Richard Wagner Autobiography 4.9

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

To this district, situated in the Papal States, Frederick had, by a peaceful compact, transplanted the remnant of his Saracen retainers, who had previously been wreaking terrible havoc in the mountains of Sicily. To the great annoyance of the Pope, he had handed the town over to them in fee-simple, thus securing for himself a band of faithful allies in the heart of an ever-treacherous and hostile country.

Fatima, as my heroine is called, has prepared, through the instrumentality of trusty friends, a reception for Manfred in this place. When the papal governor has been expelled by a revolution, he slips through the gateway into the town, is recognised by the whole population as the son of their beloved Emperor, and, amid wildest enthusiasm, is placed at their head, to lead them against the enemies of their departed benefactor. In the meantime, while Manfred is marching on from victory to victory in his reconquest of the whole kingdom of Apulia, the tragic centre of my action still continues to be the unvoiced longing of the lovelorn victor for the marvellous heroine.

She is the child of the great Emperor’s love for a noble Saracen maiden. Her mother, on her deathbed, had sent her to Manfred, foretelling that she would work wonders for his glory provided she never yielded to his passion. Whether Fatima was to know that she was his sister I left undecided in framing my plot. Meanwhile she is careful to show herself to him only at critical moments, and then always in such a way as to remain unapproachable. When at last she witnesses the completion of her task in his coronation at Naples, she determines, in obedience to her vow, to slip away secretly from the newly anointed king, that she may meditate in the solitude of her distant home upon the success of her enterprise.

The Saracen Nurreddin, who had been a companion of her youth, and to whose help she had chiefly owed her success in rescuing Manfred, is to be the sole partner of her flight. To this man, who loves her with passionate ardour, she had been promised in her childhood. Before her secret departure she pays a last visit to the slumbering king. This rouses her lover’s furious jealousy, as he construes her act into a proof of unfaithfulness on the part of his betrothed. The last look of farewell which Fatima casts from a distance at the young monarch, on his return from his coronation, inflames the jealous lover to wreak instant vengeance for the supposed outrage upon his honour. He strikes the prophetess to the earth, whereupon she thanks him with a smile for having delivered her from an unbearable existence. At the sight of her body Manfred realises that henceforth happiness has deserted him for ever.

This theme I had adorned with many gorgeous scenes and complicated situations, so that when I had worked it out I could regard it as a fairly suitable, interesting, and effective whole, especially when compared with other well-known subjects of a similar nature. Yet I could never rouse myself to sufficient enthusiasm over it to give my serious attention to its elaboration, especially as another theme now laid its grip upon me. This was suggested to me by a pamphlet on the ‘Venusberg,’ which accidentally fell into my hands.

If all that I regarded as essentially German had hitherto drawn me with ever-increasing force, and compelled me to its eager pursuit, I here found it suddenly presented to me in the simple outlines of a legend, based upon the old and well-known ballad of ‘Tannhauser.’ True, its elements were already familiar to me from Tieck’s version in his Phantasus. But his conception of the subject had flung me back into the fantastic regions created in my mind at an earlier period by Hoffmann, and I should certainly never have been tempted to extract the framework of a dramatic work from his elaborate story. The point in this popular pamphlet which had so much weight with me was that it brought ‘Tannhauser,’ if only by a passing hint, into touch with ‘The Minstrel’s War on the Wartburg.’ I had some knowledge of this also from Hoffmann’s account in his Serapionsbrudern. But I felt that the writer had only grasped the old legend in a distorted form, and therefore endeavoured to gain a closer acquaintance with the true aspect of this attractive story. At this juncture Lehrs brought me the annual report of the proceedings of the Konigsberg German Society, in which the ‘Wartburg contest’ was criticised with a fair amount of detail by Lukas. Here I also found the original text. Although I could utilise but little of the real setting for my own purpose, yet the picture it gave me of Germany in the Middle Ages was so suggestive that I found I had not previously had the smallest conception of what it was like.

