The French reception of Wagner is often based on the two pillars of the 1861 Tannhäuser production and that of Lohengrin in 1891. Sufficient is now known about the composer's earliest attempt to engage with Parisian music drama around 1840 to be able to understand his work on Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer, his editorial and journalistic work for Schlesinger, and his emerging relationship with key figures in Parisian musical life, Meyerbeer most notably. A clearer picture is also beginning to emerge of Wagner's position in French cultural life and letters in the 1850s.

Wagner's position in Paris during the 1860s, culminating in the production of Rienzi at the Théâtre- Lyrique in 1869, is however complex, multifaceted, and little understood. Although there were no staged versions of his operas between 1861 and 1869, the very existence of a successful Parisian premiere for an opera by Wagner in 1869—given that there would be almost nothing for two decades after 1870—is remarkable in itself. The 1860s furthermore saw the emergence of a coherent voice of Wagnérisme, the presence of French Wagnéristes at the composer's premieres all over Europe and a developing discourse in French around them. This may be set against a continuing tradition of performing extracts of Wagner's operas throughout the 1860s, largely through the energies of Jules Pasdeloup, who—as director of the Théâtre-Lyrique—was responsible for the 1869 Rienzi as well.

These competing threads in the skein of Wagner-reception in the 1860s are tangled in a narrative of increasingly tense Franco-German cultural and political relationships in which Wagner, his works, and his writings, played a key role. The performance of Rienzi in 1869 was embedded in responses to the Prussian-Austrian War of 1866, the republication of Das Judenthum in der Musik in 1869, and the beginnings of the Franco-Prussian War.

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