Composers Datebook®

Wagner plays Faust

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883): A Faust Overture (Philadelphia Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.) EMI 56165

Composer's Datebook - July 22, 2021


July 22, 2021


The Latin word “juvenilia” is used for works produced in an artist’s youth. Sometimes, as in the case of Mozart or Mendelssohn, these early works are still worth hearing. Other composer’s juvenilia, such as the early, bombastic concert overtures of Richard Wagner, are seldom granted more than one hearing – if that.

Take his “Columbus” Overture… PLEASE!  Most musicologists – and modern audiences – have decided the title is probably the best thing about that work of the 20-something Wagner.

But persistence pays, and some years later, on today’s date in 1844, a 31-year-old Wagner conducted the premiere in Dresden of an overture he wrote that still shows up occasionally on concert programs today. This piece is entitled “A Faust Overture,” and was originally conceived as the first movement of a “Faust” Symphony that Wagner never got around to completing.

In his autobiography, Wagner claimed Beethoven as a principal influence, but to modern ears it’s apparent that Wagner had been studying scores by his slightly older French contemporary, Hector Berlioz. Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” Symphony, in particular, seems to have impressed Wagner at the time, and so Wagner’s orchestra recounts the Faust legend with just the slightest hint of a French accent.

Music Played in Today's Program

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883): A Faust Overture (Philadelphia Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.) EMI 56165

On This Day


  • 1822 - Italian composer Luigi Arditti, in Crescentino, Piedmont


  • 1870 - Austrian composer Josef Strauss, age 42, in Vienna;


  • 1833 - Cherubini: opera,"Ali Baba," at Paris Opéra

  • 1844 - Wagner: "A Faust Overture," in Dresden

  • 1847 - Verdi: opera "I Masnadieri" (The Bandits), in London at Her Majesty's Theater

  • 1919 - Manuel de Falla: ballet, "The Three Cornered Hat," in London, by Diaghilev's Ballet Russe

  • 1930 - Chavez: ballet "The Four Suns," in Mexico City;

  • 1934 - Cowell: "Movement" for string quartet (String Quartet No. 2), at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., by the Pro Arte String Quartet

  • 2000 - London premiere of Colin Matthews: "Pluto - The Renewer" (intended as a contribution to Gustav Holst's "The Planets"), at a BBC Proms concert; This music was first performed on May 11, 2000, by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, with Kent Nagano conducting