Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.0

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

It was only now that I began to realise the danger to which I had exposed, not only myself, but also my poor Minna, and the folly of which I had been guilty through my ignorance of the terrible difficulties of secretly crossing the frontier–difficulties concerning which Moller had foolishly allowed me to remain in ignorance.

I was simply at a loss to convey to my poor exhausted wife how extremely I regretted the whole affair.

And yet the difficulties we had just overcome were but the prelude to the calamities incidental to this adventurous journey which had such a decisive influence on my life. The following day, when, with courage renewed, we drove through the rich plain of Tilsit to Arnau, near Konigsberg, we decided, as the next stage of our journey, to proceed from the Prussian harbour of Pillau by sailing vessel to London. Our principal reason for this was the consideration of the dog we had with us. It was the easiest way to take him. To convey him by coach from Konigsberg to Paris was out of the question, and railways were unknown. But another consideration was our budget; the whole result of my desperate efforts amounted to not quite one hundred ducats, which were to cover not only the journey to Paris, but our expenses there until I should have earned something. Therefore, after a few days’ rest in the inn at Arnau, we drove to the little seaport town of Pillau, again accompanied by Moller, in one of the ordinary local conveyances, which was not much better than a wagon. In order to avoid Konigsberg, we passed through the smaller villages and over bad roads. Even this short distance was not to be covered without accident. The clumsy conveyance upset in a farmyard, and Minna was so severely indisposed by the accident, owing to an internal shock, that I had to drag her–with the greatest difficulty, as she was quite helpless–to a peasant’s house. The people were surly and dirty, and the night we spent there was a painful one for the poor sufferer. A delay of several days occurred before the departure of the Pillau vessel, but this was welcome as a respite to allow of Minna’s recovery. Finally, as the captain was to take us without a passport, our going on board was accompanied by exceptional difficulties. We had to contrive to slip past the harbour watch to our vessel in a small boat before daybreak. Once on board, we still had the troublesome task of hauling Robber up the steep side of the vessel without attracting attention, and after that to conceal ourselves at once below deck, in order to escape the notice of officials visiting the ship before its departure. The anchor was weighed, and at last, as the land faded gradually out of sight, we thought we could breathe freely and feel at ease.

We were on board a merchant vessel of the smallest type. She was called the Thetis; a bust of the nymph was erected in the bows, and she carried a crew of seven men, including the captain. With good weather, such as was to be expected in summer, the journey to London was estimated to take eight days. However, before we had left the Baltic, we were delayed by a prolonged calm. I made use of the time to improve my knowledge of French by the study of a novel, La Derniere Aldini, by George Sand. We also derived some entertainment from associating with the crew. There was an elderly and peculiarly taciturn sailor named Koske, whom we observed carefully because Robber, who was usually so friendly, had taken an irreconcilable dislike to him. Oddly enough, this fact was to add in some degree to our troubles in the hour of danger. After seven days’ sailing we were no further than Copenhagen, where, without leaving the vessel, we seized an opportunity of making our very spare diet on board more bearable by various purchases of food and drink. In good spirits we sailed past the beautiful castle of Elsinore, the sight of which brought me into immediate touch with my youthful impressions of Hamlet. We were sailing all unsuspecting through the Cattegat to the Skagerack, when the wind, which had at first been merely unfavourable, and had forced us to a process of weary tacking, changed on the second day to a violent storm. For twenty-four hours we had to struggle against it under disadvantages which were quite new to us. In the captain’s painfully narrow cabin, in which one of us was without a proper berth, we were a prey to sea-sickness and endless alarms. Unfortunately, the brandy cask, at which the crew fortified themselves during their strenuous work, was let into a hollow under the seat on which I lay at full length. Now it happened to be Koske who came most frequently in search of the refreshment which was such a nuisance to me, and this in spite of the fact that on each occasion he had to encounter Robber in mortal combat. The dog flew at him with renewed rage each time he came climbing down the narrow steps. I was thus compelled to make efforts which, in my state of complete exhaustion from sea-sickness, rendered my condition every time more critical. At last, on 27th July, the captain was compelled by the violence of the west wind to seek a harbour on the Norwegian coast. And how relieved I was to behold that far-reaching rocky coast, towards which we were being driven at such speed! A Norwegian pilot came to meet us in a small boat, and, with experienced hand, assumed control of the Thetis, whereupon in a very short time I was to have one of the most marvellous and most beautiful impressions of my life. What I had taken to be a continuous line of cliffs turned out on our approach to be a series of separate rocks projecting from the sea. Having sailed past them, we perceived that we were surrounded, not only in front and at the sides, but also at our back, by these reefs, which closed in behind us so near together that they seemed to form a single chain of rocks. At the same time the hurricane was so broken by the rocks in our rear that the further we sailed through this ever-changing labyrinth of projecting rocks, the calmer the sea became, until at last the vessel’s progress was perfectly smooth and quiet as we entered one of those long sea-roads running through a giant ravine–for such the Norwegian fjords appeared to me.

