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About Richard Wagner

About Richard Wagner in Five Sections:

Wagner Influence

Richard Wagner and the French

Excerpt from the Introduction to the score for Vincent D’Indy’s Istar
by Don Robertson, published by Musikproducktion Höflich

     The importance and magnitude of the artistic movement that took place in France during the last decades of the 19th Century cannot be denied. It created a transformation in the evolution of art, poetry and music.  
     To better grasp what was taking place in France at this time, it is necessary to understand the influence that the music and writings of Richard Wagner had upon many young creative artists living and working in Paris. The first performance of Wagner’s revolutionary work Tannhaüser that took place in Paris in 1861 created such a scandal among the entrenched establishment that another Wagner music drama would not be staged in Paris until 1887 (a performance of Lohengrin directed by Charles Lamoureux, with the help of Vincent d’Indy). Despite the lack of a French Wagnerian staging for twenty-six years, French artists, composers, and poets listened to piano reductions of Wagner’s music and consumed his writings.
     The world premiere of Wagner’s fifteen-hour-long ring cycle took place in his new theater in Bayreuth, Germany in August 1876, and a handful of French composers made pilgrimages to this almost holy shrine. Upon returning, they talked and wrote profusely about what had taken place; Saint-Saëns, for example, wrote five articles about the Bayreuth experience and Catulle Mendès three. A few years after, concerts of Wagner’s music began to take place in Paris. Those at the Eden Theater, conducted by Charles Lamoureux, resembled holy services, to which painters like Blanche and Valloton, poets and writers such as Mallarmé and Proust, and many musicians and composers flocked.
     By the mid-1880s, the music and thinking of the now-deceased Wagner had ignited nearly the entire intellectual and artistic movement in Paris, including the most distinguished and the most gifted artists, writers, and composers. Some, in addition to attending the Eden Theater concerts, made pilgrimages to Bayreuth. The effect of Wagner’s music was deeply felt. Ravel and Chabrier had similar experiences during performances of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde: the music so moved them that they broke into tears and sobbed. Composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted during an 1889 Bayreuth performance, and Vincent d’Indy broke down and wept while experiencing the death of Siegfied in Götterdamerung.
     Wagner’s influence on French music was overwhelming. Testimony to this were Wagnerian-inspired music dramas, including Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Bruneau’s Le Rêve, Chapentier’s Louise, Reyer’s Sigurd, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus, and d’Indy’s Fervaal. Additionally, composers such as Franck, Gounod, Lekeu, Bizet, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Duparc, Fauré, Delibes, and Ravel were all inspired by Wagner, as well as the poets and writers Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, LaForgue (who influenced Eliot and Pound), Valéry, Colette, Dujardin, de Nerval, Gautier, Mallarmé, Proust, Verlaine, Ghil, Baudelaire, Morice, and Vignier. Among painters were Blanche, Valloton, Gauguin, Cézanne, Bazille, Fantin-Latour, Whistler, and Doré.

Wagner’s Influence on - and Opinions About - Other Composers

Wagner was very interested in the music of other composers. He listened carefully, and he formed his opinions carefully.

He once said: “Mozart’s music and Mozart’s orchestra are a perfect match. An equally perfect balance exists between Palestrina’s choir and Palestrina’s counterpoint, and I find a similar correspondence between Chopin’s piano and some of his etudes and preludes. I don’t care for the lady’s Chopin, however. There is too much of the Parisian salon in that; but he has given us many things that are above the salon.”

Hans von Wolzogen said that Wagner, during his final years, was very fond of Schubert’s songs, especially Sei Mir gegrüsst. But he apparently did not like Schubert’s chamber works or piano sonatas that much. “Schumann’s enthusiasm for Schubert’s trios and the like was a mystery to Mendelssohn. Curiously enough, Liszt still likes to play Schubert. I cannot account for it!” he said.

Wagner had some of Brahms’s pieces played for him to help him develop a taste for them, but he never succeeded. The academic mask over Brahms’s pieces repelled him. “If Brahms sounded as good as Beethoven, he could be a great composer too!”

Once he said, “A single Strauss waltz surpasses in grace, refinement and real musical substance most of the products of foreign manufacture that we often import at such great cost.”

Wagner tried to introduce the vocal music of Palestrina into a Catholic Court Chapel: “I wanted to relieve the hard-worked members of the orchestra, add female voices, and introduce the true Catholic church music, a capella. As a specimen, I prepared Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, and I suggested other pieces, but my efforts failed.” Wagner championed Italian Renaissance sacred music throughout his life. He once stated: “With the appearance of opera in Italy begins the decline of Italian music; an assertion which will meet with the approval of those who have had the opportunity to realize the sublimity, the wealth, and the profound expressiveness of the Italian church music of the former centuries, and who, after hearing, for example, the Stabat Mater of Palestrina, will not possibly be able to sustain the opinion that Italian opera is a legitimate daughter of this wonderful mother.”

About Mozart and Beethoven, Wagner said: “Thus, in our art history, the musician (as artist) is initiated into his art from without; Mozart died when he was just piercing the inner mystery. Beethoven was the first to enter wholly in.” On another occasion he said, “Of Mozart, I only cared for The Magic Flute. Don Giovanni went against my grain, because of the Italian text: It seemed to me such rubbish.”

