Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.3

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

The very first visit I received in the rooms I had taken with such high hopes was from Anders, who came with the tidings that the Theatre de la Renaissance had just gone bankrupt, and was closed. This news, which came on me like a thunder-clap, seemed to portend more than an ordinary stroke of bad luck; it revealed to me like a flash of lightning the absolute emptiness of my prospects. My friends openly expressed the opinion that Meyerbeer, in sending me from the Grand Opera to this theatre, probably knew the whole of the circumstances. I did not pursue the line of thought to which this supposition might lead, as I felt cause enough for bitterness when I wondered what I should do with the rooms in which I was so nicely installed.

As my singers had now practised the portions of Liebesverbot intended for the trial audience, I was anxious at least to have them performed before some persons of influence. M. Edouard Monnaie, who had been appointed temporary director of the Grand Opera after Duponchel’s retirement, was the less disposed to refuse as the singers who were to take part belonged to the institution over which he presided; moreover, there was no obligation attached to his presence at the audience. I also took the trouble to call on Scribe to invite him to attend, and he accepted with the kindest alacrity. At last my three pieces were performed before these two gentlemen in the green room of the Grand Opera, and I played the piano accompaniment. They pronounced the music charming, and Scribe expressed his willingness to arrange the libretto for me as soon as the managers of the opera had decided on accepting the piece; all that M. Monnaie had to reply to this offer was that it was impossible for them to do so at present. I did not fail to realise that these were only polite expressions; but at all events I thought it very nice of them, and particularly condescending of Scribe to have got so far as to think me deserving of a little politeness.

But in my heart of hearts I felt really ashamed of having gone back again seriously to that superficial early work from which I had taken these three pieces. Of course I had only done this because I thought I should win success more rapidly in Paris by adapting myself to its frivolous taste. My aversion from this kind of taste, which had been long growing, coincided with my abandonment of all hopes of success in Paris. I was placed in an exceedingly melancholy situation by the fact that my circumstances had so shaped themselves that I dared not express this important change in my feelings to any one, especially to my poor wife. But if I continued to make the best of a bad bargain, I had no longer any illusions as to the possibility of success in Paris. Face to face with unheard-of misery, I shuddered at the smiling aspect which Paris presented in the bright sunshine of May. It was the beginning of the slack season for any sort of artistic enterprise in Paris, and from every door at which I knocked with feigned hope I was turned away with the wretchedly monotonous phrase, Monsieur est a la campagne.

On our long walks, when we felt ourselves absolute strangers in the midst of the gay throng, I used to romance to my wife about the South American Free States, far away from all this sinister life, where opera and music were unknown, and the foundations of a sensible livelihood could easily be secured by industry. I told Minna, who was quite in the dark as to my meaning, of a book I had just read, Zschokke’s Die Grundung von Maryland, in which I found a very seductive account of the sensation of relief experienced by the European settlers after their former sufferings and persecutions. She, being of a more practical turn of mind, used to point out to me the necessity of procuring means for our continued existence in Paris, for which she had thought out all sorts of economies.

I, for my part, was sketching out the plan of the poem of my Fliegender Hollander, which I kept steadily before me as a possible means of making a debut in Paris. I put together the material for a single act, influenced by the consideration that I could in this way confine it to the simple dramatic developments between the principal characters, without troubling about the tiresome operatic accessories. From a practical point of view, I thought I could rely on a better prospect for the acceptance of my proposed work if it were cast in the form of a one-act opera, such as was frequently given as a curtain raiser before a ballet at the Grand Opera. I wrote about it to Meyerbeer in Berlin, asking for his help. I also resumed the composition of Rienzi, to the completion of which I was now giving my constant attention.

In the meantime our position became more and more gloomy; I was soon compelled to draw in advance on the subsidies obtained by Laube, but in so doing I gradually alienated the sympathy of my brother-in-law Avenarius, to whom our stay in Paris was incomprehensible.

One morning, when we had been anxiously consulting as to the possibility of raising our first quarter’s rent, a carrier appeared with a parcel addressed to me from London; I thought it was an intervention of Providence, and broke open the seal. At the same moment a receipt-book was thrust into my face for signature, in which I at once saw that I had to pay seven francs for carriage. I recognised, moreover, that the parcel contained my overture Rule Britannia, returned to me from the London Philharmonic Society. In my fury I told the bearer that I would not take in the parcel, whereupon he remonstrated in the liveliest fashion, as I had already opened it. It was no use; I did not possess seven francs, and I told him he should have presented the bill for the carriage before I had opened the parcel. So I made him return the only copy of my overture to Messrs. Laffitte and Gaillard’s firm, to do what they liked with it, and I never cared to inquire what became of that manuscript.