As a sequel to the Wartburg poem, I also found in the same copy a critical study, ‘Lohengrin,’ which gave in full detail the main contents of that widespread epic.

Thus a whole new world was opened to me, and though as yet I had not found the form in which I might cope with Lohengrin, yet this image also lived imperishably within me. When, therefore, I afterwards made a close acquaintance with the intricacies of this legend, I could visualise the figure of the hero with a distinctness equal to that of my conception of Tannhauser at this time.

Under these influences my longing for a speedy return to Germany grew ever more intense, for there I hoped to earn a new home for myself where I could enjoy leisure for creative work. But it was not yet possible even to think of occupying myself with such grateful tasks. The sordid necessities of life still bound me to Paris. While thus employed, I found an opportunity of exerting myself in a way more congenial to my desires. When I was a young man at Prague, I had made the acquaintance of a Jewish musician and composer called Dessauer–a man who was not devoid of talent, who in fact achieved a certain reputation, but was chiefly known among his intimates on account of his hypochondria. This man, who was now in flourishing circumstances, was so far patronised by Schlesinger that the latter seriously proposed to help him to a commission for Grand Opera. Dessauer had come across my poem of the Fliegender Hollander, and now insisted that I should draft a similar plot for him, as M. Leon Pillet’s Vaisseau Fantome had already been given to M. Dietsch, the letter’s musical conductor, to set to music. From this same conductor Dessauer obtained the promise of a like commission, and he now offered me two hundred francs to provide him with a similar plot, and one congenial to his hypochondriacal temperament.

To meet this wish I ransacked my brain for recollections of Hoffmann, and quickly decided to work up his Bergwerke von Falun. The moulding of this fascinating and marvellous material succeeded as admirably as I could wish. Dessauer also felt convinced that the topic was worth his while to set to music. His dismay was accordingly all the greater when Pillet rejected our plot on the ground that the staging would be too difficult, and that the second act especially would entail insurmountable obstacles for the ballet, which had to be given each time. In place of this Dessauer wished me to compose him an oratorio on ‘Mary Magdalene.’ As on the day that he expressed this wish he appeared to be suffering from acute melancholia, so much so that he declared he had that morning seen his own head lying beside his bed, I thought well not to refuse his request. I asked him, therefore, to give me time, and I regret to say that ever since that day I have continued to take it..

It was amid such distractions as these that this winter at length drew to an end, while my prospects of getting to Germany gradually grew more hopeful, though with a slowness that sorely tried my patience. I had kept up a continuous correspondence with Dresden respecting Rienzi, and in the worthy chorus-master Fischer I at last found an honest man who was favourably disposed to me. He sent me reliable and reassuring reports as to the state of my affairs.

After receiving news, early in January, 1842, of renewed delay, I at last heard that by the end of February the work would be ready for performance. I was seriously uneasy at this, as I was afraid of not being able to accomplish the journey by that date. But this news also was soon contradicted, and the honest Fischer informed me that my opera had had to be postponed till the autumn of that year. I realised fully that it would never be performed if I could not be present in person at Dresden. When eventually in March Count Redern, the director of the Theatre Royal in Berlin, told me that my Fliegender Hollander had been accepted for the opera there, I thought I had sufficient reason to return to Germany at all costs as soon as possible.

