The Singer's Spirit
The third week in October is a big week for Wagnerian anniversaries. As of October 20th, 1842, Richard Wagner’s reputation was established with the very successful premier of his opera Rienzi, in Dresden. Tannhäuser would debut three years later, also in Dresden, on October 19th, 1845.
Wagner completed Rienzi in 1840, and then changed styles quite a bit in writing Dutchman in 1841. At the time, Wagner was desperate to create a name for himself at the center of European operatic life. Wagner and his wife Minna lived in Paris and he tried to achieve a Paris premier for Rienzi, but failed. His letters to the reigning composer of opera in Paris, Giacomo Meyerbeer, are almost painful to read in their obsequiousness. He calls Meyerbeer his “Lord and Master.” He refers to himself as Meyerbeer’s “Property.” Rienzi, entitled a “grand tragic opera,” inspired conductor Hans von Bulow to say “Rienzi is Meyerbeer’s best opera.”
And yet this devotion and emulation didn’t work. Paris was, and would remain for Wagner synonymous with failure.
Wagner rode on the wings of Rienzi’s success in Dresden, conducted the premier of Flying Dutchman there in January of 1843. He was appointed co-Kapellmeister, in February of that year, and he began composing Tannhäuser that summer.
Also that month in February, 1843, Wagner is clearly over his Meyerbeer phase, having turned on the man whom he did not feel had done enough to help him.
In a letter to composer Robert Schumann, Wagner responds to Schumann’s opinion that Flying Dutchman was, in some ways “Meyerbeerian.” Wagner says of the style to which he previously prostrated himself, “the merest smell of which, wafting in from afar, is sufficient to turn my stomach.”
This bitterness towards Meyerbeer would be evidenced in his anti-Semitic essay “Jewishness in Music” which was published in 1850. In 1861, the Parisian premier of Tannhäuser would be one of the greatest fiascos in musical history.
Wagner completed Tannhäuser in April of 1845, and then, in the summer before its premier on October 19th, he wrote the prose sketch for Lohengrin, and also Die Meistersinger.
By 1848, Wagner had completed Lohengrin. Also that year, Wagner had begun the prose for his Ring cycle.
In 1849, Wagner’s role in political upheaval in Dresden led to a warrant being posted for his arrest, and he fled, eventually ending up in Zurich.
This return to his home region of Saxony for those years, from 1842 to 1849, was a triumphant one for Wagner, who was born in Leipzig in 1813 just six months before the famous battle in which Napoleon was defeated.
One wonders what would have happened had Rienzi premiered sooner to great success, rather than Dutchman being written during the frustrating delay.
The link below is a brief radio story offering some interesting thoughts on why Rienzi is not more frequently performed, along with excellent musical excerpts, and links to longer excerpts. The guest is F. Paul Driscoll of Opera News.
More writings on Tannhäuser are coming in the near future. Stay tuned.
Audio of WQXR Story on Rienzi with F. Paul Driscoll
©Lisa Houston 2018