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Overture to Rienzi

Wagner: Rienzi - Overture

Rienzi (an operatic reworkin of Bulwer-Lytton's account of the life of the fourteenth-century Roman demagogue Cola di Rienzi) was started in the summer of 1837, partly under the overwhelming impression of a performance of Gaspare Spontini's Fernand Cortez which Wagner had heard in Berlin. This was probably his first exposure to French grand opera and it left its mark on hte style and dimensions of Rienzi ('Meyerbeer's best opera', as Hans von Bülow reputedly called it). A production in one of Germany's provincial theatres was clearly out of the question and so, when Wagner was eased out of his job in Riga in the summer of 1839, he turned to the European capital of music as the one and only place to stage it.

The overture to Rienzi (the last part of the work to be written) was completed in Paris on 19th November 1840 - the day when, according to the hagiographical school of Wagnerian biography, the composer was languishing in a debtor's prison. It is certainly true that the Paris years (1832-42) were far from easy for Wagner, but there is no evidence that his congenital insolvency had any more dire consequences than a certain strain on his already well-tried friends and creditors.

© Stewart Spencer & Katie Lang

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