About this work
As Wagner reached Paris in September 1839, with his wife and an enormous Newfoundland, English and Scottish queens were in vogue. Schiller's 1800 tragedy Maria Stuart cast a long shadow. Donizetti essayed a Maria Stuarda, based upon it, in 1834, though it was halted by the censors after its dress rehearsal in Naples. His Roberto Devereux -- romanticizing Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex -- was produced at Paris' Théâtre Italien on December 17, 1838. If not a queen, Donizetti's Anna Bolena scored 25 performances at the Italien during the 1834 season. Hugo's play Marie Tudor failed in 1833, though Berlioz, who had been present at a private reading, may well have been stimulated to consider composing a symphony in the vein of the Fantastique for chorus and orchestra with viola obbligato, to be titled The Last Moments of Mary Stuart. If this metamorphosed into Harold en Italie (1834) and Roméo et Juliette (1838-1839), its inception nevertheless testifies to a certain "something in the air." It was an air that Wagner, alive to every artistic current, breathed avidly, despite his poor French. Though he had embarked on the composition of Rienzi, he had only some crude overtures and Das Liebesverbot, a juvenile work playing three hours, with which to commend himself to "the city of light." After accepting Das Liebesverbot for production in the spring of 1840, the Théâtre de la Renaissance went bankrupt. An audition of several numbers from it at the Paris Opéra garnered only a consensus of "charmante" and a polite refusal. To support himself, Wagner took on mountainous amounts of hackwork, kindly provided by the music publisher and proprietor of the Gazette musicale, Moritz (later, Maurice) Schlesinger. Remuneration for piano arrangements of Donizetti's La favorita and L'elisir d'amore, for instance, or Halévy's La reine de Chypre and La Guitarrero, fought a losing battle with mounting debt as Wagner persevered with Rienzi. Forced to work on a smaller scale, he resorted to composing songs to earn money and lend his name currency. The first of these, setting a French translation of Heine's Die beiden Grenadiere -- with its rousing importation of the Marseillaise -- indebted him to Schlesinger for its engraving, obliging Wagner to pay with articles for the Gazette musicale. Several others were also calculated for popular appeal, which they enjoyed in small measure, with Les Adieux de Marie Stuart, composed in 1840, the most blatant -- taking Béranger's famous poem as a pretext, this would-be tearjerker misses fire and fails.