Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.4

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

So far so good. I began to write articles for Schlesinger’s wonderful paper. The first was a long essay, De la musique allemande, in which I expressed with the enthusiastic exaggeration characteristic of me at that time my appreciation of the sincerity and earnestness of German music. This article led my friend Anders to remark that the state of affairs in Germany must, indeed, be splendid if the conditions were really as I described. I enjoyed what was to me the surprising satisfaction of seeing this article subsequently reproduced in Italian, in a Milan musical journal, where, to my amusement, I saw myself described as Dottissimo Musico Tedesco, a mistake which nowadays would be impossible. My essay attracted favourable comment, and Schlesinger asked me to write an article in praise of the arrangement made by the Russian General Lwoff of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which I did as superficially as possible. On my own impulse I then wrote an essay in a still more amiable vein called Du metier du virtuose et de l’independance de la composition.

In the meantime I was surprised in the middle of the summer by the arrival of Meyerbeer, who happened to come to Paris for a fortnight. He was very sympathetic and obliging. When I told him my idea of writing a one-act opera as a curtain raiser, and asked him to give me an introduction to M. Leon Pillet, the recently appointed manager of the Grand Opera, he at once took me to see him, and presented me to him. But alas, I had the unpleasant surprise of learning from the serious conversation which took place between those two gentlemen as to my future, that Meyerbeer thought I had better decide to compose an act for the ballet in collaboration with another musician. Of course I could not entertain such an idea for a moment. I succeeded, however, in handing over to M. Pillet my brief sketch of the subject of the Flying Dutchman..

Things had reached this point when Meyerbeer again left Paris, this time for a longer period of absence.

As I did not hear from M. Pillet for quite a long time, I now began to work diligently at my composition of Rienzi, though, to my great distress, I had often to interrupt this task in order to undertake certain pot-boiling hack-work for Schlesinger.

As my contributions to the Gazette Musicale proved so unremunerative, Schlesinger one day ordered me to work out a method for the Cornet a pistons. When I told him about my embarrassment, in not knowing how to deal with the subject, he replied by sending me five different published ‘Methods’ for the Cornet a pistons, at that time the favourite amateur instrument among the younger male population of Paris. I had merely to devise a new sixth method out of these five, as all Schlesinger wanted was to publish an edition of his own. I was racking my brains how to start, when Schlesinger, who had just obtained a new complete method, released me from the onerous task. I was, however, told to write fourteen ‘Suites’ for the Cornet a pistons–that is to say, airs out of operas arranged for this instrument. To furnish me with material for this work, Schlesinger sent me no less than sixty complete operas arranged for the piano. I looked them through for suitable airs for my ‘Suites,’ marked the pages in the volumes with paper strips, and arranged them into a curious-looking structure round my work-table, so that I might have the greatest possible variety of the melodious material within my reach. When I was in the midst of this work, however, to my great relief and to my poor wife’s consternation, Schlesinger told me that M. Schlitz, the first cornet player in Paris, who had looked my ‘Etudes’ through, preparatory to their being engraved, had declared that I knew absolutely nothing about the instrument, and had generally adopted keys that were too high, which Parisians would never be able to use. The part of the work I had already done was, however, accepted, Schlitz having agreed to correct it, but on condition that I should share my fee with him. The remainder of the work was then taken off my hands, and the sixty pianoforte arrangements went back to the curious shop in the Rue Richelieu.

So my exchequer was again in a sorry plight. The distressing poverty of my home grew more apparent every day, and yet I was now free to give a last touch to Rienzi, and by the 19th of November I had completed this most voluminous of all my operas. I had decided, some time previously, to offer the first production of this work to the Court Theatre at Dresden, so that, in the event of its being a success, I might thus resume my connection with Germany. I had decided upon Dresden as I knew that there I should have in Tichatschek the most suitable tenor for the leading part. I also reckoned on my acquaintance with Schroder-Devrient, who had always been nice to me and who, though her efforts were ineffectual, had been at great pains, out of regard for my family, to get my Feen introduced at the Court Theatre, Dresden. In the secretary of the theatre, Hofrat Winkler (known as Theodor Hell), I also had an old friend of my family, besides which I had been introduced to the conductor, Reissiger, with whom I and my friend Apel had spent a pleasant evening on the occasion of our excursion to Bohemia in earlier days. To all these people I now addressed most respectful and eloquent appeals, wrote out an official note to the director, Herr von Luttichau, as well as a formal petition to the King of Saxony, and had everything ready to send off.

