THE OVERTURE to Rienzi is at the best mere circus music. It is a good thing to hear it once in a while, for it shows that Wagner, on occasion, could be more vulgar than Meyerbeer, whom he so cordially disliked.
Wagner left Königsberg in the early summer of 1837 to visit Dresden, and there he read Bärmann's translation into German of Bulwer's Rienzi. And thus was revived his long-cherished idea of making the last of the Tribunes the hero of a grand opera. "My impatience with a degrading plight now amounted to a passionate craving to begin something grand and elevating, no matter if it involved the temporary abandonment of any practical goal. This mood was fed and strengthened by a reading of Bulwer's Rienzi. From the misery of modern private life, whence I could nohow glean the scantiest material for artistic treatment, I was wafted by the image of a great historico-political event in the enjoyment whereof I needs must find a distraction lifting me above cares and conditions that to me appeared nothing less than absolutely fatal to art." The overture to Rienzi was completed OCTOBER 23, 1840. The opera was produced at the Royal Saxon Court Theater, Dresden, October 20, 1842.
The overture is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, serpent (third bassoon), two valve horns, two plain horns, two valve trumpets, two plain trumpets, three trombones, one ophicleide, kettledrums, two snare drums, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and strings. The serpent mentioned in the score is replaced by the double bassoon, and the ophicleide by the bass tuba.
All the themes of the overture are taken from the opera itself. The overture begins with a slow introduction, molto sostenuto e maestoso, D major, 4-4. It opens with "a long-sustained, swelled and diminished A on the trumpet," in the opera, the agreed signal for the uprising of the people to throw off the tyrannical yoke of the nobles. The majestic cantilena of the violins and the violoncellos is the theme of Rienzi's prayer in the fifth act. The last prolonged A leads to the main body of the overture. This begins allegro energico, D major, 2-2,