I had already had various experiences as to the views of German managers on this work. Relying on the plot, which had pleased the manager of the Paris Opera so much, I had sent the libretto in the first instance to my old acquaintance Ringelhardt, the director of the Leipzig theatre. But the man had cherished an undisguised aversion for me since my Liebesverbot. As he could not this time possibly object to any levity in my subject, he now found fault with its gloomy solemnity and refused to accept it. As I had met Councillor Kustner, at that time manager of the Munich Court Theatre, when he was making arrangements about La Reine de Chypre in Paris, I now sent him the text of the Dutchman with a similar request. He, too, returned it, with the assurance that it was not suited to German stage conditions, or to the taste of the German public. As he had ordered a French libretto for Munich, I knew what he meant. When the score was finished, I sent it to Meyerbeer in Berlin, with a letter for Count Redern, and begged him, as he had been unable to help me to anything in Paris, in spite of his desire to do so, to be kind enough to use his influence in Berlin in favour of my composition. I was genuinely astonished at the truly prompt acceptance of my work two months later, which was accompanied by very gratifying assurances from the Count, and I was delighted to see in it a proof of Meyerbeer’s sincere and energetic intervention in my favour. Strange to say, on my return to Germany soon afterwards, I was destined to learn that Count Redern had long since retired from the management of the Berlin Opera House, and that Kustner of Munich had already been appointed his successor; the upshot of this was that Count Redern’s consent, though very courteous, could not by any means be taken seriously, as the realisation of it depended not on him but on his successor. What the result was remains to be seen.

A circumstance that eventually facilitated my long-desired return to Germany, which was now justified by my good prospects, was the tardily awakened interest taken in my position by the wealthy members of my family. If Didot had had reasons of his own for applying to the Minister Villemain for support for Lehrs, so also Avenarius, my brother-in-law in Paris, when he heard how I was struggling against poverty, one day took it into his head to surprise me with some quite unexpected help secured by his appeal to my sister Louisa. On 26th December of the fast-waning year 1841 I went home to Minna carrying a goose under my arm, and in the beak of the bird we found a five-hundred-franc note. This note had been given me by Avenarius as the result of a request on my behalf made by my sister Louisa to a friend of hers, a wealthy merchant named Schletter. This welcome addition to our extremely straitened resources might not in itself have been sufficient to put me in an exceedingly good-humour, had I not clearly seen in it the prospect of escaping altogether from my position in Paris. As the leading German managers had now consented to the performance of two of my compositions, I thought I might seriously reproach my brother-in-law, Friedrich Brockhaus, who had repulsed me the year before when I applied to him in great distress, on the ground that he ‘disapproved of my profession.’ This time I might be more successful in securing the wherewithal for my return. I was not mistaken, and when the time came I was supplied from this source with the necessary travelling expenses.

With these prospects, and my position thus improved, I found myself spending the second half of the winter 1841-42 in high spirits, and affording constant entertainment to the small circle of friends which my relationship to Avenarius had created around me. Minna and I frequently spent our evenings with this family and others, amongst whom I have pleasant recollections of a certain Herr Kuhne, the head of a private school, and his wife. I contributed so greatly to the success of their little soirees, and was always so willing to improvise dances on the piano for them to dance to, that I soon ran the risk of enjoying an almost burdensome popularity.

At length the hour struck for my deliverance; the day came on which, as I devoutly hoped, I might turn my back on Paris for ever. It was the 7th of April, and Paris was already gay with the first luxuriant buddings of spring. In front of our windows, which all the winter had looked upon a bleak and desolate garden, the trees were burgeoning, and the birds sang. Our emotion at parting from our dear friends Anders, Lehrs, and Kietz, however, was great, almost overwhelming. The first seemed already doomed to an early death, for his health was exceedingly bad, and he was advanced in years. About Lehrs’ condition, as I have already said, there could no longer be any doubt, and it was dreadful, after so short an experience as the two and a half years which I had spent in Paris, to see the ravages that want had wrought among good, noble, and sometimes even distinguished men. Kietz, for whose future I was concerned, less on grounds of health than of morals, touched our hearts once more by his boundless and almost childlike good-nature. Fancying, for instance, that I might not have enough money for the journey, he forced me, in spite of all resistance, to accept another five-franc piece, which was about all that remained of his own fortune at the moment: he also stuffed a packet of good French snuff for me into the pocket of the coach, in which we at last rumbled through the boulevards to the barriers, which we passed but were unable to see this time, because our eyes were blinded with tears.

Start page | Previous page | Next page of Richard Wagner’s Autobiography

Speak Your Mind

Disclaimer: Purchases made via links on this website may result in a commission to the website owner.