COMPOSER OF OPERAS
JOHN F. RUNCIMAN
LONDON G. BELL AND SONS, LTD. 1913
TO HAROLD HODGE
It is now one hundred years since Richard Wagner was born, thirty since he died. In every land he has his monument in one shape or another; his music-dramas can be heard all the world over; all the ancient controversies as to their merits or demerits have died down. The Bayreuth theatre, the outward and visible sign of his inner greatness, has risen to the point of its most splendid glory and lapsed into the limbo of tenth-rate things. Every one who really cares for the art of music, and especially the art of opera (of which art music is by far the most important factor), has had ample time and opportunity for making up his mind. It is, therefore, high time to simplify and to cease from elaborating. In this book will be found, I trust, no special pleading, no defence or extenuation, no preposterous eulogy on the one hand, and on the other no vampire work, but a plain and concise attempt to depict the mighty artist as he lived and to describe his artistic achievement as it is. We have all had time to consider and to sort out (so to say) the reams that have been written and printed about Wagner: the bulk of it has had to be thrown on the scrap-heap: what there was of value has, I hope, been utilised.
An author who plans a book on an artist or an artistic question must be wary, especially at the beginning of his adventure. To start away with a theory, whether new or old, and to yield to the seductive temptation to convince humanity of its truth—this is to lay a trap and to take the path that leads straight into it. Theories should be kept for scientific matters. A work proving that parallel straight lines never meet need not land the writer in self-contradictions; and another writer may prove that they must and do meet, and still avoid getting tangled amongst his own arguments. I even read a book once in which it was clearly shown that the earth was flat; and, granted a ludicrous premise, one could but admire the irrefragable logic with which the conclusion was reached. With regard to art, be your premises sound or grotesque, the result is the same—muddle. Logic, science, philosophy, applied to art, spell certain disaster. With mingled pain and amusement I have noted how more than one writer on music, setting out in triumphant high spirits to demonstrate this or that, has before his third chapter demonstrated just the contrary: I have never seen anything else occur.
Wagner wrote so much about himself and his art, and appeared so fully satisfied with his explanations of why he became just what he became and of why his art was just what it was, that naturally for nearly a generation his critics fell into one or other of two errors. Either they accepted his theorisings unreservedly or as unreservedly they rejected them. In the second case they had to face the difficulty of coining, shaping, a theory of their own; in either case shipwreck nearly always promptly ensued; and on the whole, if Wagner had to be theorised about, one would prefer to have it done by Wagner. He himself knew the tiny value of his theorisings about his art, for he declared that when he wrote Tristan and Isolda he found he had already left his theories far behind. This discovery might well have served as a warning both to Wagner and to the hosts of his commentators. Unluckily Wagner was far too fond of theorising, moralising and generally talking of himself and his works, and he reckoned he had a big propagandist work to do; so he went on scribbling to the end. As for the commentators, they neglected the warning and took Wagner's later doings as an example, with the result that the library shelves of Europe are stopped and blocked with as big a heap of rubbish as ever was provoked by great works of art since the world began to turn round. For Wagner there is an ample excuse: he honestly thought it necessary to spread his ideas abroad; his aims and intentions had been so misunderstood, and so stupidly, wickedly, recklessly misrepresented, that he did not believe his music-dramas would ever find acceptance until he had cleared the way by explaining himself. Little good came of it—in fact, the only good result was that some of his writings fell into the hands of Ludwig II of Bavaria, and thus led to the ending of his days of misery, and indirectly to Bayreuth. For the commentators no word of extenuation can be said. Those, perhaps, of the period 1867-77 were justified in pressing their master's claims on the public at large, for the support of the public at large had to be won, and the best way of winning it seemed to lie in advocating those claims, in season and out of season, through the agency of the newspaper-press; but the rest of the herd have proved themselves an unqualified nuisance and a hindrance to a right understanding of Wagner.
This herd I would not willingly join. In the following pages no general theory concerning Wagner will be found. I shall indulge in no theorisings whatever, but stick to the facts, facts which can now be ascertained with certainty. My endeavour will be to tell a plain, unvarnished tale of what Wagner did and of what he suffered, of the environment amidst which he grew up and laboured and struggled: with all that he said and wrote I shall deal as briefly as may be, regarding his endless loquacity of mouth and pen as of interest only when it throws real light on the artist. Least of all shall I waste the reader's patience on the morals that may be drawn from his musical works. The moral to be drawn from his prose works is simply that a man, even a stupendously great man, may write far too much; the moral to be drawn from his musical works every man may find out for himself: for myself, I have found none, any more than I could ever find a moral in a play of AEschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare.
There are plenty of authorities for the statements now to be made. We have the exhaustive Life by Glasenapp and W. Ashton Ellis; then there is Wagner's own work, My Life, lately translated into English; finally there are the Letters. Many of these are of no interest or value whatever, dealing only with details concerning scores and proof-sheets and petty money matters. Many, on the other hand, notably those to Uhlig, are invaluable to every one who wishes to understand Wagner. Extensive use is made of them in this book, though, as they are easily accessible, I have forborne to quote more than is absolutely necessary. My Life I think but little of, and have not relied greatly on it.
Wagner the reformer will receive no lengthy consideration. He did not "reform" the opera form—the opera form of Mozart and Weber needed no reforming—he simply developed it. He did reform operatic performances by insisting on precision and intelligence in place of slovenliness and stupidity, on enthusiasm for art in place of stolid indifference; and he did as much in the concert-room. I shall not theorize about these matters, but point out what he achieved by making a continuous appeal to indubitable, indisputable facts.
I am indebted to Messrs. H. Grevel & Co. for kind permission to print extracts from Mr. Shedlock's translation of Wagner's Letters, and to Messrs. Novello for similar permission regarding quotations from the libretti of the operas. Two words may be said about the quotations, both words and music, of the operas: in some cases, when I could neither find nor make an adequate translation of verses, I have stuck to the original German; with regard to the music, I have given as little as possible. Both musical and verbal citations are meant for reference—there is only one exception, the Sailors' Song from the opening of Tristan. Catalogues of Wagner's themes have for long been issued by several publishers; but they are of small assistance in helping one to understand Wagner.
I EARLY LIFE
II EARLY BOYHOOD
III EARLY LIFE (continued)
IV JUVENILE WORKS
VI 'RIENZI' AND 'THE FLYING DUTCHMAN'
XI 'TRISTAN AND ISOLDA'
XII 'THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG'
XIII KING LUDWIG
XIV 'THE NIBELUNG'S RING' AND THE RHINEGOLD'
XV 'THE VALKYRIE'
XVII 'THE DUSK OF THE GODS'
XVIII 'PARSIFAL'; THE END; THE MAN
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PORTRAIT OF WAGNER (Photogravure)
WAGNER'S BIRTHPLACE: THE SIGN OF THE RED AND WHITE LION, ON THE BRUeHL, LEIPZIG
THE WAGNER THEATRE AT BAYREUTH
LISZT (From life and on stone by N. Hanhart)
WAGNER (From the portrait by A.F. Pecht)
KING LUDWIG OF BAVARIA
WAGNER IN 1877
PALAZZO VENDRAMIN CALERGI, VENICE, WHERE WAGNER DIED, FEB. 13, 1883
As the springtide of 1813 was melting into early summer the poet and musician of spring days and summer nights was born at the house of the Red and White Lion on the Bruehl in old Leipzig. The precise date was May 22; and owing to many causes the 16th of August came round before, at the church of St. Thomas, the child was christened Wilhelm Richard Wagner. The events and circumstances of the period have furnished the imaginative with many striking portents with regard to the future mighty composer; and, to do the prophets full justice, after the event—long after the event—they have widely opened their mouths and uttered prophecies. Thus the name of the house, describing a beast such as never was on sea or land, distinctly warned a drowsy people that the monstrous dragon of Siegfried was about to take the road leading from Nowhere to Bayreuth. The spring foretold the songs in Tannhaeuser and the Valkyrie; the summer, the nights in King Mark's Cornish castle-garden and amongst the fragrant lime-trees in the streets of ancient Nuremberg; the horrors of the war raging at the very gates of Leipzig and Napoleon's flight, the advent of the preacher who was to earn a long exile by advising the Saxon soldiers not to shoot their brethren. Events provided material for these and many another score of prognostications: only, fortunately, no one read events rightly at the time, and something fresh was left for the biographers to expend their ingenuity upon.
