Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.7

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

Thereupon followed a general revival in our circle; my exuberant good spirits astonished every one, and my Avenarius relations in particular thought I must really be prospering, as I was such good company. I resumed my long walks in the woods of Meudon, frequently even consenting to help Minna gather mushrooms, which, unfortunately, were for her the chief charm of our woodland retreat, though it filled our landlord with terror when he saw us returning with our spoils, as he felt sure we should be poisoned if we ate them.

My destiny, which almost invariably led me into strange adventures, here once more introduced me to the most eccentric character to be found not only in the neighbourhood of Meudon, but even in Paris. This was M. Jadin, who, though he was old enough to be able to say that he remembered seeing Madame de Pompadour at Versailles, was still vigorous beyond belief. It appeared to be his aim to keep the world in a constant state of conjecture as to his real age; he made everything for himself with his own hands, including even a quantity of wigs of every shade, ranging in the most comic variety from youthful flaxen to the most venerable white, with intermediate shades of grey; these he wore alternately, as the fancy pleased him. He dabbled in everything, and I was pleased to find he had a particular fancy for painting. The fact that all the walls of his rooms were hung with the most childish caricatures of animal life, and that he had even embellished the outside of his blinds with the most ridiculous paintings, did not disconcert me in the least; on the contrary, it confirmed my belief that he did not dabble in music, until, to my horror, I discovered that the strangely discordant sounds of a harp which kept reaching my ears from some unknown region were actually proceeding from his basement, where he had two harpsichords of his own invention. He informed me that he had unfortunately neglected playing them for a long time, but that he now meant to begin practising again assiduously in order to give me pleasure. I succeeded in dissuading him from this, by assuring him that the doctor had forbidden me to listen to the harp, as it was bad for my nerves. His figure as I saw him for the last time remains impressed on my memory, like an apparition from the world of Hoffmann’s fairy-tales. In the late autumn, when we were going back to Paris, he asked us to take with us on our furniture van an enormous stove-pipe, of which he promised to relieve us shortly. One very cold day Jadin actually presented himself at our new abode in Paris, in a most preposterous costume of his own manufacture, consisting of very thin light-yellow trousers, a very short pale-green dress-coat with conspicuously long tails, projecting lace shirt frills and cuffs, a very fair wig, and a hat so small that it was constantly dropping off; he wore in addition a quantity of imitation jewellery–and all this on the undisguised assumption that he could not go about in fashionable Paris dressed as simply as in the country. He had come for the stove-pipe; we asked him where the men to carry it were; in reply he simply smiled, and expressed his surprise at our helplessness; and thereupon took the enormous stove-pipe under his arm and absolutely refused to accept our help when we offered to assist him in carrying it down the stairs, though this operation, notwithstanding his vaunted skill, occupied him quite half an hour. Every one in the house assembled to witness this removal, but he was by no means disconcerted, and managed to get the pipe through the street door, and then tripped gracefully along the pavement with it, and disappeared from our sight.

For this short though eventful period, during which I was quite free to give full scope to my inmost thoughts, I indulged in the consolation of purely artistic creations. I can only say that, when it came to an end, I had made such progress that I could look forward with cheerful composure to the much longer period of trouble and distress I felt was in store for me. This, in fact, duly set in, for I had only just completed the last scene when I found that my five hundred francs were coming to an end, and what was left was not sufficient to secure me the necessary peace and freedom from worry for composing the overture; I had to postpone this until my luck should take another favourable turn, and meanwhile I was forced to engage in the struggle for a bare subsistence, making efforts of all kinds that left me neither leisure nor peace of mind. The concierge from the Rue du Helder brought us the news that the mysterious family to whom we had let our rooms had left, and that we were now once more responsible for the rent. I had to tell him that I would not under any circumstances trouble about the rooms any more, and that the landlord might recoup himself by the sale of the furniture we had left there. This was done at a very heavy loss, and the furniture, the greater part of which was still unpaid for, was sacrificed to pay the rent of a dwelling which we no longer occupied.

Under the stress of the most terrible privations I still endeavoured to secure sufficient leisure for working out the orchestration of the score of the Fliegender Hollander. The rough autumn weather set in at an exceptionally early date; people were all leaving their country houses for Paris, and, among them, the Avenarius family. We, however, could not dream of doing so, for we could not even raise the funds for the journey. When M. Jadin expressed his surprise at this, I pretended to be so pressed with work that I could not interrupt it, although I felt the cold that penetrated through the thin walls of the house very severely.

So I waited for help from Ernst Castel, one of my old Konigsberg friends, a well-to-do young merchant, who a short time before had called on us in Meudon and treated us to a luxurious repast in Paris, promising at the same time to relieve our necessities as soon as possible by an advance, which we knew was an easy matter to him.

By way of cheering us up, Kietz came over to us one day, with a large portfolio and a pillow under his arm; he intended to amuse us by working at a large caricature representing myself and my unfortunate adventures in Paris, and the pillow was to enable him, after his labours, to get some rest on our hard couch, which he had noticed had no pillows at the head. Knowing that we had a difficulty in procuring fuel, he brought with him some bottles of rum, to ‘warm’ us with punch during the cold evenings; under these circumstances I read Hoffmann’s Tales to him and my wife.

