A Communication to My Friends

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"Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde", usually referred to in English by its translated title (from German) of "A Communication to My Friends", is an extensive autobiographical work by Richard Wagner, published in 1851, in which he sought to justify his innovative concepts on the future of opera in general, and his own proposed works in particular.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium and Liechtenstein. It is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages that are most similar to the German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Autobiography biography written by the subject

An autobiography is a self-written account of the life of oneself. The word "autobiography" was first used deprecatingly by William Taylor in 1797 in the English periodical The Monthly Review, when he suggested the word as a hybrid, but condemned it as "pedantic". However, its next recorded use was in its present sense, by Robert Southey in 1809. Despite only being named early in the nineteenth century, first-person autobiographical writing originates in antiquity. Roy Pascal differentiates autobiography from the periodic self-reflective mode of journal or diary writing by noting that "[autobiography] is a review of a life from a particular moment in time, while the diary, however reflective it may be, moves through a series of moments in time". Autobiography thus takes stock of the autobiographer's life from the moment of composition. While biographers generally rely on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints, autobiography may be based entirely on the writer's memory. The memoir form is closely associated with autobiography but it tends, as Pascal claims, to focus less on the self and more on others during the autobiographer's review of his or her life.

Richard Wagner German composer

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.



"A Communication to my Friends" was written at a period which was turbulent even in the context of Wagner's very eventful life. Having been forced to flee Dresden, where he had been Kapellmeister at the Opera House, following his involvement with the May Uprising of 1849, he lived in exile, based in Zürich. He had no regular income and, although he had completed the score of his opera Lohengrin , he had at first little prospect of getting it performed, or of furthering his career as a composer. During the period 1849–51 he in fact wrote hardly any music, instead concentrating on writing a series of essays in which he expounded his ideas about music and the future of opera. These included "Art and Revolution" (written in Paris in 1849), "The Artwork of the Future" (1849), "Jewishness in Music" (1850) and the book-length "Opera and Drama" (1851).

Dresden Place in Saxony, Germany

Dresden is the capital city of the German state of Saxony, and with around 550,000 inhabitants, it is the state's second most populous city after Leipzig. It is the 12th most populous city of Germany, the fourth largest by area after Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, as well as the third most populous city in the area of former East Germany, after (East) Berlin and Leipzig. Dresden is contiguous with Freital, Pirna, Radebeul, Meissen and Coswig, and its urban area has around 780,000 inhabitants, making it the largest in Saxony.

Kapellmeister is a German word designating a person in charge of music-making. The word is a compound, consisting of the roots Kapelle and Meister ("master"). The word was originally used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel. However, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning in response to changes in the musical profession.

May Uprising in Dresden

The May Uprising took place in Dresden, Kingdom of Saxony in 1849; it was one of the last of the series of events known as the Revolutions of 1848.

Franz Liszt however offered to premiere Lohengrin in Weimar, where he was Kapellmeister to the court, and the production took place there in 1850. In the wake of this it was proposed to publish the librettos of Wagner's three most recent operas, (all of which had been written, as was normal with Wagner, by the composer himself); Der fliegende Holländer , Tannhäuser , and Lohengrin.

Franz Liszt Hungarian composer and pianist

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, and organist of the Romantic era. He was also a writer, a philanthropist, a Hungarian nationalist and a Franciscan tertiary.

Weimar Place in Thuringia, Germany

Weimar is a city in the federal state of Thuringia, Germany. It is located in Central Germany between Erfurt in the west and Jena in the east, approximately 80 kilometres southwest of Leipzig, 170 kilometres north of Nuremberg and 170 kilometres west of Dresden. Together with the neighbour-cities Erfurt and Jena it forms the central metropolitan area of Thuringia with approximately 500,000 inhabitants, whereas the city itself counts a population of 65,000. Weimar is well known because of its large cultural heritage and its importance in German history.

Libretto text used for an extended musical work

A libretto is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet.

However, Wagner was very conscious that his concept of opera had significantly moved on since writing these works, to the extent that they hardly met – and in some aspects fell a long way short of – the standards and principles he had set out in "Opera and Drama". This provoked comment amongst both Wagner's admirers and his critics. Conscious of this, he therefore wrote "A Communication to my Friends" intending it as a preface to the librettos, explaining the evolution of his ideas and the reason for these discrepancies. [1] 'I was burning to write Something that should take the message of my tortured brain, and speak it in a fashion to be understood by present life'. [2] Wagner wrote to his friend Theodor Uhlig of the essay 'This is a decisive work!' [3]

Theodor Uhlig German composer

Theodor Uhlig was a German violin-player, composer and music critic.