Richard Wagner came of a German lower middle-class stock. There is not amongst his ancestry a single man distinguished in letters or any art. His uncle Adolph, of whom some Bayreuth gentlemen make much, would not be remembered had he not been Wagner's uncle. Only by patient research has it been discovered that one or more of his forebears could so much as play the organ. His father was an amateur theatrical enthusiast, and he too would have been utterly forgotten had he not been Wagner's father. His stepfather—though this seems hardly to the point—was an actor and portrait-painter; and his one claim to remembrance is that he was Wagner's stepfather. So, however scientifically minded we may be, however strongly disposed to account for the sudden appearance of a stupendous genius by the cheap and easy method of pointing to some distinguished ancestor and talking pompously of the laws of heredity, in Wagner's case we are baffled and beaten. He came like a thunderbolt out of a blue sky. We must be content with the fact that he came. His father and grandfather were state or municipal officials both; and bearing in mind Wagner's frank detestation of officialdom, the scientist can scarcely draw much comfort from that.
The grandfather, Gottlob Friedrich Wagner, was born in 1736, only a few years later than Haydn. In 1769 he married the daughter of a charity-school master or caretaker; and in 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth, his first child, christened Carl Friedrich Wilhelm, was born. Four years later Adolph arrived. Gottlob was a douanier, an exciseman, at the Rannstadt gate of Leipzig, and passed his days, I dare say, as honestly as an exciseman can, in examining incoming travellers to see that they did not bring with them so much as an egg that had not paid duty. He died in 1795. Meantime, Carl Friedrich had received a thoroughly sound education, and he became deputy-registrar to the Leipzig town court. In 1789 he married Johanna Rosina Paetz (whose name, it seems, is susceptible of many spellings).
The scientific mind may after all find consolation in the all-illuminating truth that Friedrich and all his children were more or less passionately addicted to the theatre and attracted by it. It was Friedrich's one hobby; and though Friedrich's brother Adolph had a horror of it, the feeling was not aroused by it as an artistic institution, but as an agency for the intellectual, moral and worldly ruin of young men and women. In his leisure Friedrich arranged dramatic performances and took part in them, and, as amateurs go, he appears to have been highly successful. Histrionic persons were constant guests at his house on the Bruehl—amongst them notably one, Ludwig Geyer, who became a fast friend of the family and played an important role, off the stage, with regard to that family soon after Richard's birth. Friedrich, during his later years, cannot have had much spare time for amateur theatricals or any other amusement. Napoleon was fighting his last desperate fights against the combined forces of reactionary Europe; all the powers of feudalism had combined to crush an emperor who had no royal blood in his veins; he raged over Germany like an infuriated beast with a genius for military tactics, scattering armies which dispersed only to join together and face him again. While Richard was in his cradle the whole of Saxony was filled with the squalor and misery and loathsome terrors of war. Leipzig was occupied by the French; Marshal Davoust was left there as commandant, with power of life and death, and all the other privileges of a military governor; and in the deputy-registrar of the law-court he found the man for the post of provisional chief of the police "of public safety." Who kept the public safe from the police I am unable to say. Fighting was going on perpetually in the neighbourhood; the dead and dying lay scattered in all directions; the stench bred epidemics more murderous than all Napoleon's cannon. Friedrich must have found his hands full day and night. Richard was baptized on August 16; the following day Napoleon won a victory which cost him dear; the 18th, being Sunday, was observed as such by a soldiery in need of a rest; on the 19th Napoleon was a beaten man, and ran to save his skin past the windows of the house of the Red and White Lion on the Bruehl. Richard's mother had been trembling for her own safety and that of her children and husband; but when, as she herself afterwards told, she saw the dreaded conqueror bolt in haste without his hat, she breathed again. Whether she and the family were any better off under the deliverers is a question that does not concern us here: the point is that she thought she was. It was all one to Richard, who, aged three months, slept peacefully on.
After the deliverance Friedrich's work became even heavier than before. The town through its length and breadth was shattered and dilapidated; whole families were homeless and packed like rabbits in hutches; the slaughtered dead, men and beasts, could not be buried quick enough; black death stalked abroad in the guise of what was called hospital typhus—an epidemic fever of some kind. After the French flight, I take it, provisional chief-policeman Wagner had returned to his deputy-registrarship; but his toils were none the lighter for that. He exhausted himself; the appalling fever attacked him and he had no strength to resist it; and he died on November 22, exactly six months after the birth of Richard. Wagner's ill-luck, his wicked fairy, struck her first blow while his age had to be reckoned in months; she went on striking, and never ceased to strike, until he was beginning to grow a little weary and his age was reckoned in decades of years, and in terms of masterpieces accomplished and insults and ill-usage by no means patiently borne. It must have seemed hard to his widowed mother, after the uncertainties and horrors of the last years, that when at last a period of happy peace seemed about to dawn, uncertainties and griefs and worries of a fresh sort should come upon her.
Whether Frau Wagner ever actually drew any pension from the good burghers of Leipzig or the greedy state officials of Saxony seems, when all is said, very uncertain. In such times of stress and struggle great crown officers, laudably anxious about their own interests and the interests of their families, are apt to be rather careless, not to say callous, about the smaller fry. However, pension or no pension, with the aid of relatives and friends the Wagners pulled through. Chief and best amongst the friends was Ludwig Geyer.
A few words must be said about him. Born in 1780, he was ten years Carl Friedrich's junior. An actor who had taken up painting, or a painter who had taken up acting, in both arts he had won at any rate a local reputation. We know what was thought of his histrionic gifts from more or less competent contemporaries; but what to think of his paintings I do not know, for two reasons: I do not trust my own judgment in such a matter, and if I did, I have never seen any of Geyer's work. Of this, however, I am very sure: he cannot have been a good painter unless nature had worked a miracle in sending a good painter to Germany in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. German artists of the period must be classified not as sheep and goats, but as bad goats and worse goats. But if he was not a fine painter he was what is better, or, at any rate, more useful to the rest of human kind, a fine character: a noble, generous, self-sacrificing man. In haste on hearing of Carl Friedrich's death he came from Dresden to attend to the burying of the dead and the nourishing of the living. The details of this first period of Richard's ill-fortune do not amount to a great deal and are unimportant, since our subject is Richard, and his mother, brother and sisters only so far as their lives and characters influenced Richard. Albert, the eldest of the children, was now fourteen years old; he was at the Royal school in Meissen, and there he remained. Rosalie went to dwell with a friend of Geyer's, a lady who lived at Dresden. Louise was adopted by a Frau Hartwig, also at Dresden. Richard in his cradle remained with his mother and the younger members of the tribe in Leipzig.
And so presently life began to move on as before, while the dead man slept in his grave. But immediately fresh troubles came. Albert fell dangerously ill and was threatened with a total breakdown of his health; Richard was an ailing infant; and a change in the arrangements of the theatrical company which provided Geyer with a portion of his income compelled him to remain in Dresden continuously. This proved really a stroke of good fortune. Glasenapp, basing his calculations on I know not what authorities or documents, computes that his earnings as an actor at this time came to L156 a year, and there seems every reason to think he was at least fairly well paid for his portraits. It was not enough to be shared between two families, or, we had better say, to be devoted to the up-keep of two homes. He determined rapidly on a bold stroke. That he was in love with Frau Wagner is more than any one can declare with confidence; but she was an amiable, bright woman, a good mother and thrifty housekeeper; and it is likely enough that she had inspired a deep affection in a singularly loving man. After the recovery of Albert the widow had gone for a change to Dresden; and there Geyer resolved to marry her—and resolved quickly; for Carl Friedrich died in November 1813, and early in 1814 the marriage took place. Soon after, the new Frau Geyer returned to Leipzig; then the whole family migrated to Dresden, where Richard was to pass from babyhood into boyhood and spend the first fourteen years of his life.
