Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.5

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

During the same winter Berlioz produced his Sinfonie Fantastique and his Harald (‘Harold en Italie’). I was also much impressed by these works; the musical genre-pictures woven into the first-named symphony were particularly pleasing, while Harald delighted me in almost every respect..

It was, however, the latest work of this wonderful master, his Trauer-Symphonie fur die Opfer der Juli-Revolution (Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale), most skilfully composed for massed military bands during the summer of 1840 for the anniversary of the obsequies of the July heroes, and conducted by him under the column of the Place de la Bastille, which had at last thoroughly convinced me of the greatness and enterprise of this incomparable artist. But while admiring this genius, absolutely unique in his methods, I could never quite shake off a certain peculiar feeling of anxiety. His works left me with a sensation as of something strange, something with which I felt I should never be able to be familiar, and I was often puzzled at the strange fact that, though ravished by his compositions, I was at the same time repelled and even wearied by them. It was only much later that I succeeded in clearly grasping and solving this problem, which for years exercised such a painful spell over me.

It is a fact that at that time I felt almost like a little school-boy by the side of Berlioz. Consequently I was really embarrassed when Schlesinger, determined to make good use of the success of my short story, told me he was anxious to produce some of my orchestral compositions at a concert arranged by the editor of the Gazette Musicale. I realised that none of my available works would in any way be suitable for such an occasion. I was not quite confident as to my Faust Overture because of its zephyr-like ending, which I presumed could only be appreciated by an audience already familiar with my methods. When, moreover, I learned that I should have only a second-rate orchestra–the Valentino from the Casino, Rue St. Honore–and, moreover, that there could be only one rehearsal, my only alternative lay between declining altogether, or making another trial with my Columbus Overture, the work composed in my early days at Magdeburg. I adopted the latter course.

When I went to fetch the score of this composition from Ilabeneck, who had it stored among the archives of the Conservatoire, he warned me somewhat dryly, though not without kindness, of the danger of presenting this work to the Parisian public, as, to use his own words, it was too ‘vague.’ One great objection was the difficulty of finding capable musicians for the six cornets required, as the music for this instrument, so skilfully played in Germany, could hardly, if ever, be satisfactorily executed in Paris. Herr Schlitz, the corrector of my ‘Suites’ for Cornet a piston, offered his assistance. I was compelled to reduce my six cornets to four, and he told me that only two of these could be relied on.

As a matter of fact, the attempts made at the rehearsal to produce those very passages on which the effect of my work chiefly depended were very discouraging. Not once were the soft high notes played but they were flat or altogether wrong. In addition to this, as I was not going to be allowed to conduct the work myself, I had to rely upon a conductor who, as I was well aware, had fully convinced himself that my composition was the most utter rubbish–an opinion that seemed to be shared by the whole orchestra. Berlioz, who was present at the rehearsal, remained silent throughout. He gave me no encouragement, though he did not dissuade me. He merely said afterwards, with a weary smile, ‘that it was very difficult to get on in Paris.’

On the night of the performance (4th February 1841) the audience, which was largely composed of subscribers to the Gazette Musicale, and to whom, therefore, my literary successes were not unknown, seemed rather favourably disposed towards me. I was told later on that my overture, however wearisome it had been, would certainly have been applauded if those unfortunate cornet players, by continually failing to produce the effective passages, had not excited the public almost to the point of hostility; for Parisians, for the most part, care only for the skilful parts of performances, as, for instance, for the faultless production of difficult tones. I was clearly conscious of my complete failure. After this misfortune Paris no longer existed for me, and all I had to do was to go back to my miserable bedroom and resume my work of arranging Donizetti’s operas.

So great was my renunciation of the world that, like a penitent, I no longer shaved, and to my wife’s annoyance, for the first and only time in my life allowed my beard to grow quite long. I tried to bear everything patiently, and the only thing that threatened really to drive me to despair was a pianist in the room adjoining ours who during the livelong day practised Liszt’s fantasy on Lucia di Lammermoor. I had to put a stop to this torture, so, to give him an idea of what he made us endure, one day I moved our own piano, which was terribly out of tune, close up to the party wall. Then Brix with his piccolo-flute played the piano-and-violin (or flute) arrangement of the Favorita Overture I had just completed, while I accompanied him on the piano. The effect on our neighbour, a young piano-teacher, must have been appalling. The concierge told me the next day that the poor fellow was leaving, and, after all, I felt rather sorry.

The wife of our concierge had entered into a sort of arrangement with us. At first we had occasionally availed ourselves of her services, especially in the kitchen, also for brushing clothes, cleaning boots, and so on; but even the slight outlay that this involved was eventually too heavy for us, and after having dispensed with her services, Minna had to suffer the humiliation of doing the whole work of the household, even the most menial part of it, herself. As we did not like to mention this to Brix, Minna was obliged, not only to do all the cooking and washing up, but even to clean our lodger’s boots as well. What we felt most, however, was the thought of what the concierge and his wife would think of us; but we were mistaken, for they only respected us the more, though of course we could not avoid a little familiarity at times, Now and then, therefore, the man would have a chat with me on politics. When the Quadruple Alliance against France had been concluded, and the situation under Thiers’ ministry was regarded as very critical, my concierge tried to reassure me one day by saying: ‘Monsieur, il y a quatre hommes en Europe qui s’appellent: le roi Louis Philippe, l’empereur d’Autriche, l’empereur de Russie, le roi de Prusse; eh bien, ces quatre sont des c…; et nous n’aurons pas la guerre.’

