Richard Wagner's Visit to London in 1855: A Turning Point in His Career September 08 2023

Richard Wagner Autograph

One of the most enduringly influential composers of the 19th century, Richard Wagner made three visits to London. His first, in 1839, was almost accidental - caused by the travel requirements of the Wagners large Newfoundland dog, and a planned trip to Paris.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A portrait of the celebrated opera composer Richard Wagner signed by him and inscribed to his friend Rudolf Ibach

However, the second in 1855 was marked by a series of public and private concerts, meetings with prominent cultural figures, and a social calendar that cemented Wagner as a notable figure in London artistic life. It can also be noted as a turning point in his career.


In the 16 years between visits, Wagner had become a composer of note in Europe, with The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin all having had their European premieres. The words of The Ring were also complete, as was the scoring of Rhinegold. However, in London, Wagner was still a relative unknown. Italian opera was fashionable (although Verdi was still viewed as rather modern, and therefore with suspicion), and the London critics - notably Davison and Chorley, writing for the Times and Atheneum respectively - dictated taste. Mendelssohn was in; Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner were not. Indeed, the year before Wagner’s visit, Davison had declared an arrangement of the Tannhauser march as ‘eccentric’, and not changing his opinions much over a performance of the overture, declaring it ‘so loud and so empty’. 

Richard Wagner autograph letter signed H8794

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Beautiful autograph letter signed by the composer sent to the French music publisher Alexandre Flaxland -who became the first publisher of Lohengrin, Der Fliegende Höllander, and Tannhäuser in France and Belgium.

Wagner arrived in London in March, and was taken with the vibrancy and artistic energy of the city. He later wrote in his autobiography that his “first impression of London was that of a gigantic beehive, teeming with life and movement”, and with a cultural depth that he felt rivaled European capitals such as Vienna. 


Wagner was in London to conduct the Philharmonic Society, an orchestra that had already enjoyed some scandal. Their long-standing conductor, Michael Costa, an Italian-born naturalised Englishman, had a reputation for discipline and accuracy (even if his rescoring of Handel’s Messiah included a part for cymbals!). Costa had argued with the Society’s directors and resigned at the end of the 1854 season. Several candidates were put forward to replace him - Hallé, and composer-conductors Spohr and Berlioz. In January of 1855, the directors decided to offer the post to Wagner. Anderson, a violinist who was also Master of the Queen’s Music, was sent to Zurich to invite Wagner to conduct eight concerts for £200 - an appalling fee, even for the mid 19th century. 

Richard Wagner ALS 1866 H9050

However, Wagner accepted. Not only did it offer “the prospect of once again handling a large and excellent orchestra”, but opportunities to promote his own music. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Autograph letter written by the composer mentioning his work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, probably sent to conductor Hans von Bülow, 1866.

He might have regretted that on seeing what he was expected to conduct for each concert. The programme of the opening of the series included two full length symphonies, two substantial overtures, a violin concerto, two vocal items, and a Mozart trio. Wagner had requested an assistant conductor and several rehearsals for each concert; he had no assistant, and was allowed a morning rehearsal of three hours - notably, around the total running time of the programme. 

Initially staying in Milton Street, off Dorset Square, and later at 22 Portland Terrace (where he completed the bulk of the score to Walküre), Wagner also spent a lot of time in the company of Ferdinand Praeger, a piano teacher who had settled in London twenty years previously. A huge supporter of Wagner’s music, he is unfortunately an unreliable witness in terms of his recollections of Wagner’s London visit. He did, however, introduce Wagner to Costa, and also let him know about Davison’s position of power in terms of what was and wasn’t ‘fashionable’ in artistic terms in London. 

Wagner battled on in terms of his rehearsal allocation, and managed to secure a second for a performance of the Choral Symphony. He did consider that it was “a magnificent orchestra, as far as the principal members go. Superb tone…but no distinct style”. The directors pressed the importance of the ‘Mendelssohn Tradition’ within the orchestra upon Wagner, but he drew the conclusion that that had rather been Mendelssohn’s desire for a quiet life and had allowed the Society to follow a traditional and boring path. Wagner refused to tolerate this, reprimanding them with a compliment - he knew what they were capable of, and he expected them to produce it. 

Cosima Wagner signed photo

However, one thing Wagner had neglected to do was pander to Davison’s ego. The critic attacked much about Wagner’s interpretations - everything from the fact that he usually conducted without a score (almost unheard of in London at that time), to the fact that he had upset the fashionable audience of the Hanover Rooms by not wearing white gloves; something their beloved Mendelssohn had always done. Wagner did in fact put white gloves on to conduct a Mendelssoh symphony, very deliberately removing them for the rest of the concert. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Cosima Wagner -the wife of the composer who replaced him as head of the Bayreuth Festival after his death

Davison reserved particular ire for Wagner’s interpretations, declaring them “coarse, monotonous, uniformly loud, and at the same time rigorously frigid”. 

