Wagner and Liszt; Before E-mail

A composer’s personal correspondence can be extremely revealing.  On Friday morning, I was woken by a phone call from Phil Gossett, who quickly needed me to investigate a letter Rossini wrote to Liszt regarding his Petite Messe Solennelle – we’re working on a modern, performing edition of the score from the composer’s manuscripts and had a deadline quickly approaching.

Days earlier, I had learned that Liszt conducted an opera by Heinrich Dorn called Die Nibelungen (1854).  So, since I was already pursuing Liszt’s correspondence with Rossini, I couldn’t resist digging up his correspondence with Dorn regarding Die Nibelungen.  Sure enough, I found the letter in which Dorn asked Liszt to conduct his opera.  However, Liszt hardly mentioned Dorn in any of his personal correspondence, and when he did briefly on one occasion, he remarks how his direct involvement with Dorn’s Die Nibelungen contributed to it modest success in Berlin. Interestingly, Dorn and Wagner were frenemies; Wagner blamed Dorn for some of the small failures in his career, suspecting that Dorn purposely tried to sabotage him.

Liszt was very close to Wagner;  their collected correspondence fills an entire volume approximately 650 pages long!  No surprise, since later, Liszt would become his father-in-law, after Wagner married his daughter, Cosima.

Cosima and Franz Liszt

Cosima and Franz Liszt

Because the volume of their letters was only in German, and my German is fairly limited, I couldn’t take the time to dive into this massive book.  However, I did dig up Liszt’s letters to other friends and composers about Wagner.  They provide an interesting picture of Wagner; originally, the two composers were great friends, and Liszt championed Wagner and his works at a times when he was struggling to pay his bills.

Wagner and Bayreuth, with Liszt chilling at the piano.

Wagner and Bayreuth, with Liszt chilling at the piano.

Later, however, the two had a falling out, when Wagner’s ambition got in the way of their friendship, despite the incredible debt Wagner owed one of his biggest supporters, Liszt. In many instances Liszt was directly responsible for having some of his works performed, and in some cases, even making sure he was paid!

Wagner explaining his ring cycle to this wife, Cosima Liszt Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Friedrich Nietsche.

Wagner explaining his ring cycle to this wife, Cosima Liszt Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Friedrich Nietsche. I wouldn't mind having lunch with that crowd...

Below are some excerpts from Liszt’s letters which describe Wagner between friends, and a few colleagues, like Schumann.  You can see the development of their relationship over time, signs of their eventual falling out, and Liszt’s thoughs on The Ring, while it was still brewing in Wagner’s mind.  They’re definitely worth skimming over!

Dear B-

Weimar, May 14th, 1849

Richard Wagner, a Dresden conductor, has been here since yesterday. That is a man of wonderful genius, such a brain-splitting genius indeed as beseems this country,–a new and brilliant appearance in Art. Late events in Dresden have forced him to a decision in the carrying out of which I am firmly resolved to help him with all my might. When I have had a long talk with him, you shall hear what we have devised and what must also be thoroughly realized. In the first place we want to create a success for a grand, heroic, enchanting musical work, the score of which was completed a year ago. [Lohengrin.] Perhaps this could be done in London? Chorley, for instance, might be very helpful to him in this undertaking. If Wagner next winter could go to Paris backed up by this success, the doors of the Opera would stand open to him, no matter with what he might knock. It is happily not necessary for me to go into long further discussions with you; you understand, and must learn whether there is at this moment in London an English theater (for the Italian Opera would not help our friend!), and whether there is any prospect that a grand and beautiful work from a master hand could have any success there.

Let me have an answer to this as quickly as possible. Later on–that is, about the end of the month–Wagner will pass through Paris. You will see him, and he will talk with you direct about the tendency and expansion of the whole plan, and will be heartily grateful for every kindness. Write soon and help me as ever. It is a question of a noble end, toward the fulfillment of which everything must tend.

