Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.1

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

I had written to my future brother-in-law, Avernarius, in Paris, to ask him to find us suitable accommodations, and we started on our journey thither on 16th September in the diligence, my efforts to hoist Robber on to the top being attended by the usual difficulties.

My first impression of Paris proved disappointing in view of the great expectations I had cherished of that city; after London it seemed to me narrow and confined. I had imagined the famous boulevards to be much vaster, for instance, and was really annoyed, when the huge coach put us down in the Rue de la Juissienne, to think that I should first set foot on Parisian soil in such a wretched little alley. Neither did the Rue Richelieu, where my brother-in-law had his book-shop, seem imposing after the streets in the west end of London. As for the chambre garnie, which had been engaged for me in the Rue de la Tonnellerie, one of the narrow side-streets which link the Rue St. Honore with the Marche des Innocents, I felt positively degraded at having to take up my abode there. I needed all the consolation that could be derived from an inscription, placed under a bust of Moliere, which read: maison ou naquit Moliere, to raise my courage after the mean impression the house had first made upon me. The room, which had been prepared for us on the fourth floor, was small but cheerful, decently furnished, and inexpensive. From the windows we could see the frightful bustle in the market below, which became more and more alarming as we watched it, and I wondered what we were doing in such a quarter.

Shortly after this, Avenarius had to go to Leipzig to bring home his bride, my youngest sister Cecilia, after the wedding in that city. Before leaving, he gave me an introduction to his only musical acquaintance, a German holding an appointment in the music department of the Bibliotheque Royale, named E. G. Anders, who lost no time in looking us up in Moliere’s house. He was, as I soon discovered, a man of very unusual character, and, little as he was able to help me, he left an affecting and ineffaceable impression on my memory. He was a bachelor in the fifties, whose reverses had driven him to the sad necessity of earning a living in Paris entirely without assistance. He had fallen back on the extraordinary bibliographical knowledge which, especially in reference to music, it had been his hobby to acquire in the days of his prosperity. His real name he never told me, wishing to guard the secret of that, as of his misfortunes, until after his death. For the time being he told me only that he was known as Anders, was of noble descent, and had held property on the Rhine, but that he had lost everything owing to the villainous betrayal of his gullibility and good-nature. The only thing he had managed to save was his very considerable library, the size of which I was able to estimate for myself. It filled every wall of his small dwelling. Even here in Paris he soon complained of bitter enemies; for, in spite of having come furnished with an introduction to influential people, he still held the inferior position of an employee in the library. In spite of his long service there and his great learning, he had to see really ignorant men promoted over his head. I discovered afterwards that the real reason lay in his unbusinesslike methods, and the effeminacy consequent on the delicate way in which he had been nurtured in early life, which made him incapable of developing the energy necessary for his work. On a miserable pittance of fifteen hundred francs a year, he led a weary existence, full of anxiety. With nothing in view but a lonely old age, and the probability of dying in a hospital, it seemed as if our society put new life into him; for though we were poverty-stricken, we looked forward boldly and hopefully to the future. My vivacity and invincible energy filled him with hopes of my success, and from this time forward he took a most tender and unselfish part in furthering my interests. Although he was a contributor to the Gazette Musicale, edited by Moritz Schlesinger, he had never succeeded in making his influence felt there in the slightest degree. He had none of the versatility of a journalist, and the editors entrusted him with little besides the preparation of bibliographical notes. Oddly enough, it was with this unworldly and least resourceful of men that I had to discuss my plan for the conquest of Paris, that is, of musical Paris, which is made up of all the most questionable characters imaginable. The result was practically always the same; we merely encouraged each other in the hope that some unforeseen stroke of luck would help my cause.

