The 1861 productions of Wagner's Tannhääuser and Gluck's Alceste at the Paris Opééra led to a major turning point in reception of both composers in France. After Tannhääuser's spectacular failure in March of that year, the management of the Opééra decided to mount Alceste, a move that critics took as an invitation to compare the two. It was in the preface to Alceste, after all, that Gluck had directly expressed his famous operatic reforms, which Wagner's later aesthetic principles were often perceived to echo or, less charitably, to plagiarize. Critics in the 1850s had begun to make connections between the two composers, but reception of these two 1861 productions cemented a link that would last well into the twentieth century.
Despite the considerable amount of scholarly attention devoted to reception of Wagner in France, to date his link to Gluck in contemporary French criticism has not been examined in detail. Yet ideas about Gluck's achievements provided the framework for how critics, and presumably their readers, understood the ““music of the future.”” A close examination of critical reception of the 1861 productions of Tannhääuser and Alceste sheds new light on perceptions of both Gluck and Wagner in nineteenth-century France and reveals the extent to which their musical identities were intertwined in French music criticism.
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