La Révue Wagnérienne
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La Révue Wagnérienne

In this essay Bet Briggs discusses the Wagner French connection.  The composer was hailed in the French journal La revue wagnérienne not only as a composer but also as a poet and the creator of a new form of art.

So appreciated was Wagner in literary France, that a monthly journal devoted entirely to him, La revue wagnérienne, was founded in Paris in February 1885

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A French Connection — Bet Briggs


So appreciated was Wagner in literary France, that a monthly journal devoted entirely to him, La revue wagnérienne, was founded in Paris in February 1885. Its aim was to promote Wagner not only as a composer but also as a poet and the creator of a new form of art. The journal included translations of his essays and libretti, studies of him, book reviews, poems, press clippings, occasional lithographs by painters Henri Fantin-Latour and Odilon Redon and also a bulletin of performances of Wagner’s works throughout Europe.

Issued 1885-1888, La revue wagnérienne was founded by Edouard Dujardin, poet, novelist and disciple of Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. Dujardin shared editorial duties with co-founder Théodore de Wyzewa, French musicologist born in Russia of Polish descent, and English aristocrat and Germanophile, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who married Wagner’s daughter Eva in 1908.

The journal was closely associated with the Symbolists, for Dujardin was also founder and editor of the Symbolist magazine, La revue indépendente. Mallarmé and other symbolists contributed to both journals.

Of Mallarmé’s essay Richard Wagner, rêveries d’un poète français in La revue wagnérienne August 1885 it has been suggested that it was “more the idea of Wagner that inspired his reverie rather than any specific work”. For Mallarmé had had very little experience of Wagner’s music until Dujardin took him to a Sunday concert.

A special tribute to Wagner in the Revue January 1886 included sonnets by Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Charles Morice, René Ghil and Stuart Merrill. Of these Symbolist poets Mallarmé and Verlaine are the better known. But Morice and Ghil were important theorists of the movement. Morice theorised in La littérature de tout à l’heure (1889) “on the need for vagueness in poetry, for great thoughts to be veiled rather than clearly expressed”.

Ghil, impressed by Wagner’s ideas of the integration of poetry and music, propounded “a theory by application of which poetry was to become indistinguishable from music“. In his essays La traité du verbe and De la poésie scientifique he expounded “the doctrine of l’instrumentation verbale”, namely that the musical quality of a poem could be intensified and the theme orchestrated by the conscious use of certain groups of vowels and consonants as if parts of an orchestra. Merrill’s poems Les gammes and Les fastes were experiments in versification and in orchestration of verse, very likely in response to Ghil’s theory.

Other contributors were novelist Joris Karl Huysmans, who wrote on the overture to Tannhäuser, English poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne on the death of Wagner, and Wyzewa on Wagnerian painting, supposedly inspired by the ideals of Bayreuth, by such painters as Edgar Degas and Gustave Moreau.

Wyzewa’s essay in the Revue June 1886 was an example of the journal’s eclectic approach to its subject matter. His Littérature wagnérienne drew together such diverse novelists and poets as Huysman, Émile Zola, Paul Bourget, Auguste, Comte de Villiers de L’Isle-Aidain, Verlaine and Mallarmé. In 1895 a collection of Wyzewa’s Revue articles was published under the title Nos Maîtres.

Another erudite contributor to the Revue was Victor Wilder, Belgian music critic and translator and passionate Wagnerian. He wrote on the ritual of the Meistersinger for the Revue and acted as adviser on the first Paris staging of Lohengrin. Wilder also translated all of Wagner’s operas from Lohengrin on. Cosima Wagner preferred his translation to those of Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter (an anagram of his surname Truinet), one of the first Frenchmen to appreciate Wagner. He, too, translated Tannhäuser, Rienzi, Lohengrin and Der Fliegender Holländer. Wilder’s librettos were rejected by the fanatics of the Revue who wanted those of French music writer, Alfred Ernst to be used. Ernst, another prominent champion of Wagner, translated Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and the Ring for French singing and wrote books on Wagner and contemporary drama, Wagner’s poetical works and a study of Tannhäuser.

The young founder and editor of the Revue, Dujardin, was a man of distinction, too. Described as “a dandy given to wearing Lohengrin’s swan as an insignia on his vests”, he was, however, a versatile writer. He published verse, Poésies and Mari Magno, two volumes of Théâtre (landmark plays in Symbolism), lectured and wrote on the history of religious belief and wrote novels. Probably his most notable achievement was his correlation of Wagner’s use of leitmotif and the introduction of monologue intérieur into narrative prose. His novel, Les lauriers sont coupés (1888) is an early example of its use, and was a direct influence on the young James Joyce who later honoured Dujardin as the discoverer of the stream of consciousness technique which he developed to its ultimate in his own novel Ulysses (1922).

Whatever La revue wagnérienne may have done for Wagner in its three years of existence, it did much to encourage public perception of the Symbolist movement. It also provided a stimulating environment and lively forum for the exchange of literary, philosophical and musical ideas that Wagner inspired.

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