My Life, Volume 1
By Richard Wagner
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE CONTENTS MY LIFE
PART I. 1813-1842 PART II. 1842-1850 (Dresden)
The contents of these volumes have been written down directly from my dictation, over a period of several years, by my friend and wife, who wished me to tell her the story of my life. It was the desire of both of us that these details of my life should be accessible to our family and to our sincere and trusted friends; and we decided therefore, in order to provide against a possible destruction of the one manuscript, to have a small number of copies printed at our own expense. As the value of this autobiography consists in its unadorned veracity, which, under the circumstances, is its only justification, therefore my statements had to be accompanied by precise names and dates; hence there could be no question of their publication until some time after my death, should interest in them still survive in our descendants, and on that point I intend leaving directions in my will.
If, on the other hand, we do not refuse certain intimate friends a sight of these papers now, it is that, relying on their genuine interest in the contents, we are confident that they will not pass on their knowledge to any who do not share their feelings in the matter.
Part I. 1813-1842
Childhood and Schooldays Musical Studies Travels in Germany (First Marriage) Paris: 1839-42
Part II. 1842-1850 (Dresden)
'Rienzi' 'The Flying Dutchman' Liszt, Spontini, Marschner, etc. 'Tannhauser' Franck, Schumann, Semper, Gutzkow, Auerbach 'Lohengrin' (Libretto) Ninth Symphony Spohr, Gluck, Hiller, Devrient Official Position. Studies in Historical Literature 'Rienzi' at Berlin Relations with the Management, Mother's Death, etc. Growing Sympathy with Political Events, Bakunin The May Insurrection Flight: Weimar, Zurich, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Zurich
ILLUSTRATIONS [not shown in e-text]
FRONTISPIECE FOR VOLUME I
Richard Wagner in 1842, from the Portrait by E. Kietz.
FRONTISPIECE FOR VOLUME II
Richard Wagner about 1872 by Lenbach.
Original in the possession of Frau Cosima Wagner These frontispieces are used by the courtesy of Mr. F. Bruckmann.
I was born at Leipzig on the 22nd of May 1813, in a room on the second floor of the 'Red and White Lion,' and two days later was baptized at St. Thomas's Church, and christened Wilhelm Richard.
My father, Friedrich Wagner, was at the time of my birth a clerk in the police service at Leipzig, and hoped to get the post of Chief Constable in that town, but he died in the October of that same year. His death was partly due to the great exertions imposed upon him by the stress of police work during the war troubles and the battle of Leipzig, and partly to the fact that he fell a victim to the nervous fever which was raging at that time. As regards his father's position in life, I learnt later that he had held a small civil appointment as toll collector at the Ranstadt Gate, but had distinguished himself from those in the same station by giving his two sons a superior education, my father, Friedrich, studying law, and the younger son, Adolph, theology.
My uncle subsequently exercised no small influence on my development; we shall meet him again at a critical turning-point in the story of my youth.
My father, whom I had lost so early, was, as I discovered afterwards, a great lover of poetry and literature in general, and possessed in particular an almost passionate affection for the drama, which was at that time much in vogue among the educated classes. My mother told me, among other things, that he took her to Lauchstadt for the first performance of the Braut von Messina, and that on the promenade he pointed out Schiller and Goethe to her, and reproved her warmly for never having heard of these great men. He is said to have been not altogether free from a gallant interest in actresses. My mother used to complain jokingly that she often had to keep lunch waiting for him while he was paying court to a certain famous actress of the day [FOOTNOTE: Madame Hartwig]. When she scolded him, he vowed that he had been delayed by papers that had to be attended to, and as a proof of his assertion pointed to his fingers, which were supposed to be stained with ink, but on closer inspection were found to be quite clean. His great fondness for the theatre was further shown by his choice of the actor, Ludwig Geyer, as one of his intimate friends. Although his choice of this friend was no doubt mainly due to his love for the theatre, he at the same time introduced into his family the noblest of benefactors; for this modest artist, prompted by a warm interest in the lot of his friend's large family, so unexpectedly left destitute, devoted the remainder of his life to making strenuous efforts to maintain and educate the orphans. Even when the police official was spending his evenings at the theatre, the worthy actor generally filled his place in the family circle, and it seems had frequently to appease my mother, who, rightly or wrongly, complained of the frivolity of her husband.
How deeply the homeless artist, hard pressed by life and tossed to and fro, longed to feel himself at home in a sympathetic family circle, was proved by the fact that a year after his friend's death he married his widow, and from that time forward became a most loving father to the seven children that had been left behind.
In this onerous undertaking he was favoured by an unexpected improvement in his position, for he obtained a remunerative, respectable, and permanent engagement, as a character actor, at the newly established Court Theatre in Dresden. His talent for painting, which had already helped him to earn a livelihood when forced by extreme poverty to break off his university studies, again stood him in good stead in his position at Dresden. True, he complained even more than his critics that he had been kept from a regular and systematic study of this art, yet his extraordinary aptitude, for portrait painting in particular, secured him such important commissions that he unfortunately exhausted his strength prematurely by his twofold exertions as painter and actor. Once, when he was invited to Munich to fulfil a temporary engagement at the Court Theatre, he received, through the distinguished recommendation of the Saxon Court, such pressing commissions from the Bavarian Court for portraits of the royal family that he thought it wise to cancel his contract altogether. He also had a turn for poetry. Besides fragments—often in very dainty verse—he wrote several comedies, one of which, Der Bethlehemitische Kindermord, in rhymed Alexandrines, was often performed; it was published and received the warmest praise from Goethe.
This excellent man, under whose care our family moved to Dresden when I was two years old, and by whom my mother had another daughter, Cecilia, now also took my education in hand with the greatest care and affection. He wished to adopt me altogether, and accordingly, when I was sent to my first school, he gave me his own name, so that till the age of fourteen I was known to my Dresden schoolfellows as Richard Geyer; and it was not until some years after my stepfather's death, and on my family's return to Leipzig, the home of my own kith and kin, that I resumed the name of Wagner.
The earliest recollections of my childhood are associated with my stepfather, and passed from him to the theatre. I well remember that he would have liked to see me develop a talent for painting; and his studio, with the easel and the pictures upon it, did not fail to impress me. I remember in particular that I tried, with a childish love of imitation, to copy a portrait of King Frederick Augustus of Saxony; but when this simple daubing had to give place to a serious study of drawing, I could not stand it, possibly because I was discouraged by the pedantic technique of my teacher, a cousin of mine, who was rather a bore. At one time during my early boyhood I became so weak after some childish ailment that my mother told me later she used almost to wish me dead, for it seemed as though I should never get well. However, my subsequent good health apparently astonished my parents. I afterwards learnt the noble part played by my excellent stepfather on this occasion also; he never gave way to despair, in spite of the cares and troubles of so large a family, but remained patient throughout, and never lost the hope of pulling me through safely.
My imagination at this time was deeply impressed by my acquaintance with the theatre, with which I was brought into contact, not only as a childish spectator from the mysterious stagebox, with its access to the stage, and by visits to the wardrobe with its fantastic costumes, wigs and other disguises, but also by taking a part in the performances myself. After I had been filled with fear by seeing my father play the villain's part in such tragedies as Die Waise und der Morder, Die beiden Galeerensklaven, I occasionally took part in comedy. I remember that I appeared in Der Weinberg an der Elbe, a piece specially written to welcome the King of Saxony on his return from captivity, with music by the conductor, C. M. von Weber. In this I figured in a tableau vivant as an angel, sewn up in tights with wings on my back, in a graceful pose which I had laboriously practised. I also remember on this occasion being given a big iced cake, which I was assured the King had intended for me personally. Lastly, I can recall taking a child's part in which I had a few words to speak in Kotzebue's Menschenhass und Reue [Footnote: 'Misanthropy and Remorse.'], which furnished me with an excuse at school for not having learnt my lessons. I said I had too much to do, as I had to learn by heart an important part in Den Menschen ausser der Reihe. [Footnote: 'The Man out of the Rank or Row.' In the German this is a simple phonetic corruption of Kotzebue's title, which might easily occur to a child who had only heard, and not read, that title.—EDITOR.]
On the other hand, to show how seriously my father regarded my education, when I was six years old he took me to a clergyman in the country at Possendorf, near Dresden, where I was to be given a sound and healthy training with other boys of my own class. In the evening, the vicar, whose name was Wetzel, used to tell us the story of Robinson Crusoe, and discuss it with us in a highly instructive manner. I was, moreover, much impressed by a biography of Mozart which was read aloud; and the newspaper accounts and monthly reports of the events of the Greek War of Independence stirred my imagination deeply. My love for Greece, which afterwards made me turn with enthusiasm to the mythology and history of ancient Hellas, was thus the natural outcome of the intense and painful interest I took in the events of this period. In after years the story of the struggle of the Greeks against the Persians always revived my impressions of this modern revolt of Greece against the Turks.