On another occasion, he said, “Mozart is the founder of German declamation. What fine humanity resounds in the priest’s replies to Tomino! Think how stiff such high priests are in Gluck [Christoph Gluck: composer of Italian and French opera]. When you consider that this text, which was meant to be a farce, and the theater for which it was written, then compare what was written before Mozart’s time, even Cimarosa’s still famous Matrimonio Segreto [Domenico Cimarosa: Italian composer who wrote over 80 operas] – on the one side the wretched German Singspiel, on the other, the ornate Italian opera – one is amazed by the soul he managed to breathe into such a text. And what a life he led! A bit of tinsel at the time of his popularity, but for that he had then to play all the more dearly. He did not complete his work, which is why one cannot really compare him with Raphael. For there is still too much convention left in him.” (Richard Wagner, quoted in Cosima’s Diary May 29, 1870).

In the following year Cosima quoted Wagner as saying, “I recently read that [the critic] Hanslick had spoken of Beethoven’s naïveté. A donkey like that can have no idea of the wisdom of genius, which, though it comes and goes like lightning, is the highest there is. One could, rather, call Mozart naïve because he worked in forms that he did not create himself – only what he said within them was his own. But what do these people know of the enraptured state of a productive artist.” (Richard Wagner, quoted in Cosima’s Diary November 19, 1871)

Again, of Beethoven and Mozart, Wagner said: “As far as fugues are concerned, these gentlemen can hide their heads before Bach. They played with the form, wanted to show they could do it too, but he showed us the soul of the fugue. He could not do otherwise than write in fugues.”

One day at Wagner’s Villa Wahnfried, Liszt — who was probably the greatest pianist that ever lived — was playing the piano. Wagner suddenly got on his hands and knees, crawled up to the piano and said “Franz, to you people should come only on all fours.” When asked about his own ridiculously clumsy fingering at the piano, Wagner would reply: “I play a lot better than Berlioz!” (Who could not play at all).

Critics of Verdi’s opera Don Carlos accused Verdi of imitating Wagner. Bizet said: “Verdi is no longer Italian. He wants to be like Wagner.” This charge was made many times in Verdi’s lifetime. In 1869, Verdi wrote Camille du Locle to obtain copies of Wagner’s prose works. He had heard Tannhauser in 1875 and Lohengrin in 1870. Verdi followed Wagner in hiding the orchestra from the sight of the audience and went to hear Lohengrin again in 1871. Aida was a target for critics accusing Verdi of Wagnerisms. Its first performance was in 1871. When Wagner died, Verdi wrote his publisher: “It is a great individual who has disappeared. A name that leaves the most powerful imprint on the history of art.”

Two composers attended a performance of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth for the first time in 1889. During the prelude, Emmanuel Chabrier – the composer of España – burst into tears, and the young composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted and had to be carried out. Whenever Wagner came to the composer Anton Dvorak’s hometown of Prague, the young composer followed him around town.

Wagner felt that the French composer Saint-Saëns was a “really profound musician,” which in fact he was. Of his French contemporary Gounod, Wagner said: “He is gentle, good, pure-hearted, but not a profoundly talented man.” On April 22, 1873, Wagner’s wife Cosima wrote in her diary: “A good night in the Hotel Disch; early in the morning Richard is very annoyed to hear military music… One piece that is played astonishes us with the utter shallowness of its melody over captivating harmonies. Eventually we recognize it as Gounod’s Meditation on Bach’s C Major Prelude (Gounod’s Ave Maria), and we have to laugh at the way the old master helps out this most trivial of inventions.”

The great French poet Mallarmé wrote poems during Wagner concerts. The British composer Elgar loved only one opera: Parsifal. German composer Schönberg by the age of 25 had seen Wagner’s operas between 25 and 30 times. The poet Auden called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius who ever lived.”

About the composer Felix Mendelssohn, Wagner said: “Mendelssohn is a great landscape-painter, and his palette has a richness that is unequalled. No one else transposes the external beauty of things into music as he does. The Cave of Fingal, among others, is an admirable picture. He is able, conscientious, and clever. Yet, in spite of all these gifts, he fails to move us to the depths of the soul: it is as if he painted only the appearance of sentiment and not sentiment itself.” On February 8, 1876, Wagner’s wife Cosima wrote: “In the evening an amateur concert, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, the second movement makes Richard think of Tetzel: “When the money in the cashbox rings, the soul at once to heaven wings.” Tezel was a 15th-Century Catholic monk who sold indulgences. This rhyme was a popular saying satirizing Tetzel.

The German composer Carl Maria von Weber had a profound influence on the young Wagner. “When the whole misery of Saxon history was read out to us at school, I had to tell myself ‘That’s what you belong to.’ I sought in humiliation for something besides; then I learnt of the existence of our Weber’s music, and knew where lay my native land: I felt myself a German.” Weber’s Der Freischütz was very special to him. Sometimes he would see Weber walking home from rehearsal, passing by his house, and sometimes stopping there to say something to his mother. “That’s the greatest man alive,” he once told his sister Cile.

From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2023
Chapter Five – The 19th Century: “Heart”