Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.5

MY LIFE Part 1: 1813-1842 continued

My friend Moller, whom I had retained for my defence, had foolishly advised me to meet my creditors’ demands by pleading infancy according to the law of Prussia, at all events until actual assistance for the settlement of the claims could be obtained.

The magistrate, to whom I stated this plea as I had been advised, was astonished, being probably well aware of my marriage on the previous day, which could only have taken place on the production of documentary proof of my majority. I naturally only gained a brief respite by this manoeuvre, and the troubles which beset me for a long time afterwards had their origin on the first day of my marriage.

During the period when I held no appointment at the theatre I suffered various humiliations. Nevertheless, I thought it wise to make the most of my leisure in the interests of my art, and I finished a few pieces, among which was a grand overture on Rule Britannia.

When I was still in Berlin I had written the overture entitled Polonia, which has already been mentioned in connection with the Polish festival. Rule Britannia was a further and deliberate step in the direction of mass effects; at the close a strong military band was to be added to the already over-full orchestra, and I intended to have the whole thing performed at the Musical Festival in Konigsberg in the summer.

To these two overtures I added a supplement–an overture entitled Napoleon. The point to which I devoted my chief attention was the selection of the means for producing certain effects, and I carefully considered whether I should express the annihilating stroke of fate that befell the French Emperor in Russia by a beat on the tom-tom or not. I believe it was to a great extent my scruples about the introduction of this beat that prevented me from carrying out my plan just then.

On the other hand, the conclusions which I had reached regarding the ill-success of Liebesverbot resulted in an operatic sketch in which the demands made on the chorus and the staff of singers should be more in proportion to the known capacity of the local company, as this small theatre was the only one at my disposal.

A quaint tale from the Arabian Nights suggested the very subject for a light work of this description, the title of which, if I remember rightly, was Mannerlist grosser als Frauenlist (‘Man outwits Woman’).

I transplanted the story from Bagdad to a modern setting. A young goldsmith offends the pride of a young woman by placing the above motto on the sign over his shop; deeply veiled, she steps into his shop and asks him, as he displays such excellent taste in his work, to express his opinion on her own physical charms; he begins with her feet and her hands, and finally, noticing his confusion, she removes the veil from her face. The jeweller is carried away by her beauty, whereupon she complains to him that her father, who has always kept her in the strictest seclusion, describes her to all her suitors as an ugly monster, his object being, she imagines, simply to keep her dowry. The young man swears that he will not be frightened off by these foolish objections, should the father raise them against his suit. No sooner said than done. The daughter of this peculiar old gentleman is promised to the unsuspecting jeweller, and is brought to her bridegroom as soon as he has signed the contract. He then sees that the father has indeed spoken the truth, the real daughter being a perfect scarecrow. The beautiful lady returns to the bridegroom to gloat over his desperation, and promises to release him from his terrible marriage if he will remove the motto from his signboard. At this point I departed from the original, and continued as follows: The enraged jeweller is on the point of tearing down his unfortunate signboard when a curious apparition leads him to pause in the act. He sees a bear-leader in the street making his clumsy beast dance, in whom the luckless lover recognises at a glance his own father, from whom he has been parted by a hard fate.

He suppresses any sign of emotion, for in a flash a scheme occurs to him by which he can utilise this discovery to free himself from the hated marriage with the daughter of the proud old aristocrat.

He instructs the bear-leader to come that evening to the garden where the solemn betrothal is to take place in the presence of the invited guests.

He then explains to his young enemy that he wishes to leave the signboard up for the time being, as he still hopes to prove the truth of the motto.

After the marriage contract, in which the young man arrogates to himself all kinds of fictitious titles of nobility, has been read to the assembled company (composed, say, of the elite of the noble immigrants at the time of the French Revolution), there is heard suddenly the pipe of the bear-leader, who enters the garden with his prancing beast. Angered by this trivial diversion, the astonished company become indignant when the bridegroom, giving free vent to his feelings, throws himself with tears of joy into the arms of the bear-leader and loudly proclaims him as his long-lost father. The consternation of the company becomes even greater, however, when the bear itself embraces the man they supposed to be of noble birth, for the beast is no less a person than his own brother in the flesh who, on the death of the real bear, had donned its skin, thus enabling the poverty-stricken pair to continue to earn their livelihood in the only way left to them. This public disclosure of the bridegroom’s lowly origin at once dissolves the marriage, and the young woman, declaring herself outwitted by man, offers her hand in compensation to the released jeweller.

To this unassuming subject I gave the title of the Gluckliche Barenfamilie, and provided it with a dialogue which afterwards met with Holtei’s highest approval.

I was about to begin the music for it in a new light French style, but the seriousness of my position, which grew more and more acute, prevented further progress in my work.

