Columbus Overture

Richard Wagner

Columbus Overture in Eb major


About this work

By 1835, the 22 year-old Wagner had emerged, with the tutorial help of Theodor Weinlig -- his only real teacher -- from the gaucheries of his adolescence to the acquisition of impressive credentials, including a successful stint as chorus master of the opera house in Würzburg and composition of the Beethovenian Symphony in C (which won the praises of critic Heinrich Laube, whom he would meet again a few years later in Paris) and the comic opera Die Feen, for which he had written both libretto and music. Though adapted from Gozzi's play La Donna serpente (which became the basis of Alfredo Casella's 1931 operatic masterpiece), Die Feen owes as much to the Romantic fiction of E.T.A. Hoffmann (an acquaintance of Wagner's uncle, Adolf Wagner) as to the vogue for the musical fantastic epitomized by the Wolf's Glen scene in Weber's Der Freischütz. While Die Feen's scintillant overture was, and is, occasionally heard, the opera proved too long and involved in spinning out details of a laborious plot (foreshadowing the tortured dramaturgy of his greatest works) for practical consideration. But it contained much fine music demonstrating that its composer had derived inspiration from sources as diverse as Mendelssohn and Marschner, and was in command of considerable craft. Presented to the Leipzig opera, the management stalled and Wagner went on vacation to Bohemia with his school chum Theodor Apel. The son of a wealthy family, Apel paid for everything -- food, wine, carriages, hotels. Returning to Leipzig, Wagner found that he had been recommended to Heinrich Bethmann, manager of the Magdeburg theater, as a conductor. He found the troupe on tour in Lauchstädt and was on the point of declining the post when he caught sight of the leading lady, Minna Planer, and immediately changed his mind. After a persistent courtship they were married November 24, 1836. Meanwhile, as the company's conductor, Wagner was in a position to help his friend and pushed for a production of Apel's play Columbus, for which he supplied an overture and incidental music. Bethmann accepted when Apel fronted funds for its production. Wagner's enthusiasm, too, was accompanied by a request for a 200 thaler loan. The Columbus Overture bears the marks of a similar insincerity -- noisy, labored, repetitive, and fulsomely banal. Curiously, on two occasions when he was languishing in poverty in Paris some years later, given a chance to hear his works in concert, he could do no better than to proffer the ersatz Columbus Overture.