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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

16. Verdi’s Requiem and Wagner’s Lohengrin (1875)

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  • 1 The Times, March 31, 1875, p. 8.
  • 2 The Times, April 5, 1875, p. 7.

1The London opera season of 1875 was full of promise and much attention was paid to the long-awaited performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at both theatres: Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden opened on 30 March with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, featuring Victor Maurel in the title role, Marini as Arnold, Bagagiolo as Walter and Bianchi as Mathilde. Der Freischütz and Un ballo in maschera were announced as coming attractions on 1 and 3 April, respectively. However, the critic of The Times remarked on 31 March that the work arousing the most widespread curiosity was unquestionably the much- promised Lohengrin, which would feature Emma Albani as Elsa, Anna D’Angeri as Ortrud, Ernest Nicolini as Lohengrin and Victor Maurel as Telramund, as well as Proch and Bagagiolo.1 Of Un ballo in maschera, the same critic reiterated the usual opinion: this opera exhibited Verdi's melodic invention and dramatic force more strikingly than in any of his previous works, Rigoletto being the only exception.2 Don Giovanni followed at Covent Garden, while on 10 April the opera season at Her Majesty’s Theatre (Drury Lane) opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Michael Costa and featuring Tietjens in the title role. Among the other novelties promised by the theatre, Lohengrin again assumed particular prominence. On 17 April, Rigoletto was performed at Her Majesty’s Opera (Drury Lane), featuring as Gilda Elena Varesi, daughter of Felice Varesi, the singer for whom Rigoletto was first conceived, followed by Le Nozze di Figaro (22 April) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (24 April).

  • 3 Barbara Reynolds, “Verdi and Manzoni: An Attempted Explanation,” Music & Letters, 29/1 (1948): 31–4 (...)
  • 4 Michele Scherillo, “Verdi, Shakespeare, Manzoni,” Nuova Antologia (1912), also quoted in I Copialet (...)

2But Lohengrin would not be the only musical novelty presented to the London public that year, since on 13 May The Times and The Musical World announced the forthcoming performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by the composer himself. The idea of a collective Requiem Mass celebrating Rossini having failed in 1869, Verdi had resolved to pay his own personal tribute to Alessandro Manzoni, who had passed away on 22 May 1873 and whom he revered. As Verdi mentioned in his letters more than once, he had a true veneration for Manzoni, and his intention to compose a Requiem dedicated to his memory would not have surprised those who knew how passionate he was about him.3 On the very day that followed Manzoni’s death Verdi wrote to Giulio Ricordi informing him that, although he would not attend the funeral, he was already considering a composition dedicated to the great poet. In June, he was discussing a concrete project with the Mayor of Milan, for whom he offered to compose a Requiem Mass to be performed in one year.4 Negotiations are documented in Verdi’s I Copialettere and concern Maria Waldmann’s participation in its premiere. She was already involved in the performance of Aida in Florence and, in order for her to participate in the performance of the Requiem Mass, special permission was to be granted by the manager of the Florentine theatre La Pergola. Having overcome the difficulties concerning the singers, the date and the church, Verdi himself conducted the premiere of the Requiem at San Marco in Milan on 22 May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Capponi and Ormondo Maini were the four soloists.

  • 5 Verdi, I Copialettere, p. 297.
  • 6 Gundula Kreuzer, “‘Oper im Kirchengewande?’ Verdi’s Requiem and the Anxieties of the Young German E (...)

3In October, the composer wrote to Giulio Ricordi and referred to a tour that would bring the Requiem to four European capital cities. In January 1875 another letter to Tito Ricordi suggests that the negotiations were progressing at a rapid pace; the tour could be confirmed and its preparations finalised. A later letter to Giulio Ricordi on 9 February refers to Gye’s concern about possible financial losses involved in the production of the Requiem at his theatre and the possibility of having such a composition performed at the Royal Albert Hall instead. Verdi, irritated by all the objections raised by Frederick Gye, closed the letter informing Ricordi that he would not conduct in London.5 The obstacles and difficulties were finally overcome, however, and in 1875 the Requiem was on tour in Paris, London and Vienna, the originally planned performance in Berlin having been cancelled. The cast was slightly different from the original, for the tenor Angelo Masini and the bass Paolo Medini were now to appear alongside Stolz and Waldmann. The Requiem was performed seven times at the Salle Favart (Opéra- Comique) in Paris, between 19 April and 4 May; four times in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, between 15 and 29 May (the first performance was preceded by an open full rehearsal on 12 May); and three times in Vienna (Hofoperntheater) on 11, 12 and 16 June.6

  • 7 The Times, May 13, 1875, p. 13, and The Musical World, May 15, 1875, p. 319.

