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Wagner, Schumann and the other ‘Tristan’

Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann (born 1810) knew each other from the early 1830s and, in Mein Leben Wagner says that they met from time to time for walks and to exchange ideas about music. Both were Saxons by birth and protestants by upbringing. Schumann was, said Wagner a “profound and productive musician whose work I much admired … but beyond that I didn’t get any real stimulation from his company … and he was too unreceptive to benefit from any serious views of mine.” 

In 1834, at the age of 21, Wagner published an article in Schumann’s New Journal for Music entitled German Opera, in which he elevated opera to a position above all other art forms. This marked the beginning of Wagner’s life as a polemicist, and so we can say that Schumann, through his journal, played a key role in encouraging the young Wagner to write about opera and music and, indeed, everything else under the sun. By the end of his life, Wagner’s writings (not counting his autobiography and some twelve thousand letters) filled nine volumes. This long literary adventure, unequalled by any other composer in history, began with Schumann’s Journal.

In 1836, the Journal included a review of Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), Wagner’s second completed opera which had had a disastrous premiere in Magdeburg when the singers could not remember their lines and fights had broken out backstage. The review praised the young Wagner and commended the opera itself as being full of musicality and tunefulness. It predicted much success for this work, as long as it could be performed in first rate theatres. The author of this glowing, anonymous account was in fact Wagner himself, and in his accompanying letter to Schumann he wrote: “I mention my own opera because nobody else does, and I would dearly love to have it discussed. It’s a shame one has to resort to self-help! I think you will agree that the article must be anonymous and that my name must not be divulged to anyone, or else heaven help me! I shall probably see you again soon in Leipzig. I am really looking forward to that. Here in Magdeburg there are far too many [and then he uses a colourful obscenity to describe the people he was having to deal with at the time]”.

Schumann published the article, and although it attracted some interest from the Berlin Opera, nothing came of it and Das Liebesverbot was not performed again in Wagner’s lifetime. It is an amusing and rather moving story when one thinks of the obstacles facing the newly married young composer in a world that was very different from our own. It reveals too the closeness of a relationship which allowed Schumann to publish a trumped-up review – one that he knew to be trumped-up – in order to help a friend struggling to make a name for himself.

In February 1842, Wagner made his first recorded criticism of Meyerbeer when, in a letter to Schumann he wrote: “Halévy … is open and honest, and not a premeditatedly cunning trickster like Meyerbeer. But you must not be rude about Meyerbeer! He is my protector and – joking apart – an amiable person.” Schumann published these comments in his Journal under a pseudonym, although it is unlikely that Wagner intended them for publication, and he had certainly not requested it. 

Why would Wagner have been concerned about Schumann’s statements on Meyerbeer? Because of an article that Schumann had published in his journal in 1837, in which he was scathing about Les Huguenots. “I am no moralist” wrote Schumann, “but it enrages a good Protestant to hear his dearest chorale [Luther’s Ein feste Burg] shrieked out on the stage; to see the bloodiest drama in the whole history of his religion degraded to the level of an annual fair farce, in order to raise money and noise with it.” Schumann went on to describe the opera’s “trivial sanctity” after which, “we [good Protestants] should all be burnt alive together as soon as possible.” He searched in vain, he said, for “one pure, lasting idea, one spark of Christian feeling in it.” Meyerbeer, he wrote, “nails a heart on the outside of a skin and says, ‘Look! There it is, to be grasped with hands.’ All is made up, all appearance and hypocrisy…. To startle and to tickle is Meyerbeer’s maxim and he succeeds in it with the rabble. And as for the introduced chorale which sets Frenchmen besides themselves, I declare that if a pupil brought such a lesson in counterpoint to me, I should certainly beg him to do better in the future. How overladen yet empty, how intentional yet superficial!”

These were uncompromising words and yet, a couple of years later, Wagner was to say the exact opposite. In an unpublished essay of 1840 or thereabouts, he wrote approvingly of the composer of Les Huguenots: “Is not the strong impulse for religious expression in Meyerbeer’s works” he wrote, “a striking manifestation of the master’s deep, inward intentions?  Is not this feature precisely one that reminds us movingly of his German origins?  … There is no longer any need to compose grand, learned, liturgically correct masses and oratorios; we have learned from this son of Germany that religion can just as well be preached from the stage …. Thus we must stand by our view that the most recent great epoch in dramatic music has been brought to a close by Meyerbeer…and yet he is still alive among us, and at the height of his powers. So, let us not get ahead of ourselves, but rather wait and see what new things his genius will yet produce!” 

