Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.8

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

I paid another visit, the last for a long time to come, to the Grand Opera to hear this Reine de Chypre. There was, indeed, much for me to smile at. My eyes were no longer shut to the extreme weakness of this class of work, and the caricature of it that was often produced by the method of rendering it. I was sincerely rejoiced to see the better side of Halevy again. I had taken a great fancy to him from the time of his La Juive, and had a very high opinion of his masterly talent.

At the request of Schlesinger I also willingly consented to write for his paper a long article on Halevy’s latest work. In it I laid particular stress on my hope that the French school might not again allow the benefits obtained by studying the German style to be lost by relapsing into the shallowest Italian methods. On that occasion I ventured, by way of encouraging the French school, to point to the peculiar significance of Auber, and particularly to his Stumme von Portici, drawing attention, on the other hand, to the overloaded melodies of Rossini, which often resembled sol-fa exercises. In reading over the proof of my article I saw that this passage about Rossini had been left out, and M. Edouard Monnaie admitted to me that, in his capacity as editor of a musical paper, he had felt himself bound to suppress it. He considered that if I had any adverse criticism to pass on the composer, I could easily get it published in any other kind of paper, but not in one devoted to the interests of music, simply because such a passage could not be printed there without seeming absurd. It also annoyed him that I had spoken in such high terms of Auber, but he let it stand. I had to listen to much from that quarter which enlightened me for ever with regard to the decay of operatic music in particular, and artistic taste in general, among Frenchmen of the present day.

I also wrote a longer article on the same opera for my precious friend Winkler at Dresden, who was still hesitating about accepting my Rienzi. In doing so I intentionally made merry over a mishap that had befallen Lachner the conductor. Kustner, who was theatrical director at Munich at the time, with a view to giving his friend another chance, ordered a libretto to be written for him by St. Georges in Paris, so that, through his paternal care, the highest bliss which a German composer could dream of might be assured to his protege. Well, it turned out that when Halevy’s Reine de Chypre appeared, it treated the same subject as Lachner’s presumably original work, which had been composed in the meantime. It mattered very little that the libretto was a really good one, the value of the bargain lay in the fact that it was to be glorified by Lachner’s music. It appeared, however, that St. Georges had, as a matter of fact, to some extent altered the book sent to Munich, but only by the omission of several interesting features. The fury of the Munich manager was great, whereupon St. Georges declared his astonishment that the latter could have imagined he would supply a libretto intended solely for the German stage at the paltry price offered by his German customer. As I had formed my own private opinion as to procuring French librettos for operas, and as nothing in the world would have induced me to set to music even the most effective piece of writing by Scribe or St. Georges, this occurrence delighted me immensely, and in the best of spirits I let myself go on the point for the benefit of the readers of the Abendzeitung, who, it is to be hoped, did not include my future ‘friend’ Lachner.

In addition, my work on Halevy’s opera (Reine de Chypre) brought me into closer contact with that composer, and was the means of procuring me many an enlivening talk with that peculiarly good-hearted and really unassuming man, whose talent, alas, declined all too soon. Schlesinger, in fact, was exasperated at his incorrigible laziness. Halevy, who had looked through my piano score, contemplated several changes with a view to making it easier, but he did not proceed with them: Schlesinger could not get the proof-sheets back; the publication was consequently delayed, and he feared that the popularity of the opera would be over before the work was ready for the public. He urged me to get firm hold of Halevy very early in the morning in his rooms, and compel him to set to work at the alterations in my company.

The first time I reached his house at about ten in the morning, I found him just out of bed, and he informed me that he really must have breakfast first. I accepted his invitation, and sat down with him to a somewhat luxurious meal; my conversation seemed to appeal to him, but friends came in, and at last Schlesinger among the number, who burst into a fury at not finding him at work on the proofs he regarded as so important. Halevy, however, remained quite unmoved. In the best of good tempers he merely complained of his latest success, because he had never had more peace than of late, when his operas, almost without exception, had been failures, and he had not had anything to do with them after the first production. Moreover, he feigned not to understand why this Reine de Chypre in particular should have been a success; he declared that Schlesinger had engineered it on purpose to worry him. When he spoke a few words to me in German, one of the visitors was astonished, whereupon Schlesinger said that all Jews could speak German. Thereupon Schlesinger was asked if he also was a Jew. He answered that he had been, but had become a Christian for his wife’s sake. This freedom of speech was a pleasant surprise to me, because in Germany in such cases we always studiously avoided the point, as discourteous to the person referred to. But as we never got to the proof correcting, Schlesinger made me promise to give Halevy no peace until we had done them.

The secret of his indifference to success became clear to me in the course of further conversation, as I learned that he was on the point of making a wealthy marriage. At first I was inclined to think that Halevy was simply a man whose youthful talent was only stimulated to achieve one great success with the object of becoming rich; in his case, however, this was not the only reason, as he was very modest in regard to his own capacity, and had no great opinion of the works of those more fortunate composers who were writing for the French stage at that time. In him I thus, for the first time, met with the frankly expressed admission of disbelief in the value of all our modern creations in this dubious field of art. I have since come to the conclusion that this incredulity, often expressed with much less modesty, justifies the participation of all Jews in our artistic concerns. Only once did Halevy speak to me with real candour, when, on my tardy departure for Germany, he wished me the success he thought my works deserved.