To Carl Reinecke

Weymar, May 30th, 1849

Wagner, who will probably be obliged to lose his post at Dresden in consequence of recent events, has been spending some days with me here. Unluckily the news of the warrant against him arrived the day of the performance of “Tannhauser”, which prevented him from being present. By this time he must have arrived in Paris, where he will assuredly find a more favorable field for his dramatic genius. With the aid of success he will end, as I have often said, by being acknowledged as a great German composer in Germany, on condition that his works are first heard in Paris or London, following the example of Meyerbeer, to say nothing of
Gluck, Weber, and Handel!

Wagner expressed his regret to me that he had not been able to send a better reply to the few lines of introduction which I had given you for him. If ever you should be in the same place with
him do not fail to go and see him for me, and you may be sure of being well received…

To Robert Schumann

Dear, esteemed Friend,

…Wagner stayed some days here and at Eisenach. I am expecting tidings from him daily from Paris, where he will assuredly enlarge his reputation and career in a brilliant manner.

Your unalterably faithful friend,

F. Liszt Weymar, June 5th, 1849

To Simon Lowy in Vienna.

Weymar, August 5th, 1850

Dear Friend,

Accept as a friend the invitation I give you in all friendship. Arrive at Weymar the 23rd of August, and stay till the 30th at least. You will find several of your friends here,–Dingelstedt, Jules Janin, Meyerbeer (?), etc.,–and you will hear, firstly, on the evening of the 24th, a good hour and a half of music that I have just composed (Overture and Choruses) for the “Prometheus” of Herder, which will be given as a Festal Introduction to the inauguration of his statue in bronze by Schaller of Munich, which is fixed for the 25th; secondly, on the evening of the 25th, Handel’s “Messiah”; thirdly, on the 28th, the anniversary of Goethe’s birth, a remarkably successful Prologue made, ad hoc, for that day by Dingelstedt, followed by the first performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” This work, which you certainly will not have the opportunity of hearing so soon anywhere else, on account of the special position of the composer, and the many difficulties in its performance, is to my idea a chef-d’oeuvre of the highest and most ideal kind! Not one of the operas which has entertained the theaters for the past twenty years can give any approximate idea of it.

To Theodor Uhlig, Chamber Musician in Dresden

Eilsen (Buckeburg), June 25th, 1851.

This impression has been still further increased in me by reading Mr. Brendel’s following article on R. Wagner, which seems to me a rather arranged transition between the former point of view of the Leipzig school or pupils and the real point of view of things. The quotation Brendel makes of Stahr’s article on the fifth performance of “Lohengrin” at Weymar, evidently indicates a conversion more thought than expressed on the part of the former, and at the performance of “Siegfried” I am persuaded that Leipzig will not be at all behindhand, as at “Lohengrin.”

….Kind regards to Wagner, about whom I have written a great deal lately without writing to him; and believe me yours very sincerely,


To Breitkopf and Hartel

….In accordance with your obliging promise, I waited from week to week for the preface that Mr. Wagner has added to his three opera poems. I should be glad to know how soon you expect to bring them out, and beg you to be so good as to send me immediately three copies.

Believe me, my dear Mr. Hartel,

Yours affectionately and most truly,

F. Liszt

Weymar, December 1st, 1851

To Bernhard Cossmann

[Weimar, December, 1852.]

Thanks, dear friend, for your kind few lines, which have given me sincere pleasure. Joachim is not yet back from Berlin, and Beck [The chief tenor (hero-tenor) at the Court Opera] has again got his old attack of the throat, and I fear rather seriously, from which these six years of cures, it appears, have not succeeded in curing him radically. In consequence of this dearth of tenors, the performances of Wagner’s and Berlioz’s operas are going to be put off till February, when I hope that Tichatschek will be able to come from Dresden and sing “Tannhauser,” “Lohengrin,” and the “Flying Dutchman.”

Dear Sir,

By today’s post I have sent you a minutely corrected copy of the score of the “Flying Dutchman.”

As this copy was my own property (Wagner had left it for me after his stay here in 1869) I could not suppose that Uhlig could expect it back from me as a theater score. The last letter from Wagner to me has made the matter clear, and I place this score with pleasure at his further disposal. I have replied to Wagner direct and fully; he is therefore aware that I have sent you my copy.