Yes, this was Richard Wagner speaking; attempting, it seems, to reconcile Schumann’s arguments with his own position as a would-be acolyte of Meyerbeer, the most successful opera composer in Europe of the day, by emphasising the latter’s ‘Germanness’. However, that cut no ice with conservative musicians like Schumann. Meyerbeer (born Jacob Beer to a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin) may have held positions at the Prussian court as well as being the leading operatic figure in Paris, but he was no longer seen as German in the way that many considered that to be, and he was certainly not an heir to the protestant German tradition that Schumann valued so highly. 

Wagner began to waver. He sent Schumann a copy of the score of Der fliegende Holländer, but in February 1843 Schumann replied that he thought the music gloomy and Meyerbeerian, a comment that drew an immediate protest from Wagner. “In the first place,” said Wagner, “I do not know what in the whole wide world is meant by the word ‘Meyerbeerian’, except perhaps a sophisticated striving after superficial popularity: but no existing work can be ‘Meyerbeerian’ because, in this sense, not even Meyerbeer himself is ‘Meyerbeerian’, but Rossinian, Bellinian, Auberian, Spontinian etc etc. I confess that it would have required a wonderful freak of nature for me to have drawn my inspiration from that particular source.” 

This marked a significant reversal of Wagner’s previously declared position on Meyerbeer, but he still wasn’t ready to say so publicly, as Schumann had been in 1837. Schumann’s arguments were picked up by Theodor Uhlig in his attacks on Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete between April and July of 1850, also in the New Journal for Music. Then Wagner went into print in September of that year with his notorious (the epithet is his) essay Jewishness in Music, aimed at Meyerbeer but not naming him and published under a pseudonym. A year later in 1851, in his treatise Opera and Drama, Wagner was ready to put his name to his opinions: “In Meyerbeer’s music” he wrote, “there is shown so appalling an emptiness, shallowness and artistic nothingness, that – especially when compared with by far the larger number of his musical contemporaries – we are tempted to set down his specific musical capacity at zero.” 

In a modern context, Wagner gets the lion’s share of attention in these matters because of his importance in the history of western music and the fact that he was so vociferous, but the fact is that the literary campaign against Meyerbeer – and by extension other Jewish composers – began with Schumann in 1837.

And what did Schumann think of Wagner? In a letter to Mendelssohn in October 1845 he wrote: “There is Wagner, who has just finished another opera [Tannhäuser]. He is certainly a clever fellow, full of crazy ideas and audacious to a degree. Society still raves over Rienzi. Yet he cannot write or think out four consecutive bars of beautiful, even good music. All these young musicians are weak in harmony, in the art of four-part writing. How can an enduring work be produced in that way?  … The music is no better than Rienzi, but duller and more unnatural if anything. If one says anything of the sort it is always put down to envy, and that is why I only say it to you, knowing you have long been of the same opinion….”

A couple of weeks later he again wrote to Mendelssohn: “I may have a chance of talking to you about Tannhäuser soon. I must take back one or two things I said after reading the score. It makes quite a different effect on the stage. Much of it impressed me deeply.”

Schumann does seem to have been jealous of the great success of Rienzi despite his protestations to the contrary, and Wagner chided him about his failure to include any review of it in the New Journal for Music. Inclined to attribute a Meyerbeerian pedigree to Rienzi, Schumann seems to have decided that Wagner, newly returned from Paris, had sold his soul to the devil. Hence his readiness to label The Flying Dutchman ‘Meyerbeerian’ as well. Against this background, Schumann was predisposed to see Tannhäuser in the same light. But I suspect that what made him change his mind was not the music of the Venusberg which, in 1861 Wagner made even more voluptuous for the Paris staging (sung in French), but passages that unequivocally had their roots in German tradition. Schumann said once that he was “praying for German opera every morning and evening”. Perhaps, after seeing Tannhäuser, he recognized that Wagner was too. 

