Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.6

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

Another journalistic opportunity arose out of my endeavours to secure the acceptance of my Rienzi by the Court Theatre at Dresden. Herr Winkler, the secretary of that theatre, whom I have already mentioned, regularly reported progress; but as editor of the Abendzeitung, a paper then rather on the wane, he seized the opportunity presented by our negotiations in order to ask me to send him frequent and gratuitous contributions. The consequence was, that whenever I wanted to know anything concerning the fate of my opera, I had to oblige him by enclosing an article for his paper. Now, as these negotiations with the Court Theatre lasted a very long time, and involved a large number of contributions from me, I often got into the most extraordinary fixes simply owing to the fact that I was now once more a prisoner in my room, and had been so for some time, and therefore knew nothing of what was going on in Paris.

I had serious reasons for thus withdrawing from the artistic and social life of Paris. My own painful experiences and my disgust at all the mockery of that kind of life, once so attractive to me and yet so alien to my education, had quickly driven me away from everything connected with it. It is true that the production of the Huguenots, for instance, which I then heard for the first time, dazzled me very much indeed. Its beautiful orchestral execution, and the extremely careful and effective mise en scene, gave me a grand idea of the great possibilities of such perfect and definite artistic means. But, strange to say, I never felt inclined to hear the same opera again. I soon became tired of the extravagant execution of the vocalists, and I often amused my friends exceedingly by imitating the latest Parisian methods and the vulgar exaggerations with which the performances teemed. Those composers, moreover, who aimed at achieving success by adopting the style which was then in vogue, could not help, either, incurring my sarcastic criticism. The last shred of esteem which I still tried to retain for the ‘first lyrical theatre in the world’ was at last rudely destroyed when I saw how such an empty, altogether un-French work as Donizetti’s Favorita could secure so long and important a run at this theatre.

During the whole time of my stay in Paris I do not think I went to the opera more than four times. The cold productions at the Opera Comique, and the degenerate quality of the music produced there, had repelled me from the start; and the same lack of enthusiasm displayed by the singers also drove me from Italian opera. The names, often very famous ones, of these artists who sang the same four operas for years could not compensate me for the complete absence of sentiment which characterised their performance, so unlike that of Schroder-Devrient, which I so thoroughly enjoyed. I clearly saw that everything was on the down grade, and yet I cherished no hope or desire to see this state of decline superseded by a period of newer and fresher life. I preferred the small theatres, where French talent was shown in its true light; and yet, as the result of my own longings, I was too intent upon finding points of relationship in them which would excite my sympathy, for it to be possible for me to realise those peculiar excellences in them which did not happen to interest me at all. Besides, from the very beginning my own troubles had proved so trying, and the consciousness of the failure of my Paris schemes had become so cruelly apparent, that, either out of indifference or annoyance, I declined all invitations to the theatres. Again and again, much to Minna’s regret, I returned tickets for performances in which Rachel was to appear at the Theatre Francais, and, in fact, saw that famous theatre only once, when, some time later, I had to go there on business for my Dresden patron, who wanted some more articles.

I adopted the most shameful means for filling the columns of the Abendzeitung; I just strung together whatever I happened to hear in the evening from Anders and Lehrs. But as they had no very exciting adventures either, they simply told me all they had picked up from papers and table-talk, and this I tried to render with as much piquancy as possible in accordance with the journalistic style created by Heine, which was all the rage at the time. My one fear was lest old Hofrath Winkler should some day discover the secret of my wide knowledge of Paris. Among other things which I sent to his declining paper was a long account of the production of Freischutz, He was particularly interested in it, as he was the guardian of Weber’s children; and when in one of his letters he assured me that he would not rest until he had got the definite assurance that Rienzi had been accepted, I sent him, with my most profuse thanks, the German manuscript of my ‘Beethoven’ story for his paper. The 1841 edition of this gazette, then published by Arnold, but now no longer in existence, contains the only print of this manuscript.

My occasional journalistic work was increased by a request from Lewald, the editor of Europa, a literary monthly, asking me to write something for him. This man was the first who, from time to time, had mentioned my name to the public. As he used to publish musical supplements to his elegant and rather widely read magazine, I sent him two of my compositions from Konigsberg for publication. One of these was the music I had set to a melancholy poem by Scheuerlin, entitled Der Knabe und der Tannenbaum (a work of which even to-day I am still proud), and my beautiful Carnevals Lied out of Liebesverbot.

When I wanted to publish my little French compositions–Dors, mon enfant, and the music to Hugo’s Attente and Ronsard’s Mignonne–Lewald not only sent me a small fee–the first I had ever received for a composition–but commissioned some long articles on my Paris impressions, which he begged me to write as entertainingly as possible. For his paper I wrote Pariser Amusements and Pariser Fatalitaten, in which I gave vent in a humorous style, a la Heine, to all my disappointing experiences in Paris, and to all my contempt for the life led by its inhabitants. In the second I described the existence of a certain Hermann Pfau, a strange good-for-nothing with whom, during my early Leipzig days, I had become more intimately acquainted than was desirable. This man had been wandering about Paris like a vagrant ever since the beginning of the previous winter, and the meagre income I derived from arrangements of La Favorita was often partly consumed in helping this completely broken-down fellow. So it was only fair that I should get back a few francs of the money spent on him in Paris by turning his adventures to some account in Lewald’s newspapers.