One day, when I had been in this country home scarcely a year, a messenger came from town to ask the vicar to take me to my parents' house in Dresden, as my father was dying.
We did the three hours' journey on foot; and as I was very exhausted when I arrived, I scarcely understood why my mother was crying. The next day I was taken to my father's bedside; the extreme weakness with which he spoke to me, combined with all the precautions taken in the last desperate treatment of his complaint—acute hydrothorax—made the whole scene appear like a dream to me, and I think I was too frightened and surprised to cry.
In the next room my mother asked me to show her what I could play on the piano, wisely hoping to divert my father's thoughts by the sound. I played Ueb' immer Treu und Redlichkeit, and my father said to her, 'Is it possible he has musical talent?'
In the early hours of the next morning my mother came into the great night nursery, and, standing by the bedside of each of us in turn, told us, with sobs, that our father was dead, and gave us each a message with his blessing. To me she said, 'He hoped to make something of you.'
In the afternoon my schoolmaster, Wetzel, came to take me back to the country. We walked the whole way to Possendorf, arriving at nightfall. On the way I asked him many questions about the stars, of which he gave me my first intelligent idea.
A week later my stepfather's brother arrived from Eisleben for the funeral. He promised, as far as he was able, to support the family, which was now once more destitute, and undertook to provide for my future education.
I took leave of my companions and of the kind-hearted clergyman, and it was for his funeral that I paid my next visit to Possendorf a few years later. I did not go to the place again till long afterwards, when I visited it on an excursion such as I often made, far into the country, at the time when I was conducting the orchestra in Dresden. I was much grieved not to find the old parsonage still there, but in its place a more pretentious modern structure, which so turned me against the locality, that thenceforward my excursions were always made in another direction.
This time my uncle brought me back to Dresden in the carriage. I found my mother and sister in the deepest mourning, and remember being received for the first time with a tenderness not usual in our family; and I noticed that the same tenderness marked our leave-taking, when, a few days later, my uncle took me with him to Eisleben.
This uncle, who was a younger brother of my stepfather, had settled there as a goldsmith, and Julius, one of my elder brothers, had already been apprenticed to him. Our old grandmother also lived with this bachelor son, and as it was evident that she could not live long, she was not informed of the death of her eldest son, which I, too, was bidden to keep to myself. The servant carefully removed the crape from my coat, telling me she would keep it until my grandmother died, which was likely to be soon.
I was now often called upon to tell her about my father, and it was no great difficulty for me to keep the secret of his death, as I had scarcely realised it myself. She lived in a dark back room looking out upon a narrow courtyard, and took a great delight in watching the robins that fluttered freely about her, and for which she always kept fresh green boughs by the stove. When some of these robins were killed by the cat, I managed to catch others for her in the neighbourhood, which pleased her very much, and, in return, she kept me tidy and clean. Her death, as had been expected, took place before long, and the crape that had been put away was now openly worn in Eisleben.
The back room, with its robins and green branches, now knew me no more, but I soon made myself at home with a soap-boiler's family, to whom the house belonged, and became popular with them on account of the stories I told them.
I was sent to a private school kept by a man called Weiss, who left an impression of gravity and dignity upon my mind.
Towards the end of the fifties I was greatly moved at reading in a musical paper the account of a concert at Eisleben, consisting of parts of Tannhauser, at which my former master, who had not forgotten his young pupil, had been present.
The little old town with Luther's house, and the numberless memorials it contained of his stay there, has often, in later days, come back to me in dreams. I have always wished to revisit it and verify the clearness of my recollections, but, strange to say, it has never been my fate to do so. We lived in the market- place, where I was often entertained by strange sights, such, for instance, as performances by a troupe of acrobats, in which a man walked a rope stretched from tower to tower across the square, an achievement which long inspired me with a passion for such feats of daring. Indeed, I got so far as to walk a rope fairly easily myself with the help of a balancing-pole. I had made the rope out of cords twisted together and stretched across the courtyard, and even now I still feel a desire to gratify my acrobatic instincts. The thing that attracted me most, however, was the brass band of a Hussar regiment quartered at Eisleben. It often played a certain piece which had just come out, and which was making a great sensation, I mean the 'Huntsmen's Chorus' out of the Freischutz, that had been recently performed at the Opera in Berlin. My uncle and brother asked me eagerly about its composer, Weber, whom I must have seen at my parents' house in Dresden, when he was conductor of the orchestra there.
About the same time the Jungfernkranz was zealously played and sung by some friends who lived near us. These two pieces cured me of my weakness for the 'Ypsilanti' Waltz, which till that time I had regarded as the most wonderful of compositions.
I have recollections of frequent tussles with the town boys, who were constantly mocking at me for my 'square' cap; and I remember, too, that I was very fond of rambles of adventure among the rocky banks of the Unstrut.
My uncle's marriage late in life, and the starting of his new home, brought about a marked alteration in his relations to my family.
After a lapse of a year I was taken by him to Leipzig, and handed over for some days to the Wagners, my own father's relatives, consisting of my uncle Adolph and his sister Friederike Wagner. This extraordinarily interesting man, whose influence afterwards became ever more stimulating to me, now for the first time brought himself and his singular environment into my life.
He and my aunt were very close friends of Jeannette Thome, a queer old maid who shared with them a large house in the market- place, in which, if I am not mistaken, the Electoral family of Saxony had, ever since the days of Augustus the Strong, hired and furnished the two principal storeys for their own use whenever they were in Leipzig.
So far as I know, Jeannette Thome really owned the second storey, of which she inhabited only a modest apartment looking out on the courtyard. As, however, the King merely occupied the hired rooms for a few days in the year, Jeannette and her circle generally made use of his splendid apartments, and one of these staterooms was made into a bedroom for me.
The decorations and fittings of these rooms also dated from the days of Augustus the Strong. They were luxurious with heavy silk and rich rococo furniture, all of which were much soiled with age. As a matter of fact, I was delighted by these large strange rooms, looking out upon the bustling Leipzig market-place, where I loved above all to watch the students in the crowd making their way along in their old-fashioned 'Club' attire, and filling up the whole width of the street.
There was only one portion of the decorations of the rooms that I thoroughly disliked, and this consisted of the various portraits, but particularly those of high-born dames in hooped petticoats, with youthful faces and powdered hair. These appeared to me exactly like ghosts, who, when I was alone in the room, seemed to come back to life, and filled me with the most abject fear. To sleep alone in this distant chamber, in that old-fashioned bed of state, beneath those unearthly pictures, was a constant terror to me. It is true I tried to hide my fear from my aunt when she lighted me to bed in the evening with her candle, but never a night passed in which I was not a prey to the most horrible ghostly visions, my dread of which would leave me in a bath of perspiration.
The personality of the three chief occupants of this storey was admirably adapted to materialise the ghostly impressions of the house into a reality that resembled some strange fairy-tale.
Jeannette Thome was very small and stout; she wore a fair Titus wig, and seemed to hug to herself the consciousness of vanished beauty. My aunt, her faithful friend and guardian, who was also an old maid, was remarkable for the height and extreme leanness of her person. The oddity of her otherwise very pleasant face was increased by an exceedingly pointed chin.
My uncle Adolph had chosen as his permanent study a dark room in the courtyard. There it was that I saw him for the first time, surrounded by a great wilderness of books, and attired in an unpretentious indoor costume, the most striking feature of which was a tall, pointed felt cap, such as I had seen worn by the clown who belonged to the troupe of rope-dancers at Eisleben. A great love of independence had driven him to this strange retreat. He had been originally destined for the Church, but he soon gave that up, in order to devote himself entirely to philological studies. But as he had the greatest dislike of acting as a professor and teacher in a regular post, he soon tried to make a meagre livelihood by literary work. He had certain social gifts, and especially a fine tenor voice, and appears in his youth to have been welcome as a man of letters among a fairly wide circle of friends at Leipzig.
On a trip to Jena, during which he and a companion seem to have found their way into various musical and oratorical associations, he paid a visit to Schiller. With this object in view, he had come armed with a request from the management of the Leipzig Theatre, who wanted to secure the rights of Wallenstein, which was just finished. He told me later of the magic impression made upon him by Schiller, with his tall slight figure and irresistibly attractive blue eyes. His only complaint was that, owing to a well-meant trick played on him by his friend, he had been placed in a most trying position; for the latter had managed to send Schiller a small volume of Adolph Wagner's poems in advance.
The young poet was much embarrassed to hear Schiller address him in flattering terms on the subject of his poetry, but was convinced that the great man was merely encouraging him out of kindness. Afterwards he devoted himself entirely to philological studios—one of his best-known publications in that department being his Parnasso Italiano, which he dedicated to Goethe in an Italian poem. True, I have heard experts say that the latter was written in unusually pompous Italian; but Goethe sent him a letter full of praise, as well as a silver cup from his own household plate. The impression that I, as a boy of eight, conceived of Adolph Wagner, amid the surroundings of his own home, was that he was a peculiarly puzzling character.