From our perspective, Wagner went too far after 1850 in distancing himself from dominant figures like Meyerbeer, but from his perspective, and living in exile, he wanted to leave no doubt as to his German credentials. In due course, he would make his clearest statement of affinity with protestant German traditions in Die Meistersinger. This work had a twenty-year gestation period, but it was conceived in 1845 as a bourgeois, post-reformation pendant to the elevated, courtly and pre-reformation Tannhäuser. The notion of a song contest – a contest for the soul of music – is as integral to the latter as it is to Die Meistersinger. The Franconian knight Tannhäuser has a brother in arms in that other Franconian knight, Walther von Stolzing. Tannhäuser’s shocking celebration of Venus at the court of the Landgrave has its counterpart in Walther’s trial song; the uproar at the end of Act II of Tannhäuser has a parallel in the ending of Act I of Meistersinger, and so on. The chorale-like Pilgrims Chorus – pre-reformation in spirit but post-reformation in style – is matched by the Wach auf chorus of Meistersinger with its invocation of Martin Luther himself. 

In June 1846, the poet and painter Robert Reinick wrote to a friend: “The composer Robert Schumann has finally engaged me again for an opera libretto, but neither of us had a subject….  Geibel suggested ‘Tristan and Isolde’ to me, and I think one might make a splendid opera of it. Schumann also feels attracted by it. Tomorrow I shall begin to outline the general plan.  … In a fortnight we must have the plan settled.”

Schumann began reading a contemporary epic poem on ‘Tristan and Isolde’ by Karl Immermann, published in 1841, and this was to prove influential in shaping the dramatic sketch. 

Separately, Reinick wrote to Schumann: “I propose to devote all my remaining time in Dresden wholly to our plan. … It seems to me that ‘Tristan and Isolde’ provides such admirable and opulent material for an opera, and one (as I gather from your intimations) so desirable and favourable, that we could hardly find its equal.” Reinick did deliver the plan in Dresden as promised but Schumann shelved it and made the following note in his work book: “Thanked him for his kindness but deferred further consideration of our plan to a more favourable time.” 

Felix Mendelssohn heard about the Tristan project and, when Schumann was passing through Leipzig, Mendelssohn presented him with a copy of the classic version of the romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, which, in time, became Wagner’s principal source. 

Soon afterwards, the twenty-year-old Eduard Hanslick came across Schumann reading Gottfried’s poem and was also enthusiastic about it. But in the end, nothing came of it. Schumann was diverted to another project, and the result was his one and only opera Genoveva about Genevieve of Brabant and her husband Siegfried. In 1850 Reinick asked for the Tristan sketch back but Schumann was reluctant to give it up and it was found amongst his papers after his death. 

A question that nobody seems to have asked is: why did Reinick ask for the Tristan sketch back? Did he intend it for somebody else and, if so, for whom? We know that Wagner’s young friend Karl Ritter had attempted to dramatise the Tristan legend, and discussed this with Wagner in Zurich in 1854. 

In Mein Leben, Wagner comments on Karl’s intentions: “He had confined himself to the frivolous incidents of the romance”, writes Wagner, “while I had been immediately struck by its innate tragedy and was determined to cut away all the inessentials from this central theme.” Soon afterwards, Wagner jotted down the contents of three acts which he expected would form the basis of a subsequent opera. Karl Ritter had been a composition pupil of Robert Schumann in Dresden from 1847 and it is probable that his interest in the Tristan legend was stimulated by knowledge of Schumann’s unfulfilled plans and rapidly declining health. If so, this would provide a second link between the Reinick/ Schumann initiative and Wagner’s decision to proceed with his own ideas for Tristan und Isolde. The first link is hinted at by Wagner’s somewhat evasive remark in Mein Leben that he had become familiar with the Tristan story from his Dresden studies, which is to say, at a time when he was in close personal contact with Schumann. It is interesting to consider exactly what Reinick and Schumann had in mind for their unfinished Tristan, which throws into relief the magnitude of Wagner’s achievement. 

Wagner and Schumann saw a lot of each other in Dresden in 1845-46, when Schumann was, in Wagner’s words, “busying himself with the drafts of opera libretti, which finally led to his Genoveva”. Hanslick, who had dealings with them both in the 1840s and was quite supportive of Wagner at that time, wrote an amusing memoir on how they regarded each other. He once asked Schumann whether he had much to do with Wagner, to which Schumann replied: “For me, Wagner is impossible; there’s no doubt that he’s an intelligent person, but he never stops talking. You can’t talk all the time.” On the following day Hanslick met Wagner and asked what he thought of Schumann. “On a superficial level we’re on excellent terms” said Wagner, “but you can’t converse with Schumann: he’s an impossible person, he never says anything.”

