Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.7

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

Thus I spent the remainder of this summer of ever-happy memory. At the end of August I had to leave for Riga to take up my new appointment. Although I knew that my sister Rosalie had shortly before married the man of her choice, Professor Oswald Marbach of Leipzig, I avoided that city, probably with the foolish notion of sparing myself any humiliation, and went straight to Berlin, where I had to receive certain additional instructions from my future director, and also to obtain my passport. There I met a younger sister of Minna’s, Amalie Planer, a singer with a pretty voice, who had joined our opera company at Magdeburg for a short time. My report of Minna quite overwhelmed this exceedingly kind-hearted girl. We went to a performance of Fidelia together, during which she, like myself, burst into tears and sobs. Refreshed by the sympathetic impression I had received, I went by way of Schwerin, where I was disappointed in my hopes of finding traces of Minna, to Lubeck, to wait for a merchant ship going to Riga. We had set sail for Travemunde when an unfavourable wind set in, and held up our departure for a week: I had to spend this disagreeable time in a miserable ship’s tavern. Thrown on my own resources I tried, amongst other things, to read Till Eulenspiegel, and this popular book first gave me the idea of a real German comic opera. Long afterwards, when I was composing the words for my Junger Siegfried, I remember having many vivid recollections of this melancholy sojourn in Travemunde and my reading of Till Eulenspiegel. After a voyage of four days we at last reached port at Bolderaa. I was conscious of a peculiar thrill on coming into contact with Russian officials, whom I had instinctively detested since the days of my sympathy with the Poles as a boy. It seemed to me as if the harbour police must read enthusiasm for the Poles in my face, and would send me to Siberia on the spot, and I was the more agreeably surprised, on reaching Riga, to find myself surrounded by the familiar German element which, above all, pervaded everything connected with the theatre.

After my unfortunate experiences in connection with the conditions of small German stages, the way in which this newly opened theatre was run had at first a calming effect on my mind. A society had been formed by a number of well-to-do theatre-goers and rich business men to raise, by voluntary subscription, sufficient money to provide the sort of management they regarded as ideal with a solid foundation. The director they appointed was Karl von Holtei, a fairly popular dramatic writer, who enjoyed a certain reputation in the theatrical world. This man’s ideas about the stage represented a special tendency, which was at that time on the decline. He possessed, in addition to his remarkable social gifts, an extraordinary acquaintance with all the principal people connected with the theatre during the past twenty years, and belonged to a society called Die Liebenswurdigen Libertins (‘The Amiable Libertines’). This was a set of young would-be wits, who looked upon the stage as a playground licensed by the public for the display of their mad pranks, from which the middle class held aloof, while people of culture were steadily losing all interest in the theatre under these hopeless conditions.

Holtei’s wife had in former days been a popular actress at the Konigstadt theatre in Berlin, and it was here, at the time when Henriette Sontag raised it to the height of its fame, that Holtei’s style had been formed. The production there of his melodrama Leonore (founded on Burger’s ballad) had in particular earned him a wide reputation as a writer for the stage, besides which he produced some Liederspiele, and among them one, entitled Der Alte Feldherr, became fairly popular. His invitation to Riga had been particularly welcome, as it bid fair to gratify his craving to absorb himself completely in the life of the stage; he hoped, in this out-of-the-way place, to indulge his passion without restraint. His peculiar familiarity of manner, his inexhaustible store of amusing small talk, and his airy way of doing business, gave him a remarkable hold on the tradespeople of Riga, who wished for nothing better than such entertainment as he was able to give them. They provided him liberally with all the necessary means and treated him in every respect with entire confidence. Under his auspices my own engagement had been very easily secured. Surly old pedants he would have none of, favouring young men on the score of their youth alone. As far as I myself was concerned, it was enough for him to know that I belonged to a family which he knew and liked, and hearing, moreover, of my fervent devotion to modern Italian and French music in particular, he decided that I was the very man for him. He had the whole shoal of Bellini’s, Donizetti’s, Adam’s, and Auber’s operatic scores copied out, and I was to give the good people of Riga the benefit of them with all possible speed.

The first time I visited Holtei I met an old Leipzig acquaintance, Heinrich Dorn, my former mentor, who now held the permanent municipal appointment of choir-master at the church and music-teacher in the schools. He was pleased to find his curious pupil transformed into a practical opera conductor of independent position, and no less surprised to see the eccentric worshipper of Beethoven changed into an ardent champion of Bellini and Adam. He took me home to his summer residence, which was built, according to Riga phraseology, ‘in the fields,’ that is literally, on the sand. While I was giving him some account of the experiences through which I had passed, I grew conscious of the strangely deserted look of the place. Feeling frightened and homeless, my initial uneasiness gradually developed into a passionate longing to escape from all the whirl of theatrical life which had wooed me to such inhospitable regions. This uneasy mood was fast dispelling the flippancy which at Magdeburg had led to my being dragged down to the level of the most worthless stage society, and had also conduced to spoil my musical taste. It also contained the germs of a new tendency which developed during the period of my activity at Riga, brought me more and more out of touch with the theatre, thereby causing Director Holtei all the annoyance which inevitably attends disappointment.

