“Wagner, Tannhauser, & the Jockey Club Claque” follows part 1 of our short series about the claque, in which we took a deeper look into the entertainment world’s original laugh track. We dug into the definition of “claque” and explored a bit of the history. And yes, Joe Biden was there. Don’t worry—the post is still around.
We also mentioned that we would offer up one of our favorite examples of an infamous claque from music history. Here is one of the best (or worst); it might even make you reconsider your annoyance the next time somebody sneezes during your daughter’s piano recital.
Wagner, Tannhauser Stonewalled in Paris
Wagner’s Tannhauser premiere at the Paris Opera in 1861 came with the normal amount of Wagnerian baggage. He had just ended a disastrous campaign of promoting Tristan and Isolde in Paris, and he was sinking further and further into debt.
Socially, Wagner was also on thin ice—he had recently written an anti-semitic essay, and although he used an assumed name, word still got around 19th century Paris. It wasn’t an ideal time in his career to polarize yet more potential ticket-buyers.
An anti-semitic essay and a failed attempt to make Tristan and Isolde popular would have been enough to doom most composers, but in proper Wagner form, two more cultural barriers impeded Tannhauser’s success: the house claque for one, and the resident Jockey Club the other.
The House Claque at the Paris Opera
Claques had become a popular commercial venture by the mid 19th century, and most major opera houses had a regular group of claque participants. The scenario always went one of two ways for visiting composers and performers:
- Composers could pay off the claque ahead of time, and the claque would then allow the performance to succeed. There may even be some extra cheers and a standing ovation at the end.
- Composers could refuse to pay the claque and watch their performance go up in flames. Claques were known to completely sabotage performances by jeering, whistling, yelling, and carrying on.
Considering the fact that other composers (take Meyerbeer, for instance) would regularly pay off the resident claque in Paris, it would have made sense for Wagner to bow to the local customs.
Bow he would not, and Wagner, Tannhauser, and the grand premiere suffered for it.
The Jockey Club
In short, the Jockey Club in Paris was a group of wealthy and aristocratic gentlemen at the top of the “social food chain.” They had nothing better to do than have dinner and drinks at the club each day and visit the opera in the evening.
According to author John DiGaetani, composers were instructed to write a ballet into the middle of the opera—it was a custom—and that operas lacking the necessary ballet would fail.
One reason for the mandatory ballet was that the Jockey Club would customarily eat dinner during the first act of the opera and arrive in time for the ballet. They considered themselves to be connoisseurs of the ballet, but it would probably be more accurate to say that they were connoisseurs of the ballerinas.
The gentlemen of the Jockey Club (rather, the spoiled frat boys) would then “mingle” with the ballerinas after the performance. Wagner refused to succumb to the Jockey Club’s demands (are you surprised?), but he took it one step further.
He decided to include a ballet after all, and he placed it at the beginning for sake of the plot; that was the portion of the opera when the Jockey Club would eat dinner. In the words of Ethan Mordden, Wagner was “amused at the idea that the Jockey Club would neither eat their cake nor have it.”
The Jockey Club members were known to be a bad sport when things didn’t go their way. The premiere of Tannhauser wasn’t an exception.
Wagner’s Tannhauser: Opening Night in Paris
This perfect storm of cultural and social faux pas on Wagner’s part led to a rather imperfect opening night for Tannhauser. The conductor for the premiere, Pierre Dietsch, was already anti-Wagner. Now a large portion of the crowd was as well.
As soon as the opera opened, the local claque began to disrupt the performance. They hadn’t been paid, and they were angry. Not long after that, the Jockey Club arrived from their dinner, and they intentionally made their entrance louder than usual. Then they began to boo and engage in loud arguments with pro-Wagner attendees, including members of the royal family.
On the second night the Jockey Club brought whistles, and by the end of the third night, Wagner had seen enough.
He withdrew his opera from the Paris Opera.