Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.4

MY LIFE Part 1: 1813-1842 continued

The friendship of the director, manager, and favourite members of the theatre she regarded as indispensable, whilst those frequenters of the theatre who, through their criticism or taste, influenced the public, and thus also had weight with the management, she recognised as beings upon whom the attainment of her most fervent desires depended. Never to make enemies of them appeared so natural and so necessary that, in order to maintain her popularity, she was prepared to sacrifice even her self-respect. She had in this way created for herself a certain peculiar code of behaviour, that on the one hand prompted her to avoid scandals, but on the other hand found excuses even for making herself conspicuous as long as she herself knew that she was doing nothing wrong. Hence arose a mixture of inconsistencies, the questionable sense of which she was incapable of grasping. It was clearly impossible for her not to lose all real sense of delicacy; she showed, however, a sense of the fitness of things, which made her have regard to what was considered proper, though she could not understand that mere appearances were a mockery when they only served to cloak the absence of a real sense of delicacy. As she was without idealism, she had no artistic feeling; neither did she possess any talent for acting, and her power of pleasing was due entirely to her charming appearance. Whether in time routine would have made her become a good actress it is impossible for me to say. The strange power she exercised over me from the very first was in no wise due to the fact that I regarded her in any way as the embodiment of my ideal; on the contrary, she attracted me by the soberness and seriousness of her character, which supplemented what I felt to be wanting in my own, and afforded me the support that in my wanderings after the ideal I knew to be necessary for me.

I had soon accustomed myself never to betray my craving after the ideal before Minna: unable to account for this even to myself, I always made a point of avoiding the subject by passing it over with a laugh and a joke; but, on this account, it was all the more natural for me to feel qualms when fears arose in my mind as to her really possessing the qualities to which I had attributed her superiority over me. Her strange tolerance with regard to certain familiarities and even importunities on the part of patrons of the theatre, directed even against her person, hurt me considerably; and on my reproaching her for this, I was driven to despair by her assuming an injured expression as though I had insulted her. It was quite by chance that I came across Schwabe’s letters, and thus gained an astonishing insight into her intimacy with that man, of which she had left me in ignorance, and allowed me to gain my first knowledge during my stay in Berlin. All my latent jealousy, all my inmost doubts concerning Minna’s character, found vent in my sudden determination to leave the girl at once. There was a violent scene between us, which was typical of all our subsequent altercations. I had obviously gone too far in treating a woman who was not passionately in love with me, as if I had a real right over her; for, after all, she had merely yielded to my importunity, and in no way belonged to me. To add to my perplexity, Minna only needed to remind me that from a worldly point of view she had refused very good offers in order to give way to the impetuosity of a penniless young man, whose talent had not yet been put to any real test, and to whom she had nevertheless shown sympathy and kindness.

What she could least forgive in me was the raging vehemence with which I spoke, and by which she felt so insulted, that upon realising to what excesses I had gone, there was nothing I could do but try and pacify her by owning myself in the wrong, and begging her forgiveness. Such was the end of this and all subsequent scenes, outwardly; at least, always to her advantage. But peace was undermined for ever, and by the frequent recurrence of such quarrels, Minna’s character underwent a considerable change. Just as in later times she became perplexed by what she considered my incomprehensible conception of art and its proportions, which upset her ideas about everything connected with it, so now she grew more and more confused by my greater delicacy in regard to morality, which was very different from hers, especially as in many other respects I displayed a freedom of opinion which the could neither comprehend nor approve.

A feeling of passionate resentment was accordingly roused in her otherwise tranquil disposition. It was not surprising that this resentment increased as the years went on, and manifested itself in a manner characteristic of a girl sprung from the lower middle class, in whom mere superficial polish had taken the place of any true culture. The real torment of our subsequent life together lay in the fact that, owing to her violence, I had lost the last support I had hitherto found in her exceptionally sweet disposition. At that time I was filled only with a dim foreboding of the fateful step I was taking in marrying her. Her agreeable and soothing qualities still had such a beneficial effect upon me, that with the frivolity natural to me, as well as the obstinacy with which I met all opposition, I silenced the inner voice that darkly foreboded disaster.

Since my journey to Konigsberg I had broken off all communication with my family, that is to say, with my mother and Rosalie, and I told no one of the step I had decided to take. Under my old friend Moller’s audacious guidance I overcame all the legal difficulties that stood in the way of our union. According to Prussian law, a man who has reached his majority no longer requires his parents’ consent to his marriage: but since, according to this same provision, I was not yet of age, I had recourse to the law of Saxony, to which country I belonged by birth, and by whose regulations I had already attained my majority at the age of twenty-one. Our banns had to be published at the place where we had been living during the past year, and this formality was carried out in Magdeburg without any further objections being raised. As Minna’s parents had given their consent, the only thing that still remained to be done to make everything quite in order was for us to go together to the clergyman of the parish of Tragheim. This proved a strange enough visit. It took place the morning preceding the performance to be given for our benefit, in which Minna had chosen, the pantomimic role of Fenella; her costume was not ready yet, and there was still a great deal to be done. The rainy cold November weather made us feel out of humour, when, to add to our vexation, we were kept standing in the hall of the vicarage for an unreasonable time. Then an altercation arose between us which speedily led to such bitter vituperation that we were just on the point of separating and going each our own way, when the clergyman opened the door. Not a little embarrassed at having surprised us in the act of quarrelling, he invited us in. We were obliged to put a good face on the matter, however; and the absurdity of the situation so tickled our sense of humour that we laughed; the parson was appeased, and the wedding fixed for eleven o’clock the next morning.