Allow me to beg you kindly to make my excuses to Herr Heine [Ferdinand Heine, Court actor and costumier, famous through Wagner’s letters to him.] that I do not answer his letter just
now. His indulgent opinion of our Lohengrin performance is very flattering to me; I hope that by degrees we shall deserve still better the praise which comes to us from many sides: meanwhile,
as the occasion of his writing was just the matter of the “Hollander” score, and as this is now quite satisfactorily settled, it does not require any further writing.

With best regards, yours truly,

F. Liszt

Weymar, January 13th, 1853

Frau Dr. Lidy Steche in Leipzig

My dear Madame,

I have the pleasure of answering your inquiries in regard to the performances of the Wagner operas with the following dates:–

For next Wednesday, February 16th, the birthday of H.R.H. the Grand Duchess, the first performance of the “Flying Dutchman” is fixed. (N. B.–For that evening all the places are already taken, and, as a great many strangers are coming, it will be difficult to find suitable rooms in Weymar.) The following Sunday, February 20th, the “Flying Dutchman” will be repeated; and on the 27th (Sunday) “Tannhauser” is promised, and on March 5th (Saturday) “Lohengrin.” Between these two performances of February 27th and March 5th the third performance of the “Flying Dutchman” will probably take place, of which I can give you more positive information at the end of this week. The Wagner week proper begins therefore with February 27th and closes with March 5th, and if it were possible to you to devote a whole week to these three glorious works of art I should advise you to get here by the 27th,–or, better still for you (as you are already quite familiar with “Tannhauser”), to come in time for the third performance of the “Flying Dutchman,” the date of which is still somewhat uncertain, but which will probably be fixed for the 2nd or 3rd March. Immediately after the first performance we shall get quite clear about it, and I will not fail to let you know officially the result of the theater Conference here (in which I am not concerned).

Accept, my dear Madame, the assurance of the high esteem of

Yours most truly,

F. Liszt

To Louis Kohler

Dear Friend,

A safe journey–and “auf Wiedersehen” next year in Weymar at a chance performance of “Lohengrin”! There is now no probability of a Wagner performance here for a week or ten days, and probably the “Flying Dutchman” will then be chosen.

You ought to keep all my scribblings which appear henceforth. Meanwhile I send you only the score of the Weber Polonaise, in which the working-out section (pages 19, 20, 21) will perhaps amuse you.

I am writing to Wagner today that he should himself offer you a copy of the “Nibelungen.” You ought to receive it soon.

Yours in all friendship,

F. Liszt

Weymar, May 24th, 1853
To Louis Kohler

Dear friend!

I have just received a letter from Wagner for you, which he sends to me as he does not know your address. Take this opportunity of sending me your street and number; for I always address to Putzer and Heimann, which is too formal. At the beginning of July I enjoyed several Walhalla-days with Wagner, and I praise God for having created such a man. O

Yours sincerely and with many thanks,

F. Liszt

To Wilhelm Fischer, Chorus Director at Dresden

Dear Sir and Friend,

Your letter has given me real pleasure, and I send you my warmest thanks for your artistic resolve to bring “Cellini” to a hearing in Dresden. Berlioz has taken the score with him to Paris from Weymar, in order to make some alterations and simplifications in it. I wrote to him the day before yesterday, and expect the score with the pianoforte edition, which I will immediately send you to Dresden. Tichatschek is just made for the title-role, and will make a splendid effect with it; the same with Mitterwurzer as Fieramosca and Madame Krebs as Ascanio, a mezzo-soprano part. From your extremely effective choruses, with their thorough musicianly drilling, we may expect a force never yet attained in the great Carnival scene (Finale of the second act); and I am convinced that, when you have looked more closely into the score,
you will be of my opinion, that “Cellini”, with the exception of the Wagner operas,–and they should never be put into comparison with one another–is the most important, most original musical-dramatic work of Art which the last twenty years have to show.

