Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.6

Richard Wagner Biography – MY LIFE Part 1: 1813-1842 continued

Accompanied by Schmitt, I called this dangerous person to account on the subject in his own home. At first this only led to the usual denials. Afterwards, however, he sent secret communications to Minna concerning the interview, thus providing her with a supposed new grievance against me in the form of my inconsiderate treatment of her.

Our relations now reached a critical stage, and on certain points we preserved silence.

At the same time–it was towards the end of May, 1837–the business affairs of the theatre had reached the crisis above mentioned, when the management was obliged to fall back on the self-sacrificing co-operation of the staff to assure the continuance of the undertaking. As I have said before, my own position at the end of a year so disastrous to my welfare was seriously affected by this; nevertheless, there seemed to be no alternative for me but to face these difficulties patiently, and relying on the faithful Friedrich Schmitt, but ignoring Minna, I began to take the necessary steps for making my post at Konigsberg secure. This, as well as the arduous part I took in the business of the theatre, kept me so busy and so much away from home, that I was not able to pay any particular attention to Minna’s silence and reserve.

On the morning of the 31st of May I took leave of Minna, expecting to be detained till late in the afternoon by rehearsals and business matters. With my entire approval she had for some time been accustomed to have her daughter Nathalie, who was supposed by every one to be her youngest sister, to stay with her.

As I was about to wish them my usual quiet good-bye, the two women rushed after me to the door and embraced me passionately, Minna as well as her daughter bursting into tears. I was alarmed, and asked the meaning of this excitement, but could get no answer from them, and I was obliged to leave them and ponder alone over their peculiar conduct, of the reason for which I had not even the faintest idea.

I arrived home late in the afternoon, worn out by my exertions and worries, dead-tired, pale and hungry, and was surprised to find the table not laid and Minna not at home, the maid telling me that she had not yet returned from her walk with Nathalie.

I waited patiently, sinking down exhausted at the work-table, which I absent-mindedly opened. To my intense astonishment it was empty. Horror-struck, I sprang up and went to the wardrobe, and realised at once that Minna had left the house; her departure had been so cunningly planned that even the maid was unaware of it.

With death in my soul I dashed out of the house to investigate the cause of Minna’s disappearance.

Old Moller, by his practical sagacity, very soon found out that Dietrich, his personal enemy, had left Konigsberg in the direction of Berlin by the special coach in the morning.

This horrible fact stood staring me in the face.

I had now to try and overtake the fugitives. With the lavish use of money this might have been possible, but funds were lacking, and had, in part, to be laboriously collected.

On Moller’s advice I took the silver wedding presents with me in case of emergency, and after the lapse of a few terrible hours went off, also by special coach, with my distressed old friend. We hoped to overtake the ordinary mail-coach, which had started a short time before, as it was probable that Minna would also continue her journey in this, at a safe distance from Konigsberg.

This proved impossible, and when next morning at break of day we arrived in Elbing, we found our money exhausted by the lavish use of the express coach, and were compelled to return; we discovered, moreover, that even by using the ordinary coach we should be obliged to pawn the sugar-basin and cake-dish.

This return journey to Konigsberg rightly remains one of the saddest memories of my youth. Of course, I did not for a moment entertain the idea of remaining in the place; my one thought was how I could best get away. Hemmed in between the law-suits of my Magdeburg creditors and the Konigsberg tradesmen, who had claims on me for the payment by instalment of my domestic accounts, my departure could only be carried out in secrecy. For this very reason, too, it was necessary for me to raise money, particularly for the long journey from Konigsberg to Dresden, whither I determined to go in quest of my wife, and these matters detained me for two long and terrible days.

I received no news whatever from Minna; from Moller I ascertained that she had gone to Dresden, and that Dietrich had only accompanied her for a short distance on the excuse of helping her in a friendly way.

I succeeded in assuring myself that she really only wished to get away from a position that filled her with desperation, and for this purpose had accepted the assistance of a man who sympathised with her, and that she was for the present seeking rest and shelter with her parents. My first indignation at the event accordingly subsided to such an extent that I gradually acquired more sympathy for her in her despair, and began to reproach myself both for my conduct and for having brought unhappiness on her.

I became so convinced of the correctness of this view during the tedious journey to Dresden via Berlin, which I eventually undertook on the 3rd of June, that when at last I found Minna at the humble abode of her parents, I was really quite unable to express anything but repentence and heartbroken sympathy.

