Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.8

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

Amalie’s beautiful voice and real vocal talent at first won for her a very favourable reception with the public, a fact which did us all a great deal of good. Being, however, very short, and having no very great gift for acting, the scope of her powers was very limited, and as she was soon surpassed by more successful competitors, it was a real stroke of good luck for her that a young officer in the Russian army, then Captain, now General, Carl von Meek, fell head over ears in love with the simple girl, and married her a year later. The unfortunate part of this engagement, however, was that it caused many difficulties, and brought the first cloud over our menage a trois. For, after a while, the two sisters quarrelled bitterly, and I had the very unpleasant experience of living for a whole year in the same house with two relatives who neither saw nor spoke to each other.

We spent the winter at the beginning of 1838 in a very small dingy dwelling in the old town; it was not till the spring that we moved into a pleasanter house in the more salubrious Petersburg suburb, where, in spite of the sisterly breach before referred to, we led a fairly bright and cheerful life, as we were often able to entertain many of our friends and acquaintances in a simple though pleasant fashion. In addition to members of the stage I knew a few people in the town, and we received and visited the family of Dorn, the musical director, with whom I became quite intimate. But it was the second musical director, Franz Lobmann, a very worthy though not a very gifted man, who became most faithfully attached to me. However, I did not cultivate many acquaintances in wider circles, and they grew fewer as the ruling passion of my life grew steadily stronger; so that when, later on, I left Riga, after spending nearly two years there, I departed almost as a stranger, and with as much indifference as I had left Magdeburg and Konigsberg. What, however, specially embittered my departure was a series of experiences of a particularly disagreeable nature, which firmly determined me to cut myself off entirely from the necessity of mixing with any people like those I had met with in my previous attempts to create a position for myself at the theatre.

Yet it was only gradually that I became quite conscious of all this. At first, under the safe guidance of my renewed wedded happiness, which had for a time been so disturbed in its early days, I felt distinctly better than I had before in all my professional work. The fact that the material position of the theatrical undertaking was assured exercised a healthy influence on the performances. The theatre itself was cooped up in a very narrow space; there was as little room for scenic display on its tiny stage as there was accommodation for rich musical effects in the cramped orchestra. In both directions the strictest limits were imposed, yet I contrived to introduce considerable reinforcements into an orchestra which was really only calculated for a string quartette, two first and two second violins, two violas, and one ‘cello. These successful exertions of mine were the first cause of the dislike Holtei evinced towards me later on. After this we were able to get good concerted music for the opera. I found the thorough study of Mehul’s opera, Joseph in Aegypten, very stimulating. Its noble and simple style, added to the touching effect of the music, which quite carries one away, did much towards effecting a favourable change in my taste, till then warped by my connection with the theatre.

It was most gratifying to feel my former serious taste again aroused by really good dramatic performances. I specially remember a production of King Lear, which I followed with the greatest interest, not only at the actual performances, but at all the rehearsals as well. Yet these educative impressions tended to make me feel ever more and more dissatisfied with my work at the theatre. On the one hand, the members of the company became gradually more distasteful to me, and on the other I was growing discontented with the management. With regard to the staff of the theatre, I very soon found out the hollowness, vanity, and the impudent selfishness of this uncultured and undisciplined class of people, for I had now lost my former liking for the Bohemian life that had such an attraction for me at Magdeburg. Before long there were but a few members of our company with whom I had not quarrelled, thanks to one or the other of these drawbacks. But my saddest experience was, that in such disputes, into which in fact I was led simply by my zeal for the artistic success of the performances as a whole, not only did I receive no support from Holtei, the director, but I actually made him my enemy. He even declared publicly that our theatre had become far too respectable for his taste, and tried to convince me that good theatrical performances could not be given by a strait-laced company.

In his opinion the idea of the dignity of theatrical art was pedantic nonsense, and he thought light serio-comic vaudeville the only class of performance worth considering. Serious opera, rich musical ensemble, was his particular aversion, and my demands for this irritated him so that he met them only with scorn and indignant refusals. Of the strange connection between this artistic bias and his taste in the domain of morality I was also to become aware, to my horror, in due course. For the present I felt so repelled by the declaration of his artistic antipathies, as to let my dislike for the theatre as a profession steadily grow upon me. I still took pleasure in some good performances which I was able to get up, under favourable circumstances, at the larger theatre at Mitau, to where the company went for a time in the early part of the summer. Yet it was while I was there, spending most of my time reading Bulwer Lytton’s novels, that I made a secret resolve to try hard to free myself from all connection with the only branch of theatrical art which had so far been open to me.

