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Overture to Die Feen

Wagner: Die Feen - Overture

The myth of Wagner as a self-taught natural genius is one which the composer himself put into circulation and which writers as diverse as the embittered Nietzsche and the generally admiring Thomas Mann were happy to endorse. But by the time that he began Die Feen in early 1833, Wagner had already had music lessons with at least three different teachers and had some thirty or so compositions to his credit. If the style of the works of his early period is not yet consistent, it is not because of any compositional tentativeness on Wagner;s part, but the result, rather, of his wholehearted commitment to a rapid series of varying influences. (Certain fingerprints are none the less already discernible, most notably the motif a diminished seventh descending through a minor third followed by two ascending steps, a motif which goes back to the König Enzio overture of 1831/2 and recurs in modified form not only in the overtures to Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, but at many salient points in Wagner's later music dramas.)

The inception of Die Feen coincided with Wagner's move to Würzburg, where thanks to his brother's good offices he was able to obtain a temporary appointment as chorus-master at the local theatre. The libretto (based on Carlo Gozzi's La donna serpente) was written in the spirit of that faery Romanticism which Wagner had admired in the works of E.T.A Hoffmann, Weber and Marschner. The music shows corresponding influences. But Romanticism as a literary movement was already being called into question and Wagner, responding with impressionable speed to the new Young German aesthetic, embraced the ideals of hedonism and free love with characteristic enthusiasm, adapting Shakespeare's Measure for Measure by transferring the action to Sicily and turning it into a tale of German puritanism confounded by Mediterranean warmth. The comsopolitan theme (Young Germany had counterparts in Saint-Simonism in France and Giovina Italia in Italy) demanded cosmopolitan music, and Bellini and Auber duly obliged.

© Stewart Spencer & Katie Lang

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