Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.3

MY LIFE Part 1: 1813-1842 continued

It was not surprising that Laube noticed by my untidy, passionate, and wasted appearance that something unusual was amiss with me. It was only in his company, which I always found comforting, that I gained the only impressions of Berlin which compensated me in any way for my misfortunes. The most important artistic experience I had, came to me through the performance of Ferdinand Cortez, conducted by Spontini himself, the spirit of which astonished me more than anything I had ever heard before. Though the actual production, especially as regards the chief characters, who as a whole could not be regarded as belonging to the flower of Berlin opera, left me unmoved, and though the effect never reached a point that could be even distantly compared to that produced upon me by Schroder-Devrient, yet the exceptional precision, fire, and richly organised rendering of the whole was new to me. I gained a fresh insight into the peculiar dignity of big theatrical representations, which in their several parts could, by well-accentuated rhythm, be made to attain the highest pinnacle of art. This extraordinarily distinct impression took a drastic hold of me, and above all served to guide me in my conception of Rienzi, so that, speaking from an artistic point of view, Berlin may be said to have left its traces on my development.

For the present, however, my chief concern was to extricate myself from my extremely helpless position. I was determined to turn my steps to Konigsberg, and communicated my decision, and the hopes founded upon it, to Laube. This excellent friend, without further inquiry, made a point of exerting his energies to free me from my present state of despair, and to help me to reach my next destination, an object which, through the assistance of several of his friends, he succeeded in accomplishing. When he said good-bye to me, Laube with sympathetic foresight warned me, should I succeed in my desired career of musical conductor, not to allow myself to be entangled in the shallowness of stage life, and advised me, after fatiguing rehearsals, instead of going to my sweetheart, to take a serious book in hand, in order that my greater gifts might not go uncultivated. I did not tell him that by taking an early and decisive step in this direction I intended to protect myself effectually against the dangers of theatrical intrigues. On the 7th of July, therefore, I started on what was at that time an extremely troublesome and fatiguing journey to the distant town of Konigsberg.

It seemed to me as though I were leaving the world, as I travelled on day after day through the desert marches. Then followed a sad and humiliating impression of Konigsberg, where, in one of the poorest-looking suburbs, Tragheim, near the theatre, and in a lane such as one would expect to find in a village, I found the ugly house in which Minna lodged. The friendly and quiet kindness of manner, however, which was peculiar to her, soon made me feel at home. She was popular at the theatre, and was respected by the managers and actors, a fact which seemed to augur well for her betrothed, the part I was now openly to assume.

Though as yet there seemed no distinct prospect of my getting the appointment I had come for, yet we agreed that I could hold out a little longer, and that the matter would certainly be arranged in the end. This was also the opinion of the eccentric Abraham Moller, a worthy citizen of Konigsberg, who was devoted to the theatre, and who took a very friendly interest in Minna, and finally also in me. This man, who was already well advanced in life, belonged to the type of theatre lovers now probably completely extinct in Germany, but of whom so much is recorded in the history of actors of earlier times. One could not spend an hour in the company of this man, who at one time had gone in for the most reckless speculations, without having to listen to his account of the glory of the stage in former times, described in most lively terms. As a man of means he had at one time made the acquaintance of nearly all the great actors and actresses of his day, and had even known how to win their friendship. Through too great a liberality he unfortunately found himself in reduced circumstances, and was now obliged to procure the means to satisfy his craving for the theatre and his desire to protect those belonging to it by entering into all kinds of strange business transactions, in which, without running any real risk, he felt there was something to be gained. He was accordingly only able to afford the theatre a very meagre support, but one which was quite in keeping with its decrepit condition.

This strange man, of whom the theatre director, Anton Hubsch, stood to a certain extent in awe, undertook to procure me my appointment. The only circumstance against me was the fact that Louis Schubert, the famous musician whom I had known from very early times as the first violoncellist of the Magdeburg orchestra, had come to Konigsberg from Riga, where the theatre had been closed for a time, and where he had left his wife, in order to fill the post of musical conductor here until the new theatre in Riga was opened, and he could return. The reopening of the Riga theatre, which had already been fixed for the Easter of this year, had been postponed, and he was now anxious not to leave Konigsberg. Since Schubert was a thorough master in his art, and since his choosing to remain or go depended entirely on circumstances over which he had no control, the theatre director found himself in the embarrassing position of having to secure some one who would be willing to wait to enter upon his appointment till Schubert’s business called him away. Consequently a young musical conductor who was anxious to remain in Konigsberg at any price could but be heartily welcomed as a reserve and substitute in case of emergency. Indeed, the director declared himself willing to give me a small retaining fee till the time should arrive for my definite entrance upon my duties.

Schubert, on the contrary, was furious at my arrival; there was no longer any necessity for his speedy return to Riga, since the reopening of the theatre there had been postponed indefinitely. Moreover, he had a special interest in remaining in Konigsberg, as he had conceived a passion for the prima donna there, which considerably lessened his desire to return to his wife. So at the last moment he clung to his Konigsberg post with great eagerness, regarded me as his deadly enemy, and, spurred on by his instinct of self-preservation, used every means in his power to make my stay in Konigsberg, and the already painful position I occupied while awaiting his departure, a veritable hell to me.