When I came into contact with Leon Pillet, the manager of the Opera, my literary work took yet another direction. After numerous inquiries I eventually discovered that he had taken a fancy to my draft of the Fliegender Hollander. He informed me of this, and asked me to sell him the plot, as he was under contract to supply various composers with subjects for operettas. I tried to explain to Pillet, both verbally and in writing, that he could hardly expect that the plot would be properly treated except by myself, as this draft was in fact my own idea, and that it had only come to his knowledge by my having submitted it to him. But it was all to no purpose. He was obliged to admit quite frankly that the expectations I had cherished as to the result of Meyerbeer’s recommendation to him would not come to anything. He said there was no likelihood of my getting a commission for a composition, even of a light opera, for the next seven years, as his already existing contracts extended over that period. He asked me to be sensible, and to sell him the draft for a small amount, so that he might have the music written by an author to be selected by him; and he added that if I still wished to try my luck at the Opera House, I had better see the ‘ballet-master,’ as he might want some music for a certain dance. Seeing that I contemptuously refused this proposal, he left me to my own devices.

After endless and unsuccessful attempts at getting the matter settled, I at last begged Edouard Monnaie, the Commissaire for the Royal Theatres, who was not only a friend of mine, but also editor of the Gazette Musicale, to act as mediator. He candidly confessed that he could not understand Pillet’s liking for my plot, which he also was acquainted with; but as Pillet seemed to like it–though he would probably lose it–he advised me to accept anything for it, as Monsieur Paul Faucher, a brother-in-law of Victor Hugo’s, had had an offer to work out the scheme for a similar libretto. This gentleman had, moreover, declared that there was nothing new in my plot, as the story of the Vaisseau Fantome was well known in France. I now saw how I stood, and, in a conversation with Pillet, at which M. Faucher was present, I said I would come to an arrangement. My plot was generously estimated by Pillet at five hundred francs, and I received that amount from the cash office at the theatre, to be subsequently deducted from the author’s rights of the future poet.

Our summer residence in the Avenue de Meudon now assumed quite a definite character. These five hundred francs had to help me to work out the words and music of my Fliegender Hollander for Germany, while I abandoned the French Vaisseau Fantome to its fate.

The state of my affairs, which was getting ever worse and worse, was slightly improved by the settlement of this matter. May and June had gone by, and during these months our troubles had grown steadily more serious. The lovely season of the year, the stimulating country air, and the sensation of freedom following upon my deliverance from the wretchedly paid musical hack-work I had had to do all the winter, wrought their beneficial effects on me, and I was inspired to write a small story entitled Ein glucklicher Abend. This was translated and published in French in the Gazette Musicale. Soon, however, our lack of funds began to make itself felt with a severity that was very discouraging. We felt this all the more keenly when my sister Cecilia and her husband, following our example, moved to a place quite close to us. Though not wealthy, they were fairly well-to-do. They came to see us every day, but we never thought it desirable to let them know how terribly hard-up we were. One day it came to a climax. Being absolutely without money, I started out, early one morning, to walk to Paris–for I had not even enough to pay the railway fare thither–and I resolved to wander about the whole day, trudging from street to street, even until late in the afternoon, in the hope of raising a five-franc piece; but my errand proved absolutely vain, and I had to walk all the way back to Meudon again, utterly penniless.

When I told Minna, who came to meet me, of my failure, she informed me in despair that Hermann Pfau, whom I have mentioned before, had also come to us in the most pitiful plight, and actually in want of food, and that she had had to give him the last of the bread delivered by the baker that morning. The only hope that now remained was that, at any rate, my lodger Brix, who by a singular fate was now our companion in misfortune, would return with some success from the expedition to Paris which he also had made that morning. At last he, too, returned bathed in perspiration and exhausted, driven home by the craving for a meal, which he had been unable to procure in the town, as he could not find any of the acquaintances he went to see. He begged most piteously for a piece of bread. This climax to the situation at last inspired my wife with heroic resolution; for she felt it her duty to exert herself to appease at least the hunger of her menfolk. For the first time during her stay on French soil, she persuaded the baker, the butcher, and wine-merchant, by plausible arguments, to supply her with the necessaries of life without immediate cash payment, and Minna’s eyes beamed when, an hour later, she was able to put before us an excellent meal, during which, as it happened, we were surprised by the Avenarius family, who were evidently relieved at finding us so well provided for.

This extreme distress was relieved for a time, at the beginning of July, by the sale of my Vaisseau Fantome, which meant my final renunciation of my success in Paris. As long as the five hundred francs lasted, I had an interval of respite for carrying on my work. The first object on which I spent my money was on the hire of a piano, a thing of which I had been entirely deprived for months. My chief intention in so doing was to revive my faith in myself as a musician, as, ever since the autumn of the previous year, I had exercised my talents as a journalist and adapter of operas only. The libretto of the Fliegender Hollander, which I had hurriedly written during the recent period of distress, aroused considerable interest in Lehrs; he actually declared I would never write anything better, and that the Fliegender Hollander would be my Don Juan; the only thing now was to find the music for it. As towards the end of the previous winter I still entertained the hopes of being permitted to treat this subject for the French Opera, I had already finished some of the words and music of the lyric parts, and had had the libretto translated by Emile Deschamps, intending it for a trial performance, which, alas, never took place. These parts were the ballad of Senta, the song of the Norwegian sailors, and the ‘Spectre Song’ of the crew of the Fliegender Hollander. Since that time I had been so violently torn away from the music that, when the piano arrived at my rustic retreat, I did not dare to touch it for a whole day. I was terribly afraid lest I should discover that my inspiration had left me–when suddenly I was seized with the idea that I had forgotten to write out the song of the helmsman in the first act, although, as a matter of fact, I could not remember having composed it at all, as I had in reality only just written the lyrics. I succeeded, and was pleased with the result. The same thing occurred with the ‘Spinner’s Song,’ and when I had written out these two pieces, and, on further reflection, could not help admitting that they had really only taken shape in my mind at that moment, I was quite delirious with joy at the discovery. In seven weeks the whole of the music of the Fliegender Hollander, except the orchestration, was finished.

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