Meantime, I had not omitted to indicate the exact tempi in my opera by means of a metronome. As I did not possess such a thing, I had to borrow one, and one morning I went out to restore the instrument to its owner, carrying it under my thin overcoat. The day when this occurred was one of the strangest in my life, as it showed in a really horrible way the whole misery of my position at that time. In addition to the fact that I did not know where to look for the few francs wherewith Minna was to provide for our scanty household requirements, some of the bills which, in accordance with the custom in Paris in those days, I had signed for the purpose of fitting up our apartments, had fallen due. Hoping to get help from one source or another, I first tried to get those bills prolonged by the holders. As such documents pass through many hands, I had to call on all the holders across the length and breadth of the city. That day I was to propitiate a cheese-monger who occupied a fifth-floor apartment in the Cite. I also intended to ask for help from Heinrich, the brother of my brother-in-law, Brockhaus, as he was then in Paris; and I was going to call at Schlesinger’s to raise the money to pay for the despatch of my score that day by the usual mail service.

As I had also to deliver the metronome, I left Minna early in the morning after a sad good-bye. She knew from experience that as I was on a money-raising expedition, she would not see me back till late at night. The streets were enveloped in a dense fog, and the first thing I recognised on leaving the house was my dog Robber, who had been stolen from us a year before. At first I thought it was a ghost, but I called out to him sharply in a shrill voice. The animal seemed to recognise me, and approached me cautiously, but my sudden movement towards him with outstretched arms seemed only to revive memories of the few chastisements I had foolishly inflicted on him during the latter part of our association, and this memory prevailed over all others. He drew timidly away from me and, as I followed him with some eagerness, he ran, only to accelerate his speed when he found he was being pursued. I became more and more convinced that he had recognised me, because he always looked back anxiously when he reached a corner; but seeing that I was hunting him like a maniac, he started off again each time with renewed energy. Thus I followed him through a labyrinth of streets, hardly distinguishable in the thick mist, until I eventually lost sight of him altogether, never to see him again. It was near the church of St. Roch, and I, wet with perspiration and quite breathless, was still bearing the metronome. For a while I stood motionless, glaring into the mist, and wondered what the ghostly reappearance of the companion of my travelling adventures on this day might portend! The fact that he had fled from his old master with the terror of a wild beast filled my heart with a strange bitterness and seemed to me a horrible omen. Sadly shaken, I set out again, with trembling limbs, upon my weary errand.

Heinrich Brockhaus told me he could not help me, and I left him. I was sorely ashamed, but made a strong effort to conceal the painfulness of my situation. My other undertakings turned out equally hopeless, and after having been kept waiting for hours at Schlesinger’s, listening to my employer’s very trivial conversations with his callers–conversations which he seemed purposely to protract–I reappeared under the windows of my home long after dark, utterly unsuccessful. I saw Minna looking anxiously from one of the windows. Half expecting my misfortune she had, in the meantime, succeeded in borrowing a small sum of our lodger and boarder, Brix, the flute-player, whom we tolerated patiently, though at some inconvenience to ourselves, as he was a good-natured fellow. So she was able to offer me at least a comfortable meal. Further help was to come to me subsequently, though at the cost of great sacrifices on my part, owing to the success of one of Donizetti’s operas, La Favorita, a very poor work of the Italian maestro’s, but welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Parisian public, already so much degenerated. This opera, the success of which was due mainly to two lively little songs, had been acquired by Schlesinger, who had lost heavily over Halevy’s last operas.

