August 20, 2020
Weddings have traditions. Most of the time no one asks about the origins of these traditions. Why do we do things this way? It is just what we do. Why do brides wear white? Why do brides toss the bouquet? Why is there a cake at the reception? Why do we use wedding rings? Why are certain songs played? It is interesting that a royal mother-daughter duo gave us two of the most widely followed wedding traditions, the white dress and the wedding march. Both have lasted for centuries. However, one of them might have to be examined a little more closely.
The wedding of Queen Victoria gave us the white wedding dress. Today, white is usually seen as a symbol of virginity or purity. It is rare to be at a wedding where the bride is not wearing white. But that was not the case in the mid-19th century. White was the color of mourning or simplicity, and certainly was not the color to wear on a wedding day. Brides would simply wear a dress that fit the fashion of the day. On February 10, 1840, the British Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in St James Palace chapel. She was ahead of her time in terms of fashion and chose a white dress. The Queen was hotly criticized for this, not only for the color, but also, she had a simple look that did not display her stature. No jewels or crown─ just a white dress. It certainly caught on. The white dress made a statement about the Queen and spoke to generations of brides afterwards.
The wedding of the Queen's daughter, princess Victoria gave us long-established wedding songs. In a traditional wedding, the entrance of the bride is perhaps one of the most beautiful moments. The groom and groomsmen enter, the family is seated. The bridesmaids walk in one after the other. The flower girls prepare the way by spreading flower petals in the aisle. All of it leads up to one magnificent moment. The officiant proclaims “Please stand!” And the bridal march begins.
The entrance song can be a classic like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach, Ode to Joy by Beethoven or a contemporary song like All You Need is Love by the Beatles, At Last by Etta James, God Bless the Broken Road by Rascal Flatts, A Thousand Years by Christina Perri.
While there is wide variety nowadays in what brides choose for their entrance song, there is a traditional entrance march, I still hear it a few times every season. Here Comes the Bride, or its official name, the Bridal Chorus is a standard wedding march played as the bride walks down the aisle. The Bridal Chorus is part of an 1850 opera called Lohengrin written by Richard Wagner.
It is usually played on an organ with no vocal accompaniment, but in Wagner's opera, there were lyrics that went along with it. At any wedding you attend, you will hear someone at some point sing their version, "Here comes the bride, all dressed in white;" not even close to the actual lyrics. In the opera, The Bridal Chorus is a romantic song about the characters Elsa and Lohengrin. The takes place not at the wedding ceremony, rather it is sung as the bride and groom enter the bridal suite and the wedding party prepares them for their first night together. The song is not really about a wedding ceremony, It is about the honeymoon. Ironically, the whole story of two star-crossed lovers ends in tragedy rather than in a happily ever after. Elsa and Lohengrin do not end up together.
Besides the fact that it is a part of an opera that ends poorly for the couple, there is an issue with the composer. Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic. Wagner held ideas that Jewish people lacked artistic skill, passion and sophisticated musical expression. His music was celebrated by Nazi ideologists as a promotion of “Aryan cultural greatness.” As a result, the song is rarely played at Jewish weddings.
Wagner’s piece is one of two wedding marches that are used frequently, this and Felix Mendelssohn's Wedding March. Like Wagner, Mendelssohn was from Germany, but he was Jewish. Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was created in 1842 to accompany Shakespeare’s famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Just as Queen Victoria started the trend of white wedding dresses, it was her daughter who influenced the world of wedding music. On January 25, 1858, Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, Queen Victoria‘s oldest child, married Frederick William IV of Prussia in the same chapel as her mother. Victoria chose Wagner's song for her entrance and the Mendelssohn piece for the exit of the couple. And both quickly became popular and traditional.
Some churches and denominations refuse to play Wagner's chorus due to its secular nature. Also, the song does not depict an actual wedding ceremony or processional to an altar in the opera. Its popular use for many made it not seem to fit into a worship service. And for those who simply know the views of the composer, they choose to leave it alone.
Looking at the origins of traditions can make the tradition more meaningful or you can realize the tradition is not really built on good stuff. What is meaningful for many, may not be meaningful for you. My hope is that however you proceed with your wedding day choices, that you will find and infuse meaning into every aspect. And don’t be afraid to ask why do we do this?