The Geyer-Wagner family set up their tent in the Moritz-strasse in Dresden, which belonged to the seventeenth or eighteenth century—was in fact almost mediaeval. Life must have been atrociously narrow and trammelled to any free spirit. But Germany did not produce many of that sort at the time, and those she did produce were quickly silenced in gaol. Whether Geyer had yearnings for outward liberty cannot be said; but if he had he gave no expression to them, being himself a court player and a semi-court painter. Undoubtedly the main thing to him was that in the drowsy court air he could at least earn the means of bringing up adequately the large family he had taken on his shoulders. He played constantly in all sorts of parts, and in his off hours painted; he also wrote a number of theatre pieces of varying type and importance—none of which concern us here. His wife enjoyed a period of peace in which to attend to her husband, children and house, as a faithful hausfrau should. If Geyer was industrious and much occupied, he nevertheless found time to cultivate friendships, and some of them in later days were continued by Richard.
The whole life of the circle went on around the theatre or in it; it must have been their whole world, for of culture other than of the theatre there is no indication—save one or two half-hearted remarks of Geyer's at a slightly later period. They admired Goethe and Schiller, of course, and knew their theatre works; they knew of the Romantics in so far as they affected the theatre; it seems to have been only through the theatre they saw anything or could see anything. Breathing the theatrical atmosphere constantly, one after another of Geyer's step-children caught the theatre malady (for it will be admitted that men or women must have something the matter with them if they deliberately choose a theatrical life); and within a few years three of them were appearing on the stage. Albert left school and went to the university to study medicine; after a very brief struggle he gave this up, studied singing, and in 1819 or 1820 made his debut as a light-opera tenor. Before this Geyer had warned him against taking such a course; but apparently he was obdurate. On May 2 of the former year Rosalie had first appeared as an actress in a piece by Geyer; still earlier Louise had also begun acting child-parts. There must have been a good deal of family discussion and commotion about these things. It had been the wish of Friedrich Wagner that Rosalie should, or perhaps might, take to the stage as a profession, but in no case until she had attained the age of sixteen. Friedrich's brother Adolph, as I have said, set himself in deadly opposition to anything of the sort happening. Letters and counter-letters ensued; but the instinct of the youngsters turned out to be sufficiently strong, and perhaps the opposition of Geyer too feeble to carry the day; and one after another the Wagners took to the boards as ducklings to water. Geyer kept his word to his dead friend, however; and Rosalie, though she had been long preparing, made no public appearance until she reached sixteen. A little longer and Clara took up the family occupation. How all this affected the family generally, and especially Richard, we shall see before long. In the meantime it may be mentioned that Julius, the second son, nine years Richard's senior, was apprenticed at Eisleben to Geyer's younger brother, a goldsmith: he alone was not pulled stagewards.
Naturally enough there is nothing but idle and frequently fatuous hearsay to repeat of these early years, save this only, that Richard did not show the slightest musical precocity. Nor need this surprise us. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven were brought up in households where music was as the daily bread; their ears must have been filled with it while they were in their cradles. It is true that Handel's father dreaded music as a disease and a musician as a vagabond; but in this case the precocity is quite unattested, and the stories of the six-year boy practising on a dumb-spinet at midnight originated when the boy had become the most celebrated musician in Europe. I wish here to make a few not wholly irrelevant remarks. The tales of Handel's wondrous babyhood were repeated, and repeated many times, by writers who did not know what a dumb-spinet was and certainly made no inquiries regarding the source of the tales. Both legend and dumb-spinet are swallowed cheerfully to this day because so many authors accept them; and I would point out that the first author, No. I, was simply copied recklessly by author No. II, that author No. III, maybe a little less recklessly, copied No. II because he was supported by No. I; and thus the game went on until the simple minds of a generation think that what fifty writers have said must be true. Ten thousand times more has been written about Wagner than all that Handel provoked, and even less honest investigation has been made—result, a gigantic series of tales, genuine or mythical, based on what amounts to no authority whatever. Unless these are verifiable I leave them to the care of others, and pass on. So with regard to Wagner's childhood we know he showed himself no wonderful genius. We do know that he lived amidst folk whose whole conversation must have been of the theatre and drama, actors and actresses; that he was petted and taken about by his stepfather, and as soon as he was old enough, or sooner, went to the theatre while rehearsals were going on. "The Cossack," as Geyer called him, grew up a lively, quick-witted child, active and full of mischief, "leaving a trousers-seat per day on the hedge" and sliding down banisters—much indeed like many other children who afterwards for want of leisure neglected to compose a Ring or a Tristan. The theatrical life, I feel sure, did not differ greatly from the same life to-day. It is for the most part a sordid, petty existence, one in which one's days, weeks, months and years are frittered away; they pass and there is nothing tangible to show for them. When performances are not over until late, no one rises early; then come the rehearsals; then the evening performance again—and so home and to bed. Long intervals of waiting between spells of monotonous work can hardly be used for anything but gossiping at the stage-door or idling in cafes. Save for those who have risen high in popular favour—or, during Wagner's boyhood, the favour of kings or their mistresses—it is an uncertain life, with engagements terminable, and very often terminated, after a few years; and thus a hand-to-mouth way of grubbing along is generated, and a vagrant spirit developed: and in the majority, the huge majority, of cases lives spent in squalor, mean squabblings, spells of mechanical work alternating with enforced idleness, end in destitution and utter misery. Uncle Adolph was quite right: he knew how close the ordinary actor and opera-singer was to the cabotin. But Geyer, we must remember, was very far away indeed from the cabotin. Good-natured and sociable as he seemed, he must have held to his purpose with iron determination and stuck to his work; and whatever Richard and his brothers and sisters may have seen going on around them, we may be sure they saw none of it in their own home.
When in 1817 Weber arrived at Dresden to set up a real German opera, it seemed he must have landed in exactly the wrong place to carry out his plans. Only by a series of miracles did they get partially carried out; and here, as we know, he composed two works, Der Freischuetz and Euryanthe, destined in after years to exert greater power over Richard's genius than any other music save Beethoven's—a power not inferior to that of Beethoven's music in some respects. Weber inevitably became a friend of the Geyers, and before Richard was much older he knew the great person to speak to and set him up in his heart as a demi-god. But as yet Richard was only picking up a little knowledge and trying, very faintly trying, to play the piano.
Meanwhile, Geyer's health was failing, though no one then foresaw what was to come. He acted, he painted, he wrote plays, he saw to the debuts of Albert and Rosalie; he tried a cure here and a cure there. In 1821 he moved to a larger house at the corner of the Juedenhof and the Frauengasse, and rejoiced to have a larger studio for his picture-work. In July he went to Breslau and returned ill, tried Pillnitz and came back appearing a little better, and promptly got worse. On the evening of September 29 he heard Richard strumming the "Jungfernkranz," and asked his wife whether it was possible the boy had any gift for music; the following evening he died. The next morning Richard was told by his mother that his father would fain have made something of him; and, like young Teufelsdroeckh, Wagner for long fancied something would be made of him.
