excerpt from 'Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870-1900' pp. 65-77 (775 words)

excerpt from 'Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870-1900' pp. 65-77 (775 words)

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Thirty Years of Musical Life in London

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[In 1877] later Richard Wagner came to London to take part in the series of Wagner Festival Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, which had been arranged with a view to paying off the debt on the new theatre at Bayreuth...To make matters clear, I must premise that the adversaries and supporters of Wagnerian art in London were then ranged in three distinct camps. There were (1) those who refused to accept his music under any conditions; (2) those who would accept all he had written down to "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin"; and (3) those who worshiped both at the temple and from afar, accepting and rejoicing in everything. The first of these sections was gradually dying out, or was being absorbed by the second, as the beauty of the operas heard in London within the previous two years slowly but surely forced its way into the heart and understanding of the people...The final rehearsal for the opening concert of the festival took place at the Albert Hall on May 5. Wagner had himself chosen the programmes. He was to conduct each first part, consisting of selections from all his operas, from "Rienzi" to "Tristan"; while Hans Richter, who now made his first appearance in England, was to direct the excerpts from "Der Eing des Nibelungen" that formed each second part. Most of the preliminary work had been done under Mr. Dannreuther, in whom Wagner reposed great confidence. All that remained was to give the finishing touches and for the composer-conductor to accustom himself to the vast auditorium and the huge crescent-shaped phalanx of orchestral players spread before him. From the outset, as it seemed to me, he failed to place himself en rapport with either. The abnormal conditions appeared completely to upset him. In a word, he succumbed there and then to a severe attack of Albert Hall stage fright, an illness familiar to nearly every artist on stepping for the first time upon the platform of that gigantic amphitheatre. However, after a glance of astonishment round the empty hall, and a few whispered words to Wilhelmj, and yet a few more to Hans Richter (who was posted beside the conductor's desk), the great man raised his baton and gave the signal for the start. The inaugural piece was the "Kaisermarsch," and it was well chosen for the purpose. Its pompous and sonorous strains, proceeding with stately rhythmical movement throughout, were perfectly calculated to show off the imposing volume of the big orchestra in such a building as that. It gave no trouble, and the effect was superb. But, unluckily, instead of imbuing Wagner with a little confidence, this preludial essay left him more palpably nervous than before. The second piece on the list was the overture to the "Fliegende Hollander." Here, I confess, I looked for something exceptional. I had always understood that Wagner was a fine conductor, at least of works with which he was in true sympathy, and I expected his reading of the "Dutchman" overture to be in the nature of a revelation. Imagine, then, my disappointment and sorrow when it resulted in a complete breakdown! Twice nay, thrice did he make a fresh start, while Mr. Dannreuther and Mr. Deichmann (the faithful leader of the second violins) took it by turns to translate his complaints and instructions to the orchestra. But it was of no avail. He utterly failed either to indicate or to obtain what he wanted, and at last, in sheer despair, he threw down his stick and requested Richter to do the work for him. Well do I remember the sharp round of applause with which the band greeted the Viennese conductor as he mounted the rostrum. It was thoughtless unkind, if you will; for it must have smote with unpleasant sound upon the ears of the sensitive composer. But the overture went without a hitch. It was played as I had never heard it played before. After this Wagner decided that he would con- duct only one or two pieces at each concert, leaving all the rest to Richter. But would the public be satisfied? They were paying to see Wagner as well as to hear his music. The matter was discussed, and it was suggested, as a compromise, that when he was not conducting he should sit upon the platform in an armchair facing the audience. This course was actually adopted. At each of the six concerts comprising the festival scheme, after he had conducted the opening piece and acknowledged a magnificent reception, he sat down in his armchair and gazed at the assemblage before him with a sphinx-like expression of countenance that I shall never forget.

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excerpt from 'Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870-1900' pp. 65-77 (775 words)


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