A feeling of indescribable content came over me when the enormous granite walls echoed the hail of the crew as they cast anchor and furled the sails. The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like an omen of good cheer, and shaped itself presently into the theme of the seamen’s song in my Fliegender Hollander. The idea of this opera was, even at that time, ever present in my mind, and it now took on a definite poetic and musical colour under the influence of my recent impressions. Well, our next move was to go on shore. I learned that the little fishing village at which we landed was called Sandwike, and was situated a few miles away from the much larger town of Arendal. We were allowed to put up at the hospitable house of a certain ship’s captain, who was then away at sea, and here we were able to take the rest we so much needed, as the unabated violence of the wind in the open detained us there two days. On 31st July the captain insisted on leaving, despite the pilot’s warning. We had been on board the Thetis a few hours, and were in the act of eating a lobster for the first time in our lives, when the captain and the sailors began to swear violently at the pilot, whom I could see at the helm, rigid with fear, striving to avoid a reef–barely visible above the water–towards which our ship was being driven. Great was our terror at this violent tumult, for we naturally thought ourselves in the most extreme danger. The vessel did actually receive a severe shock, which, to my vivid imagination, seemed like the splitting up of the whole ship. Fortunately, however, it transpired that only the side of our vessel had fouled the reef, and there was no immediate danger. Nevertheless, the captain deemed it necessary to steer for a harbour to have the vessel examined, and we returned to the coast and anchored at another point. The captain then offered to take us in a small boat with two sailors to Tromsond, a town of some importance situated at a few hours’ distance, where he had to invite the harbour officials to examine his ship. This again proved a most attractive and impressive excursion. The view of one fjord in particular, which extended far inland, worked on my imagination like some unknown, awe-inspiring desert. This impression was intensified, during a long walk from Tromsond up to the plateau, by the terribly depressing effect of the dun moors, bare of tree or shrub, boasting only a covering of scanty moss, which stretch away to the horizon, and merge imperceptibly into the gloomy sky. It was long after dark when we returned from this trip in our little boat, and my wife was very anxious. The next morning (1st August), reassured as to the condition of the vessel, and the wind favouring us, we were able to go to sea without further hindrance.

After four days’ calm sailing a strong north wind arose, which drove us at uncommon speed in the right direction. We began to think ourselves nearly at the end of our journey when, on 6th August, the wind changed, and the storm began to rage with unheard-of violence. On the 7th, a Wednesday, at half-past two in the afternoon, we thought ourselves in imminent danger of death. It was not the terrible force with which the vessel was hurled up and down, entirely at the mercy of this sea monster, which appeared now as a fathomless abyss, now as a steep mountain peak, that filled me with mortal dread; my premonition of some terrible crisis was aroused by the despondency of the crew, whose malignant glances seemed superstitiously to point to us as the cause of the threatening disaster. Ignorant of the trifling occasion for the secrecy of our journey, the thought may have occurred to them that our need of escape had arisen from suspicious or even criminal circumstances. The captain himself seemed, in his extreme distress, to regret having taken us on board; for we had evidently brought him ill-luck on this familiar passage–usually a rapid and uncomplicated one, especially in summer. At this particular moment there raged, beside the tempest on the water, a furious thunderstorm overhead, and Minna expressed the fervent wish to be struck by lightning with me rather than to sink, living, into the fearful flood. She even begged me to bind her to me, so that we might not be parted as we sank. Yet another night was spent amid these incessant terrors, which only our extreme exhaustion helped to mitigate.