In the year 1860 I saw him again. I had learned that, while the Parisian critics were giving vent to the bitterest condemnation of the concerts I was giving at that time, he had expressed his approval, and this determined me to visit him at the Palais de l’Institut, of which he had for some time been permanent secretary. He seemed particularly eager to learn from my own lips what my new theory about music really was, of which he had heard such wild rumours. For his own part, he said, he had never found anything but music in my music, but with this difference, that mine had generally seemed very good. This gave rise to a lively discussion on my part, to which he good-humouredly agreed, once more wishing me success in Paris. This time, however, he did so with less conviction than when he bade me good-bye for Germany, which I thought was because be doubted whether I could succeed in Paris. From this final visit I carried away a depressing sense of the enervation, both moral and aesthetic, which had overcome one of the last great French musicians, while, on the other hand, I could not help feeling that a tendency to a hypocritical or frankly impudent exploitation of the universal degeneracy marked all who could be designated as Halevy’s successors.

Throughout this period of constant hack-work my thoughts were entirely bent on my return to Germany, which now presented itself to my mind in a wholly new and ideal light. I endeavoured in various ways to secure all that seemed most attractive about the project, or which filled my soul with longing. My intercourse with Lehrs had, on the whole, given a decided spur to my former tendency to grapple seriously with my subjects, a tendency which had been counteracted by closer contact with the theatre. This desire now furnished a basis for closer study of philosophical questions. I had been astonished at times to hear even the grave and virtuous Lehrs, openly and quite as a matter of course, give expression to grave doubts concerning our individual survival after death. He declared that in many great men this doubt, even though only tacitly held, had been the real incitement to noble deeds. The natural result of such a belief speedily dawned on me without, however, causing me any serious alarm. On the contrary, I found a fascinating stimulus in the fact that boundless regions of meditation and knowledge were thereby opened up which hitherto I had merely skimmed in light-hearted levity.

In my renewed attempts to study the Greek classics in the original, I received no encouragement from Lehrs. He dissuaded me from doing so with the well-meant consolation, that as I could only be born once, and that with music in me, I should learn to understand this branch of knowledge without the help of grammar or lexicon; whereas if Greek were to be studied with real enjoyment, it was no joke, and would not suffer being relegated to a secondary place.

On the other hand, I felt strongly drawn to gain a closer acquaintance of German history than I had secured at school. I had Raumer’s History of the Hohenstaufen within easy reach to start upon. All the great figures in this book lived vividly before my eyes. I was particularly captivated by the personality of that gifted Emperor Frederick II., whose fortunes aroused my sympathy so keenly that I vainly sought for a fitting artistic setting for them. The fate of his son Manfred, on the other hand, provoked in me an equally well-grounded, but more easily combated, feeling of opposition.

I accordingly made a plan of a great five-act dramatic poem, which should also be perfectly adapted to a musical setting. My impulse to embellish the story with the central figure of romantic significance was prompted by the fact of Manfred’s enthusiastic reception in Luceria by the Saracens, who supported him and carried him on from victory to victory till he reached his final triumph, and this, too, in spite of the fact that he had come to them betrayed on every hand, banned by the Church, and deserted by all his followers during his flight through Apulia and the Abruzzi.

Even at this time it delighted me to find in the German mind the capacity of appreciating beyond the narrow bounds of nationality all purely human qualities, in however strange a garb they might be presented. For in this I recognised how nearly akin it is to the mind of Greece. In Frederick II. I saw this quality in full flower. A fair-haired German of ancient Swabian stock, heir to the Norman realm of Sicily and Naples, who gave the Italian language its first development, and laid a basis for the evolution of knowledge and art where hitherto ecclesiastical fanaticism and feudal brutality had alone contended for power, a monarch who gathered at his court the poets and sages of eastern lands, and surrounded himself with the living products of Arabian and Persian grace and spirit–this man I beheld betrayed by the Roman clergy to the infidel foe, yet ending his crusade, to their bitter disappointment, by a pact of peace with the Sultan, from whom he obtained a grant of privileges to Christians in Palestine such as the bloodiest victory could scarcely have secured.

In this wonderful Emperor, who finally, under the ban of that same Church, struggled hopelessly and in vain against the savage bigotry of his age, I beheld the German ideal in its highest embodiment. My poem was concerned with the fate of his favourite son Manfred. On the death of an elder brother, Frederick’s empire had entirely fallen to pieces, and the young Manfred was left, under papal suzerainty, in nominal possession of the throne of Apulia. We find him at Capua, in surroundings, and attended by a court, in which the spirit of his great father survives, in a state of almost effeminate degeneration. In despair of ever restoring the imperial power of the Hohenstaufen, he seeks to forget his sadness in romance and song. There now appears upon the scene a young Saracen lady, just arrived from the East, who, by appealing to the alliance between East and West concluded by Manfred’s noble father, conjures the desponding son to maintain his imperial heritage. She acts the part of an inspired prophetess, and though the prince is quickly filled with love for her, she succeeds in keeping him at a respectful distance. By a skilfully contrived flight she snatches him, not only from the pursuit of rebellious Apulian nobles, but also from the papal ban which is threatening to depose him from his throne. Accompanied only by a few faithful followers, she guides him through mountain fastnesses, where one night the wearied son beholds the spirit of Frederick II. passing with feudal array through the Abruzzi, and beckoning him on to Luceria.

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