So, less than eight years after, Ludwig Geyer followed his friend Carl Friedrich Wagner to the grave, like him to a premature grave. He left only one child of his own, Augusta Caecilie (born February 26, 1815); but he made Friedrich's widow his wife and her children were as his children; and he toiled hard for their comfort and planned unceasingly for their welfare; and when on an October morning he was left in his last peaceful home to rest, it must have seemed to his widow as though happiness was to be denied her until she joined him. The winter of 1813 had been black enough, but at once she had Geyer; in 1821 there was no second Geyer. Adolph Wagner may have seen in the tragedy a marked instance of the folly of having anything to do with the stage or actors. Possibly he did not realize that precisely through Geyer's connection with the theatre, and only to a comparatively small extent by means of his reputation as an artist, his sister-in-law and nephews and nieces suffered less than might have been anticipated. For on the morning following Geyer's death Rosalie swore to take his place as provider for the family, and that promise she kept.
When Richard was six months old, fate, as we have seen, struck her first blow, placed the first obstacle in the path of a successful infantile career, and swiftly sent Geyer to his aid. Now, when he was just turned eight, she snatched away Geyer, and had already Rosalie in readiness to help him. And, in fact, throughout Wagner's life fate seemed never to tire of delivering staggering blows with one hand, and with the other hand, at the same moment or a moment later, giving him compensation, often ample, sometimes on a scale of lordly generosity. From the beginning to the end of his seventy years no man ever had worse or better luck than Wagner. It is perfectly clear that fate meant him to write the Mastersingers and Tristan, and at times she was cruel to him only to be kind to humanity. It is true she seems to have made a mistake when she allowed him to complete Parsifal—but that matter lies as yet many chapters ahead.
It would appear that Frau Geyer had a pension of some sort; since May 1 Rosalie had been engaged with the Royal Court players of Dresden; Albert and Louise both had engagements at Breslau—one of Geyer's last acts had been to see Albert safely fixed there; it is probable, if not certain, that Adolph Wagner—who, after all, was fairly well off—lent a helpful hand: and the family, if not in the modest affluent circumstances they enjoyed while Geyer lived, at any rate tasted none of the bitterness of poverty. Glasenapp states that Geyer's "stock of pictures" had gone up in value after his death; but as he just previously tells us of Geyer's lack of time and of "would-be sitters" waiting their turn, we cannot see how the stock can have been very large. Let us hope, however, that it was, and that Geyer in his grave went on helping those he loved. Julius was safely bestowed at Eisleben; and the widow had Clara, Ottilie, Richard and Caecilie to look after—quite enough, it is true, and calling for all the resources of her housewifery to make ends meet; but, still, nothing like the burden Geyer had taken up so courageously a few years before. How much Rosalie and Albert could spare out of the small salaries paid in those—and still paid in these—days by German theatres is a matter entirely for conjecture: it cannot have amounted to a mighty sum, the main point is that it served. I deal with these details, because at the first glance one is puzzled to know however the family managed to pull through at all and avoid the workhouse.
At first Richard was sent to his step-uncle Geyer at Eisleben, where, he himself says, he did little in the way of learning. Geyer tried to persuade him to work at his books and sent him to a school kept by one Alt, promising him he should go to the Kreuzschule at Dresden; but he had grown too fond of doing his reading on out-of-the-way lines; he was fond also of roaming the countryside. There was endless trouble in discovering what to do with him and what to make of him. At last a time came when Uncle Geyer could no longer keep him; and in response to inquiries Uncle Adolph answered virtually that he could and would do nothing. So towards the end of 1822 Richard was sent home to Dresden, and there on December 2 he was entered at the Kreuzschule as Richard Geyer. This, let me remark in passing, was and is common enough when a widowed mother has married a second time. Several such cases are within my own experience; and malicious snarls at Wagner's double name, as though at some period he had gone under an alias, are purely futile and worthy only of an advocate with a desperate case.
With this Wagner's period of infancy ends and he enters on that of boyhood—his life begins. Henceforth we shall hear less of other members of his family—though they will by no means drop out of the story completely, or all but completely, as they did when he came to his marrying days.
So far all we can learn about Wagner that is worth knowing amounts to this: he was born into and passed his first years in the precincts of Bohemia, where the Bohemian atmosphere was tempered with officialism, court-etiquette, and the influence of a methodical and resolutely conscientious stepfather. When Richard became a man and wrote on the theatre and theatrical life he showed an intimate knowledge of all details hardly possible to one who had not gone through this early experience: scores of things that an ordinary educated Englishman learns with considerable surprise were to him the merest matters of course. When an English composer resolves to write an opera, in the spirit in which a sculptor may decide to paint a picture or a flute-player to play the fiddle, he has to learn all, or as much as he can, about the requirements of the stage, and even then if his work comes to rehearsal he has to accept corrections and make alterations at the instance of those who have been through the proper early training. No one had anything to teach Richard in these respects: he knew by what seems an infallible instinct, but which was mainly the result of all he had seen since his babyhood, precisely what was effective and what ineffective on the stage, what was possible and what impossible. He made no mistakes; even the "impossibilities" of the Ring proved feasibilities and are now accomplished nightly without trouble in every opera-house of Europe.
This training—for it was a training, perhaps the very best for the career before him—now went on as in Geyer's time. He still dwelt in Bohemia, but as the influence of his stepfather had been salutary, so now to an extent came in the influence of school. Hitherto we have had rather to consider his family than him; but now the little individuality begins to emerge, more and more clearly and distinctly, from that circle. He begins an independent existence, controlled in an overwhelming degree by the life of the theatre and home-life, but also leading a life of his own at school and very wilfully taking a line or lines of his own there. We can now begin to trace the growth of the mental, and especially the artistic, nature of one of the most stupendous geniuses the earth has produced. It is altogether unnecessary to try to piece together anything approaching an elaborate sketch of the activities and escapades of these days: this would involve laying violent and liberal hands on the fruits of the labours of Glasenapp and a dozen other pickers-up of unconsidered trifles, would yield us nothing essential and might drive the reader to an untimely end. Out of the strangely tangled skein of truth and obvious fiction which is called his "life" for this period I shall endeavour only to pick out such threads of fact as seem to me helpful.
Richard remained five years at the Kreuzschule and took to the classics with avidity. The best part of his education was classical. True, he learned enough arithmetic to know how many marks made twenty and how many francs a louis; but the classics provided him with the pabulum his growing mind hungered for. His Greek professor took a special interest in him, which is not surprising when we remember that at the age of thirteen he translated twelve books of the Odyssey as a holiday task. Besides this he worked at philology and the ordinary school curriculum. It is just possible—just, I say—that had the family remained longer in Dresden he might never have turned to the Scandinavian sagas at all, but have become an eminent scholar and the composer of mediocre symphonic music. That, luckily, is one of the might-have-beens, and we need not mourn over it. Music he was very far from dropping. He had played a Weber scene while his stepfather was dying; and he continued to bang away at overtures with such a fingering, as Mr. Bernard Shaw has said, as of necessity would be employed by the average worker at a circular-saw. But the great awakening was not yet. He had first to give the world the mightiest drama ever conceived by the mind of an energetic, bright, self-confident boy.
