Later this year we’ll mark the Richard Wagner bicentennial, but it was this week in 1883 that the great German composer died. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, in his later years, Wagner would write a piece of orchestral music commissioned by a Philadelphian and premiered in the city.
Wagner was 69 years of age when he passed. He had spent his last years raising money to establish a permanent home to showcase his works in the Northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth. To this end when the American Centennial celebrations of 1876 wanted a march to celebrate the role of German Americans in the history of the country, a Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Gillespie sought the counsel of the German-born conductor Theodore Thomas. He suggested the $5000 commission be offered to Wagner. Wagner gratefully accepted, and delivered the work. Temple Art History professor Therese Dolan, who has written a book about the intersection of music and the visual arts in 19th century Paris says Wagner’s Grand March is not one of his grandest works.
You can tell that his heart wasn’t in it. He was building Bayreuth, so he charged five thousand dollars for this twelve minute piece of music and it was played when Roosevelt came to the Worlds’ Fair.
And though it’s been rarely played since, whatever the piece lacked in musical quality it made up for with typical Wagnerian bombast.
A hundred and fifty piece orchestra and then he also wanted a canon to be set off at the end of it. Critics felt there was no American feeling in it. Well what did they expect? They commissioned a German to do it.
Therese Dolan’s book Artworks of the Future: Manet, Wagner and Liszt will be published later this year.
Listen to Jim Cotter's full interview with Therese Dolan.