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Wagner's Rienzi Overture: Deciding on Greatness

Updated on April 17, 2012
Cola di Rienzi: Tribune of Rome
Cola di Rienzi: Tribune of Rome
Portrait of Richard Wagner by Cäsar Willich
Portrait of Richard Wagner by Cäsar Willich

Rienzi was German composer Richard Wagner's first great success. However, the opera largely has fallen into disfavor because Wagner himself considered it to be too conventional, meaning it did not conform to his musical standard. As such, it has never been performed at Bayreuth, and the Overture is the section most often heard today.

The opera was based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novelization of the life of fourteenth-century Roman statesman and pre-Risorgimento idealist Cola di Rienzi. Rienzi, disgusted with the decay of Rome under Papal and Baronial rule, promises the people that he would restore the Roman Republic of ancient times. They support him. The Church supports him, at first, but when Rienzi's Roman Revival begins to pose a threat to the Church's power, the Church plots with the fallen nobility to oust Rienzi from power.

The opera's Overture is expressive of at first a decayed Rome, then of Rienzi's decision for greatness. In short, it begins quietly, plaintively and finishes triumphantly. Although the opera is a tragic one, the Overture offers no signal of what would happen to Rienzi's dream. It is all about the decision, and herein lies its therapeutic value.

All great men and women first make the decision to be great, and greatness follows naturally. Rienzi itself is Wagner's own decision for greatness, and like most decisions of this kind, it was forgotten in the wake of the triumphs it spawned and was even dismissed as juvenile dreaming by its maker. But the fact does not change that this work was the beginning of Wagner's glorious career as a composer of opera.

And so the modern listener can take the overture as a mental springboard for any accomplishments one may want to attain. One simply must listen intently to the full twelve minutes of the piece while concentrating intently on one's goal and one's decision to achieve it, and let one's feelings synthesize with the music, and as the music reaches its climax, so will one's certainty of the goal. Then one must take action while one's spirit is heightened and listen to the Rienzi Overture again when the predictable falling off of one's determination begins to set in. As usual, the regular use of a musical piece is therapeutic in itself.


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