I soon had to leave the influence of this environment and was brought back to my people at Dresden. Meanwhile my family, under the guidance of my bereaved mother, had been obliged to settle down as well as they could under the circumstances. My eldest brother Albert, who originally intended to study medicine, had, upon the advice of Weber, who had much admired his beautiful tenor voice, started his theatrical career in Breslau. My second sister Louisa soon followed his example, and became an actress. My eldest sister Rosalie had obtained an excellent engagement at the Dresden Court Theatre, and the younger members of the family all looked up to her; for she was now the main support of our poor sorrowing mother. My family still occupied the same comfortable home which my father had made for them. Some of the spare rooms were occasionally let to strangers, and Spohr was among those who at one time lodged with us. Thanks to her great energy, and to help received from various sources (among which the continued generosity of the Court, out of respect to the memory of my late stepfather, must not be forgotten), my mother managed so well in making both ends meet, that even my education did not suffer.
After it had been decided that my sister Clara, owing to her exceedingly beautiful voice, should also go on the stage, my mother took the greatest care to prevent me from developing any taste whatever for the theatre. She never ceased to reproach herself for having consented to the theatrical career of my eldest brother, and as my second brother showed no greater talents than those which were useful to him as a goldsmith, it was now her chief desire to see some progress made towards the fulfilment of the hopes and wishes of my step-father, 'who hoped to make something of me.' On the completion of my eighth year I was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, where it was hoped I would study! There I was placed at the bottom of the lowest class, and started my education under the most unassuming auspices.
My mother noted with much interest the slightest signs I might show of a growing love and ability for my work. She herself, though not highly educated, always created a lasting impression on all who really learnt to know her, and displayed a peculiar combination of practical domestic efficiency and keen intellectual animation. She never gave one of her children any definite information concerning her antecedents. She came from Weissenfels, and admitted that her parents had been bakers [FOOTNOTE: According to more recent information—mill owners] there. Even in regard to her maiden name she always spoke with some embarrassment, and intimated that it was 'Perthes,' though, as we afterwards ascertained, it was in reality 'Bertz.' Strange to say, she had been placed in a high-class boarding-school in Leipzig, where she had enjoyed the advantage of the care and interest of one of 'her father's influential friends,' to whom she afterwards referred as being a Weimar prince who had been very kind to her family in Weissenfels. Her education in that establishment seems to have been interrupted on account of the sudden death of this 'friend.' She became acquainted with my father at a very early age, and married him in the first bloom of her youth, he also being very young, though he already held an appointment. Her chief characteristics seem to have been a keen sense of humour and an amiable temper, so we need not suppose that it was merely a sense of duty towards the family of a departed comrade that afterwards induced the admirable Ludwig Geyer to enter into matrimony with her when she was no longer youthful, but rather that he was impelled to that step by a sincere and warm regard for the widow of his friend. A portrait of her, painted by Geyer during the lifetime of my father, gives one a very favourable impression of what she must have been. Even from the time when my recollection of her is quite distinct, she always had to wear a cap owing to some slight affection of the head, so that I have no recollection of her as a young and pretty mother. Her trying position at the head of a numerous family (of which I was the seventh surviving member), the difficulty of obtaining the wherewithal to rear them, and of keeping up appearances on very limited resources, did not conduce to evolve that tender sweetness and solicitude which are usually associated with motherhood. I hardly ever recollect her having fondled me. Indeed, demonstrations of affection were not common in our family, although a certain impetuous, almost passionate and boisterous manner always characterised our dealings. This being so, it naturally seemed to me quite a great event when one night I, fretful with sleepiness, looked up at her with tearful eyes as she was taking me to bed, and saw her gaze back at me proudly and fondly, and speak of me to a visitor then present with a certain amount of tenderness.
What struck me more particularly about her was the strange enthusiasm and almost pathetic manner with which she spoke of the great and of the beautiful in Art. Under this heading, however, she would never have let me suppose that she included dramatic art, but only Poetry, Music, and Painting. Consequently, she often even threatened me with her curse should I ever express a desire to go on the stage. Moreover, she was very religiously inclined. With intense fervour she would often give us long sermons about God and the divine quality in man, during which, now and again, suddenly lowering her voice in a rather funny way, she would interrupt herself in order to rebuke one of us. After the death of our stepfather she used to assemble us all round her bed every morning, when one of us would read out a hymn or a part of the Church service from the prayer-book before she took her coffee. Sometimes the choice of the part to be read was hardly appropriate, as, for instance, when my sister Clara on one occasion thoughtlessly read the 'Prayer to be said in time of War,' and delivered it with so much expression that my mother interrupted her, saying: 'Oh, stop! Good gracious me! Things are not quite so bad as that. There's no war on at present!'
In spite of our limited means we had lively and—as they appeared to my boyish imagination—even brilliant evening parties sometimes. After the death of my stepfather, who, thanks to his success as a portrait painter, in the later years of his life had raised his income to what for those days was a really decent total, many agreeable acquaintances of very good social position whom he had made during this flourishing period still remained on friendly terms with us, and would occasionally join us at our evening gatherings. Amongst those who came were the members of the Court Theatre, who at that time gave very charming and highly entertaining parties of their own, which, on my return to Dresden later on, I found had been altogether given up.
Very delightful, too, were the picnics arranged between us and our friends at some of the beautiful spots around Dresden, for these excursions were always brightened by a certain artistic spirit and general good cheer. I remember one such outing we arranged to Loschwitz, where we made a kind of gypsy camp, in which Carl Maria von Weber played his part in the character of cook. At home we also had some music. My sister Rosalie played the piano, and Clara was beginning to sing. Of the various theatrical performances we organised in those early days, often after elaborate preparation, with the view of amusing ourselves on the birthdays of our elders, I can hardly remember one, save a parody on the romantic play of Sappho, by Grillparzer, in which I took part as one of the singers in the crowd that preceded Phaon's triumphal car. I endeavoured to revive these memories by means of a fine puppet show, which I found among the effects of my late stepfather, and for which he himself had painted some beautiful scenery. It was my intention to surprise my people by means of a brilliant performance on this little stage. After I had very clumsily made several puppets, and had provided them with a scanty wardrobe made from cuttings of material purloined from my sisters, I started to compose a chivalric drama, in which I proposed to rehearse my puppets. When I had drafted the first scene, my sisters happened to discover the MS. and literally laughed it to scorn, and, to my great annoyance, for a long time afterwards they chaffed me by repeating one particular sentence which I had put into the mouth of the heroine, and which was—Ich hore schon den Ritter trapsen ('I hear his knightly footsteps falling'). I now returned with renewed ardour to the theatre, with which, even at this time, my family was in close touch. Den Freischutz in particular appealed very strongly to my imagination, mainly on account of its ghostly theme. The emotions of terror and the dread of ghosts formed quite an important factor in the development of my mind. From my earliest childhood certain mysterious and uncanny things exercised an enormous influence over me. If I were left alone in a room for long, I remember that, when gazing at lifeless objects such as pieces of furniture, and concentrating my attention upon them, I would suddenly shriek out with fright, because they seemed to me alive. Even during the latest years of my boyhood, not a night passed without my waking out of some ghostly dream and uttering the most frightful shrieks, which subsided only at the sound of some human voice. The most severe rebuke or even chastisement seemed to me at those times no more than a blessed release. None of my brothers or sisters would sleep anywhere near me. They put me to sleep as far as possible away from the others, without thinking that my cries for help would only be louder and longer; but in the end they got used even to this nightly disturbance.
In connection with this childish terror, what attracted me so strongly to the theatre—by which I mean also the stage, the rooms behind the scenes, and the dressing-rooms—was not so much the desire for entertainment and amusement such as that which impels the present-day theatre-goers, but the fascinating pleasure of finding myself in an entirely different atmosphere, in a world that was purely fantastic and often gruesomely attractive. Thus to me a scene, even a wing, representing a bush, or some costume or characteristic part of it, seemed to come from another world, to be in some way as attractive as an apparition, and I felt that contact with it might serve as a lever to lift me from the dull reality of daily routine to that delightful region of spirits. Everything connected with a theatrical performance had for me the charm of mystery, it both bewitched and fascinated me, and while I was trying, with the help of a few playmates, to imitate the performance of Der Freischutz, and to devote myself energetically to reproducing the needful costumes and masks in my grotesque style of painting, the more elegant contents of my sisters' wardrobes, in the beautifying of which I had often seen the family occupied, exercised a subtle charm over my imagination; nay, my heart would beat madly at the very touch of one of their dresses.
