Caricature of Richard Wagner

Wagner’s relationship with Paris was always a rocky one. His first musical encounter with the city was in 1859, where he presented three orchestral concerts featuring excerpts of his operas. The reception was unflattering to say the least, and it embittered Wagner against the Parisian audiences, going so far as to say they had “permanent aesthetic disabilities” (Snyder, 2015, 62). Popular opinions of Wagner continued to plummet as he wrote scathing critiques of beloved masters, even publishing anti-Semitic slander against Meyerbeer, one of the most popular opera composer at the time. 

In 1861, Tannhäuser was given a premiere at the Palais Garnier. Despite some of Wagner’s best efforts, such as translating the piece into French, the production was doomed long before the curtain ever rose. In addition to general issues with the conductor, cast, and orchestra, the most prominent reason for the opera’s failure was Wagner’s unwillingness to alter his opera to the conditions set by the Jockey Club. The Jockey Club was a group of young Parisian elite males known for their love of horse racing. They were also known to have mistresses in the Corps de Ballet at the Palais Garnier. After an evening of dinner and socializing, they would depart for the opera, and arrive in time for the second act. Since these gentlemen were substantial patrons of the Opéra, the company would please them by adding or moving the ballet sections to the second act, so that they may see the young women of the ballet perform. Wagner, believing that a ballet in second act would destroy the dramatic flow, refused to make the changes, and on the night of the premiere the audience drowned out the music, singers and orchestra alike, with sounds of disapproval. 

In 1870 the humiliating defeat of the French by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War further turned Parisian audiences away from the outspokenly pro-German composer. This was made even worse by Wagner’s farce Eine Kapitulation, in which he caricatured beloved French personalities (Victor Hugo emerges from a sewer!) and attacked staples of the French culture, such as the ballet. However, despite what seemed to be the unanimous hatred for the man, all was not lost for Wagner, for along the way he had been attracting a group of followers: the Wagnerites. These disciples either looked passed or agreed with the more outrageous of Wagner’s behaviors and opinions, and saw the impact that he was having on music both on and off the stage. For a long time following these events, Wagner was hated among Parisian crowds, and the Wagnerites were forced to meet in private, most often as salons in the homes of fellow Wagnerites. Even by 1887, years after Wagner’s death, the hatred had not diminished. Anti-German riots forced the Palais Garnier to cancel their production of Lohengrin. But slowly the hatred abated, and admiration of Wagner’s music became a socially expectable opinion.  Composers such as Frank, Debussy, Faure, and Saint-Saëns found themselves in one way or another admiring the German composer, whether they liked it or not. Some embraced the changes that Wagner made and let his musical style shade their own, such as Debussy in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, while others, such as Dvorak, strove to completely reject Wagner’s ideas and find their own voice. Regardless of their opinions, all composers across Europe felt the impact of Wagner.


Snyder, 2015.

Huebner, 1999.

Large, 1984.