Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.2

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

The whole of that period of the deterioration of my musical tastes which dated, practically speaking, from those selfsame confusing ideas about Beethoven, and which had grown so much worse through my acquaintance with that dreadful theatre–all these wrong views now sank down as if into an abyss of shame and remorse.

This inner change had been gradually prepared by many painful experiences during the last few years. I owed the recovery of my old vigour and spirits to the deep impression the rendering of the Ninth Symphony had made on me when performed in a way I had never dreamed of. This important event in my life can only be compared to the upheaval caused within me when, as a youth of sixteen, I saw Schroder-Devrient act in Fidelio.

The direct result of this was my intense longing to compose something that would give me a similar feeling of satisfaction, and this desire grew in proportion to my anxiety about my unfortunate position in Paris, which made me almost despair of success.

In this mood I sketched an overture to Faust which, according to my original scheme, was only to form the first part of a whole Faust Symphony, as I had already got the ‘Gretchen’ idea in my head for the second movement. This is the same composition that I rewrote in several parts fifteen years later; I had forgotten all about it, and I owed its reconstruction to the advice of Liszt, who gave me many valuable hints. This composition has been performed many times under the title of eine Faust-ouverture, and has met with great appreciation. At the time of which I am speaking, I hoped that the Conservatoire orchestra would have been willing to give the work a hearing, but I was told they thought they had done enough for me, and hoped to be rid of me for some time.

Having failed everywhere, I now turned to Meyerbeer for more introductions, especially to singers. I was very much surprised when, in consequence of my request, Meyerbeer introduced me to a certain M. Gouin, a post-office official, and Meyerbeer’s sole agent in Paris, whom he instructed to do his utmost for me. Meyerbeer specially wished me to know M. Antenor Joly, director of the Theatre de la Renaissance, the musical theatre already mentioned. M. Gouin, with almost suspicious levity, promised me to produce my opera Liebesverbot, which now only required translation. There was a question of having a few numbers of my opera sung to the committee of the theatre at a special audience. When I suggested that some of the singers of this very theatre should undertake to sing three of the numbers which had been already translated by Dumersan, I was refused on the plea that all these artists were far too busy. But Gouin saw a way out of the difficulty; on the authority of Maitre Meyerbeer, he won over to our cause several singers who were under an obligation to Meyerbeer: Mme. Dorus-Gras, a real primadonna of the Grand Opera, Mme. Widmann and M. Dupont (the two last-named had previously refused to help me) now promised to sing for me at this audience.

This much, then, did I achieve in six months. It was now nearly Easter of the year 1840. Encouraged by Gouin’s negotiations, which seemed to spell hope, I made up my mind to move from the obscure Quartier des Innocents to a part of Paris nearer to the musical centre; and in this I was encouraged by Lehrs’ foolhardy advice.

What this change meant to me, my readers will learn when they hear under what circumstances we had dragged on our existence during our stay in Paris.

Although we were living in the cheapest possible way, dining at a very small restaurant for a franc a head, it was impossible to prevent the rest of our money from melting away. Our friend Moller had given us to understand that we could ask him if we were in need, as he would put aside for us the first money that came in from any successful business transaction. There was no alternative but to apply to him for money; in the meantime we pawned all the trinkets we possessed that were of any value. As I was too shy to make inquiries about a pawnshop, I looked up the French equivalent in the dictionary in order to be able to recognise such a place when I saw it. In my little pocket dictionary I could not find any other word than ‘Lombard.’ On looking at a map of Paris I found, situated in the middle of an inextricable maze of streets, a very small lane called Rue des Lombards. Thither I wended my way, but my expedition was fruitless. Often, on reading by the light of the transparent lanterns the inscription ‘Mont de Piete,’ I became very curious to know its meaning, and on consulting my advisory board at home about this ‘Mount of Piety,’ [Footnote: This is the correct translation of the words Berg der Frommigkeit used in the original.–Editor.] I was told, to my great delight, that it was precisely there that I should find salvation. To this ‘Mont de Piete’ we now carried all we possessed in the way of silver, namely, our wedding presents. After that followed my wife’s trinkets and the rest of her former theatrical wardrobe, amongst which was a beautiful silver-embroidered blue dress with a court train, once the property of the Duchess of Dessau. Still we heard nothing from our friend Moller, and we were obliged to wait on from day to day for the sorely needed help from Konigsberg, and at last, one dark day, we pledged our wedding rings. When all hope of assistance seemed vain, I heard that the pawn-tickets themselves were of some value, as they could be sold to buyers, who thereby acquired the right to redeem the pawned articles. I had to resort even to this, and thus the blue court-dress, for instance, was lost for ever. Moller never wrote again. When later on he called on me at the time of my conductorship in Dresden, he admitted that he had been embittered against me owing to humiliating and derogatory remarks we were said to have made about him after we parted, and had resolved not to have anything further to do with us. We were certain of our innocence in the matter, and very grieved at having, through pure slander, lost the chance of such assistance in our great need.

