Wagner’s “Rienzi” Overture: A Glorious Remnant of Youthful Indiscretion

In his later years, Richard Wagner dismissed his five-act opera, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, as a “youthful sin.”

Completed in 1840 when the composer was 27 years old, Rienzi stands in stark contrast with Wagner’s mature work. It was elaborately conceived as Grand Opera in the tradition of Meyerbeer. Wagner’s megalomaniacal intention was “to outdo all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance.” The premiere in Dresden on October 20, 1842 lasted over six hours with breaks and included a 40 minute long ballet. The story is based on a novel by the English writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The annotator Herbert Glass calls the libretto, written by Wagner, “wordy and convoluted” and summarizes the story this way:

The historical Rienzi was a 14th-century Roman tribune, elected to improve the miserable lot of Rome’s plebeians. Rienzi and his adherents topple the government by defeating the repressive nobility in battle, only to become a demagogue himself who is finally set upon and killed by those he initially championed.

Perhaps as a result of its unwieldy dimensions, Rienzi is rarely performed as a full opera. Yet, its powerfully dramatic Overture lives on in the concert hall. The Overture begins with a single, mystical trumpet call which foreshadows the battle calls of Act 3. Gradually, the other instrumental voices seem to awaken from a dream. Suddenly, the music finds a way forward with a noble theme which returns in Act V as Rienzi’s prayer, Allmächt’ger Vater (“Almighty Father”). The Overture concludes with a rousing military march from Act III. At moments, the influence of Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) is evident. Ultimately, the Rienzi Overture is a thrilling orchestral tour de force.

Here is Karl Böhm’s 1979 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic:


  • Wagner: Rienzi, WWV 49- Overture, Karl Böhm, Vienna Philharmonic Amazon

Featured Image: “Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions,” William Holman Hunt (1848-49)

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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