Wagner's critique of the arts

The essay begins with an analysis of contemporary art-tastes, which Wagner castigates. Due to the materialism of the public 'only such artists can work in harmony with the present public taste as either imitate the monuments of the past, or stamp themselves as servants of the mode [fashion]; but both are, in very truth, no artists at all'. [4] Art is only to be drawn from 'life itself', and the only one of the arts which can meet his criteria for 'the warm-appealing Art-work' is drama. [5] Wagner proceeds to condemn the majority of modern artists, in painting and in music, as 'feminine [...] the world of art close fenced from Life, in which Art plays with herself.' Where however the impressions of Life produce an overwhelming 'poetic force', we find the 'masculine, the generative path of Art'. [6]

Drama Artwork intended for performance, formal type of literature

Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance: a play, opera, mime, ballet, etc., performed in a theatre, or on radio or television. Considered as a genre of poetry in general, the dramatic mode has been contrasted with the epic and the lyrical modes ever since Aristotle's Poetics —the earliest work of dramatic theory.

Wagner's artistic development

The remainder of the essay traces the writer's artistic development hand-in-glove with his life story, confirming Wagner's identification of himself as one who wrings Art from Life, i.e. 'masculine', rather than a 'feminine' artistic freeloader. Admitting that with the early Rienzi 'I had it mind only to write an "opera" ', with Der fliegende Holländer 'I became, myself, the artistic modeller of a 'stuff' that lay before me only in the blunt and simple outlines of Folk-Saga' [7] Gradually, working to the forms of myth as he perceived them, in subsequent operas, Wagner begins to remodel the idea of opera.

<i>Rienzi</i> opera by Richard Wagner

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen is an early opera by Richard Wagner in five acts, with the libretto written by the composer after Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name (1835). The title is commonly shortened to Rienzi. Written between July 1838 and November 1840, it was first performed at the Königliches Hoftheater, Dresden, on 20 October 1842, and was the composer's first success.

'I by no means set out to destroy [..] the prevailing operatic forms of aria, duet, &c.; but the omission of these forms followed from the very nature of the Stuff, with whose intelligible presentment to the Feeling [...] I had alone to do.' [8]

Wagner unfortunately found that his audiences were not willing to follow where he led them:

The public, by their enthusiastic reception of Rienzi and their cooler welcome of the Flying Dutchman, had plainly shown me what I must set before them if I sought to please. I completely undeceived their expectations; they left the theatre, after the first performance of Tannhaüser, [1845] in a confused and discontented mood. - The feeling of utter loneliness in which I now found myself, quite unmanned me.[...] My Tannhaüser had appealed to a handful of intimate friends alone. [9]

Wagner's plans for the future

Wagner refers to some of his projects, including a drama Jesus of Nazareth (the draft for which was published after his death), [10] and his libretto Siegfried's Death [11] (which was eventually to evolve into the Ring cycle). He explains how he intends to apply his new techniques of opera to this libretto. [12] After relating his disastrous visit to Paris in 1849, [13] he gives credit to his 'wondrous friend', Franz Liszt, for standing by him and undertaking to stage Lohengrin. [14]

Finally Wagner announces:

I shall never write an Opera more. As I have no wish to invent an arbitrary title for my works, I will call them Dramas [...]

I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude (Vorspiel). [...]

At a specially-appointed Festival, I propose, some future time, to produce those three Dramas with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a fore-evening. The object of this production I shall consider thoroughly attained, if I and my artistic comrades, the actual performers, shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the true Emotional (not the Critical) Understanding of spectators who shall have gathered together expressly to learn it. [...] [15]

This is his first public announcement of the form of what would become the Ring cycle.


  1. Wagner (1994), 269
  2. Wagner (1994), 378
  3. Wagner (1890), 112, letter of August(?) 1850
  4. Wagner (1994) 280
  5. Wagner (1994) 278
  6. Wagner (1994) 287
  7. Wagner (1994) 362–3
  8. Wagner (1994) 368
  9. Wagner (1994) 336–7
  10. Wagner (1995), 284
  11. Wagner (1994), 359–60
  12. Wagner (1994) 363–82
  13. Wagner (1994) 382–4
  14. Wagner (1994) 388
  15. Wagner (1994) 391 and n.


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