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Wagner’s Missing Libretto and His Notorious “Judaism in Music”

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WAGNER, RICHARD. (1813-1883). German composer; creator of several of the greatest operas of all time, including Götterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde and Der Fliegende Holländer. ALS. (“Richard Wagner”). 2pp. 8vo. Lucerne, March 10, 1869. To German music critic, poet and composer RICHARD POHL (1826-1896). In German with translation.

“First and foremost, I owe you my grateful thanks for the many friendly notes. Today I again have a favor to ask! I have just learned that an old draft of an opera of mine, Die Sarazenin (The Saracen Woman), once fell into your hands, but was last said to have been kept in Dresden by the late Rudolph Wehner. It is very important to me to have it back – at least a copy of it – since I am considering a publication of my collected writings. Could you perhaps ask Wehner’s heirs to investigate the whereabouts of this manuscript, in order – as I said – to at least procure for me the desired copy of it. Unfortunately, I also see on this occasion how extremely disdainful my friends have been with the manuscripts lent to them by me or given to them as keepsakes! Today my latest brochure Judaism in Music will also be sent to you. In a few days ‘Mr. Edvard Devrient and his style’ by ‘Wilhelm Drach’ will follow: I think you will enjoy it. Farewell, write me your exact address, and remember your dear friend…”

Wagner portrait

Richard Wagner

In 1865, Wagner’s patron, Ludwig II, expressed an interest in reading the story of the composer’s life. Wagner began writing Mein Leben almost immediately, dictating it to his wife, Cosima, and completing the fourth and final volume in 1880. But before he finished the multi-volume work, he sought the assistance of his young admirer and frequent visitor, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Wagner “entrusted him with what could have been the anything but easy task of arranging for the printing of his autobiography by the Basel printer Bonfantini and taking charge of the proofs. It was on the 3rd of December, 1869 that Wagner sent him the first batch of manuscripts,” (The Life of Richard Wagner Volume IV 1866-1883, Newman). Bonfantini published volumes 1-3 of the autobiography in a limited edition of 18 copies for distribution to Wagner’s friends. Most of the copies were later returned to Cosima and destroyed after the composer’s death.

Our letter is seeking for inclusion in his book a draft of Wagner’s unfinished opera Die Sarazenin, on which he had worked during the early 1840s (along with Tannhäuser ) and which drew its inspiration from Lord Byron’s metaphysical poem entitled “Manfred,” about the Hohenstauffen Prince. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalled “I drew up the plan of a long poem in five acts, which was to fit perfectly into a musical illustration. I had adorned my subject with picturesque scenes and complicated situations.” Wagner, however, never composed music to accompany his libretto; he completed a rough draft in 1841 and a detailed sketch in 1843, all of which have gone missing.

Wagner had struggled as a young composer throughout the 1830s and 1840s, decades that witnessed the composition of Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Rienzi, and Lohengrin. Despite several of his operas from this period being considered part of the romantic genre, he, along with Franz Liszt (his future father-in-law), became a vociferous spokesperson against the romanticism of Johannes Brahms who enjoyed the  support of Clara Schumann among others, and advocated, instead, for a Neudeutsche Schule (New German School). Robert Schumann had been an admirer of Liszt, praising him in the periodical he co-founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, but later, privately, became disillusioned with him. After Schumann left the Neue Zeitschrift in 1844, the periodical became a mouthpiece for Wagner, Liszt and their proponents.

Title page of Wagner's essay

Wagner’s “Judaism in Music”

It was in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1850 that Wagner published his infamous anti-Semitic “Das Judentum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”), under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (“K. Freethought”), specifically denigrating the music of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn (who had died in 1847) and what he dubbed “Hebraic” music in general. The essay did not elicit much of a reaction, but, in 1869, five years after Meyerbeer’s death, Wagner reprinted the still controversial essay with a lengthy addendum, a copy of which he is sending to Pohl.

German singer, actor, librettist, playwright, and theater director Eduard Devrient (1801-1877) was a friend of Mendelssohn who starred in several of his productions, including a single performance of his only publicly staged opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho. After a 15-year career, he lost his voice and turned to acting and writing, while also directing the Karlsruhe Hoftheater from 1852-1870. In 1869 Devrient authored a pamphlet entitled “Meine Erinnerungen an Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy und seine Briefe an mich” (“My Memories of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and His Letters to Me”). Wagner responded by publishing the critique “Edvard Devrient and His style: A Study of His Memories of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy” using the pseudonym “Wilhelm Drach [Dragon].”

Pohl had championed the cause of Realism in the pages of the Neue Musikzeitung during the so-called War of the Romantics. In 1854, he became an editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and there, under the pseudonym “Hoplit,” authored scathing articles that supported Wagner and Liszt and criticized the Romantic composers. Pohl also collaborated with Liszt on the 1859 Leipzig Tonkünstler-Versammlung, an event meant to “unite German musicians on a national level,” (Franz Liszt: A Story of Central European Subjectivity, Quinn). In 1883, Pohl co-authored a monograph about Wagner. Our letter is written to Pohl in Baden-Baden where he had retired in 1864.

Published in its entirety in Richard Wagner Sämtliche Briefe, Vol. 21, No. 77, pp. 109-110. With the original envelope addressed in Wagner’s hand to Pohl as “Editor in Baden-Baden.”

Wagner’s Missing Libretto and His Notorious “Judaism in Music”

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