To assist us in these discussions Anders called in his friend and housemate Lehrs, a philologist, my acquaintance with whom was soon to develop into one of the most beautiful friendships of my life. Lehrs was the younger brother of a famous scholar at Konigsberg. He had left there to come to Paris some years before, with the object of gaining an independent position by his philological work. This he preferred, in spite of the attendant difficulties, to a post as teacher with a salary which only in Germany could be considered sufficient for a scholar’s wants. He soon obtained work from Didot, the bookseller, as assistant editor of a large edition of Greek classics, but the editor traded on his poverty, and was much more concerned about the success of his enterprise than about the condition of his poor collaborator. Lehrs had therefore perpetually to struggle against poverty, but he preserved an even temper, and showed himself in every way a model of disinterestedness and self-sacrifice. At first he looked upon me only as a man in need of advice, and incidentally a fellow-sufferer in Paris; for he had no knowledge of music, and had no particular interest in it. We soon became so intimate that I had him dropping in nearly every evening with Anders, Lehrs being extremely useful to his friend, whose unsteadiness in walking obliged him to use an umbrella and a walking-stick as crutches. He was also nervous in crossing crowded thorough-fares, and particularly so at night; while he always liked to make Lehrs cross my threshold in front of him to distract the attention of Robber, of whom he stood in obvious terror. Our usually good-natured dog became positively suspicious of this visitor, and soon adopted towards him the same aggressive attitude which he had shown to the sailor Koske on board the Thetis. The two men lived at an hotel garni in Rue de Seine. They complained greatly of their landlady, who appropriated so much of their income that they were entirely in her power. Anders had for years been trying to assert his independence by leaving her, without being able to carry out his plan. We soon threw off mutually every shred of disguise as to the present state of our finances, so that, although the two house-holds were actually separated, our common troubles gave us all the intimacy of one united family.

The various ways by which I might obtain recognition in Paris formed the chief topic of our discussions at that time. Our hopes were at first centred on Meyerbeer’s promised letters of introduction. Duponchel, the director of the Opera, did actually see me at his office, where, fixing a monocle in his right eye, he read through Meyerbeer’s letter without betraying the least emotion, having no doubt opened similar communications from the composer many times before. I went away, and never heard another word from him. The elderly conductor, Habeneck, on the other hand, took an interest in my work that was not merely polite, and acceded to my request to have something of mine played at one of the orchestral practises at the Conservatoire as soon as he should have leisure. I had, unfortunately, no short instrumental piece that seemed suitable except my queer Columbus Overture, which I considered the most effective of all that had emanated from my pen. It had been received with great applause on the occasion of its performance in the theatre at Magdeburg, with the assistance of the valiant trumpeters from the Prussian garrison. I gave Habeneck the score and parts, and was able to report to our committee at home that I had now one enterprise on foot.

I gave up the attempt to try and see Scribe on the mere ground of our having had some correspondence, for my friends had made it clear to me, in the light of their own experience, that it was out of the question to expect this exceptionally busy author to occupy himself seriously with a young and unknown musician. Anders was able to introduce me to another acquaintance, however, a certain M. Dumersan. This grey-haired gentleman had written some hundred vaudeville pieces, and would have been glad to see one of them performed as an opera on a larger scale before his death. He had no idea of standing on his dignity as an author, and was quite willing to undertake the translation of an existing libretto into French verse. We therefore entrusted him with the writing of my Liebesverbot, with a view to a performance at the Theatre de la Renaissance, as it was then called. (It was the third existing theatre for lyric drama, the performances being given in the new Salle Ventadour, which had been rebuilt after its destruction by fire.) On the understanding that it was to be a literal translation, he at once turned the three numbers of my opera, for which I hoped to secure a hearing, into neat French verse. Besides this, he asked me to compose a chorus for a vaudeville entitled La Descente de la Courtille, which was to be played at the Varietes during the carnival.

This was a second opening. My friends now strongly advised me to write something small in the way of songs, which I could offer to popular singers for concert purposes. Both Lehrs and Anders produced words for these. Anders brought a very innocent Dors, mon enfant, written by a young poet of his acquaintance; this was the first thing I composed to a French text. It was so successful that, when I had tried it over softly several times on the piano, my wife, who was in bed, called out to me that it was heavenly for sending one to sleep. I also set L’Attente from Hugo’s Orientales, and Ronsard’s song, Mignonne, to music. I have no reason to be ashamed of these small pieces, which I published subsequently as a musical supplement to Europa (Lewald’s publication) in 1841.

