Paris and the Awakening of Wagner's Nationalism

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 | 9:01:00 am

 
 
Paris and the Awakening of Wagner's Nationalism

Jelisaveta Mojsilovic, University of Arts in Belgrade 
 
Originally published:  Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology: Vol. 9.
 

Abstract

At the beginning of his career, Richard Wagner (1813–1883), was considered a universal composer—a true cosmopolitan. However, indigence, the “bad” tastes of the Parisian audiences, and poor relationships with the managers of French musical institutions had a huge impact on Wagner’s perception of foreign music. Furthermore, the representatives of Parisian music life were indifferent to foreign composers, particularly those of German nationality, and were wary of themes related to German culture. This paper explores Wagner’s first stay in Paris, from 1839 to 1842, through analysis of his writings during that time. A comparison of Wagner’s texts written before his time in Paris and those written after his return to Saxony reveals an emotional intensification towards the German tradition, foreshadowing its zenith in his mature writings and his unconditional turn towards the German tradition.
 

Introduction

In 1834, Richard Wagner wrote Die deutsche Oper (On German Opera). It was the first of many texts in which he critically reviewed and compared music by French, Italian, and German composers. In this article, he criticized German education, calling it the “German devil,” while openly favoring Italian and French music and reflecting on the paradox that “French music acquired its tendency from Gluck, who, albeit a German, has had far less influence on ourselves than on the

Frenchmen.” 1 The key sentence of On German Opera is the final one, where Wagner concludes that “he will be the master, who neither writes Italian, nor French—or even German.” From this, it is evident that Wagner considered himself a cosmopolitan composer—at least in 1834.

This attitude is also evident in his correspondence with Giacomo Meyerbeer. In Wagner’s first letter to the composer in February 1837, he advocated universality:

I cannot forbear to add that in you I behold the perfect
embodiment of the task that confronts the German
artist, a task you have solved by dint of your having
mastered the merits of Italian and French Schools in
order to give universal validity to the products of that
genius




Evidently, Wagner admired Meyerbeer because of his openness to different musical traditions. Written evidence of his own inclination to diverse national schools can also be found in his Überdeutsches Musikwesen (On German Music) from 1840, written shortly after he moved to Paris and published in the journal, Revue et gazette musicale. In this essay, Wagner explained his views on German music to a French audience and praised French musicians: “No two nations can be imagined whose brotherhood could produce greater and more perfect results for art than Germany and France.” However, three years later, Wagner declared: “For the first time I saw the Rhine—with hot tears in my eyes, I, poor artist, swore eternal fidelity to my German fatherland.” 5t is impossible to miss his change of tone in his depiction of Germany. Although many events in Wagner’s life influenced the alteration of his nationalistic views, the one of greatest importance was his stay in Paris from 1839 until 1842.

The difference between Wagner’s texts written before his time in Paris and those written after his return to Saxony reveal an emotional intensification towards the German tradition, foreshadowing its zenith in his mature writings. In this essay, I analyze his experience in Paris as the motivation for his unconditional turn towards the German tradition. I examine Wagner’s texts—both those mentioned above and those written later in his life—as well as secondary sources to contextualize Wagner’s stay in Paris.  
 
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