4As mentioned above, on 13 May the critic of The Times and the Musical World announced the forthcoming performance of the Requiem and reviewed the open rehearsal that had preceded it. The work was presented in appreciative terms and Verdi was referred to as “the most gifted of living Italian musicians,” the one who had “charmed the English operatic public with his lyric dramas.”7 The rehearsal attracted a crowded audience in the recently opened Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra was strong (about 150 members) and the chorus massive, since the Albert Hall chorus, trained by Joseph Barnby, also included members from other choral societies. The open rehearsal having made a deep impression on the selected public and the critics, on 15 May the official performance met general expectations. The same critic reiterated his approval:

  • 8 The Times, May 24, 1875, p. 10, and The Musical World, May 29, 1875, p. 358.

Regard it from what point we may, however, the beauties of the new Requiem speak eloquently for themselves, and the intense feeling for which many passages are distinguished cannot but impress all hearers attentively alive to what the composer has to say, and willing to accept it in the belief that he is speaking out his mind with earnest sincerity. Thus considered, the latest emanation from the pen of one to whom we are indebted for so much that is intrinsically beautiful can scarcely be regarded otherwise than as a model in its style, worthy to rank side by side with the Stabat Mater of Rossini.8

  • 9 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1875, p. 459.

5On 15 May, a similar compliment was paid to the composer by the critic of The Illustrated London News, who wrote: “Although it may be admitted that the general style of the music is rather dramatic than solemn, still there is so much of power, skill, and beauty that the work deserves recognition as a remarkable production by a remarkable man.”9

  • 10 The Musical Times, June 1, 1875, pp. 109–10.

6Probably it was The Musical Times that paid the largest attention to the composition of the Requiem. A long analysis of the score carried out by Joseph Bennett made its appearance in two issues, on 1 April and 1 May, revealing to the reader the complexities and subtleties of a work which represented a milestone in Verdi’s compositional development. A proper review of the performance appeared on 1 June, where the critic admitted that “the presentation of the score to the ear revealed beauties which the eye could scarcely detect, and even those who will insist upon judging this Requiem by comparison with other Requiems, must admit that it contains much that is thoroughly original, earnest, and effective.”10

  • 11 Hans von Bülow, “Musikalisches aus Italien,” Allgemeine Zeitung (Munich), May 28, 1874, pp. 2293–94 (...)
  • 12 The Athenaeum, May 22, 1875, p. 696.
  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 Ibid.

7As expected, the critic of The Athenaeum was by far the most contemptuous, and his attitude resembles that exhibited by Hans von Bülow one year before in the Allgemeine Zeitung.11 Although the critic argued that it was not “imperatively necessary that in a Requiem the music should be what is called ‘religious,’”12 he made some scornful remarks about the deadly subjects so dear to the composer, and the way in which he seemed to confirm his preference for heroines being killed on stage. A much more serious fault was the lack of a prevalent, distinctive style, for the score was characterised by a marked inequality. “On the one hand, there are passages quite familiar to the ears of those who have heard the services in Italy, Spain, and other countries, where the organist has no fixed faith in any musical repertoire; and, on the other, amazement is raised by the very odd way in which the composer has conceived the meaning of the words.”13 Although the critic objected to the confusion that some contemporary commentators made between the secular and the sacred in music matters, the problem was that, in his Requiem, Verdi had brought together expressive devices that were too dissimilar. The mixture resulted from a heterogeneous combination of word painting and church-music-practice reminiscences. Other faults were found with the manner in which Verdi had not mastered the counterpoint and the observed style. That said, the critic admitted that he had been impressed by the “Agnus Dei.” He defined it as a gem, vocally and instrumentally, “one of those inspirations which genius alone can produce, and in which the most sublime results are the outcome of simplicity.”14 Furthermore, the critic suggested that the reason why the public had bestowed their unconditional applause upon the Requiem lay, at least in part, in the influence of the French press and the puffery which had accompanied its performance in London, by which he probably alluded to the analysis that had appeared in the columns of the Musical Times over the previous months.

  • 15 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1875, p. 459.

