelweide, Heinrich der Schreiber, Reinmar, Biterolf and Heinrich von Ofterdingen. A fourteenth century poem about the contest was Hoffmann’s source, and there is no evidence that the competition ever actually took place although it’s difficult to think that with all of those singers in one place it couldn’t have. There exist many variations of the original story of the contest but it was Wagner who connected the contest at the Wartburg and legend of Tannhäuser, much to the dismay of contemporary German medieval scholars.
Wagner didn’t have to go further than the collected stories of the Brothers Grimm to find the tale of Tannhäuser, the minnesinger knight who wanders into the Venusberg, partakes of Venus’ charms, repents and then makes a pilgrimage to Rome to ask forgiveness of the pope. The pope refuses absolution, saying that his dry wooden staff would have to sprout leaves and blossom before Tannhäuser could be forgiven, at which point the knight returns to the arms of Venus. This being a morality story, of course, the staff does indeed burst into flower, the pope sends his minions to find Tannhäuser in order to offer him forgiveness, but it is too late: he will stay with Venus now forever. The story delightfully takes a swipe at Urban IV, the pope in question, by stating that repentance should always be given to those who seek it with a true heart.
The connection between the song contest at the Wartburg and the wandering knight Tannhäuser was made originally by Ludwig Bechstein in Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes and the composer, using his fertile imagination, fleshed out the characters of Venus, Elizabeth and the other minnesingers. As was his practice throughout his career, he wrote the libretto himself, first in prose, and then versified it for musical setting. Evidently, Wagner had no problem with the fact that the historical Tannhäuser couldn’t possibly have been a member of the Landgrave’s collection of minnesingers in Thuringia as he would’ve been a small boy at the time. The real knight was born at the turn of the 12th century in Salzburg and was for awhile connected to the court of Duke Friedrich of Austria (1210-1246). After returning from a crusade to the Holy Land he returned to a profligate life, spending his money and time on a purely pleasurable life. He soon found himself penniless, wandering from court to court looking for patronage. Through story and song Tannhäuser became a symbol of moral laxity to the German populace so that the amending of his true history to the legendary visit to the Venusberg was a logical step.
Although the legend of the Venusberg, the story of the Song Contest at the Wartburg and the history of Tannhäuser originally had nothing to do with each other, in the hands of a couple of nineteenth century authors coupled with Wagner’s genius, the story of the opera was born.