Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is undoubtedly one of Western music’s most controversial figures. His operas (he called them music-dramas) redefined the genre and pushed it to its limits. His epic Ring cycle spans four operas and about 16 hours of music. For this, invented the leitmotif, a recognizable melodic theme connected to certain characters, places, events, or moods in his operas. He also invented new instruments (e.g. the Wagner tuba) and had his own opera house built (at Bayreuth) in order to get exactly the sound that he wanted. He pushed harmonic boundaries ever further, eventually eschewing any tonal resolution in the opera Tristan und Isolde (which is often regarded as the first modern opera). For all of these operas, he assumed near total control, writing the librettos and designing the sets himself. He was also a writer whose opinions on many things, especially Judaism, have remained a stain on his character. In short, he was a large, uncompromising personality whose effects are still strongly felt in music and beyond.
One of Wagner’s earliest musical heroes was Carl Maria von Weber, another German composer of famous operas. This composer was Wagner’s direct inspiration for Trauersinfonie. Richard Franko Goldman elaborates in the program notes from his band‘s edition of the score:
Eighteen years after the death in London of Carl Maria von Weber, a patriotic movement in Germany resulted in the transference of his remains to his native land. In December of that year (1844) an impressive ceremony took place in Dresden, in which Wagner took a leading part. Besides reading the solemn oration, Wagner composed the march for the torchlight procession. This march, scored by Wagner for large wind band, was based on two themes from Weber’s opera “Euryanthe“, and thus represented a musical homage to the earlier composer. The score remained unpublished until 1926, and the work has remained among the least known of all Wagner’s compositions.
The Funeral Music was performed in a revised “concert” version by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Mengelberg in 1927. On that occasion, Herbert Peyser wrote in the New York Evening Telegram: “This extraordinary piece–only 80 bars in length, but so profoundly moving, so filled with spacious and majestic solemnity…invites a prohibitive amount of history. The melodic materials collated by Wagner are only the eerie pianissimo theme from the ‘Euryanthe’ Overture, associated with the vision of Emma’s spirit, and the sorrowful cavatina ‘Hier, dicht am Quell’, the first closing the composition in the transfigured form it assumes in the last act of the opera…
“The effect of this music, magnificent and heart-shaking as it was…must have been overwhelming amid the solemnity of that nocturnal torch-light procession in the Dresden of 1844…For if the themes are Weber’s, the creative imagination embodied in their sequence, their scoring, their exalted lament, is powerfully Wagner’s…”
Wagner’s scoring was for large, but conventional military band, similar to the bands of today except for the absence of saxophones. The composition as played by the Goldman Band is in faithful accordance with the original score except for very minor revisions, made by Erik Leidzen, which were necessitated by the changes in wind instruments and usage since Wagner’s early years.
There also exists a later edition of the score, edited by Michael Votta and John Boyd, which goes further towards identifying Wagner’s original instrumentation and source material (and calls the piece Trauermusik). Like the Leidzen edition, though, it does include parts for saxophones, which had only just been invented and were not in wide usage at the time of Trauersinfonie‘s composition.
An excellent high school band plays the Boyd/Votta Trauermusik. They do some wonderful musical things, but I would quibble with some of the rubato, given that this piece was written as a processional. Still, it is an excellent performance all around, certainly the best on YouTube at the moment:
Read more about Trauersinfonie at windbandlit’s blog and the Wind Repertory Project, or check out Michael Votta’s research on the piece (also try here). Arne Dich put together a woodwind quintet version of the piece, which you can download for free. As for Wagner himself, here is just a small sampling of what the Internet has to say about him: Wikipedia, Biography.com (video), the Jewish Virtual Library, WagnerOpera.net, ipl2, and PBS Great Performances.
For a taste of the original material from Euryanthe that Wagner used, listen to the overture, especially around 4:40:
Here also is the cavatina “Hier dicht am quell”: