War at the Opera: Opening of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser in Paris

“Classical” music is widely perceived to be boring, but one composer that succeeded in changing that (if we ignore the sheer length of his operas) was Richard Wagner.  Controversial in life and death, he changed the face of Western music in ways that few have, even (in some ways) paving the way for cinematic music of the following century.

With initial success in Germany, Wagner brought his opera Tannhäuser to Paris, which opened 13 March 1861.  The style was completely new to the Parisians.  Things didn’t go smoothly, as described by Adolphe Jullien in his book Richard Wagner: His Life and Works:

The first tableau, although it was written quite in Wagner’s latest style, passed without opposition, but when after the change of scene, the strains of the little shepherd were heard, playing upon his pipe, the first murmur of discontent arose.  Wagner, who sat in the director’s box, as yet quite innocent of the meaning of this demonstration, leaned forward in order to command a better view of the audience-room, and remarked to his collaborator who sat beside him: “It is the arrival of the emperor (Napoleon III).”  Alas no! It was the first sign of rebellion from the leaders of the opposition.

In the entr’acte a bright idea for amusing themselves crossed the minds of these individuals; most of the subscribers, members of the Jockey-Club or of the Cercle Impérial, went out and bought up all of the hunting-whistles they could find in a certain gunsmith’s shop in the passage de l’Opera, and the disturbance recommenced with the second act, increasing to the very end of the performance, save during the march with the chorus, when the whistlers had to subside.  It must be said that in this uproar, the chevaliers of the corps de ballet had been sustained by the personal enemies of the master (Wagner)–he always excelled in creating them–while the impartial spectators, indignant at such pre-conceived hostility, and at such as scandalous outrage, joined their bravos, often very warm ones, to those of Wagner’s friends.

For an instant it seemed as if the victory would remain to the defenders; but the finale to the second act, encumbered with harps and troubadours, brought irrevocable defeat; of the third, nothing could be distinguished, and the recitative of the pilgrimage to Rome, in particular, the real climax to the whole work, was drowned from beginning to end in furious yells.  The interpreters, however, did not give way before these hostile demonstrations, and at least two distinguished people in the room bravely defended the author: Mme. won Metternich, who seemed to wish to be revenged upon Solferino; and the emperor, who on several occasions gave the signal for applause.

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