About this Recording
8.573413 - WAGNER, R.: Symphony in C Major / Symphony in E Major (fragments) (Leipzig MDR Symphony, Märkl)
English  German 

Richard Wagner (1813–83)
Symphony in C major • Symphony in E major (fragment)


Although he is undoubtedly famed for his operatic innovations and music dramas, Richard Wagner was not just an operatic composer—in fact, it was in no small part due to his interest in symphonic music that he was able to develop the distinctive approach to orchestral writing that underpins his stage works. He continued to sketch symphonic ideas throughout his career, and it is even possible that had he lived longer, he might have considered working some of these notated themes into a fully-fledged instrumental work. Although these later pieces never materialised, in his late teens and early twenties he did complete an entire four-movement Symphony in C major, WWV29, and left a further few movements of a second projected Symphony in E major, WWV35. These two early symphonies stand as a tribute to Wagner’s great idol, Beethoven, and provide a fascinating insight into the development of the young composer.

Wagner’s early years were divided between Dresden, Prague and Leipzig—his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, was an actor who moved the family several times to pursue his career. Richard showed an early talent for poetry and story writing; and at fifteen years old, he also began music training in Leipzig, where the family had now settled, with the local musician Christian Gottlieb Muller. This consisted not only of basic harmony and counterpoint training, but also copying out works of composers that Wagner most admired, and as part of his efforts he even went so far as to produce a piano transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Three years with Muller were followed by further training with Christian Theodor Weinlig, the Leipzig Thomaskantor, and Heinrich Dorn, the Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Court Theatre (who was also teaching a young and rather wayward Robert Schumann at around the same time). Dorn recalled, ‘I doubt if there has ever been a young composer who was more familiar with Beethoven’s works than the then 18-year-old Wagner. He possessed the Master’s overtures and larger instrumental compositions mostly in the form of scores he had specially copied. He went to bed with the sonatas and rose with the quartets, he sang the songs and he whistled the concertos (for as a player he wasn’t making much progress).’

Wagner’s passion for Beethoven’s music, and his later determination to be perceived as Beethoven’s heir, led to a certain amount of fabrication in his autobiography Mein Leben. Here he downplays the amount of training that he received and instead locates his sudden and certain desire to become a musician at an invented performance in Leipzig of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, featuring the great singer Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient. We now know that no such performance ever took place. Still, even this fabrication places Beethoven at the centre of Wagner’s musical universe in a way that is clearly borne out in his earliest attempts at writing symphonies.

The Symphony in C major, WWV29 was probably composed between April and June 1832, just as Wagner was concluding his studies with Weinlig. The composer freely admitted that the piece is heavily modelled on Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and the opening movement appears to mirror the Seventh—with nods to the overture Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House)—in both the shape of its slow introduction and the skipping energy of the Allegro. This has a particularly strong sense of rhythmic drive and dynamism, with ear-catching off-beat syncopations in the double basses and an effective (if not entirely subtle) tendency to crank musical ideas up in semitones to increase harmonic tension. The second movement is clearly based on the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh, from its melody to the funereal harmonies beneath; whilst the third movement is a joyful, energetic scherzo in which strings and wind are constantly presented in alternation. Wagner’s finale is once again full of Beethovenian fire, his rondo theme all bounce and energy, and he takes his first steps into experimenting with contrapuntal writing as he seeks to develop his material.

Wagner was evidently proud of this work. He was able to organise a test performance in Prague in November 1832, and the work was then given in Leipzig in December under the baton of his former teacher, Muller. This earned him a warm reception—the first, third and final movements ‘were greeted with loud applause by the considerable audience’, we are told by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung—and he clearly hoped that a performance would follow as part of the distinguished Leipzig Gewandhaus concert series. However, this failed to materialise and, four years later in 1836, he consequently sent the score to Felix Mendelssohn, who had recently taken up the Gewandhaus directorship. After this, the history becomes rather muddled: Mendelssohn apparently did not consider the work suitable for his concert series and never programmed it (Wagner later took this as an act of malice on the older man’s part); but the orchestral score was not found amongst Mendelssohn’s belongings at his death in 1847. Since Wagner had never published the Symphony, the work seemed lost, and it was not until 1876 that he commissioned a search for the manuscript. A set of parts was eventually discovered in a trunk in Dresden, and from this, the score of the Symphony was reconstructed in 1878, with some small changes and cuts. (It is this later version that we hear on this recording.) A single further performance was given, on Christmas Eve 1882 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, as a birthday present for Cosima—her birthday was on Christmas Day, and the performance was a private one, conducted by the composer. Although this final outing prompted Wagner to reflect on the history of his Jugendwerk in an open letter to the Musikalisches Wochenblatt, he evidently did not see any value in further renditions, and the work was neither performed again nor published until after his death.

The fragmentary Symphony in E major, WWV35 dates from two years after the Symphony in C major, and Wagner worked on it between August and September 1834. The substantial first movement opens with an emphatic dotted rhythm straight from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth—a rhythm which also appears in the Fidelio overture, also in E major. There is some fancy harmonic footwork in the development of this movement, and not a little Italian flavouring in his choice of melodic contours and dramatic gestures, which is perhaps not surprising given his intense occupation with bel canto operas at this time, from which his first opera Die Feen (1833–34) draws inspiration. The following Adagio cantabile is beautifully warm, lyrical movement—though left, alas, unfinished.

Wagner’s reasons for leaving this symphony incomplete are not entirely clear, although he wrote emphatically to his friend Theodor Apel in September 1834 that ‘under no circumstances can I finish the composition’. It has been suggested by the Wagner scholar John Deathridge that, since this work was undertaken in the same year as Wagner published his first essay, Die deutsche Oper, he was somehow aesthetically obliged to abandon the symphonic genre and focus his energies on the operatic form which he now spilled so much ink to defend and develop. In any event, the manuscript of the Symphony in E major—a short score, yet to be orchestrated—was given by Cosima, in the year after Wagner’s death, to his long-standing friend and associate, the conductor and composer Felix Mottl. Mottl at once set about orchestrating the completed first movement, and also provided instrumentation, and a simple few bars of conclusion, to the brief second movement sketch.

Katy Hamilton

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