Richard Wagner Autobiography 5.2

Richard Wagner Biography – MY LIFE Part II 1842-1850

With the exception of these two actors who played the leading parts, I had only very moderate material at my disposal. But there was plenty of goodwill, and I had recourse to an ingenious device to induce Reissiger the conductor to hold frequent piano rehearsals. He had complained to me of the difficulty he had always found in securing a well-written libretto, and thought it was very sensible of me to have acquired the habit of writing my own. In his youth he had unfortunately neglected to do this for himself, and yet this was all he lacked to make a successful dramatic composer. I feel bound to confess that he possessed ‘a good deal of melody’; but this, he added, did not seem sufficient to inspire the singers with the requisite enthusiasm. His experience was that Schroder-Devrient, in his Adele de Foix, would render very indifferently the same final passage with which, in Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet, she would put the audience into an ecstasy. The reason for this, he presumed, must lie in the subject-matter. I at once promised him that I would supply him with a libretto in which he would be able to introduce these and similar melodies to the greatest advantage. To this he gladly agreed, and I therefore set aside for versification, as a suitable text for Reissiger, my Hohe Braut, founded on Konig’s romance, which I had once before submitted to Scribe. I promised to bring Reissiger a page of verse for every piano rehearsal, and this I faithfully did until the whole book was done. I was much surprised to learn some time later that Reissiger had had a new libretto written for him by an actor named Kriethe. This was called the Wreck of the Medusa. I then learned that the wife of the conductor, who was a suspicious woman, had been filled with the greatest concern at my readiness to give up a libretto to her husband. They both thought the book was good and full of striking effects, but they suspected some sort of trap in the background, to escape from which they must certainly exercise the greatest caution. The result was that I regained possession of my libretto and was able, later on, to help my old friend Kittl with it in Prague; he set it to music of his own, and entitled it Die Franzosen vor Nizza. I heard that it was frequently performed in Prague with great success, though I never saw it myself; and I was also told at the same time by a local critic that this text was a proof of my real aptitude as a librettist, and that it was a mistake for me to devote myself to composition. As regards my Tannhauser, on the other hand, Laube used to declare it was a misfortune that I had not got an experienced dramatist to supply me with a decent text for my music.

For the time being, however, this work of versification had the desired result, and Reissiger kept steadily to the study of Rienzi. But what encouraged him even more than my verses was the growing interest of the singers, and above all the genuine enthusiasm of Tichatschek. This man, who had been so ready to leave the delights of the theatre piano for a shooting party, now looked upon the rehearsals of Rienzi as a genuine treat. He always attended them with radiant eyes and boisterous good-humour. I soon felt myself in a state of constant exhilaration: favourite passages were greeted with acclamation by the singers at every rehearsal, and a concerted number of the third finale, which unfortunately had afterwards to be omitted owing to its length, actually became on that occasion a source of profit to me. For Tichatschek maintained that this B minor was so lovely that something ought to be paid for it every time, and he put down a silver penny, inviting the others to do the same, to which they all responded merrily. From that day forward, whenever we came to this passage at rehearsals, the cry was raised, ‘Here comes the silver penny part,’ and Schroder-Devrient, as she took out her purse, remarked that these rehearsals would ruin her. This gratuity was conscientiously handed to me each time, and no one suspected that these contributions, which were given as a joke, were often a very welcome help towards defraying the cost of our daily food. For Minna had returned from Toplitz, at the beginning of August, accompanied by my mother.