In spite of the fact that, as I already mentioned, our family was not given to outward manifestations of affection, yet the fact that I was brought up entirely among feminine surroundings must necessarily have influenced the development of the sensitive side of my nature. Perhaps it was precisely because my immediate circle was generally rough and impetuous, that the opposite characteristics of womanhood, especially such as were connected with the imaginary world of the theatre, created a feeling of such tender longing in me.
Luckily these fantastic humours, merging from the gruesome into the mawkish, were counteracted and balanced by more serious influences undergone at school at the hands of my teachers and schoolfellows. Even there, it was chiefly the weird that aroused my keenest interest. I can hardly judge whether I had what would be called a good head for study. I think that, in general, what I really liked I was soon able to grasp without much effort, whereas I hardly exerted myself at all in the study of subjects that were uncongenial. This characteristic was most marked in regard to arithmetic and, later on, mathematics. In neither of these subjects did I ever succeed in bringing my mind seriously to bear upon the tasks that were set me. In the matter of the Classics, too, I paid only just as much attention as was absolutely necessary to enable me to get a grasp of them; for I was stimulated by the desire to reproduce them to myself dramatically. In this way Greek particularly attracted me, because the stories from Greek mythology so seized upon my fancy that I tried to imagine their heroes as speaking to me in their native tongue, so as to satisfy my longing for complete familiarity with them. In these circumstances it will be readily understood that the grammar of the language seemed to me merely a tiresome obstacle, and by no means in itself an interesting branch of knowledge.
The fact that my study of languages was never very thorough, perhaps best explains the fact that I was afterwards so ready to cease troubling about them altogether. Not until much later did this study really begin to interest me again, and that was only when I learnt to understand its physiological and philosophical side, as it was revealed to our modern Germanists by the pioneer work of Jakob Grimm. Then, when it was too late to apply myself thoroughly to a study which at last I had learned to appreciate, I regretted that this newer conception of the study of languages had not yet found acceptance in our colleges when I was younger.
Nevertheless, by my successes in philological work I managed to attract the attention of a young teacher at the Kreuz Grammar School, a Master of Arts named Sillig, who proved very helpful to me. He often permitted me to visit him and show him my work, consisting of metric translations and a few original poems, and he always seemed very pleased with my efforts in recitation. What he thought of me may best be judged perhaps from the fact that he made me, as a boy of about twelve, recite not only 'Hector's Farewell' from the Iliad, but even Hamlet's celebrated monologue. On one occasion, when I was in the fourth form of the school, one of my schoolfellows, a boy named Starke, suddenly fell dead, and the tragic event aroused so much sympathy, that not only did the whole school attend the funeral, but the headmaster also ordered that a poem should be written in commemoration of the ceremony, and that this poem should be published. Of the various poems submitted, among which there was one by myself, prepared very hurriedly, none seemed to the master worthy of the honour which he had promised, and he therefore announced his intention of substituting one of his own speeches in the place of our rejected attempts. Much distressed by this decision, I quickly sought out Professor Sillig, with the view of urging him to intervene on behalf of my poem. We thereupon went through it together. Its well-constructed and well-rhymed verses, written in stanzas of eight lines, determined him to revise the whole of it carefully. Much of its imagery was bombastic, and far beyond the conception of a boy of my age. I recollect that in one part I had drawn extensively from the monologue in Addison's Cato, spoken by Cato just before his suicide. I had met with this passage in an English grammar, and it had made a deep impression upon me. The words: 'The stars shall fade away, the sun himself grow dim with age, and nature sink in years,' which, at all events, were a direct plagiarism, made Sillig laugh—a thing at which I was a little offended. However, I felt very grateful to him, for, thanks to the care and rapidity with which he cleared my poem of these extravagances, it was eventually accepted by the headmaster, printed, and widely circulated.
The effect of this success was extraordinary, both on my schoolfellows and on my own family. My mother devoutly folded her hands in thankfulness, and in my own mind my vocation seemed quite a settled thing. It was clear, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that I was destined to be a poet. Professor Sillig wished me to compose a grand epic, and suggested as a subject 'The Battle of Parnassus,' as described by Pausanias. His reasons for this choice were based upon the legend related by Pausanias, viz., that in the second century B.C. the Muses from Parnassus aided the combined Greek armies against the destructive invasion of the Gauls by provoking a panic among the latter. I actually began my heroic poem in hexameter verse, but could not get through the first canto.
Not being far enough advanced in the language to understand the Greek tragedies thoroughly in the original, my own attempts to construct a tragedy in the Greek form were greatly influenced by the fact that quite by accident I came across August Apel's clever imitation of this style in his striking poems 'Polyidos' and 'Aitolier.' For my theme I selected the death of Ulysses, from a fable of Hyginus, according to which the aged hero is killed by his son, the offspring of his union with Calypso. But I did not get very far with this work either, before I gave it up.
My mind became so bent upon this sort of thing, that duller studies naturally ceased to interest me. The mythology, legends, and, at last, the history of Greece alone attracted me.
I was fond of life, merry with my companions, and always ready for a joke or an adventure. Moreover, I was constantly forming friendships, almost passionate in their ardour, with one or the other of my comrades, and in choosing my associates I was mainly influenced by the extent to which my new acquaintance appealed to my eccentric imagination. At one time it would be poetising and versifying that decided my choice of a friend; at another, theatrical enterprises, while now and then it would be a longing for rambling and mischief.
Furthermore, when I reached my thirteenth year, a great change came over our family affairs. My sister Rosalie, who had become the chief support of our household, obtained an advantageous engagement at the theatre in Prague, whither mother and children removed in 1820, thus giving up the Dresden home altogether. I was left behind in Dresden, so that I might continue to attend the Kreuz Grammar School until I was ready to go up to the university. I was therefore sent to board and lodge with a family named Bohme, whose sons I had known at school, and in whose house I already felt quite at home. With my residence in this somewhat rough, poor, and not particularly well-conducted family, my years of dissipation began. I no longer enjoyed the quiet retirement necessary for work, nor the gentle, spiritual influence of my sisters' companionship. On the contrary, I was plunged into a busy, restless life, full of rough horseplay and of quarrels. Nevertheless, it was there that I began to experience the influence of the gentler sex in a manner hitherto unknown to me, as the grown-up daughters of the family and their friends often filled the scanty and narrow rooms of the house. Indeed, my first recollections of boyish love date from this period. I remember a very beautiful young girl, whose name, if I am not mistaken, was Amalie Hoffmann, coming to call at the house one Sunday. She was charmingly dressed, and her appearance as she came into the room literally struck me dumb with amazement. On other occasions I recollect pretending to be too helplessly sleepy to move, so that I might be carried up to bed by the girls, that being, as they thought, the only remedy for my condition. And I repeated this, because I found, to my surprise, that their attention under these circumstances brought me into closer and more gratifying proximity with them.
The most important event during this year of separation from my family was, however, a short visit I paid to them in Prague. In the middle of the winter my mother came to Dresden, and took me hack with her to Prague for a week. Her way of travelling was quite unique. To the end of her days she preferred the more dangerous mode of travelling in a hackney carriage to the quicker journey by mail-coach, so that we spent three whole days in the bitter cold on the road from Dresden to Prague. The journey over the Bohemian mountains often seemed to be beset with the greatest dangers, but happily we survived our thrilling adventures and at last arrived in Prague, where I was suddenly plunged into entirely new surroundings.
For a long time the thought of leaving Saxony on another visit to Bohemia, and especially Prague, had had quite a romantic attraction for me. The foreign nationality, the broken German of the people, the peculiar headgear of the women, the native wines, the harp-girls and musicians, and finally, the ever present signs of Catholicism, its numerous chapels and shrines, all produced on me a strangely exhilarating impression. This was probably due to my craze for everything theatrical and spectacular, as distinguished from simple bourgeois customs. Above all, the antique splendour and beauty of the incomparable city of Prague became indelibly stamped on my fancy. Even in my own family surroundings I found attractions to which I had hitherto been a stranger. For instance, my sister Ottilie, only two years older than myself, had won the devoted friendship of a noble family, that of Count Pachta, two of whose daughters, Jenny and Auguste, who had long been famed as the leading beauties of Prague, had become fondly attached to her. To me, such people and such a connection were something quite novel and enchanting. Besides these, certain beaux esprits of Prague, among them W. Marsano, a strikingly handsome and charming man, were frequent visitors at our house. They often earnestly discussed the tales of Hoffmann, which at that date were comparatively new, and had created some sensation. It was now that I made my first though rather superficial acquaintance with this romantic visionary, and so received a stimulus which influenced me for many years even to the point of infatuation, and gave me very peculiar ideas of the world.