For some time, however, I found no difficulty in making the best of a bad bargain. We were obliged to open the theatre before the company was complete. To make this possible, we gave a performance of a short comic opera by C. Blum, called Marie, Max und Michel. For this work I composed an additional air for a song which Holtei had written for the bass singer, Gunther; it consisted of a sentimental introduction and a gay military rondo, and was very much appreciated. Later on, I introduced another additional song into the Schweizerfamilie, to be sung by another bass singer, Scheibler; it was of a devotional character, and pleased not only the public, but myself, and showed signs of the upheaval which was gradually taking place in my musical development. I was entrusted with the composition of a tune for a National Hymn written by Brakel in honour of the Tsar Nicholas’s birthday. I tried to give it as far as possible the right colouring for a despotic patriarchal monarch, and once again I achieved some fame, for it was sung for several successive years on that particular day. Holtei tried to persuade me to write a bright, gay comic opera, or rather a musical play, to be performed by our company just as it stood. I looked up the libretto of my Glucktiche Barenfamilie, and found Holtei very well disposed towards it (as I have stated elsewhere); but when I unearthed the little music which I had already composed for it, I was overcome with disgust at this way of writing; whereupon I made a present of the book to my clumsy, good-natured friend, Lobmann, my right-hand man in the orchestra, and never gave it another thought from that day to this. I managed, however, to get to work on the libretto of Rienzi, which I had sketched out at Blasewitz. I developed it from every point of view, on so extravagant a scale, that with this work I deliberately cut off all possibility of being tempted by circumstances to produce it anywhere but on one of the largest stages in Europe.

But while this helped to strengthen my endeavour to escape from all the petty degradations of stage life, new complications arose which affected me more and more seriously, and offered further opposition to my aims. The prima donna engaged by Holtei had failed us, and we were therefore without a singer for grand opera. Under the circumstances, Holtei joyfully agreed to my proposal to ask Amalie, Minna’s sister (who was glad to accept an engagement that brought her near me), to come to Riga at once. In her answer to me from Dresden, where she was then living, she informed me of Minna’s return to her parents, and of her present miserable condition owing to a severe illness. I naturally took this piece of news very coolly, for what I had heard about Minna since she left me for the last time had forced me to authorise my old friend at Konigsberg to take steps to procure a divorce. It was certain that Minna had stayed for some time at a hotel in Hamburg with that ill-omened man, Herr Dietrich, and that she had spread abroad the story of our separation so unreservedly that the theatrical world in particular had discussed it in a manner that was positively insulting to me. I simply informed Amalie of this, and requested her to spare me any further news of her sister.

Hereupon Minna herself appealed to me, and wrote me a positively heartrending letter, in which she openly confessed her infidelity. She declared that she had been driven to it by despair, but that the great trouble she had thus brought upon herself having taught her a lesson, all she now wished was to return to the right path. Taking everything into account, I concluded that she had been deceived in the character of her seducer, and the knowledge of her terrible position had placed her both morally and physically in a most lamentable condition, in which, now ill and wretched, she turned to me again to acknowledge her guilt, crave my forgiveness, and assure me, in spite of all, that she had now become fully aware of her love for me. Never before had I heard such sentiments from Minna, nor was I ever to hear the same from her again, save on one touching occasion many years later, when similar outpourings moved and affected me in the same way as this particular letter had done. In reply I told her that there should never again be any mention between us of what had occurred, for which I took upon myself the chief blame; and I can pride myself on having carried out this resolution to the letter.

When her sister’s engagement was satisfactorily settled, I at once invited Minna to come to Riga with her. Both gladly accepted my invitation, and arrived from Dresden at my new home on 19th October, wintry weather having already set in. With much regret I perceived that Minna’s health had really suffered, and therefore did all in my power to provide her with all the domestic comforts and quiet she needed. This presented difficulties, for my modest income as a conductor was all I had at my disposal, and we were both firmly determined not to let Minna go on the stage again. On the other hand, the carrying out of this resolve, in view of the financial inconvenience it entailed, produced strange complications, the nature of which was only revealed to me later, when startling developments divulged the real moral character of the manager Holtei. For the present I had to let people think that I was jealous of my wife. I bore patiently with the general belief that I had good reasons to be so, and rejoiced meanwhile at the restoration of our peaceful married life, and especially at the sight of our humble home, which we made as comfortable as our means would allow, and in the keeping of which Minna’s domestic talents came strongly to the fore. As we were still childless, and were obliged as a rule to enlist the help of a dog in order to give life to the domestic hearth, we once lighted upon the eccentric idea of trying our luck with a young wolf which was brought into the house as a tiny cub. When we found, however, that this experiment did not increase the comfort of our home life, we gave him up after he had been with us a few weeks. We fared better with sister Amalie; for she, with her good-nature and simple homely ways, did much to make up for the absence of children for a time. The two sisters, neither of whom had had any real education, often returned playfully to the ways of their childhood. When they sang children’s duets, Minna, though she had had no musical training, always managed very cleverly to sing seconds, and afterwards, as we sat at our evening meal, eating Russian salad, salt salmon from the Dwina, or fresh Russian caviar, we were all three very cheerful and happy far away in our northern home.

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