I do not think there is on record a single instance of a great engineer having manifested artistic preferences in his youth, or of a great painter having misspent his boyhood in making toy machines. Always, from the very beginning, the boy unconsciously, without reflection, instinctively, helplessly, starts away in the direction he is destined to follow as a man; and though some potential great poets may be thwarted and ultimately discouraged and lost to the world, by far the more common phenomenon is that of young geniuses overcoming or brushing aside or dodging all obstacles at all costs (to themselves and every one else) and finding their true road, the path nature shaped them to tread. At the first glance Wagner might seem a startling exception to the nearly universal rule; but he is no exception. The theatre was his first love, and to the theatre he ever remained faithful: only through the theatre did his genius manifest itself; apart from the theatre it may be doubted whether he could have developed into the consummate technical musician of Tristan and the Mastersingers. Music was his second love, music associated with drama; and throughout his long career we find him engaged, first, in getting his drama true, poignant and effective, and then in allying it with music. Third in his affections came philosophy; and at this time of day it need scarcely be remarked that he always considered himself a bit of a philosopher, and toyed to the last with philosophy and pseudo-philosophy. Reams of good paper and gallons of good ink have been used in writing about the musician, the composer of the most magnificent operas in the world; weeks, months, years have gone to the writing. But all the paper, all the ink, all the labour, all the mental effort and sympathy and love seem a bagatelle when we look through the bibliographies and realize how much paper, ink, effort—not always to be called mental—sympathy and love have been used up in expounding Wagner's philosophy. The cases of Whitman and Browning make a poor show compared with this case. I believe there are still some human beings who turn for guidance to Wagner the philosopher. Later I shall be compelled to say something about the subject. What Wagner's docile apostles say does not greatly matter—in fact, does not matter at all; what Wagner said does demand a little consideration; and we must bear in mind that philosophy and pseudo-philosophy supplied him with the stuff out of which he wove the word-tissue of his dramas.
There is not much, then, to detain us during this period. Rosalie and Albert had their engagements, Rosalie being the mainstay of the family. On May 1, 1824 Clara made her debut. Uncle Adolph, ceaseless in objurgations touching every one who had any connection with the court or trade theatres of the day, had to accept the situation; and, apparently in desperation, or because he found life intolerable with two nagging females in the house where he dwelt, quietly went in 1824 and married Sophie, a sister of his friend Amadeus Wendt. Thenceforward he lived in peace at a house called "The Hut," visiting his two nagging ladies every day, however. One was his sister, Friederike, the other Jeannette Thomae. He was a studious, retiring man, and in the course of time produced some books that are worthless, or all but worthless, now. Of course the Bayreuth worshippers and idolizers of the Wagner family will have it that he, being one of the family, was inevitably a man of superlative gifts; but as I have already indicated, there is nothing to justify such an assumption. A cultivated man of sound sense he must have been; and it is true he was in some slight touch with a few of the stronger artistic and literary spirits in that very dull and disheartening period; it is true that he influenced, wholly for good, Richard a few years afterwards. When that is said all is said.
Richard is said to have studied English, but how much he actually learnt I never could ascertain. I have been told with solemn mysteriousness at Bayreuth that, like the parrot, he could have rattled off our tongue with tremendous volubility had he chosen; but the fact that he never chose lends colour to the supposition that in reality he had no choice. However, in the original or in translations he read Shakespeare; and it may be presumed that he knew Goethe and Schiller almost by heart. Naturally he determined to rival them. In that heyday of the big Romantic movement he just as naturally determined to rival or to beat them by piling terror on terror, horror on horror. At that period the latest word in the theatre was melodrama of the wildest sort, and a play which did not contain a few murders, ghosts, enchanted woods and haunted castles had not the faintest chance of success. According to Wagner's own account he made a handsome bid for success; for nearly all the dramatis-personae came to an untimely end, and a spectre told one, not yet finished off, that if he moved another step his nose would then and there crumble to powder.
While this masterwork was in process of construction, circumstances so altered that Frau Geyer thought it wisdom to quit Dresden and return to Leipzig. Albert, Rosalie, Louise and Clara were in various towns fulfilling engagements; she was left alone with the younger children. In 1826 Rosalie had gone to Prague; Albert and Clara were in Augsburg; Louise had been in Breslau, had tried Berlin, then finally took a permanent post at the theatre in Leipzig. So a move was determined on, and the family made another migration in 1827. Richard stayed on for some time, in connection with his schooling, I presume; then he followed, incidentally taking the most momentous step in his young life.
These five years had been for him profitable. He got the best part of his education at Dresden, where he had skilful and sympathetic masters; and almost, one may say, without knowing it he had received an informal musical education which was profoundly to affect him as soon as he started writing operas. I mean that he constantly attended the opera while Weber was conductor, and Weber, who had been a friend of Geyer's, used to call at the house to pass the time of day with the widow. Richard looked up to him with awe and worshipped every bar of his music; and this, together with a knowledge of the road Richard was soon to take and of what he was to become, makes one wonder that he had not already decided to compose another Freischuetz. But, as I have said, the theatre—that is, the theatre with the spoken drama—was his first love; and evidently it had a wondrous hold on him, for after spending a rapturous evening with Freischuetz—first given in Leipzig in 1822—he would return contentedly to his tragedy. It took a stronger spirit even than Weber's to awaken the musical side of his nature. But unconsciously the foundation had been laid, as we shall have ample reason to understand before long. These years at Dresden, too, are noteworthy, inasmuch as they saw the beginning of some friendships, at least one of which was to prove lifelong and invaluable to Richard.
When the family settled again in Leipzig one Ludwig van Beethoven died (March 1827), and Wagner heard of this composer, it is said, for the first time. It is all but unimaginable, yet there seems no reason to doubt it. After all, that was not an age of halfpenny morning and evening papers, and if composers were boomed the deed was accomplished tranquilly in the houses of great society leaders, dukes and archbishops, and the general public knew little of what was going on. I dare say even in our newspaper age many a clever boy of fourteen has never heard of Strauss or Josef Holbrooke, and Beethoven did not loom nearly so large before the eyes of the people as these composers do: the names of Salieri, Marschner, Meyerbeer, Spontini, Spohr and Weber would be much more familiar than his; even in Vienna he was regarded mainly as a deaf, surly old crank who had the support of highly placed personages. So there is the amazing fact: Wagner, who worshipped Weber's operas, had not, when fourteen years old, heard of the existence of a musician a thousand times mightier than Weber. The great hour was at hand.
First, however, he had to pass through a period of boyish disgust and disappointment. At Dresden he had been a favourite with his masters, and had worked hard. His own account of the methods, temper, and intellectual qualifications of his masters seems to me eminently reasonable. Their aim was to bring out whatever was best in their pupils. His account of his first masters at Leipzig similarly bears the stamp of truthfulness. They were a set of conceited academics with only two ideas in the world: first, that they were the very finest flower of Teutonic culture; second, that they must so impose their personalities on the boys, so impress them with their ideal, that every pupil would carry to his dying hour the stamp of the culture of the Nicolai school. Utterly unsympathetic, narrow beyond the dreams of the narrowest of modern schoolmasters, they were frankly, virulently hostile to any one in whom they perceived—as they always did perceive with the unerring instinct of stupidity to detect cleverness—the smallest trace of originality of character, thought or outlook on life. As a rule they seem to have been successful in achieving their aim. An old German friend of mine told me he had calculated that the Nicolai school turned out in ten years more complete, complacent blockheads than any other school in Germany had turned out in half-a-century; and my friend gave me many notable instances of men who had soon won the proud distinction of being unmistakable pupils of the Nicolai school. There were rebels, and Wagner makes it clear that he was amongst them. To begin with, he had been in the second class at the Kreuzschule. The more effectually to imbue him with the Nicolai ambition of becoming a scholar, i.e. a pedant, and a complete, if sausage-munching, German gentleman of the period, they degraded him to the third. No doubt there were protests: one cannot believe that Wagner the boy any more than Wagner the man could refrain from declamation under a grievance; but with such impervious skulls and thick hides protests would be unavailing. The mischief was done: he was numbered amongst the rebels, the lost souls, the unhappy beings who dared to have notions of their own. He neglected his studies and sought refuge in his drama. I wonder if he found, or made, an opportunity of satirizing his precious professors in it.