In the following spring, 1827, I repeated this journey from Dresden to Prague, but this time on foot, and accompanied by my friend Rudolf Bohme. Our tour was full of adventure. We got to within an hour of Teplitz the first night, and next day we had to get a lift in a wagon, as we had walked our feet sore; yet this only took us as far as Lowositz, as our funds had quite run out. Under a scorching sun, hungry and half-fainting, we wandered along bypaths through absolutely unknown country, until at sundown we happened to reach the main road just as an elegant travelling coach came in sight. I humbled my pride so far as to pretend I was a travelling journeyman, and begged the distinguished travellers for alms, while my friend timidly hid himself in the ditch by the roadside. Luckily we decided to seek shelter for the night in an inn, where we took counsel whether we should spend the alms just received on a supper or a bed. We decided for the supper, proposing to spend the night under the open sky. While we were refreshing ourselves, a strange-looking wayfarer entered. He wore a black velvet skull-cap, to which a metal lyre was attached like a cockade, and on his back he bore a harp. Very cheerfully he set down his instrument, made himself comfortable, and called for a good meal. He intended to stay the night, and to continue his way next day to Prague, where he lived, and whither he was returning from Hanover.
My good spirits and courage were stimulated by the jovial manners of this merry fellow, who constantly repeated his favourite motto, 'non plus ultra.' We soon struck up an acquaintance, and in return for my confidence, the strolling player's attitude to me was one of almost touching sympathy. It was agreed that we should continue our journey together next day on foot. He lent me two twenty-kreutzer pieces (about ninepence), and allowed me to write my Prague address in his pocket-book. I was highly delighted at this personal success. My harpist grew extravagantly merry; a good deal of Czernosek wine was drunk; he sang and played on his harp like a madman, continually reiterating his 'non plus ultra' till at last, overcome with wine, he fell down on the straw, which had been spread out on the floor for our common bed. When the sun once more peeped in, we could not rouse him, and we had to make up our minds to set off in the freshness of the early morning without him, feeling convinced that the sturdy fellow would overtake us during the day. But it was in vain that we looked out for him on the road and during our subsequent stay in Prague. Indeed, it was not until several weeks later that the extraordinary fellow turned up at my mother's, not so much to collect payment of his loan, as to inquire about the welfare of the young friend to whom that loan had been made.
The remainder of our journey was very fatiguing, and the joy I felt when I at last beheld Prague from the summit of a hill, at about an hour's distance, simply beggars description. Approaching the suburbs, we were for the second time met by a splendid carriage, from which my sister Ottilie's two lovely friends called out to me in astonishment. They had recognised me immediately, in spite of my terribly sunburnt face, blue linen blouse, and bright red cotton cap. Overwhelmed with shame, and with my heart beating like mad, I could hardly utter a word, and hurried away to my mother's to attend at once to the restoration of my sunburnt complexion. To this task I devoted two whole days, during which I swathed my face in parsley poultices; and not till then did I seek the pleasures of society. When, on the return journey, I looked back once more on Prague from the same hilltop, I burst into tears, flung myself on the earth, and for a long time could not be induced by my astonished companion to pursue the journey. I was downcast for the rest of the way, and we arrived home in Dresden without any further adventures.
During the same year I again gratified my fancy for long excursions on foot by joining a numerous company of grammar school boys, consisting of pupils of several classes and of various ages, who had decided to spend their summer holidays in a tour to Leipzig. This journey also stands out among the memories of my youth, by reason of the strong impressions it left behind. The characteristic feature of our party was that we all aped the student, by behaving and dressing extravagantly in the most approved student fashion. After going as far as Meissen on the market-boat, our path lay off the main road, through villages with which I was as yet unfamiliar. We spent the night in the vast barn of a village inn, and our adventures were of the wildest description. There we saw a large marionette show, with almost life-sized figures. Our entire party settled themselves in the auditorium, where their presence was a source of some anxiety to the managers, who had only reckoned on an audience of peasants. Genovefa was the play given. The ceaseless silly jests, and constant interpolations and jeering interruptions, in which our corps of embryo-students indulged, finally aroused the anger even of the peasants, who had come prepared to weep. I believe I was the only one of our party who was pained by these impertinences, and in spite of involuntary laughter at some of my comrades' jokes, I not only defended the play itself, but also its original, simple-minded audience. A popular catch-phrase which occurred in the piece has ever since remained stamped on my memory. 'Golo' instructs the inevitable Kaspar that, when the Count Palatine returns home, he must 'tickle him behind, so that he should feel it in front' (hinten zu kitzeln, dass er es vorne fuhle). Kaspar conveys Golo's order verbatim to the Count, and the latter reproaches the unmasked rogue in the following terms, uttered with the greatest pathos: 'O Golo, Golo! thou hast told Kaspar to tickle me behind, so that I shall feel it in front!'
From Grimma our party rode into Leipzig in open carriages, but not until we had first carefully removed all the outward emblems of the undergraduate, lest the local students we were likely to meet might make us rue our presumption.
Since my first visit, when I was eight years old, I had only once returned to Leipzig, and then for a very brief stay, and under circumstances very similar to those of the earlier visit. I now renewed my fantastic impressions of the Thome house, but this time, owing to my more advanced education, I looked forward to more intelligent intercourse with my uncle Adolph. An opening for this was soon provided by my joyous astonishment on learning that a bookcase in the large anteroom, containing a goodly collection of books, was my property, having been left me by my father. I went through the books with my uncle, selected at once a number of Latin authors in the handsome Zweibruck edition, along with sundry attractive looking works of poetry and belles-lettres, and arranged for them to be sent to Dresden. During this visit I was very much interested in the life of the students. In addition to my impressions of the theatre and of Prague, now came those of the so-called swaggering undergraduate. A great change had taken place in this class. When, as a lad of eight, I had my first glimpse of students, their long hair, their old German costume with the black velvet skull-cap and the shirt collar turned back from the bare neck, had quite taken my fancy. But since that time the old student 'associations' which affected this fashion had disappeared in the face of police prosecutions. On the other hand, the national student clubs, no less peculiar to Germans, had become conspicuous. These clubs adopted, more or less, the fashion of the day, but with some little exaggeration. Albeit, their dress was clearly distinguishable from that of other classes, owing to its picturesqueness, and especially its display of the various club-colours. The 'Comment,' that compendium of pedantic rules of conduct for the preservation of a defiant and exclusive esprit de corps, as opposed to the bourgeois classes, had its fantastic side, just as the most philistine peculiarities of the Germans have, if you probe them deeply enough. To me it represented the idea of emancipation from the yoke of school and family. The longing to become a student coincided unfortunately with my growing dislike for drier studies and with my ever- increasing fondness for cultivating romantic poetry. The results of this soon showed themselves in my resolute attempts to make a change.
At the time of my confirmation, at Easter, 1827, I had considerable doubt about this ceremony, and I already felt a serious falling off of my reverence for religious observances. The boy who, not many years before, had gazed with agonised sympathy on the altarpiece in the Kreuz Kirche (Church of the Holy Cross), and had yearned with ecstatic fervour to hang upon the Cross in place of the Saviour, had now so far lost his veneration for the clergyman, whose preparatory confirmation classes he attended, as to be quite ready to make fun of him, and even to join with his comrades in withholding part of his class fees, and spending the money in sweets. How matters stood with me spiritually was revealed to me, almost to my horror, at the Communion service, when I walked in procession with my fellow- communicants to the altar to the sound of organ and choir. The shudder with which I received the Bread and Wine was so ineffaceably stamped on my memory, that I never again partook of the Communion, lest I should do so with levity. To avoid this was all the easier for me, seeing that among Protestants such participation is not compulsory.
I soon, however, seized, or rather created, an opportunity of forcing a breach with the Kreuz Grammar School, and thus compelled my family to let me go to Leipzig. In self-defence against what I considered an unjust punishment with which I was threatened by the assistant headmaster, Baumgarten-Crusius, for whom I otherwise had great respect, I asked to be discharged immediately from the school on the ground of sudden summons to join my family in Leipzig. I had already left the Bohme household three months before, and now lived alone in a small garret, where I was waited on by the widow of a court plate-washer, who at every meal served up the familiar thin Saxon coffee as almost my sole nourishment. In this attic I did little else but write verses. Here, too, I formed the first outlines of that stupendous tragedy which afterwards filled my family with such consternation. The irregular habits I acquired through this premature domestic independence induced my anxious mother to consent very readily to my removal to Leipzig, the more so as a part of our scattered family had already migrated there.
