Richard Wagner Autobiography 3.9

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

The fact that the playing of such criminal parts as the one he had had in view with my wife was unable to divert the ever-increasing attention of the outside world from his vicious and dissolute habits, does not seem to have escaped him; for those behind the scenes told me candidly that it was owing to the fear of very unpleasant revelations that he had suddenly decided to give up his position at Riga altogether. Even in much later years I heard about Holtei’s bitter dislike of me, a dislike which showed itself, among other things, in his denunciation of The Music of the Future, [Footnote: Zukunftsmusik is a pamphlet revealing some of Wagner’s artistic aims and aspirations, written 1860-61.–EDITOR.] and of its tendency to jeopardise the simplicity of pure sentiment. I have previously mentioned that he displayed so much personal animosity against me during the latter part of the time we were together in Riga that he vented his hostility upon me in every possible way. Up to that time I had felt inclined to ascribe it to the divergence of our respective views on artistic points.

To my dismay I now became aware that personal considerations alone were at the bottom of all this, and I blushed to realise that by my former unreserved confidence in a man whom I thought was absolutely honest, I had based my knowledge of human nature on such very weak foundations. But still greater was my disappointment when I discovered the real character of my friend H. Dorn. During the whole time of our intercourse at Riga, he, who formerly treated me more like a good-natured elder brother, had become my most confidential friend. We saw and visited each other almost daily, very frequently in our respective homes. I kept not a single secret from him, and the performance of his Schoffe van Paris under my direction was as successful as if it had been under his own. Now, when I heard that my post had been given to him, I felt obliged to ask him about it, in order to learn whether there was any mistake on his part as to my intention regarding the position I had hitherto held. But from his letter in reply I could clearly see that Dorn had really made use of Holtei’s dislike for me to extract from him, before his departure, an arrangement which was both binding on his successor and also in his (Dorn’s) own favour. As my friend he ought to have known that he could benefit by this agreement only in the event of my resigning my appointment in Riga, because in our confidential conversations, which continued to the end, he always carefully refrained from touching on the possibility of my going away or remaining. In fact, he declared that Holtei had distinctly told him he would on no account re-engage me, as I could not get on with the singers. He added that after this one could not take it amiss if he, who had been inspired with fresh enthusiasm for the theatre by the success of his Schoffe von Paris, had seized and turned to his own advantage the chance offered to him. Moreover, he had gathered from my confidential communications that I was very awkwardly situated, and that, owing to my small salary having been cut down by Holtei from the very beginning, I was in a very precarious position on account of the demands of my creditors in Konigsberg and Magdeburg. It appeared that these people had employed against me a lawyer, who was a friend of Dorn’s, and that, consequently, he had come to the conclusion that I would not be able to remain in Riga. Therefore, even as my friend, he had felt his conscience quite clear in accepting Holtei’s proposal.

In order not to leave him in the complacent enjoyment of this self-deception, I put it clearly before him that he could not be ignorant of the fact that a higher salary had been promised to me for the third year of my contract; and that, by the establishment of orchestral concerts, which had already made a favourable start, I now saw my way to getting free from those long-standing debts, having already overcome the difficulties of the removal and settling down. I also asked him how he would act if I saw it was to my own interest to retain my post, and to call on him to resign his agreement with Holtei, who, as a matter of fact, after his departure from Riga, had withdrawn his alleged reason for my dismissal. To this I received no answer, nor have I had one up to the present day; but, on the other hand, in 1865, I was astonished to see Dorn enter my house in Munich unannounced, and when to his joy I recognised him, he stepped up to me with a gesture which clearly showed his intention of embracing me. Although I managed to evade this, yet I soon saw the difficulty of preventing him from addressing me with the familiar form of ‘thou,’ as the attempt to do so would have necessitated explanations that would have been a useless addition to all my worries just then; for it was the time when my Tristan was being produced.

Such a man was Heinrich Dorn. Although, after the failure of three operas, he had retired in disgust from the theatre to devote himself exclusively to the commercial side of music, yet the success of his opera, Der Schoffe von Paris, in Riga helped him back to a permanent place among the dramatic musicians of Germany. But to this position he was first dragged from obscurity, across the bridge of infidelity to his friend, and by the aid of virtue in the person of Director Holtei, thanks to a magnanimous oversight on the part of Franz Listz. The preference of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. for church scenes contributed to secure him eventually his important position at the greatest lyric theatre in Germany, the Royal Opera of Berlin. For he was prompted far less by his devotion to the dramatic muse than by his desire to secure a good position in some important German city, when, as already hinted, through Liszt’s recommendation he was appointed musical director of Cologne Cathedral. During a fete connected with the building of the cathedral he managed, as a musician, so to work upon the Prussian monarch’s religious feelings, that he was appointed to the dignified post of musical conductor at the Royal Theatre, in which capacity he long continued to do honour to German dramatic music in conjunction with Wilhelm Taubert.