At home his life cannot have been much better. Good Hausfrau Geyer cannot have understood where the shoe pinched: she can only have seen how he was wasting his time. The tragedy was discovered and there seem to have been solemn family deliberations regarding the probable fate of the reprobate. His Uncle Adolph seems to have acted as the great consoler. He, at any rate, knew better than to think a boy was on the way to the bottomless pit simply because he could not get on with a gang of dull pedagogues. Now and later he lectured Richard in a kindly if sententious way; and he must have fostered the boy's natural strong spirit of revolt. Adolph loathed authority, especially the authority of irresponsible court officials; and in some of his preserved letters he lashes these gentry, the scum of humanity and the parasites of courts, with scathing sarcasm. His sarcasm had no practical result, because the officials never saw it—if they had they would have shrugged their fat shoulders and gone to draw their comfortable salaries. But he taught Wagner that officialdom is the curse of the human race; and in after years that certainly had some practical results—at the moment calamitous to Wagner; in the long run beneficial to him and the human race. Perhaps of all forms of authority that which Adolph found least tolerable, that which he taught Richard to loathe and hate and spit upon, was official authority in art matters. Nowadays, when public opinion counts for something, when those who pay the taxes insist on having some small say as to the way in which they are spent, the intendant of a German theatre is by no means the lordly court-parasite he was once. Yet even now he often flouts his paymasters, feeling fairly secure under court protection. We can easily imagine the high-and-mighty jack-in-office he must have been in Adolph's time.
Wherever he made his power felt it blasted honest art and checked honest art endeavour. It was fitting that Richard should have dinned into him—as I have no doubt he did—his uncle's views on these heroes; for later Richard had a fair amount of fighting to do with them, and in the end it was he more than any other one man who broke their power for ever by appealing to the great public. This attitude is due to Richard's preaching and example; and he learnt it from Uncle Adolph. In one other respect Adolph's influence was good: he opened out to Richard's vision immense fields of literature that the youngster had never heard of. I have previously mentioned that all the culture of the Geyer family came through the theatre. To this Richard added a small school-acquaintance with the classics; and now came Adolph to show him a huge, truly vital literature—poetry and prose dealing with the life of our own epoch. Adolph wrote reminding him of how finely Weber Had cultivated himself, of his breadth, of his outlook on history and mankind. It is evident that Adolph, seeing the irresistible bent of the Wagners towards the theatre, and fearing that Richard might in time learn to be content with a life of ignorant theatre tittle-tattle, did his best to save him, not so much by warning him against the theatre—which he certainly knew to be useless—as by showing how many great and interesting things the world holds. The preaching did not fall on deaf ears; and Richard always declared that in this regard he was incalculably indebted to his uncle. One of Richard's most strongly marked characteristics was the tenacity with which he held any idea that once entered his mind; and it is worthy of note that about this period he read E.T.A. Hoffmann's collected fantasies and Tieck's Tannhaeuser. From the first he unmistakably got the minstrels' contest in his own Tannhaeuser; from the second, Tannhaeuser's coming home after being cursed by the Pope.
So things went on. Richard's mother, Richard, Louise, Ottilie and Caecilie formed the household; Uncle Adolph and Aunt Sophie lived not far off; and they had plenty of friends. They lived at first in the Pichhof outside the Halle gate and later removed into the town. Richard wandered about the city, seeking the scenes of his babyhood; and his mother pointed out to him the spot where she saw Napoleon rush off, without his hat, to make his: escape after the battle of liberation, while Richard was in his cradle. The Rannstadt gate, where his grandfather spent his life collecting dues, was still standing, though it was soon to vanish; and the house of the Red and White Lion on the Bruehl, where Richard was born, was now in the very heart of the Jew quarter. The costumes, speech and gesticulation of these strange animals left an indelible impression on him, and were, perhaps, incidentally responsible for the notorious Judaism in Music of 1850, and all the fallacies contained in that deplorable essay. Richard got his own way in most things, and the seeds were sown of the self-confidence, egotism, selfishness—call it what you will—that was to carry him through unheard-of difficulties and troubles in later life, and was often, unfortunately, to show as an objectionable, even odious, feature in his character. He still laboured at his tragedy, killing off his personages and turning their noses into dust with the careless facility and cheerfulness of buoyant boyhood. He had always been fond of roaming the country, and he continued to nourish that love of the pleasant earth which forced him to keep up the habit all his life and resulted in the glorious pictorial music of the Ring. He struggled in vain to conquer the piano-keys, and, indifferent to the fable of the fox and the grapes, came to the satisfying conclusion that the instrument was not worth mastering. We must remember that through Louise he was in constant touch with the theatre, and it is evident that he kept up the connection after her marriage to Brockhaus the bookseller in 1828, for when the theatre was entirely reformed next year Rosalie came as a principal lady and Heinrich Dorn, who speedily became his friend, as conductor. Drama, literature, school-tasks, open-air rambles, talks with Uncle Adolph—these constituted his life. Now another element was to enter and overwhelm all the rest.
EARLY LIFE (CONTINUED)
In the second half of the eighteenth century some enthusiasts at Leipzig had founded a series of concerts, with a very small orchestra, which were given in "Apel's house"; in 1781 they migrated to the Gewandhaus, and by this name the concerts were afterwards known. In still later days Mendelssohn became conductor, and for brilliance and neatness the concerts were famous throughout the world; then Reinecke came and they became the most slovenly in the world—in this fine quality of slovenliness not even our London Philharmonic Society could hope to rival them; also, as Reinecke was an acrid reactionary, no modern music could get a hearing there. However, that did not greatly matter; and the world owes the Gewandhaus concerts an everlasting debt of gratitude.
Richard, we know, had never heard of Beethoven, had never heard a bar of his music. At the Gewandhaus the symphonies were regularly played, and to one of the performances he went, contented, with his head full of his play, not dreaming of what was to happen to him ere the morrow. Here are his own words: "I only remember that one evening I heard a symphony of Beethoven's, for the first time, that it set me in a fever, and on my recovery I had become a musician." This is from one of his stories, but it describes with sufficient closeness what actually happened. We know that saturated solutions of some salts at a touch solidify into a mass of crystals, and as far as intentions were concerned this, figuratively, happened to Richard: his purpose was instantly set—he would be a musician—nay, he felt he was a musician. As to his proceedings, however, a better simile would be that of a liquid into which you drop a little of another liquid and immediately a violent commotion with much heat is set up. Beethoven's music touched his young being, and a fermentation began which drove him forthwith to make himself a perfectly equipped technical musician. Almost like Teufelsdroeckh and St. Paul, he was "converted" in the twinkling of an eye.
The change was astounding; but Wagner was an astounding genius. The bald fact is that he was musical as well as dramatic; hitherto the dramatist in a favourable environment had grown and flourished while the musician lay latent waiting his time; but the moment the spirit of Beethoven spoke to his spirit the musician sprang up and responded. Weber had been his musical god, but he was now set a little lower, and Beethoven took his place. When he started to compose seriously it was Weber and not Beethoven he copied, but that is easily explained: Wagner, like Weber, wrote theatrical music for the theatre, whilst Beethoven wrote only utterly untheatrical music for the theatre, and it was from Weber and not Beethoven he had to learn his art of theatre music. But it was from Beethoven and not from Weber that the impulse to, compose came. He had heard, probably, all Weber's operas without any desire to go and do likewise; but having heard Beethoven's symphonies, and the incidental music to Egmont, he at once realized that his tragedy would be incomplete without music, and he resolved to write it. Carlyle, overlooking the trifling fact that there is such a thing as the technique of the novelist's trade, and believing in the omnipotence of the human will, set out to write a work of fiction; and we may imagine his disgust and the sincerity of his objurgations when the brute of a novel obstinately refused to be written.
When the incidental music to—whatever the name of his play was—obstinately refused to be written, young Wagner may have said something, though it is not on record; but having a finer instinct than Carlyle he perceived the necessity of acquiring the technique of his new trade. So he got possession of Logier's Method; in a few days made a complete study of it; then he set to work in earnest —with, alas! no more satisfactory fruits. Something that might serve, however, was achieved, and the ambitious composer went on to a fresh struggle. He had heard Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, so, taking Goethe's Laune des Verliebten, he started a kind of fantasia, concocting words and music together. An account of Wagner's youth would be incomplete without some mention of these brave doings; they show clearly how strong the instinct which led him on to the Ring was in him at this early time—to what an unusual degree the child was father of the man. But to take seriously his tragedy and these first musical attempts, made at the unusually advanced age of sixteen, even if I had seen them—which I have not: I do not know whether they are in existence—would be preposterous.