Of an evening I very seldom lacked entertainment; but the few faithful friends who came to see me had to put up with my going on scribbling music till late in the night. Once they prepared a touching surprise for me in the form of a little party which they arranged for New Year’s Eve (1840). Lehrs arrived at dusk, rang the bell, and brought a leg of veal; Kietz brought some rum, sugar, and a lemon; Pecht supplied a goose; and Anders two bottles of the champagne with which he had been presented by a musical instrument-maker in return for a flattering article he had written about his pianos. Bottles from that stock were produced only on very great occasions. I soon threw the confounded Favorita aside, therefore, and entered enthusiastically into the fun.

We all had to assist in the preparations, to light the fire in the salon, give a hand to my wife in the kitchen, and get what was wanted from the grocer. The supper developed into a dithyrambic orgy. When the champagne was drunk, and the punch began to produce its effects, I delivered a fiery speech which so provoked the hilarity of the company that it seemed as though it would never end. I became so excited that I first mounted a chair, and then, by way of heightening the effect, at last stood on the table, thence to preach the maddest gospel of the contempt of life together with a eulogy on the South American Free States. My charmed listeners eventually broke into such fits of sobs and laughter, and were so overcome, that we had to give them all shelter for the night–their condition making it impossible for them to reach their own homes in safety. On New Year’s Day (1841) I was again busy with my Favorita.

I remember another similar though far less boisterous feast, on the occasion of a visit paid us by the famous violinist Vieux-temps, an old schoolfellow of Kietz’s. We had the great pleasure of hearing the young virtuoso, who was then greatly feted in Paris, play to us charmingly for a whole evening–a performance which lent my little salon an unusual touch of ‘fashion.’ Kietz rewarded him for his kindness by carrying him on his shoulders to his hotel close by.

We were hard hit in the early part of this year by a mistake I made owing to my ignorance of Paris customs. It seemed to us quite a matter of course that we should wait until the proper quarter-day to give notice to our landlady. So I called on the proprietress of the house, a rich young widow living in one of her own houses in the Marias quarter. She received me, but seemed much embarrassed, and said she would speak to her agent about the matter, and eventually referred me to him. The next day I was informed by letter that my notice would have been valid had it been given two days earlier. By this omission I had rendered myself liable, according to the agreement, for another year’s rent. Horrified by this news, I went to see the agent himself, and after having been kept waiting for a long time–as a matter of fact they would not let me in at all–I found an elderly gentleman, apparently crippled by some very painful malady, lying motionless before me. I frankly told him my position, and begged him most earnestly to release me from my agreement, but I was merely told that the fault was mine, and not his, that I had given notice a day too late, and consequently that I must find the rent for the next year. My concierge, to whom, with some emotion, I related the story of this occurrence, tried to soothe me by saying: ‘J’aurais pu vous dire cela, car voyez, monsieur, cet homme ne vaut pas l’eau qu’il boit.’

This entirely unforeseen misfortune destroyed our last hopes of getting out of our disastrous position. We consoled ourselves for awhile with the hope of finding another lodger, but the fates were once more against us. Easter came, the new term began, and our prospects were as hopeless as ever. At last our concierge recommended us to a family who were willing to take the whole of our apartment, furniture included, off our hands for a few months. We gladly accepted this offer; for, at any rate, it ensured the payment of the rent for the ensuing quarter. We thought if only we could get away from this unfortunate place we should find some way of getting rid of it altogether. We therefore decided to find a cheap summer residence for ourselves in the outskirts of Paris.

Meudon had been mentioned to us as an inexpensive summer resort, and we selected an apartment in the avenue which joins Meudon to the neighbouring village of Bellevue. We left full authority with our concierge as to our rooms in Rue du Helder, and settled down in our new temporary abode as well as we could. Old Brix, the good-natured flutist, had to stay with us again, for, owing to the fact that his usual receipts had been delayed, he would have been in great straits had we refused to give him shelter. The removal of our scanty possessions took place on the 29th of April, and was, after all, no more than a flight from the impossible into the unknown, for how we were going to live during the following summer we had not the faintest idea. Schlesinger had no work for me, and no other sources were available.

The only help we could hope for seemed to lie in journalistic work which, though rather unremunerative, had indeed given me the opportunity of making a little success. During the previous winter I had written a long article on Weber’s Freischutz for the Gazette Musicale. This was intended to prepare the way for the forthcoming first performance of this opera, after recitatives from the pen of Berlioz had been added to it. The latter was apparently far from pleased at my article. In the article I could not help referring to Berlioz’s absurd idea of polishing up this old-fashioned musical work by adding ingredients that spoiled its original characteristics, merely in order to give it an appearance suited to the luxurious repertoire of Opera House. The fact that the result fully justified my forecasts did not in the least tend to diminish the ill-feeling I had roused among all those concerned in the production; but I had the satisfaction of hearing that the famous George Sand had noticed my article. She commenced the introduction to a legendary story of French provincial life by repudiating certain doubts as to the ability of the French people to understand the mystic, fabulous element which, as I had shown, was displayed in such a masterly manner in Freischutz, and she pointed to my article as clearly explaining the characteristics of that opera.

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