Richard Wagner

Polonaise in D major

WWV23b, Op. 2

About this work

It is curious that of Johanna Wagner's nine children -- six of whom pursued theater careers -- Richard was the only one not to receive music lessons. The story of his adolescence is his thralldom to music and a protracted struggle to compose as he picked up the rudiments of harmony and compositional technique at haphazard. Even here, the poor study habits he acquired in his scrappy school career, marred by drinking, gambling, and flagrant truancy, served him poorly. Later to become a monumental debtor, Wagner humorously referred in his autobiography Mein Leben to mounting overdue fines on Logier's Method of General-bass from the lending library of Friedrich Wieck -- father of Clara Wieck, soon to marry Robert Schumann -- as his first significant transgression, though the material did not noticeably enable his compositional flights. Nothing daunted, hearing Beethoven's Fidelio and Egmont overtures, he composed several overtures of his own, guided by the full score of Mozart's Don Giovanni for orchestral disposition. The performance of an overture at a charity concert at the Leipzig Court Theater on Christmas Eve 1830 provoked derision when a fortissimo drum stroke was heard at every fifth bar. Though given anonymously, the 17-year-old Wagner was humiliated. Realizing that music was his vocation but that his imagination would remain shackled without guidance, Wagner sought out Christian Theodor Weinlig, cantor of Leipzig's Thomaskirche, a renowned contrapuntist, follower of Marpurg, and inspired teacher. Things began badly when Wagner refused to follow studies similar to those urged upon him before by others -- form, harmony, canon, and counterpoint, which he found dry and beside the point -- and the impatient Weinlig tartly dismissed him. It was the proverbial moment of truth -- Wagner entreated Weinlig to re-admit him to study and applied himself diligently to the lessons of the master, which Weinlig tailored to enable immediate composition. A Piano Sonata in B flat, modeled on those of Ignaz Pleyel, duly appeared -- published, through Weinlig's good offices, on Easter 1832 by Breitkopf and Härtel -- and another, a "Grosse Sonate," in A, soon followed. Other student works composed under Weinlig's supervision include an ambitious piano Fantasia and a Polonaise, composed early in 1832, which exists both as a sketch for piano solo and as a finished work for piano, four hands. Spirited, danceable, and, with its persistent dotted rhythm, liltingly gemütlich, in neither version does it exceed the bounds of Biedermeirish good taste. The piano writing is assured and, in the four-hand version, well distributed between the players.