In this respect my strained relations with the conductor of the theatre were still a constant source of trouble. With neither the opportunity nor the means to defend myself, I had to submit to being maligned and rendered an object of suspicion on all sides by my rival, who remained master of the field. The object of this was to disgust me with the idea of taking up my appointment as musical conductor, for which the contract had been signed for Easter. Though I did not lose my self-confidence, I suffered keenly from the indignity and the depressing effect of this prolonged strain.

When at last, at the beginning of April, the moment arrived for the musical conductor Schubert to resign, and for me to take over the whole charge, he had the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that not only was the standing of the opera seriously weakened by the departure of the prima donna, but that there was good reason to doubt whether the theatre could be carried on at all. This month of Lent, which was such a bad time in Germany for all similar theatrical enterprises, decimated the Konigsberg audience with the rest. The director took the greatest trouble imaginable to fill up the gaps in the staff of the opera by means of engaging strangers temporarily, and by new acquisitions, and in this my personality and unflagging activity were of real service; I devoted all my energy to buoying up by word and deed the tattered ship of the theatre, in which I now had a hand for the first time.

For a long time I had to try and keep cool under the most violent treatment by a clique of students, among whom my predecessor had raised up enemies for me; and by the unerring certainty of my conducting I had to overcome the initial opposition of the orchestra, which had been set against me.

After laboriously laying the foundation of personal respect, I was now forced to realise that the business methods of the director, Hubsch, had already involved too great a sacrifice to permit the theatre to make its way against the unfavourableness of the season, and in May he admitted to me that he had come to the point of being obliged to close the theatre.

By summoning up all my eloquence, and by making suggestions which promised a happy issue, I was able to induce him to persevere; nevertheless, this was only possible by making demands on the loyalty of his company, who were asked to forego part of their salaries for a time. This aroused general bitterness on the part of the uninitiated, and I found myself in the curious position of being forced to place the director in a favourable light to those who were hard hit by these measures, while I myself and my position were affected in such a manner that my situation became daily more unendurable under the accumulation of intolerable difficulties taking their root in my past.

But though I did not even then lose courage, Minna, who as my wife was robbed of all that she had a right to expect, found this turn of fate quite unbearable. The hidden canker of our married life which, even before our marriage, had caused me the most terrible anxiety and led to violent scenes, reached its full growth under these sad conditions. The less I was able to maintain the standard of comfort due to our position by working and making the most of my talents, the more did Minna, to my insufferable shame, consider it necessary to take this burden upon herself by making the most of her personal popularity. The discovery of similar condescensions–as I used to call them–on Minna’s part, had repeatedly led to revolting scenes, and only her peculiar conception of her professional position and the needs it involved had made a charitable interpretation possible.

I was absolutely unable to bring my young wife to see my point of view, or to make her realise my own wounded feelings on these occasions, while the unrestrained violence of my speech and behaviour made an understanding once and for all impossible. These scenes frequently sent my wife into convulsions of so alarming a nature that, as will easily be realised, the satisfaction of reconciling her once more was all that remained to me. Certain it was that our mutual attitude became more and more incomprehensible and inexplicable to us both.

These quarrels, which now became more frequent and more distressing, may have gone far to diminish the strength of any affection which Minna was able to give me, but I had no idea that she was only waiting for a favourable opportunity to come to a desperate decision.

To fill the place of tenor in our company, I had summoned Friedrich Schmitt to Konigsberg, a friend of my first year in Magdeburg, to whom allusion has already been made. He was sincerely devoted to me, and helped me as much as possible in overcoming the dangers which threatened the prosperity of the theatre as well as my own position.

The necessity of being on friendly terms with the public made me much less reserved and cautious in making new acquaintances, especially when in his company.

A rich merchant, of the name of Dietrich, had recently constituted himself a patron of the theatre, and especially of the women. With due deference to the men with whom they were connected, he used to invite the pick of these ladies to dinner at his house, and affected, on these occasions, the well-to-do Englishman, which was the beau-ideal for German merchants, especially in the manufacturing towns of the north.

I had shown my annoyance at the acceptance of the invitation, sent to us among the rest, at first simply because his looks were repugnant to me. Minna considered this very unjust. Anyhow, I set my face decidedly against continuing our acquaintance with this man, and although Minna did not insist on receiving him, my conduct towards the intruder was the cause of angry scenes between us.

One day Friedrich Schmitt considered it his duty to inform me that this Herr Dietrich had spoken of me at a public dinner in such a manner as to lead every one to suppose that he had a suspicious intimacy with my wife. I felt obliged to suspect Minna of having, in some way unknown to me, told the fellow about my conduct towards her, as well as about our precarious position.

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