Works of his own that were programmed were the Tannhauser overture, and music from Lohengrin, including the Preludes and Bridal Music. The reception - critically, at least - was lukewarm. 

Wagner did have two extremely important and influential supporters in terms of how fashions were dictated - Queen Victoria, and her husband Prince Albert. The Tannhauser overture had already been performed in a previous concert, but as they were attending the seventh in the season, she had requested this particular personal favourite again. Wagner enjoyed an animated and knowledgeable conversation with them, including the possibility of staging his operas for  London audiences. Prince Albert was unsure that the ‘Italian’ singers on the London stage would be able to interpret Wagner’s music, only to be corrected by his wife that most of those singers were actually Germans, singing under Italianicised names!


Richard Wagner Carte de visite 1865

Wagner was in London for the state visit of the Emperor Napoleon, and was at the same gala performance of Fidelio in Covent Garden that they attended - a “grotesque” butchering with sung recitative instead of spoken text, and “unclean Germans” and “voiceless Italians”. St. Paul’s Cathedral disappointed him too, being “cold and uninspiring”. He also indulged in a quantity of general theatregoing, attending a pantomime at the Adelphi, The Merry Wives of Windsor at a small theatre in Marylebone, and Romeo and Juliet at the Haymarket. We don’t know what Wagner thought of these Shakespeare performances, but he did admire the precision of a chorus in the Messiah at a concert in Exeter Hall. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Carte-de-visite (CDV) with the image of the composer, circa 1865.

Hector Berlioz was a frequent dining companion over Wagner’s stay, and Wagner also supported some of Berlioz’s concerts. He was also a guest at a small dinner party Wagner held at his London residence. Wagner wrote that Berlioz “soon left the table”, citing ill-health, but that the other guests were suspicious that Berlioz had been envious of Wagner’s reception at a concert earlier that day. 

The critic, Davison, hadn’t finished with Wagner yet, however. After Wagner’s departure at the end of June, he wrote an article published in Musical World, which offered the opinion that “Her Richard Wagner is not a musician at all” and his music as “hideous”. He went on to call him a “despicable charlatan” and that it would be scandalous to compare him with other ‘great’ musicians. 


However, Wagner’s visit had raised his profile, and also his audience. In the years following his visit, his music was increasingly frequently programmed - August Manns performed it at Crystal Palace, the Philharmonic were frequent players, and Luigi Arditti was an enthusiastic adopter at his Covent Garden Promenade concerts. In 1867, a London club that was the forerunner of The Wagner Society of Great Britain was formed, with an enthusiastic membership. 

Tannhäuser Vocal Score 1st Edition

There were still detractors. Georg Gustav Gunz, a celebrated singer, sang the Preislied from Die Meistersinger at a Philharmonic concert, but the Musical Times was still resolutely unimpressed, hoping that “duty will not compel us to hear the rest of the opera”. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] First edition of the vocal score of Wagner's Tannhäuser (1876)

The fashion for ‘Italian’ opera persisted, with performances of The Flying Dutchman being staged at Drury Lane as L’Olandese dannato, and an appropriate seven years later at Covent Garden as Il vascello fantasmo. Lohengrin and Tannhauser also had performances at Covent Garden and Her Majesty’s Theatre respectively - again in Italian, although this may have helped in their enthusiastic reception. 

By the time Wagner returned to London in 1877 to conduct a festival of his own music at the Royal Albert Hall. Wagner’s dream, a festival at Bayreuth, had opened the previous year with three performances of the complete Ring, but the coffers were empty - there wouldn’t be another festival until 1882, and Wagner desperately needed the money, hence a new series of concerts. Richter came to assist, and actually conducted most of each concert. This time, Wagner stayed at the home of Edward Danreuther in Bayswater, a professional pianist and conductor, and founder of The Wagner Society. The orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was led by Wilhelmj, who had led at Bayreuth and was very familiar with Wagner and his music. The singers were from the Bayreuth Ring cast, including Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, and Karl Hill, the first Alberich. However, the rental model of seats in the Albert Hall kept audiences small as they couldn’t be resold, and the series ended with a profit of only £750 - not a great deal more than Materna’s fee of £600. 

However, the Wagner bug had bitten London - a society promoting his music, staged performances of his operas (even if they tended to be presented in Italian until the turn of the century), and a champion in the Queen.

Richard Wagner - Cosima von Bulow and Franz Liszt at Wahnfried 1880

Richard Wagner, Cosima von Bulow and Franz Liszt at Wahnfried 1880


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