Suddenly Kietz devised a way out of these troubles. He had been commissioned by an old lady of Leipzig, called Fraulein Leplay, a rich and very miserly old maid, to find a cheap lodging in Paris for her and for his stepmother, with whom she intended to travel. As our apartment, though not spacious, was larger than we actually needed, and had very quickly become a troublesome burden to us, we did not hesitate for a moment to let the larger portion of it to her for the time of her stay in Paris, which was to last about two months. In addition, my wife provided the guests with breakfast, as though they were in furnished apartments, and took a great pride in looking at the few pence she earned in this way. Although we found this amazing example of old-maidishness trying enough, the arrangement we had made helped us in some degree to tide over the anxious time, and I was able, in spite of this disorganisation of our household arrangements, to continue working in comparative peace at my Rienzi.

This became more difficult after Fraulein Leplay’s departure, when we let one of our rooms to a German commercial traveller, who in his leisure hours zealously played the flute. His name was Brix; he was a modest, decent fellow, and had been recommended to us by Pecht the painter, whose acquaintance we had recently made. He had been introduced to us by Kietz, who studied with him in Delaroche’s studio. He was the very antithesis of Kietz in every way, and obviously endowed with less talent, yet he grappled with the task of acquiring the art of oil-painting in the shortest possible time under difficult circumstances with an industry and earnestness quite out of the common. He was, moreover, well educated, and eagerly assimilated information, and was very straightforward, earnest, and trustworthy. Without attaining to the same degree of intimacy with us as our three older friends, he was, nevertheless, one of the few who continued to stand by us in our troubles, and habitually spent nearly every evening in our company.

One day I received a fresh surprising proof of Laube’s continued solicitude on our behalf. The secretary of a certain Count Kuscelew called on us, and after some inquiry into our affairs, the state of which he had heard from Laube at Karlsbad, informed us in a brief and friendly way that his patron wished to be of use to us, and with that object in view desired to make my acquaintance. In fact, he proposed to engage a small light opera company in Paris, which was to follow him to his Russian estates. He was therefore looking for a musical director of sufficient experience to assist in recruiting the members in Paris. I gladly went to the hotel where the count was staying, and there found an elderly gentleman of frank and agreeable bearing, who willingly listened to my little French compositions. Being a shrewd reader of human nature, he saw at a glance that I was not the man for him, and though he showed me the most polite attention, he went no further into the opera scheme. But that very day he sent me, accompanied by a friendly note, ten golden napoleons, in payment for my services. What these services were I did not know. I thereupon wrote to him, and asked for more precise details of his wishes, and begged him to commission a composition, the fee for which I presumed he had sent in advance. As I received no reply, I made more than one effort to approach him again, but in vain. From other sources I afterwards learned that the only kind of opera Count Kuscelew recognised was Adam’s. As for the operatic company to be engaged to suit his taste, what he really wanted was more a small harem than a company of artists.

So far I had not been able to arrange anything with the music publisher Schlesinger. It was impossible to persuade him to publish my little French songs. In order to do something, however, towards making myself known in this direction, I decided to have my Two Grenadiers engraved by him at my own expense. Kietz was to lithograph a magnificent title-page for it. Schlesinger ended by charging me fifty francs for the cost of production. The story of this publication is curious from beginning to end; the work bore Schlesinger’s name, and as I had defrayed all expenses, the proceeds were, of course, to be placed to my account. I had afterwards to take the publisher’s word for it that not a single copy had been sold. Subsequently, when I had made a quick reputation for myself in Dresden through my Rienzi, Schott the publisher in Mainz, who dealt almost exclusively in works translated from the French, thought it advisable to bring out a German edition of the Two Grenadiers. Below the text of the French translation he had the German original by Heine printed; but as the French poem was a very free paraphrase, in quite a different metre to the original, Heine’s words fitted my composition so badly that I was furious at the insult to my work, and thought it necessary to protest against Schott’s publication as an entirely unauthorised reprint. Schott then threatened me with an action for libel, as he said that, according to his agreement, his edition was not a reprint (Nachdruck), but a reimpression (Abdruck). In order to be spared further annoyance, I was induced to send him an apology in deference to the distinction he had drawn, which I did not understand.

In 1848, when I made inquiries of Schlesinger’s successor in Paris (M. Brandus) as to the fate of my little work, I learned from him that a new edition had been published, but he declined to entertain any question of rights on my part. Since I did not care to buy a copy with my own money, I have to this day had to do without my own property. To what extent, in later years, others profited by similar transactions relating to the publication of my works, will appear in due course.

For the moment the point was to compensate Schlesinger for the fifty francs agreed upon, and he proposed that I should do this by writing articles for his Gazette Musicale.

As I was not expert enough in the French language for literary purposes, my article had to be translated and half the fee had to go to the translator. However, I consoled myself by thinking I should still receive sixty francs per sheet for the work. I was soon to learn, when I presented myself to the angry publisher for payment, what was meant by a sheet. It was measured by an abominable iron instrument, on which the lines of the columns were marked off with figures; this was applied to the article, and after careful subtraction of the spaces left for the title and signature, the lines were added up. After this process had been gone through, it appeared that what I had taken for a sheet was only half a sheet.

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