The composition of my Rienzi, the text of which I had finished in the early days of my sojourn in Riga, was destined to bridge me over to the glorious world for which I had longed so intensely. I had laid aside the completion of my Gluckliche Barenfamilie, for the simple reason that the lighter character of this piece would have thrown me more into contact with the very theatrical people I most despised. My greatest consolation now was to prepare Rienzi with such an utter disregard of the means which were available there for its production, that my desire to produce it would force me out of the narrow confines of this puny theatrical circle to seek a fresh connection with one of the larger theatres. It was after our return from Mitau, in the middle of the summer of 1838, that I set to work on this composition, and by so doing roused myself to a state of enthusiasm which, considering my position, was nothing less than desperate dare-devilry. All to whom I confided my plan perceived at once, on the mere mention of my subject, that I was preparing to break away from my present position, in which there could be no possibility of producing my work, and I was looked upon as light-headed and fit only for an asylum.

To all my acquaintances my procedure seemed stupid and reckless. Even the former patron of my peculiar Leipzig overture thought it impracticable and eccentric, seeing that I had again turned my back on light opera. He expressed this opinion very freely in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, in a report of a concert I had given towards the end of the previous winter, and openly ridiculed the Magdeburg Columbus Overture and the Rule Britannia Overture previously mentioned. I myself had not taken any pleasure in the performance of either of these overtures, as my predilection for cornets, strongly marked in both these overtures, again played me a sorry trick, as I had evidently expected too much of our Riga musicians, and had to endure all kinds of disappointment on the occasion of the performance. As a complete contrast to my extravagant setting of Rienzi, this same director, H. Dorn, had set to work to write an opera in which he had most carefully borne in mind the conditions obtaining at the Riga theatre. Der Schoffe van Paris, an historical operetta of the period of the siege of Paris by Joan of Arc, was practised and performed by us to the complete satisfaction of the composer. However, the success of this work gave me no reason for abandoning my project to complete my Rienzi, and I was secretly pleased to find that I could regard this success without a trace of envy. Though animated by no feeling of rivalry, I gradually gave up associating with the Riga artists, confining myself chiefly to the performance of the duties I had undertaken, and worked away at the two first acts of my big opera without troubling myself at all whether I should ever get so far as to see it produced.

The serious and bitter experiences I had had so early in life had done much to guide me towards that intensely earnest side of my nature that had manifested itself in my earliest youth. The effect of these bitter experiences was now to be still further emphasised by other sad impressions. Not long after Minna had rejoined me, I received from home the news of the death of my sister Rosalie. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced the passing away of one near and dear to me. The death of this sister struck me as a most cruel and significant blow of fate; it was out of love and respect for her that I had turned away so resolutely from my youthful excesses, and it was to gain her sympathy that I had devoted special thought and care to my first great works. When the passions and cares of life had come upon me and driven me away from my home, it was she who had read deep down into my sorely stricken heart, and who had bidden me that anxious farewell on my departure from Leipzig. At the time of my disappearance, when the news of my wilful marriage and of my consequent unfortunate position reached my family, it was she who, as my mother informed me later, never lost her faith in me, but who always cherished the hope that I would one day reach the full development of my capabilities and make a genuine success of my life.

Now, at the news of her death, and illuminated by the recollection of that one impressive farewell, as by a flash of lightning I saw the immense value my relations with this sister had been to me, and I did not fully realise the extent of her influence until later on, when, after my first striking successes, my mother tearfully lamented that Rosalie had not lived to witness them. It really did me good to be again in communication with my family. My mother and sisters had had news of my doings somehow or other, and I was deeply touched, in the letters which I was now receiving from them, to hear no reproaches anent my headstrong and apparently heartless behaviour, but only sympathy and heartfelt solicitude. My family had also received favourable reports about my wife’s good qualities, a fact about which I was particularly glad, as I was thus spared the difficulties of defending her questionable behaviour to me, which I should have been at pains to excuse. This produced a salutary calm in my soul, which had so recently been a prey to the worst anxieties. All that had driven me with such passionate haste to an improvident and premature marriage, all that had consequently weighed on me so ruinously, now seemed set at rest, leaving peace in its stead. And although the ordinary cares of life still pressed on me for many years, often in a most vexatious and troublesome form, yet the anxieties attendant on my ardent youthful wishes were in a manner subdued and calm. From thence forward till the attainment of my professional independence, all my life’s struggles could be directed entirely towards that more ideal aim which, from the time of the conception of my Rienzi, was to be my only guide through life.