At last I had news from Konigsberg, but it only opened my eyes to the fact that the gay young dog had not meant his promise seriously. We now looked forward almost with despair to the chilly mists of approaching winter, but Kietz, declaring that it was his place to find help, packed up his portfolio, placed it under his arm with the pillow, and went off to Paris. On the next day he returned with two hundred francs, that he had managed to procure by means of generous self-sacrifice. We at once set off for Paris, and took a small apartment near our friends, in the back part of No. 14 Rue Jacob. I afterwards heard that shortly after we left it was occupied by Proudhon.

We got back to town on 30th October. Our home was exceedingly small and cold, and its chilliness in particular made it very bad for our health. We furnished it scantily with the little we had saved from the wreck of the Rue du Holder, and awaited the results of my efforts towards getting my works accepted and produced in Germany. The first necessity was at all costs to secure peace and quietness for myself for the short time which I should have to devote to the overture of the Fliegender Hollander; I told Kietz that he would have to procure the money necessary for my household expenses until this work was finished and the full score of the opera sent off. With the aid of a pedantic uncle, who had lived in Paris a long time and who was also a painter, he succeeded in providing me with the necessary assistance, in instalments of five or ten francs at a time. During this period I often pointed with cheerful pride to my boots, which became mere travesties of footgear, as the soles eventually disappeared altogether.

As long as I was engaged on the Dutchman, and Kietz was looking after me, this made no difference, for I never went out: but when I had despatched my completed score to the management of the Berlin Court Theatre at the beginning of December, the bitterness of the position could no longer be disguised. It was necessary for me to buckle to and look for help myself.

What this meant in Paris I learned just about this time from the hapless fate of the worthy Lehrs. Driven by need such as I myself had had to surmount a year before at about the same time, he had been compelled on a broiling hot day in the previous summer to scour the various quarters of the city breathlessly, to get grace for bills he had accepted, and which had fallen due. He foolishly took an iced drink, which he hoped would refresh him in his distressing condition, but it immediately made him lose his voice, and from that day he was the victim of a hoarseness which with terrific rapidity ripened the seeds of consumption, doubtless latent in him, and developed that incurable disease. For months he had been growing weaker and weaker, filling us at last with the gloomiest anxiety: he alone believed the supposed chill would be cured, if he could heat his room better for a time. One day I sought him out in his lodging, where I found him in the icy-cold room, huddled up at his writing-table, and complaining of the difficulty of his work for Didot, which was all the more distressing as his employer was pressing him for advances he had made.

He declared that if he had not had the consolation in those doleful hours of knowing that I had, at any rate, got my Dutchman finished, and that a prospect of success was thus opened to the little circle of friends, his misery would have been hard indeed to bear. Despite my own great trouble, I begged him to share our fire and work in my room. He smiled at my courage in trying to help others, especially as my quarters offered barely space enough for myself and my wife. However, one evening he came to us and silently showed me a letter he had received from Villemain, the Minister of Education at that time, in which the latter expressed in the warmest terms his great regret at having only just learned that so distinguished a scholar, whose able and extensive collaboration in Didot’s issue of the Greek classics had made him participator in a work that was the glory of the nation, should be in such bad health and straitened circumstances. Unfortunately, the amount of public money which he had at his disposal at that moment for subsidising literature only allowed of his offering him the sum of five hundred francs, which he enclosed with apologies, asking him to accept it as a recognition of his merits on the part of the French Government, and adding that it was his intention to give earnest consideration as to how he might materially improve his position.

This filled us with the utmost thankfulness on poor Lehrs’ account, and we looked on the incident almost as a miracle. We could not help assuming, however, that M. Villemain had been influenced by Didot, who had been prompted by his own guilty conscience for his despicable exploitation of Lehrs, and by the prospect of thus relieving himself of the responsibility of helping him. At the same time, from similar cases within our knowledge, which were fully confirmed by my own subsequent experience, we were driven to the conclusion that such prompt and considerate sympathy on the part of a minister would have been impossible in Germany. Lehrs would now have a fire to work by, but alas! our fears as to his declining health could not be allayed. When we left Paris in the following spring, it was the certainty that we should never see our dear friend again that made our parting so painful.

In my own great distress I was again exposed to the annoyance of having to write numerous unpaid articles for the Abendzeitung, as my patron, Hofrath Winkler, was still unable to give me any satisfactory account of the fate of my Rienzi in Dresden. In these circumstances I was obliged to consider it a good thing that Halevy’s latest opera was at last a success. Schlesinger came to us radiant with joy at the success of La Reine de Chypre, and promised me eternal bliss for the piano score and various other arrangements I had made of this newest rage in the sphere of opera. So I was again forced to pay the penalty for composing my own Fliegender Hollander by having to sit down and write out arrangements of Halevy’s opera. Yet this task no longer weighed on me so heavily. Apart from the wellfounded hope of being at last recalled from my exile in Paris, and thus being able, as I thought, to regard this last struggle with poverty as the decisive one, the arrangement of Halevy’s score was far and away a more interesting piece of hack-work than the shameful labour I had spent on Donizetti’s Favorita.

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