I next stumbled on the idea of writing a grand bass aria with a chorus, for Lablache to introduce into his part of Orovist in Bellini’s Norma. Lehrs had to hunt up an Italian political refugee to get the text out of him. This was done, and I produced an effective composition a la Bellini (which still exists among my manuscripts), and went off at once to offer it to Lablache.

The friendly Moor, who received me in the great singer’s anteroom, insisted upon admitting me straight into his master’s presence without announcing me. As I had anticipated some difficulty in getting near such a celebrity, I had written my request, as I thought this would be simpler than explaining verbally.

The black servant’s pleasant manner made me feel very uncomfortable; I entrusted my score and letter to him to give to Lablache, without taking any notice of his kindly astonishment at my refusal of his repeated invitation to go into his master’s room and have an interview, and I left the house hurriedly, intending to call for my answer in a few days. When I came back Lablache received me most kindly, and assured me that my aria was excellent, though it was impossible to introduce it into Bellini’s opera after the latter had already been performed so very often. My relapse into the domain of Bellini’s style, of which I had been guilty through the writing of this aria, was therefore useless to me, and I soon became convinced of the fruitlessness of my efforts in that direction. I saw that I should need personal introductions to various singers in order to ensure the production of one of my other compositions.

When Meyerbeer at last arrived in Paris, therefore, I was delighted. He was not in the least astonished at the lack of success of his letters of introduction; on the contrary, he made use of this opportunity to impress upon me how difficult it was to get on in Paris, and how necessary it was for me to look out for less pretentious work. With this object he introduced me to Maurice Schlesinger, and leaving me at the mercy of that monstrous person, went back to Germany.

At first Schlesinger did not know what to do with me; the acquaintances I made through him (of whom the chief was the violinist Panofka) led to nothing, and I therefore returned to my advisory board at home, through whose influence I had recently received an order to compose the music to the Two Grenadiers, by Heine, translated by a Parisian professor. I wrote this song for baritone, and was very pleased with the result; on Ander’s advice I now tried to find singers for my new compositions. Mme. Pauline Viardot, on whom I first called, went through my songs with me. She was very amiable, and praised them, but did not see why SHE should sing them. I went through the same experience with a Mme. Widmann, a grand contralto, who sang my Dors, mon enfant with great feeling; all the same she had no further use for my composition. A certain M. Dupont, third tenor at the grand opera, tried my setting of the Ronsard poem, but declared that the language in which it was written was no longer palatable to the Paris public. M. Geraldy, a favourite concert singer and teacher, who allowed me to call and see him frequently, told me that the Two Grenadiers was impossible, for the simple reason that the accompaniment at the end of the song, which I had modelled upon the Marseillaise, could only be sung in the streets of Paris to the accompaniment of cannons and gunshots. Habeneck was the only person who fulfilled his promise to conduct my Columbus Overture at one of the rehearsals for the benefit of Anders and myself. As, however, there was no question of producing this work even at one of the celebrated Conservatoire concerts, I saw clearly that the old gentleman was only moved by kindness and a desire to encourage me. It could not lead to anything further, and I myself was convinced that this extremely superficial work of my young days could only give the orchestra a wrong impression of my talents. However, these rehearsals, to my surprise, made such an unexpected impression on me in other ways that they exercised a decisive influence in the crisis of my artistic development. This was due to the fact that I listened repeatedly to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which, by dint of untiring practice, received such a marvellous interpretation at the hands of this celebrated orchestra, that the picture I had had of it in my mind in the enthusiastic days of my youth now stood before me almost tangibly in brilliant colours, undimmed, as though it had never been effaced by the Leipzig orchestra who had slaughtered it under Pohlenz’s baton. Where formerly I had only seen mystic constellations and weird shapes without meaning, I now found, flowing from innumerable sources, a stream of the most touching and heavenly melodies which delighted my heart.

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