Another fruitful source of irritation, which often led to the outbreak of violent quarrelling between us, was the arrangement of our future home, in the interior comfort and beauty of which I hoped to find a guarantee of happiness. The economical ideas of my bride filled me with impatience. I was determined that the inauguration of a series of prosperous years which I saw before me must be celebrated by a correspondingly comfortable home. Furniture, household utensils, and all necessaries were obtained on credit, to be paid for by instalment. There was, of course, no question of a dowry, a wedding outfit, or any of the things that are generally considered indispensable to a well-founded establishment. Our witnesses and guests were drawn from the company of actors accidentally brought together by their engagement at the Konigsberg theatre. My friend Moller made us a present of a silver sugar-basin, which was supplemented by a silver cake-basket from another stage friend, a peculiar and, as far as I can remember, rather interesting young man named Ernst Castell. The benefit performance of the Die Stumme von Portici, which I conducted with great enthusiasm, went off well, and brought us in as large a sum as we had counted upon. After spending the rest of the day before our wedding very quietly, as we were tired out after our return from the theatre, I took up my abode for the first time in our new home. Not wishing to use the bridal bed, decorated for the occasion, I lay down on a hard sofa, without even sufficient covering on me, and froze valiantly while awaiting the happiness of the following day. I was pleasantly excited the next morning by the arrival of Minna’s belongings, packed in boxes and baskets. The weather, too, had quite cleared up, and the sun was shining brightly; only our sitting-room refused to get properly warm, which for some time drew down Minna’s reproaches upon my head for my supposed carelessness in not having seen to the heating arrangements. At last I dressed myself in my new suit, a dark blue frock-coat with gold buttons. The carriage drove up, and I set out to fetch my bride. The bright sky had put us all in good spirits, and in the best of humour I met Minna, who was dressed in a splendid gown chosen by me. She greeted me with sincere cordiality and pleasure shining from her eyes; and taking the fine weather as a good omen, we started off for what now seemed to us a most cheerful wedding. We enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing the church as over-crowded as if a brilliant theatrical representation were being given; it was quite a difficult matter to make our way to the altar, where a group no less worldly than the rest, consisting of our witnesses, dressed in all their theatrical finery, were assembled to receive us. There was not one real friend amongst all those present, for even our strange old friend Moller was absent, because no suitable partner had been found for him. I was not for a single moment insensible to the chilling frivolity of the congregation, who seemed to impart their tone to the whole ceremony. I listened like one in a dream to the nuptial address of the parson, who, I was afterwards told, had had a share in producing the spirit of bigotry which at this time was so prevalent in Konigsberg, and which exercised such a disquieting influence on its population.

A few days later I was told that a rumour had got about the town that I had taken action against the parson for some gross insults contained in his sermon; I did not quite see what was meant, but supposed that the exaggerated report arose from a passage in his address which I in my excitement had misunderstood. The preacher, in speaking of the dark days, of which we were to expect our share, bade us look to an unknown friend, and I glanced up inquiringly for further particulars of this mysterious and influential patron who chose so strange a way of announcing himself. Reproachfully, and with peculiar emphasis, the pastor then pronounced the name of this unknown friend: Jesus. Now I was not in any way insulted by this, as people imagined, but was simply disappointed; at the same time, I thought that such exhortations were probably usual in nuptial addresses.

But, on the whole, I was so absent-minded during this ceremony, which was double Dutch to me, that when the parson held out the closed prayer-book for us to place our wedding rings upon, Minna had to nudge me forcibly to make me follow her example.

At that moment I saw, as clearly as in a vision, my whole being divided into two cross-currents that dragged me in different directions; the upper one faced the sun and carried me onward like a dreamer, whilst the lower one held my nature captive, a prey to some inexplicable fear. The extraordinary levity with which I chased away the conviction which kept forcing itself upon me, that I was committing a twofold sin, was amply accounted for by the really genuine affection with which I looked upon the young girl whose truly exceptional character (so rare in the environment in which she had been placed) led her thus to bind herself to a young man without any means of support. It was eleven o’clock on the morning of the 24th of November, 1836, and I was twenty-three and a half.

On the way home from church, and afterwards, my good spirits rose superior to all my doubts.

Minna at once took upon herself the duty of receiving and entertaining her guests. The table was spread, and a rich feast, at which Abraham Moller, the energetic promoter of our marriage, also took part, although he had been rather put out by his exclusion from the church ceremony, made up for the coldness of the room, which for a long time refused to get warm, to the great distress of the young hostess.

Everything went off in the usual uneventful way. Nevertheless, I retained my good spirits till the next morning, when I had to present myself at the magistrate’s court to meet the demands of my creditors, which had been forwarded to me from Magdeburg to Konigsburg.

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