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Richard Wagner and the French
By Don Robertson

Excerpt from the Introduction to the score for Istar by Vincent D'Indy published by Musikproducktion Höflich.

     The importance and magnitude of the artistic movement that took place in France during the last decades of the 19th Century cannot be denied. It created a transformation in the evolution of art, poetry and music.  
To better grasp what was taking place in France at this time, it is necessary to understand the influence that the music and writings of Richard Wagner had upon many young creative artists living and working in Paris. The first performance of Wagner’s revolutionary work Tannhaüser that took place in Paris in 1861 created such a scandal among the entrenched establishment that another Wagner music drama would not be staged in Paris until 1887 (a performance of Lohengrin directed by Charles Lamoureux, with the help of Vincent d’Indy). Despite the lack of a French Wagnerian staging for twenty-six years, French artists, composers, and poets listened to piano reductions of Wagner’s music and consumed his writings.
     The world premiere of Wagner’s fifteen-hour-long ring cycle took place in his new theater in Bayreuth, Germany in August 1876, and a handful of French composers made pilgrimages to this almost holy shrine. Upon returning, they talked and wrote profusely about what had taken place; Saint-Saëns, for example, wrote five articles about the Bayreuth experience and Catulle Mendès three. A few years after, concerts of Wagner’s music began to take place in Paris. Those at the Eden Theater, conducted by Charles Lamoureux, resembled holy services, to which painters like Blanche and Valloton, poets and writers such as Mallarmé and Proust, and many musicians and composers flocked.
By the mid-1880s, the music and thinking of the now-deceased Wagner had ignited nearly the entire intellectual and artistic movement in Paris, including the most distinguished and the most gifted artists, writers, and composers. Some, in addition to attending the Eden Theater concerts, made pilgrimages to Bayreuth. The effect of Wagner’s music was deeply felt. Ravel and Chabrier had similar experiences during performances of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde: the music so moved them that they broke into tears and sobbed. Composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted during an 1889 Bayreuth performance, and Vincent d'Indy broke down and wept while experiencing the death of Siegfied in Götterdamerung.
     Wagner's influence on French music was overwhelming. Testimony to this were Wagnerian-inspired music dramas, including Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Bruneau's Le Rêve, Chapentier’s Louise, Reyer’s Sigurd, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus, and d’Indy’s Fervaal. Additionally, composers such as Franck, Gounod, Lekeu, Bizet, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Duparc, Fauré, Delibes, and Ravel were all inspired by Wagner, as well as the poets and writers Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, LaForgue (who influenced Eliot and Pound), Valéry, Colette, Dujardin, de Nerval, Gautier, Mallarmé, Proust, Verlaine, Ghil, Baudelaire, Morice, and Vignier. Among painters were Blanche, Valloton, Gauguin, Cézanne, Bazille, Fantin-Latour, Whistler, and Doré.

© 2005 by Rising World Entertainment

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