My post on ‘George Eliot and Wagnerian Opera’ is available to read on the Ploughshares blog. Read an extract below, or find the full post HERE.
George Eliot had a great interest in music. Her partner, George Henry Lewes, was friends with the pianist and composer Franz Liszt and, through this connection, Eliot met many prominent figures in the European music scene of the late nineteenth-century, including Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima. To all appearances, this acquaintance seems to have been a happy one. In a letter to her friend Barbara Bodichon, dated May 18, 1877, Eliot writes “we are in love with Mad. Wagner!”, and Lewes later wrote to Cosima herself, professing that, “altogether the stirrings of the soul which the Meister’s music and your personality excited in us will make the May of 77 ever memorable to us.”
From her earliest encounters with Wagner as a musical theoretician and composer, however, Eliot engaged critically with his work. She praised his grand mythological themes, his use of leitmotif, and his vision for the future of opera, but admitted to finding his works overlong, and her own musical ear ill-tuned to finding pleasure in his music.
When Eliot and Lewes travelled to Weimar in 1854, they found themselves amongst the earliest audiences of three of Wagner’s operas: Lohengrin, Der Fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman], and Tannhäuser. Through her subsequent 1855 essay, “Liszt, Wagner, and Weimar,” Eliot became one of the first advocates for Wagner’s music in England. In this essay, she displays a deep engagement with Wagner’s “music of the future on a theoretical level, and a simultaneous difficulty with the musical effect of these theories in practice…continue reading