The following day the storm had subsided; the wind remained unfavourable, but was mild. The captain now tried to find our bearings by means of his astronomical instruments. He complained of the sky, which had been overcast so many days, swore that he would give much for a single glimpse of the sun or the stars, and did not conceal the uneasiness he felt at not being able to indicate our whereabouts with certainty. He consoled himself, however, by following a ship which was sailing some knots ahead in the same direction, and whose movements he observed closely through the telescope. Suddenly he sprang up in great alarm, and gave a vehement order to change our course. He had seen the ship in front go aground on a sand-bank, from which, he asserted, she could not extricate herself; for he now realised that we were near the most dangerous part of the belt of sand-banks bordering the Dutch coast for a considerable distance. By dint of very skilful sailing, we were enabled to keep the opposite course towards the English coast, which we in fact sighted on the evening of 9th August, in the neighbourhood of Southwold. I felt new life come into me when I saw in the far distance the English pilots racing for our ship. As competition is free among pilots on the English coast, they come out as far as possible to meet incoming vessels, even when the risks are very great.

The winner in our case was a powerful grey-haired man, who, after much vain battling with the seething waves, which tossed his light boat away from our ship at each attempt, at last succeeded in boarding the Thetis. (Our poor, hardly-used boat still bore the name, although the wooden figure-head of our patron nymph had been hurled into the sea during our first storm in the Cattegat–an ill-omened incident in the eyes of the crew.) We were filled with pious gratitude when this quiet English sailor, whose hands were torn and bleeding from his repeated efforts to catch the rope thrown to him on his approach, took over the rudder. His whole personality impressed us most agreeably, and he seemed to us the absolute guarantee of a speedy deliverance from our terrible afflictions. We rejoiced too soon, however, for we still had before us the perilous passage through the sand-banks off the English coast, where, as I was assured, nearly four hundred ships are wrecked on an average every year. We were fully twenty-four hours (from the evening of the 10th to the 11th of August) amid these sandbanks, fighting a westerly gale, which hindered our progress so seriously that we only reached the mouth of the Thames on the evening of the 12th of August. My wife had, up to that point, been so nervously affected by the innumerable danger signals, consisting chiefly of small guardships painted bright red and provided with bells on account of the fog, that she could not close her eyes, day or night, for the excitement of watching for them and pointing them out to the sailors. I, on the contrary, found these heralds of human proximity and deliverance so consoling that, despite Minna’s reproaches, I indulged in a long refreshing sleep. Now that we were anchored in the mouth of the Thames, waiting for daybreak, I found myself in the best of spirits; I dressed, washed, and even shaved myself up on deck near the mast, while Minna and the whole exhausted crew were wrapped in deep slumber. And with deepening interest I watched the growing signs of life in this famous estuary. Our desire for a complete release from our detested confinement led us, after we had sailed a little way up, to hasten our arrival in London by going on board a passing steamer at Gravesend. As we neared the capital, our astonishment steadily increased at the number of ships of all sorts that filled the river, the houses, the streets, the famous docks, and other maritime constructions which lined the banks. When at last we reached London Bridge, this incredibly crowded centre of the greatest city in the world, and set foot on land after our terrible three weeks’ voyage, a pleasurable sensation of giddiness overcame us as our legs carried us staggering through the deafening uproar. Robber seemed to be similarly affected, for he whisked round the corners like a mad thing, and threatened to get lost every other minute. But we soon sought safety in a cab, which took us, on our captain’s recommendation, to the Horseshoe Tavern, near the Tower, and here we had to make our plans for the conquest of this giant metropolis.