Taking advantage of my helpless situation, of which he was well aware, he rushed into our rooms one morning, beaming all over with amusing good-humour, called for pen and ink, and began to work out a calculation of the enormous fees which he had arranged for me! He put down: ‘La Favorita, complete arrangement for pianoforte, arrangement without words, for solo; ditto, for duet; complete arrangement for quartette; the same for two violins; ditto for a Cornet a piston. Total fee, frcs. 1100. Immediate advance in cash, frcs. 500.’ I could see at a glance what an enormous amount of trouble this work would involve, but I did not hesitate a moment to undertake it.

Curiously enough, when I brought home these five hundred francs in hard shining five-franc pieces, and piled them up on the table for our edification, my sister Cecilia Avenarius happened to drop in to see us. The sight of this abundance of wealth seemed to produce a good effect on her, as she had hitherto been rather chary of coming to see us; and after that we used to see rather more of her, and were often invited to dine with them on Sundays. But I no longer cared for any amusements. I was so deeply impressed by my past experiences that I made up my mind to work through this humiliating, albeit profitable task, with untiring energy, as though it were a penance imposed on me for the expiation of my bygone sins. To save fuel, we limited ourselves to the use of the bedroom, making it serve as a drawing-room, dining-room, and study, as well as dormitory. It was only a step from my bed to my work-table; to be seated at the dining-table, all I had to do was to turn my chair round, and I left my seat altogether only late at night when I wanted to go to bed again. Every fourth day I allowed myself a short constitutional. This penitential process lasted almost all through the winter, and sowed the seeds of those gastric disorders which were to be more or less of a trouble to me for the rest of my life.

In return for the minute and almost interminable work of correcting the score of Donizetti’s opera, I managed to get three hundred francs from Schlesinger, as he could not get any one else to do it. Besides this, I had to find the time to copy out the orchestra parts of my overture to Faust, which I was still hoping to hear at the Conservatoire; and by the way of counteracting the depression produced by this humiliating occupation, I wrote a short story, Eine Pilgerfahrt zu Beethoven (A Pilgrimage to Beethoven), which appeared in the Gazette Musicale, under the title Une Visite a Beethoven. Schlesinger told me candidly that this little work had created quite a sensation, and had been received with very marked approval; and, indeed, it was actually reproduced, either complete or in parts, in a good many fireside journals.

He persuaded me to write some more of the same kind; and in a sequel entitled Das Ende eines Musikers in Paris (Un Musicien etranger a Paris) I avenged myself for all the misfortunes I had had to endure. Schlesinger was not quite so pleased with this as with my first effort, but it received touching signs of approval from his poor assistant; while Heinrich Heine praised it by saying that ‘Hoffmann would have been incapable of writing such a thing.’ Even Berlioz was touched by it, and spoke of the story very favourably in one of his articles in the Journal des Debats. He also gave me signs of his sympathy, though only during a conversation, after the appearance of another of my musical articles entitled Ueber die Ouverture (Concerning Overtures), mainly because I had illustrated my principle by pointing to Gluck’s overture to Iphigenia in Aulis as a model for compositions of this class.

Encouraged by these signs of sympathy, I felt anxious to become more intimately acquainted with Berlioz. I had been introduced to him some time previously at Schlesinger’s office, where we used to meet occasionally. I had presented him with a copy of my Two Grenadiers, but could, however, never learn any more from him concerning what he really thought of it than the fact that as he could only strum a little on the guitar, he was unable to play the music of my composition to himself on the piano. During the previous winter I had often heard his grand instrumental pieces played under his own direction, and had been most favourably impressed by them. During that winter (1839-40) he conducted three performances of his new symphony, Romeo and Juliet, at one of which I was present.

All this, to be sure, was quite a new world to me, and I was desirous of gaining some unprejudiced knowledge of it. At first the grandeur and masterly execution of the orchestral part almost overwhelmed me. It was beyond anything I could have conceived. The fantastic daring, the sharp precision with which the boldest combinations–almost tangible in their clearness–impressed me, drove back my own ideas of the poetry of music with brutal violence into the very depths of my soul. I was simply all ears for things of which till then I had never dreamt, and which I felt I must try to realise. True, I found a great deal that was empty and shallow in his Romeo and Juliet, a work that lost much by its length and form of combination; and this was the more painful to me seeing that, on the other hand, I felt overpowered by many really bewitching passages which quite overcame any objections on my part.

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