I must give J. Hoffmann, who from this time forward was the manager of the Riga theatre, the credit of having felt the treachery practised upon me very deeply indeed. He told me that his contract with Dorn bound him only for one year, and that the moment the twelve months had elapsed he wished to come to a fresh agreement with me. As soon as this was known, my patrons in Riga came forward with offers of teaching engagements and arrangements for sundry concerts, by way of compensating me for the year’s salary which I should lose by being away from my work as a conductor. Though I was much gratified by these offers, yet, as I have already pointed out, the longing to break loose from the kind of theatrical life which I had experienced up to that time so possessed me that I resolutely seized this chance of abandoning my former vocation for an entirely new one. Not without some shrewdness, I played upon my wife’s indignation at the treachery I had suffered, in order to make her fall in with my eccentric notion of going to Paris. Already in my conception of Rienzi I had dreamed of the most magnificent theatrical conditions, but now, without halting at any intermediate stations, my one desire was to reach the very heart of all European grand opera. While still in Magdeburg I had made H. Konig’s romance, Die Hohe Braut, the subject of a grand opera in five acts, and in the most luxurious French style. After the scenic draft of this opera, which had been translated into French, was completely worked out, I sent it from Konigsberg to Scribe in Paris. With this manuscript I sent a letter to the famous operatic poet, in which I suggested that he might make use of my plot, on condition that he would secure me the composition of the music for the Paris Opera House. To convince him of my ability to compose Parisian operatic music, I also sent him the score of my Liebesverbot. At the same time I wrote to Meyerbeer, informing him of my plans, and begging him to support me. I was not at all disheartened at receiving no reply, for I was content to know that now at last ‘I was in communication with Paris.’ When, therefore, I started out upon my daring journey from Riga, I seemed to have a comparatively serious object in view, and my Paris projects no longer struck me as being altogether in the air. In addition to this I now heard that my youngest sister, Cecilia, had become betrothed to a certain Eduard Avenarius, an employee of the Brockhaus book-selling firm, and that he had undertaken the management of their Paris branch. To him I applied for news of Scribe, and for an answer to the application I had made to that gentleman some years previously. Avenarius called on Scribe, and from him received an acknowledgment of the receipt of my earlier communication. Scribe also showed that he had some recollection of the subject itself; for he said that, so far as he could remember, there was a joueuse de harpe in the piece, who was ill-treated by her brother. The fact that this merely incidental item had alone remained in his memory led me to conclude that he had not extended his acquaintance with the piece beyond the first act, in which the item in question occurs. When, moreover, I heard that he had nothing to say in regard to my score, except that he had had portions of it played over to him by a pupil of the Conservatoire, I really could not flatter myself that he had entered into definite and conscious relations with me. And yet I had palpable evidence in a letter of his to Avenarius, which the latter forwarded to me, that Scribe had actually occupied himself with my work, and that I was indeed in communication with him, and this letter of Scribe’s made such an impression upon my wife, who was by no means inclined to be sanguine, that she gradually overcame her apprehensions in regard to the Paris adventure. At last it was fixed and settled that on the expiry of my second year’s contract in Riga (that is to say, in the coming summer, 1839), we should journey direct from Riga to Paris, in order that I might try my luck there as a composer of opera.

The production of my Rienzi now began to assume greater importance. The composition of its second act was finished before we started, and into this I wove a heroic ballet of extravagant dimensions. It was now imperative that I should speedily acquire a knowledge of French, a language which, during my classical studies at the Grammar School, I had contemptuously laid aside. As there were only four weeks in which to recover the time I had lost, I engaged an excellent French master. But as I soon realised that I could achieve but little in so short a time, I utilised the hours of the lessons in order to obtain from him, under the pretence of receiving instruction, an idiomatic translation of my Rienzi libretto. This I wrote with red ink on such parts of the score as were finished, so that on reaching Paris I might immediately submit my half-finished opera to French judges of art.