We lived very frugally in chilly lodgings, hopefully awaiting the tardy day of our deliverance. The months of August and September passed, in preparation for my work, amid frequent disturbances caused by the fluctuating and scanty repertoire of a German opera house, and not until October did the combined rehearsals assume such a character as to promise the certainty of a speedy production. From the very beginning of the general rehearsals with the orchestra we all shared the conviction that the opera would, without doubt, be a great success. Finally, the full dress rehearsals produced a perfectly intoxicating effect. When we tried the first scene of the second act with the scenery complete, and the messengers of peace entered, there was a general outburst of emotion, and even Schroder-Devrient, who was bitterly prejudiced against her part, as it was not the role of the heroine, could only answer my questions in a voice stifled with tears. I believe the whole theatrical body, down to its humblest officials, loved me as though I were a real prodigy, and I am probably not far wrong in saying that much of this arose from sympathy and lively fellow-feeling for a young man, whose exceptional difficulties were not unknown to them, and who now suddenly stepped out of perfect obscurity into splendour. During the interval at the full dress rehearsal, while other members had dispersed to revive their jaded nerves with lunch, I remained seated on a pile of boards on the stage, in order that no one might realise that I was in the quandary of being unable to obtain similar refreshment. An invalid Italian singer, who was taking a small part in the opera, seemed to notice this, and kindly brought me a glass of wine and a piece of bread. I was sorry that I was obliged to deprive him of even his small part in the course of the year, for its loss provoked such ill-treatment from his wife, that by conjugal tyranny he was driven into the ranks of my enemies. When, after my flight from Dresden in 1849, I learned that I had been denounced to the police by this same singer for supposed complicity in the rising which took place in that town, I bethought me of this breakfast during the Rienzi rehearsal, and felt I was being punished for my ingratitude, for I knew I was guilty of having brought him into trouble with his wife.

The frame of mind in which I looked forward to the first performance of my work was a unique experience which I have never felt either before or since. My kind sister Clara fully shared my feelings. She had been living a wretched middle-class life at Chemnitz, which, just about this time, she had left to come and share my fate in Dresden. The poor woman, whose undoubted artistic gifts had faded so early, was laboriously dragging out a commonplace bourgeois existence as a wife and mother; but now, under the influence of my growing success, she began joyously to breathe a new life. She and I and the worthy chorus-master Fischer used to spend our evenings with the Heine family, still over potatoes and herrings, and often in a wonderfully elated frame of mind. The evening before our first performance I was able to crown our happiness by myself ladling out a bowl of punch. With mingled tears and laughter we skipped about like happy children, and then in sleep prepared ourselves for the triumphant day to which we looked forward with such confidence..

Although on the morning of 20th October, 1842 I had resolved not to disturb any of my singers by a visit, yet I happened to come across one of them, a stiff Philistine called Risse, who was playing a minor bass part in a dull but respectable way. The day was rather cool, but wonderfully bright and sunshiny, after the gloomy weather we had just been having. Without a word this curious creature saluted me and then remained standing, as though bewitched. He simply gazed into my face with wonder and rapture, in order to find out, so he at last managed to tell me in strange confusion, how a man looked who that very day was to face such an exceptional fate. I smiled and reflected that it was indeed a day of crisis, and promised him that I would soon drink a glass with him, at the Stadt Hamburg inn, of the excellent wine he had recommended to me with so much agitation.

No subsequent experience of mine can be compared with the sensations which marked the day of the first production of Rienzi. At all the first performances of my works in later days, I have been so absorbed by an only too well-founded anxiety as to their success, that I could neither enjoy the opera nor form any real estimate of its reception by the public. As for my subsequent experiences at the general rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, this took place under such exceptional circumstances, and its effect upon me differed so fundamentally from that produced by the first performance of Rienzi, that no comparison can possibly be drawn between the two.