At the beginning of our pecuniary difficulties we sustained a loss which we looked upon as providential, in spite of the grief it caused us. This was our beautiful dog, which we had managed to bring across to Paris with endless difficulty. As he was a very valuable animal, and attracted much attention, he had probably been stolen. In spite of the terrible state of the traffic in Paris, he had always found his way home in the same clever manner in which he had mastered the difficulties of the London streets. Quite at the beginning of our stay in Paris he had often gone off by himself to the gardens of the Palais Royal, where he used to meet many of his friends, and had returned safe and sound after a brilliant exhibition of swimming and retrieving before an audience of gutter children. At the Quai du Pont-neuf he generally begged us to let him bathe; there he used to draw a large crowd of spectators round him, who were so loud in their enthusiasm about the way in which he dived for and brought to land various objects of clothing, tools, etc., that the police begged us to put an end to the obstruction. One morning I let him out for a little run as usual; he never returned, and in spite of our most strenuous efforts to recover him, no trace of him was to be found. This loss seemed to many of our friends a piece of luck, for they could not understand how it was possible for us to feed such a huge animal when we ourselves had not enough to eat. About this time, the second month of our stay in Paris, my sister Louisa came over from Leipzig to join her husband, Friedrich Brockhaus, in Paris, where he had been waiting for her for some time. They intended to go to Italy together, and Louisa made use of this opportunity to buy all kinds of expensive things in Paris. I did not expect them to feel any pity for us on account of our foolish removal to Paris, and its attendant miseries, or that they should consider themselves bound to help us in any way; but although we did not try to conceal our position, we derived no benefit from the visit of our rich relations. Minna was even kind enough to help my sister with her luxurious shopping, and we were very anxious not to make them think we wanted to rouse their pity. In return my sister introduced me to an extraordinary friend of hers, who was destined to take a great interest in me. This was the young painter, Ernst Kietz, from Dresden; he was an exceptionally kind-hearted and unaffected young man, whose talent for portrait painting (in a sort of coloured pastel style) had made him such a favourite in his own town, that he had been induced by his financial successes to come to Paris for a time to finish his art studies. He had now been working in Delaroche’s studio for about a year. He had a curious and almost childlike disposition, and his lack of all serious education, combined with a certain weakness of character, had made him choose a career in which he was destined, in spite of all his talent, to fail hopelessly. I had every opportunity of recognising this, as I saw a great deal of him. At the time, however, the simple-hearted devotion and kindness of this young man were very welcome both to myself and my wife, who often felt lonely, and his friendship was a real source of help in our darkest hours of adversity. He became almost a member of the family, and joined our home circle every night, providing a strange contrast to nervous old Anders and the grave-faced Lehrs. His good-nature and his quaint remarks soon made him indispensable to us; he amused us tremendously with his French, into which he would launch with the greatest confidence, although he could not put together two consecutive sentences properly, in spite of having lived in Paris for twenty years. With Delaroche he studied oil-painting, and had obviously considerable talent in this direction, although it was the very rock on which he stranded. The mixing of the colours on his palette, and especially the cleaning of his brushes, took up so much of his time that he rarely came to the actual painting. As the days were very short in midwinter, he never had time to do any work after he had finished washing his palette and brushes, and, as far as I can remember, he never completed a single portrait. Strangers to whom he had been introduced, and who had given him orders to paint their portraits, were obliged to leave Paris without seeing them even half done, and at last he even complained because some of his sitters died before their portraits were completed. His landlord, to whom he was always in debt for rent, was the only creature who succeeded in getting a portrait of his ugly person from the painter, and, as far as I know, this is the only finished portrait in existence by Kietz. On the other hand, he was very clever at making little sketches of any subject suggested by our conversation during the evening, and in these he displayed both originality and delicacy of execution. During the winter of that year he completed a good pencil portrait of me, which he touched up two years afterwards when he knew me more intimately, finishing it off as it now stands. It pleased him to sketch me in the attitude I often assumed during our evening chats when I was in a cheerful mood. No evening ever passed during which I did not succeed in shaking off the depression caused by my vain endeavours, and by the many worries I had gone through during the day, and in regaining my natural cheerfulness, and Kietz was anxious to represent me to the world as a man who, in spite of the hard times he had to face, had confidence in his success, and rose smiling above the troubles of life. Before the end of the year 1839, my youngest sister Cecilia also arrived in Paris with her husband, Edward Avenarius. It was only natural that she should feel embarrassed at the idea of meeting us in Paris in our extremely straitened circumstances, especially as her husband was not very well off. Consequently, instead of calling on them frequently, we preferred waiting until they came to see us, which, by the way, took them a long time. On the other hand, the renewal of our acquaintance with Heinrich Laube, who came over to Paris at the beginning of 1840 with his young wife, Iduna (nee Budaus), was very cheering. She was the widow of a wealthy Leipzig doctor, and Laube had married her under very extraordinary circumstances, since we last saw him in Berlin; they intended to enjoy themselves for a few months in Paris. During the long period of his detention, while awaiting his trial, this young lady had been so touched by his misfortunes that without knowing much of him, she had shown great sympathy and interest in his case. Laube’s sentence was pronounced soon after I left Berlin; it was unexpectedly light, consisting of only one year’s imprisonment in the town gaol. He was allowed to undergo this term in the prison at Muskau in Silesia, where he had the advantage of being near his friend, Prince Puckler, who in his official capacity, and on account of his influence with the governor of the prison, was permitted to afford the prisoner even the consolation of personal intercourse.

