Wagner: Symphony no 1

Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s talents spanned composing, theatre directing and conducting, but he’s primarily known today for his magnificent operas. His compositions are renowned for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration and the elaborate use of “leitmotifs” – musical phrases associated with characters, places, ideas or elements of the plot. Few of us in the orchestra were aware that Wagner had actually written a symphony and we were stunned by its qualities when we started to rehearse this fine music, written in just six weeks when he was only 19. (A second symphony was started in 1834, but only the first movement and part of the second are now known to exist.)

The first public performance was given on 15 Dec 1832 at the Euterpe Music Society in Leipzig, conducted by Wagner’s early teacher. The audience included Clara Wieck and she warned her husband-to-be, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), that “Herr Wagner has got ahead of you: a symphony of his was performed”. She reported that others present likened it to Beethoven’s Symphony No7. We can also hear the influence of Beethoven’s other symphonies, particularly Nos 3 and 5 and also of Mozart’s later symphonies. It was performed again less than a month later at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Wagner presented the score to Felix Mendelssohn in 1836, and it was subsequently thought to be lost. Luckily for us, the parts from a student orchestra rehearsal at the Prague Conservatory in November 1832 were discovered in a trunk. Wagner had left them behind in Dresden when fleeing, following his involvement in the abortive May revolution of 1849. At Christmas 1882, having made some revisions to the score, Wagner jointly conducted a performance with Englebert Humperdinck to celebrate his wife Cosima’s birthday. In fact, Wagner had only two more months to live but, in that time, he wrote an “Essay on the Revival of Youthful Works” about this composition. In it, he included a passage that implied that Mendelssohn had tried to deliberately suppress the symphony although there is no evidence to support this view. Some cite this as an example of Wagner’s anti-semitism. Others suspect Wagner’s grievance was that Mendelssohn had not publically conducted the piece.

To the music itself. The first movement is in classical sonata form with a slow introductory preface. A basic motif is established with hints of the Prelude to Das Rheingold. The second movement is in A minor (the relative minor) and begins with the motif from the code of the first movement. It takes the form A + B + B + A + coda. This is followed by a scherzo and trio in traditional structure. The scherzo is characterised by a dynamic rhythm, whilst the trio features a contrasting smooth melodic line. The fourth movement repeats the sonata form of the opening movement and becomes equivocal in tonality, presaging Wagner’s later compositions and his use of chromaticism.