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“Music of the Future, Music of the Past: Tannhäuser and Alceste at the Paris Opéra,”

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 20 June 2013 | 2:48:00 am

Bayreuther Festspielen 1930.
Excerpt from William Gibbons, “Music of the Future, Music of the Past: Tannhäuser and Alceste at the Paris Opéra,” 19th Century Music 33 (2010): 228–42. Reprinted by kind permission of the author. Images added here by "The Wagnerian"

"The last revival of Alceste, still quite recent, took place on 21 October 1861, the memorable year that began with the resounding failure of Tannhäuser. The music of the future and that of the past confronted one another as if in a dueling arena, and the Past readily triumphed over the future, which it well and truly buried.i

–Paul Smith, La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, 14 October 1866

The scandal surrounding the Parisian première of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1861 has become a central point in the narrative of nineteenth-century French music history. The French public received the work as a statement of the composer’s revolutionary aesthetics of music drama, which were well known and highly publicized before the curtain ever opened on Tannhäuser at the Opérahhhh. For months, the press was a battleground for critical discussion of the composer and the merits of his so-called compositional “system”—a debate that shaped the composer’s reception in Paris for decades to come. Although the Parisian Tannhäuser as such has been the object of a great deal of scholarly attention, the lasting effects of the production have been less adequately studied. The debates occasioned by Tannhäuser did not end with Wagner’s retreat from France; rather, lingering aesthetic issues affected how critics and audiences viewed other operas, as well. A close look at the 1861 production of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck’s Alceste offers a new perspective on how Tannhäuser continued to shape critical discourse long after Wagner had left Paris, and illuminates the largely unacknowledged role Gluck and his works played in that debate.

In 1860 an imperial decree ordered Tannhäuser to be performed at the Opéra the following year, the first time that any Wagner opera would be performed on stage in Paris. The months leading up to the première in March 1861 featured extended discussions of the merits of Wagner’s theories, writings, and, occasionally, his music in the press.ii By the time of the first performance, the audience had already made up its mind; the opening night was plagued with ever increasing interference (including dog whistles) from an alienated audience consisting most notoriously of the Jockey Club.iii After three such performances, Wagner pulled his opera from the stage amid an explosion of critical debate about the music and its composer. Parisian opera audiences and music critics needed a musical reply to the chaos left by Wagner, and it was precisely at this time that the management of the Opéra decided to produce Alceste.iv

This lavish new production of Alceste opened on 21 October, only seven months after the Tannhäuser debacle. Once again, Parisian audiences were treated to a major work by a German composer (at least German by birth, however much Gluck may have been adopted by the French), and one that highlighted its creator’s revolutionary compositional reforms. Reception of the Parisian Tannhäuser was still fresh in everyone’s mind, coloring the way in which Gluck’s work was presented to its audience and inviting the French press to make both implicit and explicit connections between Gluck and Wagner. Contemporary critics noted similarities between the works and their composers, which led to frequent comparisons between the two operas.

Both Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerites had much to gain from juxtaposing Gluck and Wagner. For both groups, Gluck provided a variety of often conflicting answers to the vexing aesthetic issues that Tannhäuser had left in its wake. Wagner’s opponents contended that the musical achievements of the older composer proved that there was nothing revolutionary about Wagner’s output, thus demonstrating his “artwork of the future” to be little more than the ravings of a moderately talented egomaniac. Furthermore, Gluck provided a clear example of a German composer who, unlike Wagner, was open to drastic alteration of his works for Parisian audiences. On the pro-Wagner side, comparing Gluck to Wagner served a dual function. On one level, it created a teleological framework for Wagner’s development, placing him at the end of music-dramatic developments beginning with Gluck (or earlier). Comparing Gluck with Wagner put the anti-Wagnerites into a logical bind: if the musical devices of the two composers were so similar, how could Gluck be the greatest composer of pre-Revolutionary France and Wagner an untalented interloper? These issues, crystallized in the debates surrounding the 1861 productions of Tannhäuser and Alceste, continued to shape French reception of works by both Gluck and Wagner well into the twentieth century.


William Gibbons is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University. His primary areas of research interest are opera studies and music in video games, subjects on which he has published in journals including Music and the Moving Image, Game Studies, Opera Quarterly, and 19th Century Music. He is the author of Building the Operatic Museum: Eighteenth-Century Opera in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (University of Rochester Press, 2013). He is currently co-editing the forthcoming volume Music in Video Games (Routledge, 2014) and is at work on a monograph on pre-existing classical, popular, and film music in video games.

I would like to thank Mark Evan Bonds, Katharine Ellis, Annegret Fauser, and Ralph Locke for their insightful comments on versions of this article. Furthermore, I am grateful to the M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet Fund of the American Musicological Society and the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for providing funds for research in Paris at the Archives nationales and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
i “La dernière reprise d’Alceste, encore toute récente, eut lieu le 21 octobre 1861, année mémorable qui avait commencé par la chute éclatante de Tannhäuser. La musique de l’avenir et celle du passé s’y mesurèrent comme en champs clos, et le passé eut facilement raison de l’avenir, qu’il enterra bel et bien.” 
ii For an overview of the circumstances of Tannhäuser’s appearance in Paris as well as its critical reception, see Annegret Fauser, “ ‘Cette musique sans tradition’: Wagner’s Tannhäuser and its French Critics,” in Music, Theater, and Cultural Transfer: Paris 1830–1914, ed. Annegret Fauser and Mark Everist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 228–55. 
iii Gerald Turbow describes the audience as “made up primarily of aristocratic young gallants who had very definite ideas about both politics and the theater. Gerald D. Turbow, “Art and Politics: Wagnerism in France,” in Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics, ed. David C. Large and William Weber, in collaboration with Anne Dzamba Sessa (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), 149.

iv The Opéra was seriously considering mounting Alceste by at least 23 May 1861, according to a brief report in Le Guide musical on that date.