Richard began to see that he could make no headway, and he persuaded his family to let him take lessons from Gottlieb Mueller, who must have been a bad teacher for such a boy. Nothing was learnt. Richard was told he must not do this and must not do that, and he was not told what he might or should do; in the end both he and Mueller grew disgusted and the lessons were abandoned. I dare say Mueller was in a humdrum way a good coach; he could have prepared candidates for our absurd academic examinations; but for an artistic genius, bursting with inarticulate ideas and inchoate purposes he was worse than useless. So Richard had to muddle along as he best might, while his good relatives doubted whether he would ever be able to do anything at all, until by good fortune he tried Theo. Weinlig. Weinlig saw what was wrong and what was wanted; instead of Mueller's "you must not do this or that: it is against 'rule,'" he explained matters and showed Richard that if he once learnt the tricks of the trade he would be able to compose just as he liked; in six months Richard had become an expert contrapuntist and could fugue it with students who had toiled for years. "Now," said Weinlig at the last, "you will probably never want to write a fugue, but the knowledge that you can will give you confidence." According to the late Mr. Dannreuther his words were, "You have learnt to stand on your own legs." So it came to pass that Richard's ambition was fulfilled: he was a musician.
In the life of a being so extraordinary as Wagner it is not surprising that he took many steps, each of which seemed the most momentous in his career; but I think on the whole we must reckon this one, from the amateur enthusiast to the fully equipped professional musician, the most important. How long he would have been about it but for Weinlig's timely aid cannot be said. He was steeping himself in Beethoven. He could not play the piano, but he could read scores: Heinrich Dorn declared that he copied those of the overtures with his own hands. He arranged the Ninth Symphony and offered it to Schott, who declined it, of course. Another arrangement, for four hands, was afterwards accepted by Breitkopf, in exchange, it would seem, for a copy of the full score of the same work. Possibly he had borrowed the copy he worked from—or thumbed it until it fell to pieces. Dorn said he never came across such a Beethoven enthusiast, and he felt sure something would come of it. We know something did come of it. Weinlig had taught him the principles of musical form as well as harmony and counterpoint, and thus made the grasping of the plan of each masterpiece an easier task; and to Weinlig the world owes a huge debt of gratitude. Richard acknowledged the debt; and after Weinlig's death in 1842 he dedicated The Love-feast of the Apostles to his widow.
Richard, when he was some years older, said bluntly he cared little for his family; and some of the Wagner-mad Bayreuth host point out that the family did little for him and did not understand him. One might ask why they should be expected to do much: they had plenty to do in looking after themselves. But no questions and no appeals to sweet reasonableness are needed, for the very patent fact is that his family helped him to the uttermost limit of their means. Geyer first, his widowed mother afterwards, then Rosalie and his brother Albert, without a doubt Louise—all did their best to make his young existence comfortable and happy. He got a much better education than in that epoch fell to the lot of the average student belonging to a family of such straitened means; when he wanted lessons in music he got them, and if the family did not pay for them I don't know who did. He was fed, clothed and apparently provided with pocket-money to hold his own with his fellow-students until at the age of twenty he began to earn a little money for himself; and it was Albert who gave him his first appointment. Long after then he drained their resources and the resources of the families into which his sisters had married. Wagner, as I have observed, was a spoiled boy and was made utterly selfish; and as years went on and he came to think music the salvation of Germany, and himself the salvation of music, by a simple logical process he arrived at a conclusion which justified his selfishness—namely, that it was every one's duty to support him, for to support him was only to help art and the fatherland. It is all very charming, and it makes one rather glad not to be a German. Without Wagner's colossal egotism he never could have got through the difficulties he had to face, and his selfishness is the defect of his quality; but it is pitiable to find writers—Glasenapp, Ashton Ellis, Chamberlain and Wolzogen—sunk so low in abject flunkeyism as to glorify the defect as the quality.
In 1829 a court theatre, as has been said, was opened. Rosalie came as a leading lady, and one Heinrich Dorn came as musical director. Dorn was nine years older than Richard at a time of life when nine years make an immense difference; but the elder, certainly through the influence of Rosalie, from the beginning took a keen interest in the younger. He played Richard's music at the theatre—to his own confusion on at least one occasion. Richard had composed an overture in six-eight time with a fearful stroke of the drum, a Paukenschlag, every fourth or fifth bar; Dorn played it; the audience grew mirthful. That is all. What the motive was for the drum-strokes I cannot guess. Still, Dorn did not give him up, and performed other and, let us hope, less ludicrous efforts. Presently I shall devote a page or two to the compositions prior to his first professional engagement; but first let me set down a few of the needful facts of his outer life.
The Paris revolution of 1830 set all youthful Europe in a ferment. The students of Leipzig university were not behind, and though Wagner did not yet belong to the sacred circles he mixed much with them, hearing them talk and doubtless doing not a little talking himself. At one stroke, he says, he became a revolutionist; and, within his own meaning of the word, a revolutionist he remained all his life. When we deal with the period during which his revolutionary ideas got him into serious trouble it will be time to discuss his views: for the present we need only note that the conduct of the Leipzig students in various riotous scenes that took place filled him more than ever with admiration for them, and with a determination to enrol himself amongst them as early as possible. He had quitted the Nicolai and gone to the more congenial Thomas school; but he would not wait to finish his course there. On February 28, 1831 he had his wish and matriculated. He was, I say, spoilt in everything. Most German musicians who received any education worth speaking of at that time got it because of the ambition of infatuated parents to see their children turn out successful lawyers or win high official positions, for Germans have a touching trust in their government and its power of providing for their children. Richard, however, had no taste either for law or officialism—he knew indeed that lawyers and officials are the parasites and curse of our civilization. He had evidently taken to heart his Uncle Adolph's admonitions—"Remember how wide was the culture of C.M. von Weber," etc.; and he entered the university with the intention, as he imagined, of acquiring some of that culture. But I fancy he deceived himself. As a schoolboy, as we have just noted, he aspired to the glory of studentship; having won to that he seems to have rested content. Certainly he did no work, attended no lectures. His days and nights were devoted to two things, composition and politics. With Apel and others whom he used to meet at a cafe he denounced governments, police officials and the rest of it; at home he composed overtures and finally a great symphony in C major. It is hard to say which of his two occupations he took the more seriously.