My longing for Leipzig, originally aroused by the fantastic impressions I had gained there, and later by my enthusiasm for a student's life, had recently been still further stimulated. I had seen scarcely anything of my sister Louisa, at that time a girl of about twenty-two, as she had gone to the theatre of Breslau shortly after our stepfather's death. Quite recently she had been in Dresden for a few days on her way to Leipzig, having accepted an engagement at the theatre there. This meeting with my almost unknown sister, her hearty manifestations of joy at seeing me again, as well as her sprightly, merry disposition, quite won my heart. To live with her seemed an alluring prospect, especially as my mother and Ottilie had joined her for a while. For the first time a sister had treated me with some tenderness. When at last I reached Leipzig at Christmas in the same year (1827), and there found my mother with Ottilie and Cecilia (my half-sister), I fancied myself in heaven. Great changes, however, had already taken place. Louisa was betrothed to a respected and well-to-do bookseller, Friedrich Brockhaus. This gathering together of the relatives of the penniless bride-elect did not seem to trouble her remarkably kind-hearted fiance. But my sister may have become uneasy on the subject, for she soon gave me to understand that she was not taking it quite in good part. Her desire to secure an entree into the higher social circles of bourgeois life naturally produced a marked change in her manner, at one time so full of fun, and of this I gradually became so keenly sensible that finally we were estranged for a time. Moreover, I unfortunately gave her good cause to reprove my conduct. After I got to Leipzig I quite gave up my studies and all regular school work, probably owing to the arbitrary and pedantic system in vogue at the school there.
In Leipzig there were two higher-class schools, one called St. Thomas's School, and the other, and the more modern, St. Nicholas's School. The latter at that time enjoyed a better reputation than the former; so there I had to go. But the council of teachers before whom I appeared for my entrance examination at the New Year (1828) thought fit to maintain the dignity of their school by placing me for a time in the upper third form, whereas at the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden I had been in the second form. My disgust at having to lay aside my Homer—from which I had already made written translations of twelve songs—and take up the lighter Greek prose writers was indescribable. It hurt my feelings so deeply, and so influenced my behaviour, that I never made a friend of any teacher in the school. The unsympathetic treatment I met with made me all the more obstinate, and various other circumstances in my position only added to this feeling. While student life, as I saw it day by day, inspired me ever more and more with its rebellious spirit, I unexpectedly met with another cause for despising the dry monotony of school regime. I refer to the influence of my uncle, Adolph Wagner, which, though he was long unconscious of it, went a long way towards moulding the growing stripling that I then was.
The fact that my romantic tastes were not based solely on a tendency to superficial amusement was shown by my ardent attachment to this learned relative. In his manner and conversation he was certainly very attractive; the many-sidedness of his knowledge, which embraced not only philology but also philosophy and general poetic literature, rendered intercourse with him a most entertaining pastime, as all those who knew him used to admit. On the other hand, the fact that he was denied the gift of writing with equal charm, or clearness, was a singular defect which seriously lessened his influence upon the literary world, and, in fact, often made him appear ridiculous, as in a written argument he would perpetrate the most pompous and involved sentences. This weakness could not have alarmed me, because in the hazy period of my youth the more incomprehensible any literary extravagance was, the more I admired it; besides which, I had more experience of his conversation than of his writings. He also seemed to find pleasure in associating with the lad who could listen with so much heart and soul. Yet unfortunately, possibly in the fervour of his discourses, of which he was not a little proud, he forgot that their substance, as well as their form, was far above my youthful powers of comprehension. I called daily to accompany him on his constitutional walk beyond the city gates, and I shrewdly suspect that we often provoked the smiles of those passers-by who overheard the profound and often earnest discussions between us. The subjects generally ranged over everything serious or sublime throughout the whole realm of knowledge. I took the most enthusiastic interest in his copious library, and tasted eagerly of almost all branches of literature, without really grounding myself in any one of them.
My uncle was delighted to find in me a very willing listener to his recital of classic tragedies. He had made a translation of Oedipus, and, according to his intimate friend Tieck, justly flattered himself on being an excellent reader.
I remember once, when he was sitting at his desk reading out a Greek tragedy to me, it did not annoy him when I fell fast asleep, and he afterwards pretended he had not noticed it. I was also induced to spend my evenings with him, owing to the friendly and genial hospitality his wife showed me. A very great change had come over my uncle's life since my first acquaintance with him at Jeannette Thome's. The home which he, together with his sister Friederike, had found in his friend's house seemed, as time went on, to have brought in its train duties that were irksome. As his literary work assured him a modest income, he eventually deemed it more in accordance with his dignity to make a home of his own. A friend of his, of the same age as himself, the sister of the aesthete Wendt of Leipzig, who afterwards became famous, was chosen by him to keep house for him. Without saying a word to Jeannette, instead of going for his usual afternoon walk he went to the church with his chosen bride, and got through the marriage ceremonies as quickly as possible; and it was only on his return that he informed us he was leaving, and would have his things removed that very day. He managed to meet the consternation, perhaps also the reproaches, of his elderly friend with quiet composure; and to the end of his life he continued his regular daily visits to 'Mam'selle Thome,' who at times would coyly pretend to sulk. It was only poor Friederike who seemed obliged at times to atone for her brother's sudden unfaithfulness.
What attracted me in my uncle most strongly was his blunt contempt of the modern pedantry in State, Church, and School, to which he gave vent with some humour. Despite the great moderation of his usual views on life, he yet produced on me the effect of a thorough free-thinker. I was highly delighted by his contempt for the pedantry of the schools. Once, when I had come into serious conflict with all the teachers of the Nicolai School, and the rector of the school had approached my uncle, as the only male representative of my family, with a serious complaint about my behaviour, my uncle asked me during a stroll round the town, with a calm smile as though he were speaking to one of his own age, what I had been up to with the people at school. I explained the whole affair to him, and described the punishment to which I had been subjected, and which seemed to me unjust. He pacified me, and exhorted me to be patient, telling me to comfort myself with the Spanish proverb, un rey no puede morir, which he explained as meaning that the ruler of a school must of necessity always be in the right.
He could not, of course, help noticing, to his alarm, the effect upon me of this kind of conversation, which I was far too young to appreciate. Although it annoyed me one day, when I wanted to begin reading Goethe's Faust, to hear him say quietly that I was too young to understand it, yet, according to my thinking, his other conversations about our own great poets, and even about Shakespeare and Dante, had made me so familiar with these sublime figures that I had now for some time been secretly busy working out the great tragedy I had already conceived in Dresden. Since my trouble at school I had devoted all my energies, which ought by rights to have been exclusively directed to my school duties, to the accomplishment of this task. In this secret work I had only one confidante, my sister Ottilie, who now lived with me at my mother's. I can remember the misgivings and alarm which the first confidential communication of my great poetic enterprise aroused in my good sister; yet she affectionately suffered the tortures I sometimes inflicted on her by reciting to her in secret, but not without emotion, portions of my work as it progressed. Once, when I was reciting to her one of the most gruesome scenes, a heavy thunderstorm came on. When the lightning flashed quite close to us, and the thunder rolled, my sister felt bound to implore me to stop; but she soon found it was hopeless, and continued to endure it with touching devotion.
But a more significant storm was brewing on the horizon of my life. My neglect of school reached such a point that it could not but lead to a rupture. Whilst my dear mother had no presentiment of this, I awaited the catastrophe with longing rather than with fear.
In order to meet this crisis with dignity I at length decided to surprise my family by disclosing to them the secret of my tragedy, which was now completed. They were to be informed of this great event by my uncle. I thought I could rely upon his hearty recognition of my vocation as a great poet on account of the deep harmony between us on all other questions of life, science, and art. I therefore sent him my voluminous manuscript, with a long letter which I thought would please him immensely. In this I communicated to him first my ideas with regard to the St. Nicholas's School, and then my firm determination from that time forward not to allow any mere school pedantry to check my free development. But the event turned out very different from what I had expected. It was a great shock to them. My uncle, quite conscious that he had been indiscreet, paid a visit to my mother and brother-in-law, in order to report the misfortune that had befallen the family, reproaching himself for the fact that his influence over me had not always, perhaps, been for my good. To me he wrote a serious letter of discouragement; and to this day I cannot understand why he showed so small a sense of humour in understanding my bad behaviour. To my surprise he merely said that he reproached himself for having corrupted me by conversations unsuited to my years, but he made no attempt to explain to me good-naturedly the error of my ways.
The crime this boy of fifteen had committed was, as I said before, to have written a great tragedy, entitled Leubald und Adelaide.
