Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > History of Lohengrin (Wagner)
The History of 'Lohengrin'
An Opera by Richard Wagner
Wagner first read his "Lohengrin" poem in 1845 to a private circle of friends, among whom were Schumann, Hiller (the painter), Robert Reinick, Gottfried Semper, and others. Schumann (we need not consider the rest) was enthusiastic. He told Mendelssohn that Wagners text had been a twofold surprise to him, since he had himself been thinking of the same theme, and must now throw it overboard.
Scene from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner as depicted on a 1933 German stamp
The score of "Lohengrin," completed in 1848 (one of the stormiest years of Continental history, when the revolutionary rising in Paris seemed to threaten destruction to the thrones of the neighbouring countries), was not published until 1852. But the opera had been produced in 1850 at Weimar, by Wagners "rarest" friend, Franz Liszt, to whom (to "my dear Liszt") it was dedicated. Wagner was in exile at the time, and there is a touch of pathos about the fact that he was afraid to return, even secretly, to hear his own work. He used to say, bitterly, that, for many years, he was the only German who had not heard "Lohengrin." As a matter of fact, he did not hear it until 1861. The Weimar performance of 1850 did not count for much except to Wagner himself. "At the end of my last stay in Paris," he wrote, referring to 1850, "when, ill, miserable, and despairing, I sat brooding over my fate, my eye fell on the score of my Lohengrin, totally forgotten by me. Suddenly I felt something like compassion that this music should never sound from off the death-pale paper. Two words I wrote to Liszt; his answer was the news that preparations were made for the performance on the largest scale the limited means of Weimar would permit. Everything that men and circumstances could do was done in order to make the work understood."
Alas! the work was neither understood nor appreciated. The critics all joined in a hue and cry against the opera, denouncing it as unmelodious, formless, meaningless; the quintessence of all that was bad in music. Every witling who heard it had his fling at it. Not until 1853, when it was given at Wiesbaden, did it really begin to take hold. Its progress even then was slow enough. It did not reach New York till 1871, up to which time it had not got beyond the Continent of Europe. London heard it for the first time in 1875, when two performances were given -- one at Covent Garden, the other at Drury Lane, with Nilsson as Elsa. But there was no enthusiasm.
About this time it was considered a species of high-treason, especially in England, to speak of Wagner as a composer at all. He was regarded as a musical madman. "The apogee of hideousness, a distracting and altogether distressing noise, a mere blaring of brass, and a short method of utterly ruining the voice." So they described the "music of the future" (the future of lots souls, they said!). John Hullah called "Lohengrin" an opera without music. To Gustav Engel it seemed like "blubbering baby-talk." Dr. Hanslick, Germanys leading musical critic, said that "the simplest song of Mendelssohn appeals more to heart and soul than ten Wagnerian operas." When Mapleson first proposed to introduce "Lohengrin" at Her Majestrys Theatre, the idea was scouted as ridiculous. If Mapleson had persisted, Wagner would have been received with a storm of abuse. Curiously enough, "Lohengrin" was not given at Bayreuth until 1894, twelve years after the date of the first festival there.
In London the history of the opera has been rather interesting. The Carl Rosa Company followed the first production by a performance in English in 1880. In 1899 the Moody-Manners Company gave its initial performance of the work, with Madame Fanny Moody as Elsa and Mr. Hedmondt as Lohengrin. In performance the opera is always subjected to certain "cuts," though Wagner protested against them. In the 1899 production the "cuts" were restored, but this was subsequently regarded as only an interesting experiment, the usual acting version containing all that is essential for the proper representation of the opera. Wagner, naturally enough, thought otherwise. When Liszt was arranging for the Weimar performance, the composer wrote to him: "If cuts are made, the chain of comprehension will be torn asunder; to capitulate to the enemy is not to conquer; the enemy himself must surrender; and that enemy is the laziness and flabbiness of our actors, who must be driven to feel and think." The only comment suggested by this is, that though art may be long, time is fleeting. We should never get to our beds if "Lohengrin" were given in its original integrity!