The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview

14
Opera and music drama
THOMAS GREY

Paris, 1850: Wagner and Meyerbeer

In the winter months of 1850 Richard Wagner found himself once again in Paris – and not for the last time – with the aim of improving his fame and fortune. Around the middle of February he heard a performance of Meyerbeer's latest sensation, Le prophète, which had received its première ten months earlier (16 April 1849), although the origins of the work stretch back to the 1830s. In his autobiography Wagner recounts how he noisily exited the theatre in revulsion at the stock operatic roulades to which the false prophet's mother, Fidès, pours out her grief in the famous Act IV finale.1 In this new opera he perceived the 'ruins' of all the noble aspirations of the 1848 revolution; he read it as a sign of the complete moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the French provisional government, the 'dawning of a shameful day of disillusionment' for art, society and politics alike. For Wagner, a rather more hopeful dawn was soon to be signalled by the première of his own Lohengrin under Franz Liszt's direction at Weimar in August 1850, if under musical conditions rather less auspicious than those enjoyed by Le prophète in Paris.

This nexus of events provides an apt starting-point for surveying operatic developments of the following half-century. The dialectic of Wagner vs. Meyerbeer, as manifested in the examples of Lohengrin and Le prophète, informs a broad spectrum of the operatic repertory to nearly the end of the century – certainly well into the 1880s, when Wagner's mature 'music dramas' gradually displaced the influential spell of his 'Romantic operas' Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Wagner's Lohengrin and Meyerbeer's Le prophète were both completed during the revolutionary years of 1848–9, the century's political-historical axis. According to a traditional – i.e., Wagnerian – historiographical perspective, these two works mark the crossroads of (Parisian) grand opera and (Wagnerian) music drama, a crucial choice facing composers of opera after the

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1
Richard Wagner, My Life, trans. Andrew Gray (Cambridge, 1983), p. 436. For a somewhat different account of the incident, see the letter of 24 February 1850, in Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Briefe, ed. G. Strobel and W. Wolf (Leipzig, 1975), III, p. 240.

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The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Notes on Contributors ix
  • Editor's Preface xiii
  • Part One - 1800–1850 1
  • 1 - The Musical Work and Nineteenth-Century History 3
  • Bibliography *
  • 2 - Music and the Rise of Aesthetics 29
  • Bibliography *
  • 3 - The Profession of Music 55
  • Bibliography 85
  • 4 - The Opera Industry 87
  • Bibliography *
  • 5 - The Construction of Beethoven 118
  • Bibliography *
  • 6 - Music and the Poetic 151
  • Bibliography *
  • 7 - The Invention of Tradition 178
  • Bibliography *
  • 8 - Choral Music 213
  • Bibliography *
  • 9 - The Consumption of Music 237
  • Bibliography 258
  • 10 - The Great Composer 259
  • Bibliography 283
  • Part Two - 1850–1900 285
  • 11 - Progress, Modernity and the Concept of an Avant-Garde 287
  • Bibliography *
  • 12 - Music as Ideal: the Aesthetics of Autonomy 318
  • Bibliography *
  • 13 - The Structures of Musical Life 343
  • Bibliography *
  • 14 - Opera and Music Drama 371
  • Bibliography *
  • 15 - Beethoven Reception: the Symphonic Tradition 424
  • Bibliography *
  • 16 - Words and Music in Germany and France 460
  • Bibliography *
  • 17 - Chamber Music and Piano 500
  • Bibliography *
  • 18 - Choral Culture and the Regeneration of the Organ 522
  • Bibliography *
  • 19 - Music and Social Class 544
  • Bibliography *
  • 20 - Nations and Nationalism 568
  • Bibliography *
  • 21 - Styles and Languages Around the Turn of the Century 601
  • Bibliography 620
  • Chronology 621
  • Institutions 659
  • Personalia 689
  • Index 747
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