Many people refer to "The Bridal Chorus" as the wedding march, but in fact, the "Wedding March" and "The Bridal Chorus" are two distinct pieces, each with their own histories and traditions. Both were originally written for use in the context of fictional weddings--one for a union that dissolved into immediate disaster and the other for a union that was a farce between a fairy and a man turned into a donkey. Both songs have also been banned for use in wedding ceremonies by some religions. Understanding the history and traditions behind each, may help you decide when--or whether--to use them in your own ceremony.
Richard Wagner wrote "The Bridal Chorus," also known as "Here Comes the Bride." It became part of wedding tradition in the British Isles after it was used at the 1858 royal wedding of British Princess Victoria and Prussian Prince Frederick William. The "Wedding March," composed by Felix Mendelssohn, also finds its origins as a wedding song in the marriage of Victoria and Frederick when it was used as the recessional piece.
"The Bridal Chorus" was composed as the opening piece for the third act of Wager's opera "Lohengrin." It is performed when Elsa and Lohengrin enter the bridal chamber to consummate their marriage. The wedding night turns tragic in the opera and it is said Wagner was amused that the piece was used in weddings. The "Wedding March" was composed as the "Overture" for Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was first performed in 1842.
In a traditional wedding, Wagner's "The Bridal Chorus" is played for the bride's processional. Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March" is played as the recessional from the church at the end of the ceremony. Because of bans in place by some religions on the use of "The Bridal Chorus," and sometimes because of the bridal couple's preference, "The Wedding March" is used for the bride's procession rather than "The Bridal Chorus," or different music entirely may be used.
Some churches ban "The Bridal Chorus" for reasons including pagan themes in Wagner's opera. The Catholic Church has long had a ban on "The Bridal Chorus" as part of wedding ceremonies because it is classified as secular and only religious music may be used in a church ceremony. Though no actual bans exist, many Jewish weddings do not include "The Bridal Chorus" because of Wagner's anti-Semitic reputation. The Catholic Church and some other religions may also refuse the use of the "Wedding March" because of its connection to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the wedding of Fairy Queen Titania and Bottom.