The young widow resolved to marry him at the beginning of his term of imprisonment, so that she might be near him at Muskau with her loving assistance. To see my old friend under such favourable conditions was in itself a pleasure to me; I also experienced the liveliest satisfaction at finding there was no change in his former sympathetic attitude. We met frequently; our wives also became friends, and Laube was the first to approve in his kindly humorous way of our folly in moving to Paris.

In his house I made the acquaintance of Heinrich Heine, and both of them joked good-humouredly over my extraordinary position, making even me laugh. Laube felt himself compelled to talk seriously to me about my expectations of succeeding in Paris, as he saw that I treated my situation, based on such trivial hopes, with a humour that charmed him even against his better judgment. He tried to think how he could help me without prejudicing my future. With this object he wanted me to make a more or less plausible sketch of my future plans, so that on his approaching visit to our native land he might procure some help for me. I happened just at that time to have come to an exceedingly promising understanding with the management of the Theatre de la Renaissance. I thus seemed to have obtained a footing, and I thought it safe to assert, that if I were guaranteed the means of livelihood for six months, I could not fail within that period to accomplish something. Laube promised to make this provision, and kept his word. He induced one of his wealthy friends in Leipzig, and, following this example, my well-to-do relations, to provide me for six months with the necessary resources, to be paid in monthly instalments through Avenarius.

We therefore decided, as I have said, to leave our furnished apartments and take a flat for ourselves in the Rue du Helder. My prudent, careful wife had suffered greatly on account of the careless and uncertain manner in which I had hitherto controlled our meagre resources, and in now undertaking the responsibility, she explained that she understood how to keep house more cheaply than we could do by living in furnished rooms and restaurants. Success justified the step; the serious part of the question lay in the fact that we had to start housekeeping without any furniture of our own, and everything necessary for domestic purposes had to be procured, though we had not the wherewithal to get it. In this matter Lehrs, who was well versed in the peculiarities of Parisian life, was able to advise us. In his opinion the only compensation for the experiences we had undergone hitherto would be a success equivalent to my daring. As I did not possess the resources to allow of long years of patient waiting for success in Paris, I must either count on extraordinary luck or renounce all my hopes forthwith. The longed-for success must come within a year, or I should be ruined. Therefore I must dare all, as befitted my name, for in my case he was not inclined to derive ‘Wagner’ [Footnote: ‘Wagner’ in German means one who dares, also a Wagoner; and ‘Fuhrwerk’ means a carriage.–Editor.] from Fuhrwerk. I was to pay my rent, twelve hundred francs, in quarterly instalments; for the furniture and fittings, he recommended me, through his landlady, to a carpenter who provided everything that was necessary for what seemed to be a reasonable sum, also to be paid by instalments, all of which appeared very simple. Lehrs maintained that I should do no good in Paris unless I showed the world that I had confidence in myself. My trial audience was impending; I felt sure of the Theatre de la Renaissance, and Dumersan was keenly anxious to make a complete translation of my Liebesverbot into French. So we decided to run the risk. On 15th April, to the astonishment of the concierge of the house in the Rue du Helder, we moved with an exceedingly small amount of luggage into our comfortable new apartments.

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