The neighbourhood in which we found ourselves was such that we decided to leave it with all possible haste. A very friendly little hunchbacked Jew from Hamburg suggested better quarters in the West End, and I remember vividly our drive there, in one of the tiny narrow cabs then in use, the journey lasting fully an hour. They were built to carry two people, who had to sit facing each other, and we therefore had to lay our big dog crosswise from window to window. The sights we saw from our whimsical nook surpassed anything we had imagined, and we arrived at our boarding-house in Old Compton Street agreeably stimulated by the life and the overwhelming size of the great city. Although at the age of twelve I had made what I supposed to be a translation of a monologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I found my knowledge of English quite inadequate when it came to conversing with the landlady of the King’s Arms. But the good dame’s social condition as a sea-captain’s widow led her to think she could talk French to me, and her attempts made me wonder which of us knew least of that language. And then a most disturbing incident occurred–we missed Robber, who must have run away at the door instead of following us into the house. Our distress at having lost our good dog after having brought him all the way there with such difficulty occupied us exclusively during the first two hours we spent in this new home on land. We kept constant watch at the window until, of a sudden, we joyfully recognised Robber strolling unconcernedly towards the house from a side street. Afterwards we learned that our truant had wandered as far as Oxford Street in search of adventures, and I have always considered his amazing return to a house which he had not even entered as a strong proof of the absolute certainty of the animal’s instincts in the matter of memory.

We now had time to realise the tiresome after-effects of the voyage. The continuous swaying of the floor and our clumsy efforts to keep from falling we found fairly entertaining; but when we came to take our well-earned rest in the huge English double bed, and found that that too rocked up and down, it became quite unbearable. Every time we closed our eyes we sank into frightful abysses, and, springing up again, cried out for help. It seemed as if that terrible voyage would go on to the end of our lives. Added to this we felt miserably sick; for, after the atrocious food on board, we had been only too ready to partake, with less discretion than relish, of tastier fare.

We were so exhausted by all these trials that we forgot to consider what was, after all, the vital question–the probable result in hard cash. Indeed, the marvels of the great city proved so fascinating, that we started off in a cab, for all the world as if we were on a pleasure trip, to follow up a plan I had sketched on my map of London. In our wonder and delight at what we saw, we quite forgot all we had gone through. Costly as it proved, I considered our week’s stay justified in view of Minna’s need of rest in the first place, and secondly, the excellent opportunity it afforded me of making acquaintances in the musical world. During my last visit to Dresden I had sent Rule Britannia, the overture composed at Konigsberg, to Sir John Smart, president of the Philharmonic Society. It is true he had never acknowledged it, but I felt it the more incumbent on me to bring him to task about it. I therefore spent some days trying to find out where he lived, wondering meanwhile in which language I should have to make myself understood, but as the result of my inquiries I discovered that Smart was not in London at all. I next persuaded myself that it would be a good thing to look up Bulwer Lytton, and to come to an understanding about the operatic performance of his novel, Rienzi, which I had dramatised. Having been told, on the continent, that Bulwer was a member of Parliament, I went to the House, after a few days, to inquire on the spot. My total ignorance of the English language stood me in good stead here, and I was treated with unexpected consideration; for, as none of the lower officials in that vast building could make out what I wanted, I was sent, step by step, to one high dignitary after the other, until at last I was introduced to a distinguished-looking man, who came out of a large hall as we passed, as an entirely unintelligible individual. (Minna was with me all the time; only Robber. had been left behind at the King’s Arms.) He asked me very civilly what I wanted, in French, and seemed favourably impressed when I inquired for the celebrated author. He was obliged to tell me, however, that he was not in London. I went on to ask whether I could not be admitted to a debate, but was told that, in consequence of the old Houses of Parliament having been burnt down, they were using temporary premises where the space was so limited that only a few favoured visitors could procure cards of admittance. But on my pressing more urgently he relented, and shortly after opened a door leading direct into the strangers’ seats in the House of Lords. It seemed reasonable to conclude from this that our friend was a lord in person. I was immensely interested to see and hear the Premier, Lord Melbourne, and Brougham (who seemed to me to take a very active part in the proceedings, prompting Melbourne several times, as I thought), and the Duke of Wellington, who looked so comfortable in his grey beaver hat, with his hands diving deep into his trousers pockets, and who made his speech in so conversational a tone that I lost my feeling of excessive awe. He had a curious way, too, of accenting his points of special emphasis by shaking his whole body, I was also much interested in Lord Lyndhurst, Brougham’s particular enemy, and was amazed to see Brougham go across several times to sit down coolly beside him, apparently with a view to prompting even his opponent. The matter in hand was, as I learned afterwards from the papers, the discussion of measures to be taken against the Portuguese Government to ensure the passing of the Anti-Slavery Bill. The Bishop of London, who was one of the speakers on this occasion, was the only one of these gentlemen whose voice and manner seemed to me stiff or unnatural, but possibly I was prejudiced by my dislike of parsons generally.

