Composers Datebook®

Wagner on the banks of the Mississippi?

Composers Datebook - Feb. 8, 2024


For a magic golden ring, the dwarf Alberich was willing to renounce love to become master of the world. At least, that’s the story in Richard Wagner’s four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen, which premiered in 1876 at Wagner’s specially constructed theater in Bayreuth, Germany.

And for $1 million, Wagner was prepared to renounce not only Bayreuth, but Germany, and settle in America, offering in exchange the premiere and exclusive performance rights to his latest opera, Parsifal.

That was the offer Wagner outlined in a letter to his American dentist on today’s date in 1880. Wagner’s wife, Cosima, recorded in her diary that Wagner seemed obsessed with the idea of settling in Minnesota, of all places.

Dr. Newell Jenkins dutifully passed the proposal on to wealthy music patrons in the states. But even the most ardent Wagnerians among them said that if his operas couldn’t sell in Germany, they wouldn’t fare any better on the banks of the Mississippi.

Well, Jenkins broke the news that a) the million dollars was not going to materialize and that b) there were such things as mosquitoes and blizzards in Minnesota. Wagner prudently decided to give Germany one more chance.

Music Played in Today's Program

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Das Rheingold, excerpt; soloists and Bavarian Radio Symphony; Bernard Haitink, cond. EMI 54633

Parsifal, excerpt; Netherlands Radio Philharmonic; Edo de Waart, cond. BMG 44786

On This Day


  • 1741 - Belgian-born French composer André Grétry, in Liège;

  • 1932 - American composer and conductor John Williams, in New York City;


  • 1709 - Italian composer Giuseppe Torelli, age 50, in Bologna;

  • 1909 - Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, age 32, near Zakopane, Tatra Mountains;


  • 1874 - Mussorgsky: opera “Boris Godunov,” at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with bass Ivan Melnikov in the title role, and Eduard Napravnik conducting; This was the composer’s own revised, nine-scene version of the opera, which originally consisted of just seven scenes (Julian date: Jan.27);

  • 1897 - Kalinnikov: Symphony No. 1 (Gregorian date: Feb. 20);

  • 1904 - Sibelius: Violin Concerto (first version), in Helsinki, by the Helsingsfors Philharmonic conducted by the composer, with Victor Novácek as soloist; The revised and final version of this concerto premiered in Berlin on October 19, 1905, conducted by Richard Strauss and with Karl Halir the soloist;

  • 1907 - Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 in Vienna, with the Rosé Quartet and members of the Vienna Philharmonic;

  • 1908 - Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting (Julian date: Jan. 26);

  • 1909 - Liadov: “Enchanted Lake” (Gregorian date: Feb. 21);

  • 1910 - Webern: Five Movements, Op. 5, for string quartet, in Vienna;

  • 1925 - Cowell: "Ensemble" (original version for strings and 3 "thunder-sticks"), at a concert sponsored by the International Composers' Guild at Aeolian Hall in New York, by an ensemble led by Vladimir Shavitch that featured the composer and two colleagues on "thunder-sticks" (an American Indian instrument also known as the "bull-roarer"); Also on program was the premiere of William Grant Still's "From the Land of Dreams" for three voices and chamber orchestra (his first concert work, now lost, dedicated to his teacher, Edgard Varèse);

  • 1925 - Miaskovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7, in Moscow;

  • 1934 - Virgil Thomson: opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" (libretto by Gertrude Stein), in Hartford, Conn.;

  • 1942 - Stravinsky: "Danses concertantes," by the Werner Janssen Orchestra of Los Angeles, with the composer conducting;

  • 1946 - Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 (completed by Tibor Serly after the composer's death), by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting and György Sándor as the soloist;

  • 1959 - Elie Siegmeister: Symphony No. 3, in Oklahoma City;

  • 1963 - Benjamin Lees: Violin Concerto, by the Boston Symphony, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Henryk Szeryng the soloist;

  • 1966 - Lou Harrison: "Symphony on G" (revised version), at the Cabrillo Music Festival by the Oakland Symphony, Gerhard Samuel condicting;

  • 1973 - Crumb: "Makrokosmos I" for amplified piano, in New York;

  • 1985 - Earle Brown: "Tracer," for six instruments and four-track tape, in Berlin;

  • 1986 - Daniel Pinkham: Symphony No. 3, by the Plymouth (Mass.) Philharmonic, Rudolf Schlegel conducting;

  • 2001 - Sierra: "Concerto for Orchestra," by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting;


  • 1875 - American composer Edward MacDowell admitted to the Paris Conservatory;

  • 1877 - German-born (and later American) composer Charles Martin Loeffler admitted to the Paris Conservatory;

  • 1880 - German opera composer Richard Wagner writes a letter to his American dentist, Dr. Newell Still Jenkins, stating "I do no regard it as impossible that I decide to emigrate forever to America with my latest work ["Parsifal"] and my entire family" if the Americans would subsidize him to the tune of one million dollars.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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