The immediate success of Rienzi was no doubt assured beforehand. But the emphatic way in which the audience declared their appreciation was thus far exceptional, that in cities like Dresden the spectators are never in a position to decide conclusively upon a work of importance on the first night, and consequently assume an attitude of chilling restraint towards the works of unknown authors. But this was, in the nature of things, an exceptional case, for the numerous staff of the theatre and the body of musicians had inundated the city beforehand with such glowing reports of my opera, that the whole population awaited the promised miracle in feverish expectation. I sat with Minna, my sister Clara, and the Heine family in a pit-box, and when I try to recall my condition during that evening, I can only picture it with all the paraphernalia of a dream. Of real pleasure or agitation I felt none at all: I seemed to stand quite aloof from my work; whereas the sight of the thickly crowded auditorium agitated me so much, that I was unable even to glance at the body of the audience, whose presence merely affected me like some natural phenomenon–something like a continuous downpour of rain–from which I sought shelter in the farthest corner of my box as under a protecting roof. I was quite unconscious of applause, and when at the end of the acts I was tempestuously called for, I had every time to be forcibly reminded by Heine and driven on to the stage. On the other hand, one great anxiety filled me with growing alarm: I noticed that the first two acts had taken as long as the whole of Freischutz, for instance. On account of its warlike calls to arms the third act begins with an exceptional uproar, and when at its close the clock pointed to ten, which meant that the performance had already lasted full four hours, I became perfectly desperate. The fact that after this act, also, I was again loudly called, I regarded merely as a final courtesy on the part of the audience, who wished to signify that they had had quite enough for one evening, and would now leave the house in a body. As we had still two acts before us, I thought it settled that we should not be able to finish the piece, and apologised for my lack of wisdom in not having previously effected the necessary curtailments. Now, thanks to my folly, I found myself in the unheard-of predicament of being unable to finish an opera, otherwise extremely well received, simply because it was absurdly long. I could only explain the undiminished zeal of the singers, and particularly of Tichatschek, who seemed to grow lustier and cheerier the longer it lasted, as an amiable trick to conceal from me the inevitable catastrophe. But my astonishment at finding the audience still there in full muster, even in the last act–towards midnight–filled me with imbounded perplexity. I could no longer trust my eyes or ears, and regarded the whole events of the evening as a nightmare. It was past midnight when, for the last time, I had to obey the thunderous calls of the audience, side by side with my trusty singers.

My feeling of desperation at the unparalleled length of my opera was augmented by the temper of my relatives, whom I saw for a short time after the performance. Friedrich Brockhaus and his family had come over with some friends from Leipzig, and had invited us to the inn, hoping to celebrate an agreeable success over a pleasant supper, and possibly to drink my health. But on arriving, kitchen and cellar were closed, and every one was so worn out that nothing was to be heard but outcries at the unparalleled case of an opera lasting from six o’clock till past twelve. No further remarks were exchanged, and we stole away feeling quite stupefied.

About eight the next morning I put in an appearance at the clerks’ office, in order that in case there should be a second performance I might arrange the necessary curtailment of the parts. If, during the previous summer, I had contested every beat with the faithful chorus-master Fischer, and proved them all to be indispensable, I was now possessed by a blind rage for striking out. There was not a single part of my score which seemed any longer necessary–what the audience had been made to swallow the previous evening now appeared but a chaos of sheer impossibilities, each and all of which might be omitted without the slightest damage or risk of being unintelligible. My one thought now was how to reduce my convolution of monstrosities to decent limits. By dint of unsparing and ruthless abbreviations handed over to the copyist, I hoped to avert a catastrophe, for I expected nothing less than that the general manager, together with the city and the theatre, would that very day give me to understand that such a thing as the performance of my Last of the Tribunes might perhaps be permitted once as a curiosity, but not oftener. All day long, therefore, I carefully avoided going near the theatre, so as to give time for my heroic abbreviations to do their salutary work, and for news of them to spread through the city. But at midday I looked in again upon the copyists, to assure myself that all had been duly performed as I had ordered. I then learned that Tichatschek had also been there, and, after inspecting the omissions that I had arranged, had forbidden their being carried out. Fischer, the chorus-master, also wished to speak to me about them: work was suspended, and I foresaw great confusion. I could not understand what it all meant, and feared mischief if the arduous task were delayed. At length, towards evening, I sought out Tichatschek at the theatre. Without giving him a chance to speak, I brusquely asked him why he had interrupted the copyists’ work. In a half-choked voice he curtly and defiantly rejoined, ‘I will have none of my part cut out–it is too heavenly.’ I stared at him blankly, and then felt as though I had been suddenly bewitched: such an unheard-of testimony to my success could not but shake me out of my strange anxiety. Others joined him, Fischer radiant with delight and bubbling with laughter. Every one spoke of the enthusiastic emotion which thrilled the whole city. Next came a letter of thanks from the Commissioner acknowledging my splendid work. Nothing now remained for me but to embrace Tichatschek and Fischer, and go on my way to inform Minna and Clara how matters stood.

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