Richard Wagner – Overture to The Apel’s drama, “Christoph Columbus”
The score of the “Christopher Columbus” overture of the youthful Richard Wagner, composed and per-formed in 1835, has had as many lives as the proverbial cat, and proved as immune to fortune’s darts as Wagner himself in the days of his early trials and tribulations. It is bad music, being principally a youthful adulteration of Meyerbeer and Weber. It was composed while Wagner, in the first year of his professional career, was learning his business as conductor of a one-horse opera company in Magdeburg, and tempestuously wooing the young actress, Minna Planer. And yet this overture, which sprawls like a puppy on weak legs, has a certain clear expressive purpose, and shows already Wagner’s temperament and the dramatic direction of his genius.
There appeared one day at Magdeburg a friend of Wagner’s, Guido Theodore Apel, poet, dramatist and amateur musician, and a young man of some means, with a play, “Christopher Columbus,” which he de-sired to have mounted in Wagner’s theater and for which Wagner agreed to write incidental music in the form of an overture, chorus and orchestral epilogue.
At the first performance the overture “astonished everyone and was tumultuously applauded.” It was repeated several times by request. The drama was never given again, but Apel had lived to see a play of his own performed on the stage and he was grateful to Wagner. Upon him he bestowed a gold signet ring which proved pawnable and was soon put to that use by the future master of music drama. When, four years later, Wagner fled from his creditors to Paris, he took the overture with him. There were at least two performances in the French capital. Wagner then sent the score to that singular being, half-musician and half-mountebank, Louis Antoine Jullien, then conducting orchestral concerts in London and succeeding by showmanship’ where others had failed by honester means. Jullien rejected the overture, which was shortsighted of him, for he toured America, that “land of barbarians,” in the Fifties with an orchestra that caused ladies to faint when.it performed, with the aid of real firemen, flames, whistles and hose, and breaking glass, the “Firemen’s Quadrille”. And in that year1853a “Christopher Columbus” overture by Richard Wagner, then rapidly advancing in reputation, would have been a splendid card. But we cannot foresee the future! ‘When the overture was returned to him, Wagner was unable to pay the cartage, and the bundle was returned to the warehouse. A friend of Wagner’s tried later to recover the score, but the last surviving member of the carting company had died, and there was no trace of the music. Years were to pass before it turned up. Then it was discovered on one of the second-hand book-stalls that line the bank of the Seine, in Paris in 1889, the year of the Paris Exposition, by an impecunious music student, An-drew de Ternant, who could not pay the forty centimes asked for the manuscript. De Ternant begged the old woman who attended the seall to lay the music aside and hold it for him a few days. She did not keep her promise. When he returned with his eight cents she had sold the score to a person described as a young lady, probably an Englishwoman, in spectacles. At last the score materialized in London. It was performed by Henry Wood in 1905 and was finally published in 1907. Wagner would have given much if in 1835 there had been the solicitude to per-form anything bearing his name that there is today. The principal value of the “Christopher Columbus” overture is documentary. Who could believe that the composer of this flimsy stuff would one day pen the preludes to “Tristan and Isolde” and “Die Meister-singer”?