“Tannhäuser was a fully rounded figure. He did everything with this whole being and passion. He was perfectly ecstatic in the arms of Venus. But he felt perfectly secure in tearing himself away from this degraded relationship. But he does not curse the guilty goddess of love” wrote Wagner about why he was so attracted to the figure of the opera.
“Seeing his old fellow minstrels, he does not wish to return to something, but to reach new heights, attaining great and lofty things… In Tannhäuser's soul, the past and present amalgamate in a process of fire, so that when he learns of Elisabeth's love for him, this feeling becomes a sparkling star in the man's life. For him Venus and Elisabeth are two extremes: with Elisabeth he can suffer; with Venus he can only know the hours of joy spent with her.”
Thus Richard Wagner summarised the psychological duality which creates the basic dramatic situation of the opera. This duality is represented by Tannhäuser alone; those around him react with incomprehension, anger or revulsion to his words and deeds.
Wagner expresses this dual feature superbly in his Tannhäuser overture. Its form is constructed from two melodies, one hymn like, the other passionate and vocal. Ideally, we sense only the contradictory character of these themes, we cannot decide whether they will be resolved or not. It subsequently transpires one of the themes is the pilgrim's chorus, the other Tannhäuser's song glorifying Venus from the Act I cave scene (“Sweet Goddess…”). One expresses a promise of redemption, the other emotional rapture.