Piano Sonata

Richard Wagner

Piano Sonata in Bb major

WWV21, Op. 1

About this work

Wagner's adolescence was marked by truancy, gambling, drinking, political involvement, and an indefatigable, if blundering, passion for music. In childhood, Carl Maria von Weber had been a frequent visitor to the family in Dresden, and a hearing of Der Freischütz prompted Wagner to copy music and -- though he was no prodigy -- take to the piano. He grappled with any scores that came his way -- a Haydn quartet necessitated reading the viola clef and, thus stimulated, he composed a string quartet of his own, now lost. In Dresden he heard the Fidelio overture, initiating an interest in Beethoven, though it was not until his family's move to Leipzig, with its greatly expanded musical opportunities, that his enthusiasm blossomed into ardor with a hearing in 1828 of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at a Gewandhaus concert. Transported, he began to absorb everything of the composer's he could lay hands on, transcribing the Ninth Symphony for piano (which he offered, unsuccessfully, to publisher Franz Schott) and studying the piano sonatas. Mozart's Requiem and Don Giovanni were further revelations -- from the latter he derived his fledgling practice of orchestration. His spotty education was supplemented by voracious reading -- Shakespeare and E.T.A. Hoffmann were favorites. At 16, a bizarre acquaintance and music lover, one Flachs, who seemed to Wagner a character out of Hoffmann, arranged one of his airs for band and had it performed at a tavern garden concert -- Wagner's first public exposure. After tormenting the household for months, violin lessons were discontinued. The 17-year-old's Overture in B flat major, featuring a ff drumbeat every fifth bar, was given in a charity concert at the Leipzig Court Theater on Christmas Eve 1830, provoking howls of laughter. Such obvious deficiencies in his own attempts to master composition led him in the fall of 1831 to the cantor of Leipzig's Thomaskirche, Christian Theodor Weinlig, who enjoyed a local reputation as a teacher and contrapuntist. This, too, began badly, though after being dismissed Wagner, in desperation, begged Weinlig to re-accept him and the two spent a close six months, from October to March 1832, in the study of harmony, canon, and counterpoint. After studying a piano sonata by Ignaz Pleyel, Wagner composed the four-movement Sonata in B flat, a spirited and respectable apprentice work reflecting the influence of Pleyel, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, and Bellini. He dedicated it to Weinlig, who persuaded Breitkopf and Härtel to publish it at Easter 1832, earning for the composer a fee of 20 thalers.