While in Magdeburg I had been on the friendliest footing with both musicians and singers, and had been shown the greatest consideration by the public, I here found I had to defend myself on all sides against the most mortifying ill-will. This hostility towards me, which soon made itself apparent, contributed in no small degree to make me feel as though in coming to Konigsberg I had gone into exile. In spite of my eagerness, I realised that under the circumstances my marriage with Minna would prove a hazardous undertaking. At the beginning of August the company went to Memel for a time, to open the summer season there, and I followed Minna a few days later. We went most of the way by sea, and crossed the Kurische Haff in a sailing vessel in bad weather with the wind against us–one of the most melancholy crossings I have ever experienced. As we passed the thin strip of sand that divides this bay from the Baltic Sea, the castle of Runsitten, where Hoffmann laid the scene of one of his most gruesome tales (Das Majorat), was pointed out to me. The fact that in this desolate neighbourhood, of all places in the world, I should after so long a lapse of time be once more brought in contact with the fantastic impressions of my youth, had a singular and depressing effect on my mind. The unhappy sojourn in Memel, the lamentable role I played there, everything in short, contributed to make me find my only consolation in Minna, who, after all, was the cause of my having placed myself in this unpleasant position. Our friend Abraham followed us from Konigsberg and did all kinds of queer things to promote my interests, and was obviously anxious to put the director and conductor at variance with each other. One day Schubert, in consequence of a dispute with Hubsch on the previous night, actually declared himself too unwell to attend a rehearsal of Euryanthe, in order to force the manager to summon me suddenly to take his place. In doing this my rival maliciously hoped that as I was totally unprepared to conduct this difficult opera, which was seldom played, I would expose my incapacity in a manner most welcome to his hostile intentions. Although I had never really had a score of Euryanthe before me, his wish was so little gratified, that he elected to get well for the representation in order to conduct it himself, which he would not have done if it had been found necessary to cancel the performance on account of my incompetence. In this wretched position, vexed in mind, exposed to the severe climate, which even on summer evenings struck me as horribly cold, and occupied merely in warding off the most painful troubles of life, my time, as far as any professional advancement was concerned, was completely lost. At last, on our return to Konigsberg, and particularly under the guardianship of Moller, the question as to what was to be done was more earnestly considered. Finally, Minna and I were offered a fairly good engagement in Danzig, through the influence of my brother-in-law Wolfram and his wife, who had gone there.

Moller seized this opportunity to induce the director Hubsch, who was anxious not to lose Minna, to sign a contract including us both, and by which it was understood that under any circumstances I should be officially appointed as conductor at his theatre from the following Easter. Moreover, for our wedding, a benefit performance was promised, for which we chose Die Stumme von Portici, to be conducted by me in person. For, as Moller remarked, it was absolutely necessary for us to get married, and to have a due celebration of the event; there was no getting out of it. Minna made no objection, and all my past endeavours and resolutions seemed to prove that my one desire was to take anchor in the haven of matrimony. In spite of this, however, a strange conflict was going on within me at this time. I had become sufficiently intimate with Minna’s life and character to realise the wide difference between our two natures as fully as the important step I was about to take necessitated; but my powers of judgment were not yet sufficiently matured.

My future wife was the child of poor parents, natives of Oederan in the Erzgebirge in Saxony. Her father was no ordinary man; he possessed enormous vitality, but in his old age showed traces of some feebleness of mind. In his young days he had been a trumpeter in Saxony, and in this capacity had taken part in a campaign against the French, and had also been present at the battle of Wagram. He afterwards became a mechanic, and took up the trade of manufacturing cards for carding wool, and as he invented an improvement in the process of their production, he is said to have made a very good business of it for some time. A rich manufacturer of Chemnitz once gave him a large order to be delivered at the end of the year: the children, whose pliable fingers had already proved serviceable in this respect, had to work hard day and night, and in return the father promised them an exceptionally happy Christmas, as he expected to get a large sum of money. When the longed-for time arrived, however, he received the announcement of his client’s bankruptcy. The goods that had already been delivered were lost, and the material that remained on his hands there was no prospect of selling. The family never succeeded in recovering from the state of confusion into which this misfortune had thrown them; they went to Dresden, where the father hoped to find remunerative employment as a skilled mechanic, especially in the manufacture of pianos, of which he supplied separate parts. He also brought away with him a large quantity of the fine wire which had been destined for the manufacture of the cards, and which he hoped to be able to sell at a profit. The ten-year-old Minna was commissioned to sell separate lots of it to the milliners for making flowers. She would set out with a heavy basketful of wire, and had such a gift for persuading people to buy that she soon disposed of the whole supply to the best advantage. From this time the desire was awakened in her to be of active use to her impoverished family, and to earn her own living as soon as possible, in order not to be a burden on her parents.

As she grew up and developed into a strikingly beautiful woman, she attracted the attention of men at a very early age. A certain Herr von Einsiedel fell passionately in love with her, and took advantage of the inexperienced young girl when she was off her guard. Her family was thrown into the utmost consternation, and only her mother and elder sister could be told of the terrible position in which Minna found herself. Her father, from whose anger the worst consequences were to be feared, was never informed that his barely seventeen-year-old daughter had become a mother, and under conditions that had threatened her life, had given birth to a girl. Minna, who could obtain no redress from her seducer, now felt doubly called upon to earn her own livelihood and leave her father’s house. Through the influence of friends, she had been brought into contact with an amateur theatrical society: while acting in a performance given there, she attracted the notice of members of the Royal Court Theatre, and in particular drew the attention of the director of the Dessau Court Theatre, who was present, and who immediately offered her an engagement. She gladly caught at this way of escape from her trying position, as it opened up the possibility of a brilliant stage career, and of some day being able to provide amply for her family. She had not the slightest passion for the stage, and utterly devoid as she was of any levity or coquetry, she merely saw in a theatrical career the means of earning a quick, and possibly even a rich, livelihood. Without any artistic training, the theatre merely meant for her the company of actors and actresses. Whether she pleased or not seemed of importance in her eyes only in so far as it affected her realisation of a comfortable independence. To use all the means at her disposal to assure this end seemed to her as necessary as it is for a tradesman to expose his goods to the best advantage.

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