The manuscript of this drama has unfortunately been lost, but I can still see it clearly in my mind's eye. The handwriting was most affected, and the backward-sloping tall letters with which I had aimed at giving it an air of distinction had already been compared by one of my teachers to Persian hieroglyphics. In this composition I had constructed a drama in which I had drawn largely upon Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, and Goethe's Gotz van Berlichingen. The plot was really based on a modification of Hamlet, the difference consisting in the fact that my hero is so completely carried away by the appearance of the ghost of his father, who has been murdered under similar circumstances, and demands vengeance, that he is driven to fearful deeds of violence; and, with a series of murders on his conscience, he eventually goes mad. Leubald, whose character is a mixture of Hamlet and Harry Hotspur, had promised his father's ghost to wipe from the face of the earth the whole race of Roderick, as the ruthless murderer of the best of fathers was named. After having slain Roderick himself in mortal combat, and subsequently all his sons and other relations who supported him, there was only one obstacle that prevented Leubald from fulfilling the dearest wish of his heart, which was to be united in death with the shade of his father: a child of Roderick's was still alive. During the storming of his castle the murderer's daughter had been carried away into safety by a faithful suitor, whom she, however, detested. I had an irresistible impulse to call this maiden 'Adelaide.' As even at that early age I was a great enthusiast for everything really German, I can only account for the obviously un-German name of my heroine by my infatuation for Beethoven's Adelaide, whose tender refrain seemed to me the symbol of all loving appeals. The course of my drama was now characterised by the strange delays which took place in the accomplishment of this last murder of vengeance, the chief obstacle to which lay in the sudden passionate love which arose between Leubald and Adelaide. I succeeded in representing the birth and avowal of this love by means of extraordinary adventures. Adelaide was once more stolen away by a robber-knight from the lover who had been sheltering her. After Leubald had thereupon sacrificed the lover and all his relations, he hastened to the robber's castle, driven thither less by a thirst for blood than by a longing for death. For this reason he regrets his inability to storm the robber's castle forthwith, because it is well defended, and, moreover, night is fast falling; he is therefore obliged to pitch his tent. After raving for a while he sinks down for the first time exhausted, but being urged, like his prototype Hamlet, by the spirit of his father to complete his vow of vengeance, he himself suddenly falls into the power of the enemy during a night assault. In the subterranean dungeons of the castle he meets Roderick's daughter for the first time. She is a prisoner like himself, and is craftily devising flight. Under circumstances in which she produces on him the impression of a heavenly vision, she makes her appearance before him. They fall in love, and fly together into the wilderness, where they realise that they are deadly enemies. The incipient insanity which was already noticeable in Leubald breaks out more violently after this discovery, and everything that can be done to intensify it is contributed by the ghost of his father, which continually comes between the advances of the lovers. But this ghost is not the only disturber of the conciliating love of Leubald and Adelaide. The ghost of Roderick also appears, and according to the method followed by Shakespeare in Richard III., he is joined by the ghosts of all the other members of Adelaide's family whom Leubald has slain. From the incessant importunities of these ghosts Leubald seeks to free himself by means of sorcery, and calls to his aid a rascal named Flamming. One of Macbeth's witches is summoned to lay the ghosts; as she is unable to do this efficiently, the furious Leubald sends her also to the devil; but with her dying breath she despatches the whole crowd of spirits who serve her to join the ghosts of those already pursuing him. Leubald, tormented beyond endurance, and now at last raving mad, turns against his beloved, who is the apparent cause of all his misery. He stabs her in his fury; then finding himself suddenly at peace, he sinks his head into her lap, and accepts her last caresses as her life-blood streams over his own dying body.
I had not omitted the smallest detail that could give this plot its proper colouring, and had drawn on all my knowledge of the tales of the old knights, and my acquaintance with Lear and Macbeth, to furnish my drama with the most vivid situations. But one of the chief characteristics of its poetical form I took from the pathetic, humorous, and powerful language of Shakespeare. The boldness of my grandiloquent and bombastic expressions roused my uncle Adolph's alarm and astonishment. He was unable to understand how I could have selected and used with inconceivable exaggeration precisely the most extravagant forms of speech to be found in Lear and Gotz von Berlichingen. Nevertheless, even after everybody had deafened me with their laments over my lost time and perverted talents, I was still conscious of a wonderful secret solace in the face of the calamity that had befallen me. I knew, a fact that no one else could know, namely, that my work could only be rightly judged when set to the music which I had resolved to write for it, and which I intended to start composing immediately.
I must now explain my position with respect to music hitherto. For this purpose I must go back to my earliest attempts in the art. In my family two of my sisters were musical; the elder one, Rosalie, played the piano, without, however, displaying any marked talent. Clara was more gifted; in addition to a great deal of musical feeling, and a fine rich touch on the piano, she possessed a particularly sympathetic voice, the development of which was so premature and remarkable that, under the tuition of Mieksch, her singing master, who was famous at that time, she was apparently ready for the role of a prima donna as early as her sixteenth year, and made her debut at Dresden in Italian opera as 'Cenerentola' in Rossini's opera of that name. Incidentally I may remark that this premature development proved injurious to Clara's voice, and was detrimental to her whole career. As I have said, music was represented in our family by these two sisters. It was chiefly owing to Clara's career that the musical conductor C. M. von Weber often came to our house. His visits were varied by those of the great male-soprano Sassaroli; and in addition to these two representatives of German and Italian music, we also had the company of Mieksch, her singing master. It was on these occasions that I as a child first heard German and Italian music discussed, and learnt that any one who wished to ingratiate himself with the Court must show a preference for Italian music, a fact which led to very practical results in our family council. Clara's talent, while her voice was still sound, was the object of competition between the representatives of Italian and German opera. I can remember quite distinctly that from the very beginning I declared myself in favour of German opera; my choice was determined by the tremendous impression made on me by the two figures of Sassaroli and Weber. The Italian male-soprano, a huge pot-bellied giant, horrified me with his high effeminate voice, his astonishing volubility, and his incessant screeching laughter. In spite of his boundless good-nature and amiability, particularly to my family, I took an uncanny dislike to him. On account of this dreadful person, the sound of Italian, either spoken or sung, seemed to my ears almost diabolical; and when, in consequence of my poor sister's misfortune, I heard them often talking about Italian intrigues and cabals, I conceived so strong a dislike for everything connected with this nation that even in much later years I used to feel myself carried away by an impulse of utter detestation and abhorrence.
The less frequent visits of Weber, on the other hand, seemed to have produced upon me those first sympathetic impressions which I have never since lost. In contrast to Sassaroli's repulsive figure, Weber's really refined, delicate, and intellectual appearance excited my ecstatic admiration. His narrow face and finely-cut features, his vivacious though often half-closed eyes, captivated and thrilled me; whilst even the bad limp with which he walked, and which I often noticed from our windows when the master was making his way home past our house from the fatiguing rehearsals, stamped the great musician in my imagination as an exceptional and almost superhuman being. When, as a boy of nine, my mother introduced me to him, and he asked me what I was going to be, whether I wanted perhaps to be a musician, my mother told him that, though I was indeed quite mad on Freischutz, yet she had as yet seen nothing in me which indicated any musical talent.
This showed correct observation on my mother's part; nothing had made so great an impression on me as the music of Freischutz, and I tried in every possible way to procure a repetition of the impressions I had received from it, but, strange to say, least of all by the study of music itself. Instead of this, I contented myself with hearing bits from Freischutz played by my sisters. Yet my passion for it gradually grew so strong that I can remember taking a particular fancy for a young man called Spiess, chiefly because he could play the overture to Freischutz, which I used to ask him to do whenever I met him. It was chiefly the introduction to this overture which at last led me to attempt, without ever having received any instruction on the piano, to play this piece in my own peculiar way, for, oddly enough, I was the only child in our family who had not been given music lessons. This was probably due to my mother's anxiety to keep me away from any artistic interests of this kind in case they might arouse in me a longing for the theatre.
When I was about twelve years old, however, my mother engaged a tutor for me named Humann, from whom I received regular music lessons, though only of a very mediocre description. As soon as I had acquired a very imperfect knowledge of fingering I begged to be allowed to play overtures in the form of duets, always keeping Weber as the goal of my ambition. When at length I had got so far as to be able to play the overture to Freischutz myself, though in a very faulty manner, I felt the object of my study had been attained, and I had no inclination to devote any further attention to perfecting my technique.
Yet I had attained this much: I was no longer dependent for music on the playing of others; from this time forth I used to try and play, albeit very imperfectly, everything I wanted to know. I also tried Mozart's Don Juan, but was unable to get any pleasure out of it, mainly because the Italian text in the arrangement for the piano placed the music in a frivolous light in my eyes, and much in it seemed to me trivial and unmanly. (I can remember that when my sister used to sing Zerlinen's ariette, Batti, batti, ben Masetto, the music repelled me, as it seemed so mawkish and effeminate.)
On the other hand, my bent for music grew stronger and stronger, and I now tried to possess myself of my favourite pieces by making my own copies. I can remember the hesitation with which my mother for the first time gave me the money to buy the scored paper on which I copied out Weber's Lutzow's Jagd, which was the first piece of music I transcribed.
