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The Overture was composed March-April, 1845 in Dresden; initial sketches for the full opera were begun three-four years earlier

October 19, 1845 at the Royal Opera House in Dresden, conducted by Wagner (first stand-alone performance of the Overture was on February 12, 1846 in Leipzig, conducted by Mendelssohn)

Wagner composed most of Tannhäuser between 1842 and 1845, saving work on the overture for last. The full title of the opera, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, suggests that Wagner used two separate sources for the opera: the fifteenth century German ballad Tannhäuserlied, and the early thirteenth century poem Der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (The Song Contest at Wartburg).1 Wagner became familiar with each of these legends during a three-year stay in Paris, and was inspired to combine them during his trip back home to Dresden in 1842. On this trek, Wagner traveled through the valley of the Wartburg castle—the setting for Der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg—and envisioned one of the nearby ridges as the legendary Venusberg—one of the main settings of Tannhäuserlied.

Programmatic Elements
The opera follows the story of Tannhäuser, the singing minstrel of love who has discovered the court of Venus, the goddess of love. In this version of the story, Tannhäuser has fled from the Wartubrg after losing a singing contest, and takes up residence in the debaucherous Venusberg.2 Tired of Venus’s seduction and anxious to return home, Tannhäuser eventually decides to leave the Venusberg. The remainder of the opera follows his quest to receive forgiveness from the Pope for turning away from God.

Wagner provided program notes for a series of concerts he conducted in May 1873 in Zurich. He believed that the overture should act as a prelude to the opera by giving the audience a preview of the themes and melodies of the opera itself. As he describes it, the beginning of the overture (up to the Allegro) sets the mystical mood of the story:

At first the orchestra introduces us to the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring and finally passes into the distance.—Twilight: dying echoes of the chorus.—As night falls, magic visions show themselves. A rosy mist swirls upwards, sensuously exultant sounds reach our ears, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed [At this moment the feverish Allegro of the Overture begins; the harmonics turn chromatic; and we hear the first of many bacchanalian themes associated with the unholy revels in the legendary Venusberg:] This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg, which appears by night to those whose souls are fired by bold, sensuous longings. Lured by the tempting visions, the slender figure of a man draws near: it is Tannhäuser, the minstrel of love.3

The overture carries on following the melodic themes and basic synopsis of the three-act opera. An important note, however, is that since Act I opens with Tannhäuser already residing in the Venusberg, the only depiction of Tannhäuser’s discovery of the Venusberg is in the opening “Pilgrims’ Chorus” of the overture itself. This opening melody is taken from pious “Pilgrims’ Chorus” of Act 3:

Beglückt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen
und grüssen froh deine lieblichen Auen; 
nun lass ich ruhn den Wanderstab, 
weil Gott getreu ich gepilgert hab! 
Durch Suhn’ und Buss’ 
hab ich versohnt den Herren, 
dem mein Herze frohnt, 
der meine Reu mit Segen kront, 
den Herren, dem mein Lied ertont! 
Der Gnade Heil ist dem Busser beschieden
er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden; 
Vor Holl’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang; 
drum preis ich Gott mein Lebenlang! 
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! In Ewigkeit!

Blest, I may now look on thee, oh, my native land, 
and gladly greet thy pleasant pastures; 
now I lay my pilgrim’s staff aside to rest, 
because, faithful to God, I have completed my pilgrimage! 
Through penance and repentance
I have propitiated the Lord, 
Whom my heart serves, 
Who crowns my repentance with blessing, 
the Lord to Whom my song goes up! 
The salvation of pardon is granted the penitent, 
in days to come he will walk in the peace of the blessed; 
Hell and death do not appall him; 
therefore will I praise God my life long! 
Hallelujah! Hallelujah in eternity!

1 Claude M. Simpson, Jr., “Wagner and the Tannhäuser Tradition,” PMLA 63, no. 1 (March 1948): 244.

2 In the various forms of legend, Tannhäuser’s stay in the Venusberg lasts anywhere from one to seven years.

3 Downes, 1020.