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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Polonia / Rule Britannia / Marches
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Marches & Overtures
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, the acknowledged son of a Government official Carl Friedrich Wagner, and his wife Joanna, but apparently fathered in fact by the actor Ludwig Geyer, who was to marry Joanna after Carl Friedrich's death. Wagner's education was an intermittent one, much of it in Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Weber and Der Freischütz, the first great German romantic opera. Returning to Leipzig he was to profit more from contact with his uncle Adolf, a widely read scholar, with a knowledge of Greek tragedy, as well as of the classics of Italy, the works of Shakespeare, and of course, of the literature of his own country. In Leipzig Wagner took the opportunity of furthering his own interests in music, stimulated by the performances of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and Beethoven's opera Fidelio, which he heard in 1829. He borrowed books from the music lending library of Robert Schumann's future teacher and father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, and took private music lessons at the Thomasschule, where J.S Bach had been employed a century earlier.
The later career of Wagner was a turbulent one. His income never matched his ambitions, and he was driven on by an aggressive and ruthless urge to create a new form of music, the music of the future, particularly in the conjunction of all arts in a series of great music dramas. He worked first as conductor at the undistinguished opera-house in Magdeburg, married a singer, Minna Planer, moved to Königsberg and later to Riga. From there, pursued by creditors, he sailed for England, and thence, a week later to Paris, where success continued to elude him Recognition was finally to come from his native Saxony, with a production for the opera Rienzi in Dresden and an official appointment to the royal court. His own tactless espousal of revolutionary notions led to his flight from Saxony in 1849, at first to Liszt in Weimar, and then to Switzerland. Further troubles were to follow as the result of the political suspicions he had aroused, the constant attention of creditors and his selfish unscrupulousness in his relations with women. The protection later afforded by King Ludwig II of Bavaria allowed some respite from difficulties, but his liaison with Liszt's daughter Cosima, wife of the Bavarian court conductor Hans von Bülow, and his unpopularity in Munich led to a further period of exile in Switzerland. His final relative triumph in the establishment of a Festival devoted to his work in Bayreuth was accomplished again with the encouragement of King Ludwig. The first festival took place in 1876, but did nothing to reduce his increasing personal debts.
Wagner died during the course of a visit to Venice in 1883 In his life-time he had inspired equally fanatical devotion and hatred, both of which continued after his death. His principal achievement must be seen in the creation of massive and stupendous masterpieces for the theatre, such as his German epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, and his expansion of traditional harmonic and constructional devices in music.
The four overtures and marches recorded here, Rule Britannia, the American Centennial March, the Imperial March and Polonia are not, of course among Wagner's greatest works. Their interest must lie in good part in their rarity, the occasional compositions of a musician whose principal achievements lay elsewhere.
Rule Britannia was written in 1836, when Wagner was in Königsberg, awaiting the departure of the opera-house conductor Ludwig Schuberth, who had been appointed to a position at Riga, but was reluctant to leave. Wagner's position in the town was due to the agency of his newly married wife, Minna, who enjoyed some reputation as a singer and actress, yet Königsberg brought no security. His debts increased, while creditors from Magdeburg, where he has been working, were to pursue him. With his usual optimism, Wagner sent the overture to Sir George Smart, president of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, an important conductor and promoter of contemporary music, but with no apparent result.
Dr Thomas Arne's original composition, described in a hand bill as "a favourable Ode in honour of Great Britain", was written as part of his masque Alfred, devised in 1740 to celebrate the accession of George I to the English throne 25 years before. Wagner arranges the relatively simple patriotic melody for a large orchestra, piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets in F and C, bassoons, percussion and strings. These enormous forces embark at first on a grandiose opening, based on the first bar of the original song. The melody is later treated more fully, accompanied by the excitement of the kind of scale passages later found in overtures such as that to The Mastersingers, all leading to a final re-statement of the patriotic theme.
The American Centennial March was written forty years later, in 1876, commissioned by Philadelphia, for a generous fee of five thousand dollars. Its composition coincided with work on his latest music drama, Parsifal, and Wagner remarked that his Teutonic Flower Maidens seemed to want to become American. Once again a large orchestra is called for, and the composer shows his mastery of scoring, even in a work of such an occasional nature, the relatively simple thematic material manipulated to the greatest effect
The overture Polonia was written by Wagner earlier in the year that saw the overture Rule Britannia. His opera Liebesverbot based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, had proved a disaster in Magdeburg, and he had resolved to follow his then mistress Minna Planer to Königsberg. Staying in Berlin, under the protection of Heinrich Laube, he made use of material conceived after a night of drinking with exiles from Poland in his native Leipzig some years before.
demands a large orchestra. A slow introduction, interrupted by hints of what is to come, leads to the faster section, an extended sequence introducing a patriotic Polish song. The overture follows the general tripartite construction of sonata form, with the unexpected interpolation of a Polish dance before the concluding section.
The project of the Kaisermarsch might have seemed much nearer Wagner's heart, although its composition might have been regarded by some as political opportunism. In January 1871 Wilhelm of Prussia became Emperor of the united German Reich, and it was time for Wagner to make clear his loyalty to the new power, while wasting as little time as possible on his patron, King Ludwig of Bavaria, whose star was waning. Wagner's original intention had been to write a Symphony of Mourning for the Fallen, but this did not accord with the designs of the Berlin government, which were to emphasize the triumphs of victory rather than any such loss. His Kaisermarsch was finally intended as a march for the imperial coronation, and possibly as the source of a national anthem, with its closing choral praise of the Emperor, Heil, Heil dem Kaiser! König Wilhem! Aller Deutschen Hort und Freiheitswehr! The march brought Wagner national fame, but circumstances later induced a further sudden shift of principle, when he had to resort once again to his old patron Ludwig of Bavaria for opportune financial assistance. Suitably large forces are employed for the march, offering music that must chiefly be of interest for its political purpose, although generally superior to the earlier King Ludwig March. Much ado is made about relatively few musical ideas, the final anthem setting forming the basis of the whole work.
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WAGNER, R.: Polonia / Rule Britannia / Marches