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About this Piece

Composed: 1842
Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, and triangle), and strings

Paris was more hell than heaven when in 1839, at the age of 26, Richard Wagner settled in the French capital, accompanied by his first wife, Minna. He had passed several way stations, spanning the breadth of Europe, from Riga to London, escaping from his creditors and scrounging for work. His dream was to have an opera produced by one of the great Paris houses, which would assure him access to Europe's other major stages. The ambitious young composer had no money and few prospects, spoke next-to-no French, and had no friends of sufficient influence to gain him entry into the halls of power. But he had in his hands the first two acts of his opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes), his certain ticket to the bigtime, after having had its two operatic predecessors, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, rejected in his native Germany.

Wagner completed Rienzi in Paris in the fall of 1840, but found no takers. Then, in less than two months, he composed Der fliegende Holländer and sold it quickly. No, not the opera, but its scenario, which was then bowdlerized and turned into a forgotten work by a forgotten French composer, one Pierre Dietsch.

After long negotiations and many revisions Rienzi was finally accepted by the Dresden Court Opera and presented in the Saxon capital, to great acclaim, in October of 1842. Although it launched Wagner on his fabulous career, his style underwent vast changes in the following years, to the point where today Rienzi is regarded as little more than a quaint remnant of the “grand opera” style of Giacomo Meyerbeer – an unlikely start to the career of one of music’s great and original creative forces.

The opera is based on the novel Cola di Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes by the English writer-politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), he of “It was a dark and stormy night...” the beginning of another of his works, Paul Clifford. Isn’t it time to acknowledge him, rather, for such valued and oft-used coinages as “the great unwashed” (likewise from Paul Clifford), “pursuit of the almighty dollar” (from his The Coming Race, also a novel) or “the pen is mightier than the sword” (from his play Richelieu)? End of digression.

The historical Rienzi was a 14th-century Roman tribune, elected to improve the miserable lot of Rome’s plebeians. Rienzi and his adherents topple the government by defeating the repressive nobility in battle, only to become a demagogue himself who is finally set upon and killed by those he initially championed. The libretto, by the composer, is wordy and convoluted. The stage work itself, while enjoying a considerable run in German theaters when it was new, has dropped from sight – with the exception of the overture, a stirring potpourri of melodies from the opera – including Rienzi’s exquisite fifth-act prayer, “Almighty Father, look down on me,” which occurs in the slow introduction and again in the exposition of the jaunty main Allegro energico.

Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.