Everything now seemed to be carefully prepared for my departure, and all that remained to be done was to raise the necessary funds for my undertaking. But in this respect the outlook was bad. The sale of our modest household furniture, the proceeds of a benefit concert, and my meagre savings only sufficed to satisfy the importunate demands of my creditors in Magdeburg and Konigsberg. I knew that if I were to devote all my cash to this purpose, there would not be a farthing left. Some way out of the fix must be found, and this our old Konigsberg friend, Abraham Moller, suggested in his usual flippant and obscure manner. Just at this critical moment he paid us a second visit to Riga. I acquainted him with the difficulties of our position, and all the obstacles which stood in the way of my resolve to go to Paris. In his habitual laconical way he counselled me to reserve all my savings for our journey, and to settle with my creditors when my Parisian successes had provided the necessary means. To help us in carrying out this plan, he offered to convey us in his carriage across the Russian frontier at top speed to an East Prussian port. We should have to cross the Russian frontier without passports, as these had been already impounded by our foreign creditors. He assured us that we should find it quite simple to carry out this very hazardous expedition, and declared that he had a friend on a Prussian estate close to the frontier who would render us very effective assistance. My eagerness to escape at any price from my previous circumstances, and to enter with all possible speed upon the wider field, in which I hoped very soon to realise my ambition, blinded me to all the unpleasantnesses which the execution of his proposal must entail. Director Hoffmann, who considered himself bound to serve me to the utmost of his ability, facilitated my departure by allowing me to leave some months before the expiration of my engagement. After continuing to conduct the operatic portion of the Mitau theatrical season through the month of June, we secretly started in a special coach hired by Moller and under his protection. The goal of our journey was Paris, but many unheard-of hardships were in store for us before we were to reach that city.

The sense of contentment involuntarily aroused by our passage through the fruitful Courland in the luxuriant month of July, and by the sweet illusion that now at last I had cut myself loose from a hateful existence, to enter upon a new and boundless path of fortune, was disturbed from its very outset by the miserable inconveniences occasioned by the presence of a huge Newfoundland dog called Robber. This beautiful creature, originally the property of a Riga merchant, had, contrary to the nature of his race, become devotedly attached to me. After I had left Riga, and during my long stay in Mitau, Robber incessantly besieged my empty house, and so touched the hearts of my landlord and the neighbours by his fidelity, that they sent the dog after me by the conductor of the coach to Mitau, where I greeted him with genuine effusion, and swore that, in spite of all difficulties, I would never part with him again. Whatever might happen, the dog must go with us to Paris. And yet, even to get him into the carriage proved almost impossible. All my endeavours to find him a place in or about the vehicle were in vain, and, to my great grief, I had to watch the huge northern beast, with his shaggy coat, gallop all day long in the blazing sun beside the carriage. At last, moved to pity by his exhaustion, and unable to bear the sight any longer, I hit upon a most ingenious plan for bringing the great animal with us into the carriage, where, in spite of its being full to overflowing, he was just able to find room.

On the evening of the second day we reached the Russo-Prussian frontier. Moller’s evident anxiety as to whether we should be able to cross it safely showed us plainly that the matter was one of some danger. His good friend from the other side duly turned up with a small carriage, as arranged, and in this conveyance drove Minna, myself, and Robber through by paths to a certain point, whence he led us on foot to a house of exceedingly suspicious exterior, where, after handing us over to a guide, he left us. There we had to wait until sundown, and had ample leisure in which to realise that we were in a smugglers’ drinking den, which gradually became filled to suffocation with Polish Jews of most forbidding aspect.

At last we were summoned to follow our guide. A few hundred feet away, on the slope of a hill, lay the ditch which runs the whole length of the Russian frontier, watched continually and at very narrow intervals by Cossacks. Our chance was to utilise the few moments after the relief of the watch, during which the sentinels were elsewhere engaged. We had, therefore, to run at full speed down the hill, scramble through the ditch, and then hurry along until we were beyond the range of the soldiers’ guns; for the Cossacks were bound in case of discovery to fire upon us even on the other side of the ditch. In spite of my almost passionate anxiety for Minna, I had observed with singular pleasure the intelligent behaviour of Robber, who, as though conscious of the danger, silently kept close to our side, and entirely dispelled my fear that he would give trouble during our dangerous passage. At last our trusted helpmeet reappeared, and was so delighted that he hugged us all in his arms. Then, placing us once more in his carriage, he drove us to the inn of the Prussian frontier village, where my friend Moller, positively sick with anxiety, leaped sobbing and rejoicing out of bed to greet us.

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