Yours very truly,

F. Liszt

Weymar, January 4th 1841

To Louis Kohler

Dear Friend,

I am going once more to give you a pleasure. By today’s post you will receive Richard Wagner’s medallion. A friend of mine, Prince Eugene Sayn-Wittgenstein, modeled it last autumn in Paris, and I consider it the best likeness that exists of Wagner.

To Dr. Franz Brendel

[Beginning of November, 1854]

Dear Friend,

About the Berlin “Tannhauser” affair I cannot for the moment say more than that I have always made Wagner feel perfectly at liberty to put me on one side, and to manage the matter himself, according to his own wishes, without me. But so long as he gives me his confidence as a friend, it is my duty to serve him as a discreet friend–and this I cannot do otherwise than by giving no ear to transactions of that kind, and letting people gossip as much as they like. Don’t say anything more about it for the present in your paper. The matter goes deeper than many inexperienced friends of Wagner’s imagine. I will explain it to you more clearly by word of mouth. Meanwhile I remain passive– for which Wagner will thank me later on.

Yours most truly,

F. Liszt

Zurich, November 14th, 1856

My very dear Friend,

I shall have a great deal to tell you verbally about Wagner. Of course we see each other every day, and are together the livelong day. His “Nibelungen” are an entirely new and glorious world, towards which I have often yearned, and for which the most thoughtful people will still be enthusiastic, even if the measure of mediocrity should prove inadequate to it!–

Friendly greetings, and faithfully your

F. Liszt

To Dr. Adolf Stern in Dresden

Very Dear Sir and Friend,

In spite of my illness I am spending glorious days here with Wagner, and am satiating myself with his Nibelungen world, of which our business musicians and chaff-threshing critics have as yet no suspicion. It is to be hoped that this tremendous work may succeed in being performed in the year 1859, and I, on my side, will not neglect anything to forward this performance as soon as possible–a performance which certainly implies many difficulties and exertions. Wagner requires for the purpose a special theater built for himself, and a not ordinary acting and orchestral staff. It goes without saying that the work can only appear before the world under his own conducting; and if, as is much to be wished, this should take place in Germany, his pardon must be obtained before everything.–I comfort myself with the saying, “What must be will be!” And thus I expect to be also standing on my legs again soon, and to be back in Weymar in the early days of December. It will be very kind of you if you will not let too long a time elapse without coming to see me. For today accept once more my heartfelt thanks, and the assurance of sincere friendship of your

F. Liszt

Zurich, November 14th, 1856

To Louis Kohler

Enclosed, dear friend, is a rough copy of the Prelude to”Rheingold,” which Wagner has handed me for you, and which will be sure to give you great pleasure.

To Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein.

Weymar, September 14th, 1860

Among our Art-comrades of the day there is one name which has already become glorious, and which will become so ever more and more–Richard Wagner. His genius has been to me a light which I have followed–and my friendship for Wagner has always been of the character of a noble passion. At a certain period (about ten years ago) I had visions of a new Art-period for Weymar, similar to that of Carl August, in which Wagner and I should have been the leading spirits, as Goethe and Schiller were formerly,–but unfavorable circumstances have brought this dream to nothing.

To Peter Cornelius in Vienna
I am delighted to think that you have been entirely absorbed for a time in “Tristan.” In that work and the “Ring des Nibelungen” Wagner has decidedly attained his zenith! I hope you have received the pianoforte arrangement of “Rheingold” which Schott has published. If not I will send it you. You might render a great service by a discussion of this wonderful work. Allow me to stir you up to do this. The summer days allow you now more working hours; realize some of these with “Rheingold.” The task for you is neither a. difficult nor a thankless one; as soon as you have seized upon the principal subjects representing the various personages, and their application and restatement, the greater part of the work is done. Let us then sing with Peter Cornelius,–

“O joy of the Rhine And its homelike shore! Where the bright sunshine Gilds the landscape o’er; Where the woods are greenest, The skies serenest, In that home of mine By the friendly shore Of the billowy Rhine!”



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