8But in May another long promised and eagerly awaited novelty was in preparation: Wagner’s Lohengrin was to be performed in London, at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane. As we have seen, it was included in Gye’s operatic prospectus, released in March, but early rumour whispered that it would also feature in the season at Her Majesty’s Theatre. This circumstance drew the critics’ attention, as the number of reviews appearing on that occasion confirm. As The Illustrated London News suggested, although no more works from the German composer had been presented on the London stage since the first performance of Der Fliegende Holländer in 1870, Wagner’s art-principles and music had become the object of a growing interest in the country. The performances of extracts from his operas at the concerts promoted by the recently founded London Wagner Society had contributed to that growing interest, and the fact that both Gye and Mapleson had decided to include Lohengrin in their operatic programmes confirmed that the initial reluctance to stage the German composer had finally been overcome.15

  • 16 The Times, May 10, 1875, p. 10.
  • 17 The Times, May 17, 1875, p. 7.

9In London, Lohengrin was given for the first time in Italian at Covent Garden on 8 May 1875. The Times reviewed it on 10 May, addressing such relevant issues as Wagner’s fascination with myths, the poetical quality of the libretto and the effectiveness of the music. In particular, the music revealed an undeniable poetical tendency, however lofty and pompous the ideas expressed by the composer.16 One week later, having attended a second performance of Lohengrin, the critic of The Times argued that “to listen without being deeply impressed by certain passages as, for instance, the duet between Lohengrin and Elsa, after the bridal ceremony, and again the finale scene, when the ‘Knight of the Swan’ takes eternal leave of his disconsolate bride, argues, in our opinion, insensibility to the highest beauty of which musical expression is capable.”17 The critic argued that it was difficult to judge Wagner’s music on the basis of isolated hearings of single extracts while only the performance of the entire work would do him full justice. However objectionable his theories may have been, his music was not entirely devoid of interest and beauty.

10The critic of the Daily Telegraph, whose long and articulate review was reproduced in the columns of The Musical World, pronounced it a popular success but expressed strong doubts as to whether it would last long, especially when considering the idiosyncratic nature of Wagner’s compositional achievement.

  • 18 “Lohengrin,” The Musical World, May 29, 1870, p. 359, from The Daily Telegraph.

And now the question arises. Will Lohengrin commend itself to the taste of English operagoers, and establish Wagner amongst us? Of its present success we have no doubt. It will be the feature of the season. But how as to future seasons—how as to the theories it illustrates? Can our amateurs transfer their allegiance to music without form; to music as the slave of poetry; to music which is melodious only by snatches, and is charming only in the degree in which it is a violation of Wagner’s advanced opinions. They may do so, and it is even possible that Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, Weber, and the rest may vanish from our lyric stage in favour of an entertainment which dazzles and excites without satisfying the higher faculties of mind and intellect. But success of such a nature could only be temporary. Music is not an affair of declamation, tremolos, trumpets, chromatics, and general swimming about in the vast ocean of tone. Music is tune, form, key-relationship, and adherence to those contrapuntal laws which can never be violated with impunity because they spring from a natural necessity. Wagner may triumph awhile, but the masters will return to their old place, and, after all, temporary good fortune means little.18

11What the critic did not take into consideration was the possibility that, at some point, Wagner would establish himself as a prominent composer alongside the others, and not in their stead; it seemed impossible to have him stand by the side of those figures who represented the pillars of the tradition, as if the acceptance of the one implied the exclusion of the others. On 15 May, The Athenaeum published a review of Lohengrin and made various critical remarks. To start with, its success in London was dependent less on the quality of the music and the performance than on the magnificent mise en scène, a fact which would suggest a short popular life for the opera. The singers in the choir were hopelessly out of tune from beginning to the end, the woodwinds and brasses in the orchestra outbalanced the strings (fifty-four in number), the rendition of the principal singers was characterised by constant tremolo and occasional lack of intonation.

  • 19 The Athenaeum, May 15, 1875, p. 663.

Lohengrin is dependant solely on musical mysticism. The canons of art are discarded, and the leading vocalists are, so to speak, disvoiced. Then arises the question whether there be a public prepared to listen to principals who sing without form, who have phrases in which melody is almost always proscribed, who are used as recitative instruments to sustain the orchestral undercurrent. The representatives of the prominent characters ought to sit in the orchestra, whilst the players should be placed on the stage.19

  • 20 Ibid., p. 664.
  • 21 Dennis Arundell, The Critic at the Opera (London: E. Benn, 1857), p. 353.