It was quite true that Minna thought herself badly treated by me, and declared that she had only been forced to take this desperate step by brooding over our impossible position, to which she thought me both blind and deaf. Her parents were not pleased to see me: the painfully excited condition of their daughter seemed to afford sufficient justification for her complaints against me. Whether my own sufferings, my hasty pursuit, and the heartfelt expression of my grief made any favourable impression on her, I can really hardly say, as her manner towards me was very confused and, to a certain extent, incomprehensible. Still she was impressed when I told her that there was a good prospect of my obtaining the post of musical conductor at Riga, where a new theatre was about to be opened under the most favourable conditions. I felt that I must not press for new resolutions concerning the regulation of our future relations just then, but must strive the more earnestly to lay a better foundation for them. Consequently, after spending a fearful week with my wife under the most painful conditions, I went to Berlin, there to sign my agreement with the new director of the Riga theatre. I obtained the appointment on fairly favourable terms which, I saw, would enable me to keep house in such a style that Minna could retire from the theatre altogether. By this means she would be in a position to spare me all humiliation and anxiety.

On returning to Dresden, I found that Minna was ready to lend a willing ear to my proposed plans, and I succeeded in inducing her to leave her parents’ house, which was very cramped for us, and to establish herself in the country at Blasewitz, near Dresden, to await our removal to Riga. We found modest lodgings at an inn on the Elbe, in the farm-yard of which I had often played as a child. Here Minna’s frame of mind really seemed to be improving. She had begged me not to press her too hard, and I spared her as much as possible. After a few weeks I thought I might consider the period of uneasiness past, but was surprised to find the situation growing worse again without any apparent reason. Minna then told me of some advantageous offers she had received from different theatres, and astonished me one day by announcing her intention of taking a short pleasure trip with a girl friend and her family. As I felt obliged to avoid putting any restraint upon her, I offered no objection to the execution of this project, which entailed a week’s separation, but accompanied her back to her parents myself, promising to await her return quietly at Blasewitz. A few days later her eldest sister called to ask me for the written permission required to make out a passport for my wife. This alarmed me, and I went to Dresden to ask her parents what their daughter was about. There, to my surprise, I met with a very unpleasant reception; they reproached me coarsely for my behaviour to Minna, whom they said I could not even manage to support, and when I only replied by asking for information as to the whereabouts of my wife, and about her plans for the future, I was put off with improbable statements. Tormented by the sharpest forebodings, and understanding nothing of what had occurred, I went back to the village, where I found a letter from Konigsberg, from Moller, which poured light on all my misery. Herr Dietrich had gone to Dresden, and I was told the name of the hotel at which he was staying. The terrible illumination thrown by this communication upon Minna’s conduct showed me in a flash what to do. I hurried into town to make the necessary inquiries at the hotel mentioned, and found that the man in question had been there, but had moved on again. He had vanished, and Minna too! I now knew enough to demand of the Fates why, at such an early age, they had sent me this terrible experience which, as it seemed to me, had poisoned my whole existence.

I sought consolation for my boundless grief in the society of my sister Ottilie and her husband, Hermann Brockhaus, an excellent fellow to whom she had been married for some years. They were then living at their pretty summer villa in the lovely Grosser Garten, near Dresden. I had looked them up at once the first time I went to Dresden, but as I had not at that time the slightest idea of how things were going to turn out, I had told them nothing, and had seen but little of them. Now I was moved to break my obstinate silence, and unfold to them the cause of my misery, with but few reservations.

For the first time I was in a position gratefully to appreciate the advantages of family intercourse, and of the direct and disinterested intimacy between blood relations. Explanations were hardly necessary, and as brother and sister we found ourselves as closely linked now as we had been when we were children. We arrived at a complete understanding without having to explain what we meant; I was unhappy, she was happy; consolation and help followed as a matter of course.

This was the sister to whom I once had read Leubald und Adelaide in a thunderstorm; the sister who had listened, filled with astonishment and sympathy, to that eventful performance of my first overture on Christmas Eve, and whom I now found married to one of the kindest of men, Hermann Brockhaus, who soon earned a reputation for himself as an expert in oriental languages. He was the youngest brother of my elder brother-in-law, Friedrich Brockhaus. Their union was blessed by two children; their comfortable means favoured a life free from care, and when I made my daily pilgrimage from Blasewitz to the famous Grosser Garten, it was like stepping from a desert into paradise to enter their house (one of the popular villas), knowing that I would invariably find a welcome in this happy family circle. Not only was my spirit soothed and benefited by intercourse with my sister, but my creative instincts, which had long lain dormant, were stimulated afresh by the society of my brilliant and learned brother-in-law. It was brought home to me, without in any way hurting my feelings, that my early marriage, excusable as it may have been, was yet an error to be retrieved, and my mind regained sufficient elasticity to compose some sketches, designed this time not merely to meet the requirements of the theatre as I knew it. During the last wretched days I had spent with Minna at Blasewitz, I had read Bulwer Lytton’s novel, Rienzi; during my convalescence in the bosom of my sympathetic family, I now worked out the scheme for a grand opera under the inspiration of this book. Though obliged for the present to return to the limitations of a small theatre, I tried from this time onwards to aim at enlarging my sphere of action. I sent my overture, Rule Britannia, to the Philharmonic Society in London, and tried to get into communication with Scribe in Paris about a setting for H. Konig’s novel, Die Hohe Braut, which I had sketched out.

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