Music was still a secondary occupation with me when the news of Weber's death and the longing to learn his music to Oberon fanned my enthusiasm into flame again. This received fresh impetus from the afternoon concerts in the Grosser Garten at Dresden, where I often heard my favourite music played by Zillmann's Town Band, as I thought, exceedingly well. The mysterious joy I felt in hearing an orchestra play quite close to me still remains one of my most pleasant memories. The mere tuning up of the instruments put me in a state of mystic excitement; even the striking of fifths on the violin seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world— which, I may mention incidentally, had a very real meaning for me. When I was still almost a baby, the sound of these fifths, which has always excited me, was closely associated in my mind with ghosts and spirits. I remember that even much later in life I could never pass the small palace of Prince Anthony, at the end of the Ostra Allee in Dresden, without a shudder; for it was there I had first heard the sound of a violin, a very common experience to me afterwards. It was close by me, and seemed to my ears to come from the stone figures with which this palace is adorned, some of which are provided with musical instruments. When I took up my post as musical conductor at Dresden, and had to pay my official visit to Morgenroth, the President of the Concert Committee, an elderly gentleman who lived for many years opposite that princely palace, it seemed odd to find that the player of fifths who had so strongly impressed my musical fancy as a boy was anything but a supernatural spectre. And when I saw the well-known picture in which a skeleton plays on his violin to an old man on his deathbed, the ghostly character of those very notes impressed itself with particular force upon my childish imagination. When at last, as a young man, I used to listen to the Zillmann Orchestra in the Grosser Garten almost every afternoon, one may imagine the rapturous thrill with which I drew in all the chaotic variety of sound that I heard as the orchestra tuned up: the long drawn A of the oboe, which seemed like a call from the dead to rouse the other instruments, never failed to raise all my nerves to a feverish pitch of tension, and when the swelling C in the overture to Freischutz told me that I had stepped, as it were with both feet, right into the magic realm of awe. Any one who had been watching me at that moment could hardly have failed to see the state I was in, and this in spite of the fact that I was such a bad performer on the piano.
Another work also exercised a great fascination over me, namely, the overture to Fidelio in E major, the introduction to which affected me deeply. I asked my sisters about Beethoven, and learned that the news of his death had just arrived. Obsessed as I still was by the terrible grief caused by Weber's death, this fresh loss, due to the decease of this great master of melody, who had only just entered my life, filled me with strange anguish, a feeling nearly akin to my childish dread of the ghostly fifths on the violin. It was now Beethoven's music that I longed to know more thoroughly; I came to Leipzig, and found his music to Egmont on the piano at my sister Louisa's. After that I tried to get hold of his sonatas. At last, at a concert at the Gewandthaus, I heard one of the master's symphonies for the first time; it was the Symphony in A major. The effect on me was indescribable. To this must be added the impression produced on me by Beethoven's features, which I saw in the lithographs that were circulated everywhere at that time, and by the fact that he was deaf, and lived a quiet secluded life. I soon conceived an image of him in my mind as a sublime and unique supernatural being, with whom none could compare. This image was associated in my brain with that of Shakespeare; in ecstatic dreams I met both of them, saw and spoke to them, and on awakening found myself bathed in tears.
It was at this time that I came across Mozart's Requiem, which formed the starting-point of my enthusiastic absorption in the works of that master. His second finale to Don Juan inspired me to include him in my spirit world.
I was now filled with a desire to compose, as I had before been to write verse. I had, however, in this case to master the technique of an entirely separate and complicated subject. This presented greater difficulties than I had met with in writing verse, which came to me fairly easily. It was these difficulties that drove me to adopt a career which bore some resemblance to that of a professional musician, whose future distinction would be to win the titles of Conductor and Writer of Opera.
I now wanted to set Leubald und Adelaide to music, similar to that which Beethoven wrote to Goethe's Egmont; the various ghosts from the spirit world, who were each to display different characteristics, were to borrow their own distinctive colouring from appropriate musical accompaniment. In order to acquire the necessary technique of composition quickly I studied Logier's Methode des Generalbasses, a work which was specially recommended to me at a musical lending library as a suitable text-book from which this art might be easily mastered. I have distinct recollections that the financial difficulties with which I was continually harassed throughout my life began at this time. I borrowed Logier's book on the weekly payment system, in the fond hope of having to pay for it only during a few weeks out of the savings of my weekly pocket-money. But the weeks ran on into months, and I was still unable to compose as well as I wished. Mr. Frederick Wieck, whose daughter afterwards married Robert Schumann, was at that time the proprietor of that lending library. He kept sending me troublesome reminders of the debt I owed him; and when my bill had almost reached the price of Logier's book I had to make a clean breast of the matter to my family, who thus not only learnt of my financial difficulties in general, but also of my latest transgression into the domain of music, from which, of course, at the very most, they expected nothing better than a repetition of Leubald und Adelaide.
There was great consternation at home; my mother, sister, and brother-in-law, with anxious faces, discussed how my studies should be superintended in future, to prevent my having any further opportunity for transgressing in this way. No one, however, yet knew the real state of affairs at school, and they hoped I would soon see the error of my ways in this case as I had in my former craze for poetry.
But other domestic changes were taking place which necessitated my being for some little time alone in our house at Leipzig during the summer of 1829, when I was left entirely to my own devices. It was during this period that my passion for music rose to an extraordinary degree. I had secretly been taking lessons in harmony from G. Muller, afterwards organist at Altenburg, an excellent musician belonging to the Leipzig orchestra. Although the payment of these lessons was also destined to get me into hot water at home later on, I could not even make up to my teacher for the delay in the payment of his fees by giving him the pleasure of watching me improve in my studies. His teaching and exercises soon filled me with the greatest disgust, as to my mind it all seemed so dry. For me music was a spirit, a noble and mystic monster, and any attempt to regulate it seemed to lower it in my eyes. I gathered much more congenial instruction about it from Hoffmann's Phantasiestucken than from my Leipzig orchestra player; and now came the time when I really lived and breathed in Hoffmann's artistic atmosphere of ghosts and spirits. With my head quite full of Kreissler, Krespel, and other musical spectres from my favourite author, I imagined that I had at last found in real life a creature who resembled them: this ideal musician in whom for a time I fancied I had discovered a second Kreissler was a man called Flachs. He was a tall, exceedingly thin man, with a very narrow head and an extraordinary way of walking, moving, and speaking, whom I had seen at all those open-air concerts which formed my principal source of musical education. He was always with the members of the orchestra, speaking exceedingly quickly, first to one and then the other; for they all knew him, and seemed to like him. The fact that they were making fun of him I only learned, to my great confusion, much later. I remember having noticed this strange figure from my earliest days in Dresden, and I gathered from the conversations which I overheard that he was indeed well known to all Dresden musicians. This circumstance alone was sufficient to make me take a great interest in him; but the point about him which attracted me more than anything was the manner in which he listened to the various items in the programme: he used to give peculiar, convulsive nods of his head, and blow out his cheeks as though with sighs. All this I regarded as a sign of spiritual ecstasy. I noticed, moreover, that he was quite alone, that he belonged to no party, and paid no attention to anything in the garden save the music; whereupon my identification of this curious being with the conductor Kreissler seemed quite natural. I was determined to make his acquaintance, and I succeeded in doing so. Who shall describe my delight when, on going to call on him at his rooms for the first time, I found innumerable bundles of scores! I had as yet never seen a score. It is true I discovered, to my regret, that he possessed nothing either by Beethoven, Mozart, or Weber; in fact, nothing but immense quantities of works, masses, and cantatas by composers such as Staerkel, Stamitz, Steibelt, etc., all of whom were entirely unknown to me. Yet Flachs was able to tell me so much that was good about them that the respect which I felt for scores in general helped me to overcome my regret at not finding anything by my beloved masters. It is true I learnt later that poor Flachs had only come into the possession of these particular scores through unscrupulous dealers, who had traded on his weakness of intellect and palmed off this worthless music on him for large sums of money. At all events, they were scores, and that was quite enough for me. Flachs and I became most intimate; we were always seen going about together—I, a lanky boy of sixteen, and this weird, shaky flaxpole. The doors of my deserted home were often opened for this strange guest, who made me play my compositions to him while he ate bread and cheese. In return, he once arranged one of my airs for wind instruments, and, to my astonishment, it was actually accepted and played by the band in Kintschy's Swiss Chalet. That this man had not the smallest capacity to teach me anything never once occurred to me; I was so firmly convinced of his originality that there was no need for him to prove it further than by listening patiently to my enthusiastic outpourings. But as, in course of time, several of his own friends joined us, I could not help noticing that the worthy Flachs was regarded by them all as a half-witted fool. At first this merely pained me, but a strange incident unexpectedly occurred which converted me to the general opinion about him. Flachs was a man of some means, and had fallen into the toils of a young lady of dubious character who he believed was deeply in love with him. One day, without warning, I found his house closed to me, and discovered, to my astonishment, that jealousy was the cause. The unexpected discovery of this liaison, which was my first experience of such a case, filled me with a strange horror. My friend suddenly appeared to me even more mad than he really was. I felt so ashamed of my persistent blindness that for some time to come I never went to any of the garden concerts for fear I should meet my sham Kreissler.