12Again, strong doubts were expressed not only with regard to the intrinsic merits of the music, but also about the extent to which the public would be prepared to accept a musical drama that overturned the accepted laws of composition and renounced the conditions that guaranteed long-lasting success. The critic argued that Wagner had not pushed aside any of his colleagues (Verdi among them) and that there could be some place for him in the cohort, under certain conditions; in fact, what was pronounced “good and grand in his opera was to be found where he adheres to the forms of his predecessors, while, when he departs from them, he is stilted and passionless, harsh and discordant.”20 The critic of The Morning Post, while referring to Emma Albani’s performance as Elsa, raised a question of some relevance; although that part included passages that were beautiful in themselves, they failed to awaken general applause. The endless melodies and uninterrupted orchestral flow made it difficult for operagoers to understand when the moment arrived in which they could express their appreciation: “The restless character of the music and the absence of full closes render it difficult for amateurs to know when they may applaud, and they—probably from fear of interrupting the singer—failed to bestow the plaudits which she [Albani] justly merited.”21

  • 22 The Musical Times, June 1, 1875, pp. 108–09.

13Contrary to the critic of The Athenaeum, the representative of The Musical Times bestowed words of appreciation not only upon the composer of Lohengrin, but also the singers, even though he considered the choir uncertain and rough.22 In Wagner’s music there was something deep and good and, furthermore, the composer’s attempt to improve the audience’s behaviour by discouraging or even forbidding the continuous outburst of applause and encores was to be understood as a healthy thing.

  • 23 The Athenaeum, September 11, 1875, p. 351.

14Later on that year, much attention was paid by the London periodicals to the announced performance of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Bayreuth, which was already in preparation; the event could not fail to draw the critics’ attention and revive the discussion concerning the true merits of the German composer. Reports appeared in the columns of The Athenaeum, The Musical World and The Times regarding the progress of the realisation of Wagner’s monumental project, which involved the construction of a newly conceived theatre. The old lateral boxes had been removed and the rows of seats rising in a series of steps represented the most noteworthy novelty. However, when reporting from Bayreuth in September, the critic of The Athenaeum, Gruneisen, expressed strong reservations about the efficacy of the architectural solutions the new auditorium presented, not to speak of the music or its composer.23

  • 24 The Musical Times, September 1, 1875, pp. 199–201.

15In September, Henry Lunn reviewed the London musical season and argued that, although it was correct to claim that the production of Wagner’s Lohengrin represented the principal event at both Italian Opera Houses, it would be more correct to say that it was the only event. The season had proved completely destitute of novelty and none of the operas performed would really satisfy and reward the subscribers and patrons of either theatre.24 Wagner was clearly overshadowing Verdi.


1 The Times, March 31, 1875, p. 8.

2 The Times, April 5, 1875, p. 7.

3 Barbara Reynolds, “Verdi and Manzoni: An Attempted Explanation,” Music & Letters, 29/1 (1948): 31–43.

4 Michele Scherillo, “Verdi, Shakespeare, Manzoni,” Nuova Antologia (1912), also quoted in I Copialettere, p. 283.

5 Verdi, I Copialettere, p. 297.

6 Gundula Kreuzer, “‘Oper im Kirchengewande?’ Verdi’s Requiem and the Anxieties of the Young German Empire,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 58/2 (2005): 399–450.

7 The Times, May 13, 1875, p. 13, and The Musical World, May 15, 1875, p. 319.

8 The Times, May 24, 1875, p. 10, and The Musical World, May 29, 1875, p. 358.

9 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1875, p. 459.

10 The Musical Times, June 1, 1875, pp. 109–10.

11 Hans von Bülow, “Musikalisches aus Italien,” Allgemeine Zeitung (Munich), May 28, 1874, pp. 2293–94, and June 1, 1874, pp. 2351–52; also quoted in Kreuzer, Oper im Kirchengewande, p. 399.

12 The Athenaeum, May 22, 1875, p. 696.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1875, p. 459.

16 The Times, May 10, 1875, p. 10.

17 The Times, May 17, 1875, p. 7.

18 “Lohengrin,” The Musical World, May 29, 1870, p. 359, from The Daily Telegraph.

19 The Athenaeum, May 15, 1875, p. 663.

20 Ibid., p. 664.

21 Dennis Arundell, The Critic at the Opera (London: E. Benn, 1857), p. 353.

22 The Musical Times, June 1, 1875, pp. 108–09.

23 The Athenaeum, September 11, 1875, p. 351.

24 The Musical Times, September 1, 1875, pp. 199–201.


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