‘Rule Britannia’ and Wagner

Wagner later described the piece as one ‘calculated to make the most overwhelming effect’ - he even envisaged a military band joining the orchestra for the finale.

In the 1830s Wagner wrote a series of overtures for large orchestra on national themes. He composed ‘Polonia’ in 1836, and his ‘Rule Britannia’ was completed in 1837. That year, almost two decades before he was well enough known to be appointed as the Society’s conductor, he sent an autograph full score of the work to Sir George Smart in London. As well as being a long-serving member of the Philharmonic, Smart regularly conducted at music festivals throughout England. Wagner later described the piece as one ‘calculated to make the most overwhelming effect’ - he even envisaged a military band joining the orchestra for the finale - and seems to have thought of it primarily as festival fare. However, after some prompting from the composer, Smart eventually forwarded the score to the Philharmonic’s Directors.

They had in turn to be reminded by the composer that they had come to no decision about it (the correspondence is in the Society’s archive in the British Library), and it was only in 1840 that it was finally considered. The decision, apparently arrived with very little trouble, went against Wagner, it ‘being written on a Theme which is here considered common place’. The score was returned to the composer.

What happened to the manuscript immediately after that is not altogether clear. Wagner either could not or would not pay the carriage due on the packet when it arrived in Paris. So it was evidently returned to London, but the score then disappeared from view for nearly 60 years. At the end of the century it was acquired by a Leicester music seller from the executors of a violinist named Evan William Thomas (d. 1892). Thomas had played in the Society’s orchestra, and occasionally in chamber works at the concerts, in the late 1830s.

Subsequently the score was offered for sale by the London dealer Quaritch, without immediately finding a purchaser. It was eventually bought in the 1930s by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, as an addition to his prodigious collection of literary, political and musical manuscripts. The core of the collection, including ‘Rule Britannia’ was given to the British Library in 1986, so that the score is now part of the national manuscript collection.

The manuscript consists of 40 large pages, all in Wagner’s neat hand, and signed and dated by him at Königsberg in March 1837. It is the only autograph score now known. Perhaps. Although Wagner appears to have performed the piece at one of his Riga concerts in 1838, it is the only one he ever made. At one point it omits a phrase from Arne’s original melody, something Wagner was aware of: he wrote to Smart assuring him that the omission would be put right before any performance.

After Wagner’s death somebody in the Society either recalled the incident, or more likely discovered it in the records, because the Secretary wrote to Cosima Wagner asking about the work. Her reply states that she had only a short score, and that is all that remains in the Bayreuth archives today. Despite this enquiry, when the work was re-discovered, the Philharmonic for a second time declined the opportunity to perform it. The first modern performance was given by Henry Wood in 1905.

Arthur Searle
RPS Honorary Librarian (1983-2019)

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