After this pleasing adventure I imagined I had exhausted the attractions of London for the present, for although I could not gain admittance to the Lower House, my untiring friend, whom I came across again as I went out, showed me the room where the Commons sat, explained as much as was necessary, and gave me a sight of the Speaker’s woolsack, and of his mace lying hidden under the table. He also gave me such careful details of various things that I felt I knew all there was to know about the capital of Great Britain. I had not the smallest intention of going to the Italian opera, possibly because I imagined the prices to be too ruinous. We thoroughly explored all the principal streets, often tiring ourselves out; we shuddered through a ghastly London Sunday, and wound up with a train trip (our very first) to Gravesend Park, in the company of the captain of the Thetis. On the 20th of August we crossed over to France by steamer, arriving the same evening at Boulogne-sur-mer, where we took leave of the sea with the fervent desire never to go on it again.

We were both of us secretly convinced that we should meet with disappointments in Paris, and it was partly on that account that we decided to spend a few weeks at or near Boulogne. It was, in any case, too early in the season to find the various important people whom I proposed to see, in town; on the other hand, it seemed to me a most fortunate circumstance that Meyerbeer should happen to be at Boulogne. Also, I had the instrumentation of part of the second act of Rienzi to finish, and was bent on having at least half of the work ready to show on my arrival in the costly French capital. We therefore set out to find less expensive accommodation in the country round Boulogne. Beginning with the immediate neighbourhood, our search ended in our taking two practically unfurnished rooms in the detached house of a rural wine merchant’s, situated on the main road to Paris at half an hour’s distance from Boulogne. We next provided scanty but adequate furniture, and in bringing our wits to bear upon this matter Minna particularly distinguished herself. Besides a bed and two chairs, we dug up a table, which, after I had cleared away my Rienzi papers, served for our meals, which we had to prepare at our own fireside.

While we were here I made my first call on Meyerbeer. I had often read in the papers of his proverbial amiability, and bore him no ill-will for not replying to my letter. My favourable opinion was soon to be confirmed, however, by his kind reception of me. The impression he made was good in every respect, particularly as regards his appearance. The years had not yet given his features the flabby look which sooner or later mars most Jewish faces, and the fine formation of his brow round about the eyes gave him an expression of countenance that inspired confidence. He did not seem in the least inclined to depreciate my intention of trying my luck in Paris as a composer of opera; he allowed me to read him my libretto for Rienzi, and really listened up to the end of the third act. He kept the two acts that were complete, saying that he wished to look them over, and assured me, when I again called on him, of his whole-hearted interest in my work. Be this as it may, it annoyed me somewhat that he should again and again fall back on praising my minute handwriting, an accomplishment he considered especially Saxonian. He promised to give me letters of recommendation to Duponchel, the manager of the Opera House, and to Habeneck, the conductor. I now felt that I had good cause to extol my good fortune which, after many vicissitudes, had sent me precisely to this particular spot in France. What better fortune could have befallen me than to secure, in so short a time, the sympathetic interest of the most famous composer of French opera! Meyerbeer took me to see Moscheles, who was then in Boulogne, and also Fraulein Blahedka, a celebrated virtuoso whose name I had known for many years. I spent a few informal musical evenings at both houses, and thus came into close touch with musical celebrities, an experience quite new to me.

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