In Reinick’s five-act scenario we find, in addition to King Marke, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne, a Queen of Ireland called Gimella, a magician called Thinas (the father of Brangäne), Morolt (Isolde’s uncle as in Gottfried’s account, not her betrothed as in Wagner’s), and various other characters including fairies and ghosts. The work begins with celebrations of Tristan’s victory over Morolt. Then, King Marke’s marriage to the Irish Princess Isolde is predicted by the magician Thinas, who, like Klingsor in Parsifal, is discovered in his tower surrounded by instruments of magic and astrology. Thinas calls up a vision of Isolde (anticipating Klingsor’s use of his magic mirror), and Marke, smitten by her beauty, decides to make her his wife. Tristan leaves for Ireland.

Morolt’s body is returned to his homeland amidst great lamentation and, shortly afterwards, the badly wounded Tristan is shipwrecked off the Irish coast and washed ashore. Isolde identifies him from his name conveniently written on his sword, and realizes she has Morolt’s killer in her power. She is about to exact revenge when her mother and Brangäne intervene to stop her. Here Reinick is following Gottfried. Tristan woos Isolde for King Marke, and Queen Gimella insists that her daughter accepts the King’s hand in marriage. Isolde reluctantly agrees but is soon attracted to Tristan who, though not immune to her charms, remains nobly committed to his uncle’s cause. Soon afterwards in Cornwall, Isolde’s marriage to Marke takes place, preceded by a Lohengrin-like procession to the cathedral. Whilst the wedding is under way, Brangäne and her magician father remain outside, plotting to neutralize Isolde’s feelings for Tristan. This sounds uncannily like Ortrud and Telramund’s machinations in Act II of Lohengrin, which Wagner had read to Schumann and other acquaintances seven months earlier. After another bridal procession, Tristan asks permission to join the crusades, but Marke insists that he remain at court.

The scene changes to a valley of the fairies where Thinas, the magician, casts his spells and creates a love-potion with which to shore up Isolde’s marriage to Marke. During the ensuing wedding banquet, the love-potion is accidentally consumed by Isolde and Tristan, and the inevitable happens. Brangäne is paralysed with fear whilst Tristan jumps to his feet and, Tannhäuser-like, sings an ardent love song to Isolde (who is now his aunt by marriage), resulting in uproar. A furious Marke banishes his nephew from the country. The magician learns of what has happened, laments his involvement with the magic arts and resolves to go on a pilgrimage to Rome to do penance, a la Tannhäuser. 

Before the magician leaves on his pilgrimage, his magic tower collapses in ruins and his spirit helpers vanish with it – imagery that anticipates the ending of Act II of Parsifal. Then the lovers and Brangäne flee into the night, leaving the cuckolded Marke and his supporters to follow in hot pursuit. The lovers press on through a rocky valley until Isolde collapses with exhaustion. Tristan is off searching for a path when King Marke arrives with his knights, draws his sword and is about to kill the sleeping Isolde when he is captivated by her beauty and pardons her instead. Tristan returns and attacks Marke. Isolde tries to separate them but is accidentally stabbed by Tristan and killed. Tristan falls on her corpse with the cry ‘Isolde!’ and he too dies (of what I’m not sure), whilst everyone else is left to mourn the dead and the work ends with a final chorus. Schumann probably intended to return to the Tristan project if Genoveva was a success, but it was not, and he wrote no more operas.

Some years later, Wagner was amused when his Tristan was criticised for being too static. Clearly audiences of his day expected something more along the lines of Reinick’s lively scenario. “I have been rebuked” said Wagner, “for not introducing into the second act of Tristan und Isolde a brilliant court ball, during which the hapless pair of lovers might hide themselves at the proper time in some shrubbery or other, where their discovery would create quite a startling scandal with all the usual consequences. Instead there passes little more than music in this act….”.

Poor Schumann did not live to hear Wagner’s Tristan. Completed in August 1859 it came three years too late for him. He would have been astonished.


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