Read Manny’s Musings ~ Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Rienzi”

Nov 3, 2023Manny's Musings

We are pleased to post Manny’s Musings, a preview of the program notes for our upcoming concert. Enjoy these notes, and buy your tickets for the concert to hear these pieces played in person. 

Overture to Rienzi
Richard Wagner

While it can be argued that the music of Richard Wagner should be “blamed” for the direction 19th century music took toward a lack of tonality, the truth of the matter is that Wagner started off in a rather traditional fashion. In fact, it’s interesting to note that, unlike many of his musical predecessors, his first love was writing the written word rather than music itself. He was so moved by the works of Shakespeare and Goethe, for example, that he was compelled to try his hand at writing at the age of fourteen. It was at that time that he went about the task of attempting to write music for his tragedy, Leubald. He spent the next many years perfecting his musical craft for the sake of accompanying the great stories that stirred his heart, at first, alone, and then with help from teachers such as Christian Weinlig, of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

A black and white photo of an older man wearing a white collard shirt, ascot, and suit jacket
Richard Wagner, composer

Rienzi was Wagner’s first successful opera. He already had a few junior works to his credit from piano sonatas to a symphony in C major. He had already written operas (Die Hochzeit and also Die Feen) but it was not until he completed Rienzi that he took his foothold into prominence during a time of nationalistic musical fervor in Germany. Wagner’s use of chromaticism continued a natural transition in music history that started with Hector Berlioz in Paris and continued with him. It was that use of chromaticism that opened the gates for new modalities in subsequent composers.

Normally, one would think of a trumpet calling soldiers to war to be involved in a complex set of flourishes. But in this immensely popular overture, Wagner decides that a single note, swelling and fading, should be the signal to battle for the Collonas, a family featured in the opera. But the call to action from the fifth act of the opera gives way to a solemn prayer rather than an act of militarism. This foray into grand opera in the French tradition of the time is wonderfully tuneful, yet it offers a glimpse into the ascending chromaticism that would mark the unique quality of Wagner’s subsequent work (if you think you hear a bit of The Flying Dutchman in various transitory and developmental passages it is for good reason, for it would be the opera that followed Rienzi by a year!). All the ingredients for a 19th century grand opera on Italian themes are present: corrupt government officials, forbidden love, dueling families, a burning city, and, of course, vendettas accompanied by mobs thirsting for blood. But none of this seems quite so horrific when people are singing at the top of their lungs!

Favorites: Yours, Mine, and Ours will be presented at the Schneider Theater at the Bloomington Center for the Arts on Sunday, November 19 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $14-$25 for adults and seniors, and free for students with ID and can be purchased online or by visiting the Bloomington Box Office in person Wednesday – Friday: 12:30 – 4:30 p.m., or by emailing or  calling 952-563-8545

BSO and chorus onstage with Manny Laureano at the podium, at Orchestra Hall. Photo by Leslie Plesser