It was only later that I first realised the real character of my life in Riga, from the utterance of one of its inhabitants, who was astonished to learn of the success of a man of whose importance, during the whole of his two years’ sojourn in the small capital of Livonia, nothing had been known. Thrown entirely on my own resources, I was a stranger to every one. As I mentioned before, I kept aloof from all the theatre folk, in consequence of my increasing dislike of them, and therefore, when at the end of March, 1839, at the close of my second winter there, I was given my dismissal by the management, although this occurrence surprised me for other reasons, yet I felt fully reconciled to this compulsory change in my life. The reasons which led to this dismissal were, however, of such a nature that I could only regard it as one of the most disagreeable experiences of my life. Once, when I was lying dangerously ill, I heard of Holtei’s real feelings towards me. I had caught a severe cold in the depth of winter at a theatrical rehearsal, and it at once assumed a serious character, owing to the fact that my nerves were in a state of constant irritation from the continual annoyance and vexatious worry caused by the contemptible character of the theatrical management. It was just at the time when a special performance of the opera Norma was to be given by our company in Mitau. Holtei insisted on my getting up from a sick-bed to make this wintry journey, and thus to expose myself to the danger of seriously increasing my cold in the icy theatre at Mitau. Typhoid fever was the consequence, and this pulled me down to such an extent that Holtei, who heard of my condition, is said to have remarked at the theatre that I should probably never conduct again, and that, to all intents and purposes, ‘I was on my last legs.’ It was to a splendid homoeopathic physician, Dr. Prutzer, that I owed my recovery and my life. Not long after that Holtei left our theatre and Riga for ever; his occupation there, with ‘the far too respectable conditions,’ as he expressed it, had become intolerable to him. In addition, however, circumstances had arisen in his domestic life (which had been much affected by the death of his wife) which seemed to make him consider a complete break with Riga eminently desirable. But to my astonishment I now first became aware that I too had unconsciously been a sufferer from the troubles he had brought upon himself. When Holtei’s successor in the management–Joseph Hoffmann the singer–informed me that his predecessor had made it a condition to his taking over the post that he should enter into the same engagement that Holtei had made with the conductor Dorn for the post which I had hitherto filled, and my reappointment had therefore been made an impossibility, my wife met my astonishment at this news by giving me the reason, of which for some considerable time past she had been well aware, namely, Holtei’s special dislike of us both. When I was afterwards informed by Minna of what had happened–she having purposely kept it from me all this time, so as not to cause bad feeling between me and my director–a ghastly light was thrown upon the whole affair. I did indeed remember perfectly how, soon after Minna’s arrival in Riga, I had been particularly pressed by Holtei not to prevent my wife’s engagement at the theatre. I asked him to talk things quietly over with her, so that he might see that Minna’s unwillingness rested on a mutual understanding, and not on any jealousy on my part. I had intentionally given him the time when I was engaged at the theatre on rehearsals for the necessary discussions with my wife. At the end of these meetings I had, on my return, often found Minna in a very excited condition, and at length she declared emphatically that under no circumstances would she accept the engagement offered by Holtei. I had also noticed in Minna’s demeanour towards me a strange anxiety to know why I was not unwilling to allow Holtei to try to persuade her. Now that the catastrophe had occurred, I learned that Holtei had in fact used these interviews for making improper advances to my wife, the nature of which I only realised with difficulty on further acquaintance with this man’s peculiarities, and after having heard of other instances of a similar nature. I then discovered that Holtei considered it an advantage to get himself talked about in connection with pretty women, in order thus to divert the attention of the public from other conduct even more disreputable. After this Minna was exceedingly indignant at Holtei, who, finding his own suit rejected, appeared as the medium for another suitor, on whose behalf he urged that he would think none the worse of her for rejecting him, a grey-haired and penniless man, but at the same time advocated the suit of Brandenburg, a very wealthy and handsome young merchant. His fierce indignation at this double repulse, his humiliation at having revealed his real nature to no purpose, seems, to judge from Minna’s observations, to have been exceedingly great. I now understood too well that his frequent and profoundly contemptuous sallies against respectable actors and actresses had not been mere spirited exaggerations, but that he had probably often had to complain of being put thoroughly to shame on this account.

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