Rule Britannia Overture

Richard Wagner

Rule Britannia Overture in D major


About this work

As a stage-struck provincial, young Wagner's leading trait was chutzpah. Through a spate of apprentice works, in which he assimilated the most meretriciously facile compositional tricks of his contemporaries, he never doubted that every libretto, essay, overture, or opera was a masterpiece. In the autumn of 1836 he worked Heinrich König's novel Die hohe Braut into a scenario and was so confident of this hot property that he had it translated into French and sent to Scribe in Paris. Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) was the industrious father of the "well-made play" and magician of ingenious, surefire libretti for Adam, Auber, Bellini (La Sonnambula), Boieldieu (La Dame blanche), Cherubini, Donizetti (L'Elisir d'amore), Halévy (La Juive), Rossini (Le Comte Ory), and, above all, Meyerbeer, whose Robert le diable scored an unprecedented success at the Opéra in 1831, while, as Wagner scribbled away at Die hohe Braut, the Meyerbeer/Scribe Les Huguénots opened at the Opéra to a tumultuous reception that did not begin to fade until World War I. Wagner asked Scribe that he work the scenario into French verse, which he, Scribe, would then have Wagner commissioned to compose for production at the Opéra. Receiving no answer, in the spring of 1837 Wagner sent Scribe the score of Das Liebesverbot, suggesting that Scribe adapt the libretto for the Opéra-Comique. Although this, too, was ignored, Wagner squeezed publicity from the ploy by sending a copy of the "Carnival Song" from Liebesverbot to the editor of the quarterly Europa, who not only published it but reported that it was from an opera awaiting production in Paris. Scribe commanded 20,000 francs per libretto -- he was paid more than Rossini -- and had little need of help from an obscure music director in Königsberg. Wagner's is the ploy of the desperate gambler who stakes all on a lucky throw. Here, "all" amounted to a leap into fame and extrication from accumulating debt that the newly married, unemployed composer avidly amassed. The Königsberg post was not available until April 1837 -- the theater went bankrupt shortly after Wagner took it. Completed on March 15, 1837, the Rule Britannia Overture is the sole compositional achievement of the Königsberg period. He sent the score to George Smart, president of the Philharmonic Society in London, perhaps hoping to gain a foothold there. In the spring of 1840, as Wagner and his wife were starving in Paris, the overture was returned to him with seven francs postage due -- which he could not pay.