The artist was growing up strong within him; but the injustice and robbery he saw perpetrated on every side of him, the wholesale theft of Poland by Russian officials—by which I mean the Tsar, his ministers, his generals, soldiers, subservient judges and police—set his blood aboil; and I suppose that, like other boys of his years, as well as many grown men, he fancied his talk would do something to put the world and society right. But in no picture of his life at this time that I have come across is there any hint of the poetic atmosphere in which he should have lived. Surely in those days before his health broke down, with his fervid imagination, his intimacy with the masterworks of music and poetry, he must have drawn in a richer air than the reek of a Leipzig cafe, his inner vision must have seen a diviner light than the common light of the stodgy Leipzig streets, with his inner ear he must have heard a music sweeter than the hoarse arguments of students half-filled with lager-beer. In the accounts of this time there is not—to use the phrase colloquially—a touch of romance. Even his letters are stodgy. My surmise is that just as in his boyhood the musical part of his nature lay latent and unsuspected until Beethoven's music awoke it, so now the poetic part lay fallow awhile, and he worked away at the technical side of his music, mastering form and conventional development of themes, and in his leisure spent his excess of energy in talking politics and metaphysics. The C Symphony of the period can now be seen by all and has often been played; and it supports my view very forcibly. When I say there is no hint of Wagner in it I do not mean that the phraseology does not resemble that of the later Wagner—one could hardly expect that; I do mean that from Die Feen onward there is always atmosphere, always emotion and colour, in his music; while the symphony is as bald, as unpoetical, as any mean street in Kennington. I do not doubt that he had his poetic dreams, because with such a nature he could not help it; but he must have been temporarily indifferent to them, absorbed in mastering the purely technical part of his business. If we compare the letters of the time with, say, Keats's and Shelley's, it is startling to find him enthusing over the affairs of the parish and seemingly turning his back on the great thoughts of life, on life's colour, romance, poetry—call it what we like. About the Poles he is enthusiastic and fiery enough. Hundreds of these heroes passed through Leipzig, living on charity as they went to their new homes in all quarters of the globe—where many of their descendants live on charity to this day. Richard wept over their griefs, and got the idea for a "Polonia" overture; and his ardour was sufficiently hot to last out until 1836, when he wrote the work at Koenigsberg. Or it may be that he had forgotten all about the Poles till he got into the vicinity of their dismembered country. Richard himself confesses to leading a dissipated life during this period; but probably he exaggerated when in after years he began to realize the brevity of life and to regret wasted hours. His guide, counsellor, friend, and, I doubt not, inspirer of most of his great achievements, Praeger, tells a fine story of this part of his life; and one can have no hesitation in calling it a pack of lies. On the other hand, forger though he was, Praeger is quite as worthy of credence as those writers who want us to believe that Wagner as a boy of fourteen had a fully developed character and clearly foresaw the Ring and Tristan as things before him, only waiting to be accomplished. Richard was still a boy, impulsive to the point of madness, a hotheaded fanatic, with his character still in the making, his artistic purposes neither defined nor capable of being defined. He was not yet a great man. But he had the makings of a great man in him; and in the meantime it is much that he gained the affection of most of the people he came across. In fact it was as true now as ever it was in later life that of those with whom he came in contact most became his friends and the rest his enemies: few could disregard him or remain indifferent.
His apprenticeship was by no means run out in 1832. He had written and heard performed some overtures, and he set to work and completed the big Symphony in C major, "in the style of Beethoven"; and this done he went for a holiday and to gain some little experience in Vienna. That he could afford such a trip, when at the age of nineteen he could not contribute a penny to the household expenses, bears out what I have said about the assistance he received from his family. He contributed nothing, and, considering his headstrong temper, only a courageous or reckless man would have prophesied that he would ever be able to contribute anything. However, to Vienna he went, and heard Zampa—many more times than he wished. He heard Strauss' waltzes and liked them; he saw Raymund's forgotten achievements and waxed eloquent about them too. He seems to have learnt nothing but a lively contempt for a frivolous people who had forgotten how lately Beethoven had died amongst them—only five years before; a people who danced and made merry and went philandering while every hour cholera was carrying off its tens and sometimes hundreds of victims. He himself was light-hearted and gay then; and having seen what there was to be seen he went back to Leipzig via Prague. Here he sketched Die Hochzeit; met Dionys Weber, who had known Mozart, and Tomaschek, who had at all events seen Beethoven; and made the acquaintance of Friedrich Kittl, a fat, double-chinned amateur, just blossoming into a full-blown professional musician, who ten years later succeeded Dionys Weber as principal of the Prague conservatoire.
He still had very much to learn. But an Overture in D minor was performed at the Gewandhaus concerts on February 23, 1832; a Scena and Aria were sung by one Henriette Wuest at a "declamatorium" in the Hoftheater on April 22 of the same year; a C major Overture was given at the Gewandhaus eight days later; on January 10 of the following year the C Symphony was played at the Gewandhaus after being tried by a smaller orchestral society; an Overture to a preposterous play, King Enzio, in which Rosalie took a part, had been played nightly while the piece ran. I don't know what the "Scena with Aria" may be; a "declamatorium" seems to be a fine term for a recitation or evening of spouting; the C major Symphony was the last work of Wagner's to appear on a Gewandhaus programme. At the same concert Clara Wieck—afterwards Schumann—played a piano-concerto by Piscio. Reinecke's malicious idiocy need rouse no bitterness now; but I may repeat that under his directorship these concerts earned the contempt of musical Europe as thoroughly as did our own Philharmonic Society. Until lately, when one mentioned either, every musician laughed: now both are trying to rehabilitate themselves, without much success. Both the Philharmonic and the Gewandhaus represented musical vested interests; musicians like Reinecke in Leipzig, and non-musicians like Cusins in London, owed their handsome incomes to the positions into which good-luck had thrust them; and we could hardly expect them to show their publics what much abler men were about. It was because Reinecke and Cusins (and with him J.W. Davison of the Times) knew Wagner to be a great musician that they "kept him out" by the simple plan of saying he was not a musician. It was not the truth, of course, and they knew it was not the truth; but it is too much to expect truth to be considered when solid incomes are at stake.
At the Gewandhaus—and also at Prague, where Dionys Weber ran through a Beethoven symphony as if it was a Haydn allegro—Richard got his first lessons in the art of conducting, by a method for which much may be said, that is, he first learnt here how the thing should not be done. He knew the ninth symphony by heart, and was also entranced by the blended loveliness and strength of Mozart's symphonies: played here, all the effects and points he could plainly see in the score disappeared. He knew better, even thus early, than to think the two great composers capable of writing the kind of academic stuff which looks like music on paper and when played sounds like anything you like excepting music. He saw that when an orchestra carelessly romped through a movement, paying no heed to expression, to nuances of colour, to tempi, it did not really play, interpret, the music; and soon his convictions bore very remarkable fruit.
At the theatre he learnt the final lesson needed to prepare him for writing operas of his own. Masaniello in its way opened his eyes as much as Beethoven's symphonies had done. Not only the bustle, but the clean sweep of the thing from beginning to finish of each act, with brilliant climaxes in the finales, made him stare and gasp in amazement. Weber he admired; but Weber's power lay in the beauty and picturesqueness of his music: in Masaniello the music made its effect because of the theatrical skill with which it was used. The same thing he felt in William Tell. These two men, Auber and Rossini, were masters of the art of writing effectively for the theatre. The drama of their operas was not particularly striking nor lofty, the music did not come near Beethoven's, Mozart's, nor even Weber's in beauty, but their mastery in writing theatre-music carried them through triumphantly. The problem was, then, to acquire their skill and use it for a high and noble purpose; and this Richard at once attempted to do. He planned and wrote the words of Die Hochzeit. He laid it aside because Rosalie disliked the plot; but immediately he proceeded to another opera, Die Feen, which he completed at Wuerzburg. The book of Die Hochzeit is dated December 5, 1832, Leipzig. On January 10 of the following year his symphony was given; on the 12th he replied to his brother Albert—now singer, actor and stage-manager at the Wuerzburg theatre—accepting an invitation to stay with him; a few days later he set out, reaching his destination towards the end of the month.
Wagner had scarcely time to look around him before his brother Albert offered him the post of chorus-master. The salary was magnificent—L1 (of our money) per month for about six months in the year; the work was hard. We need only note with regard to it that he here heard, and in the process of drilling his choristers undoubtedly got to know very well, all the popular successes of the day. His own account is that he liked them; and it is significant that during this period he heard Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil. At the moment it does not seem to have affected his compositions; but in a very few years Meyerbeer's example, if not his music, had a most marked influence in shaping his career. For the present he worked at Die Feen, and as soon as the theatre closed and Albert and his wife went elsewhere to perform in the off-season—just as German, French, Italian and American singers come to Covent Garden now during the summer—he had plenty of time. By New Year's day of '34 the work was complete. Parts of it were rendered by some Music Union; but soon Richard left Wuerzburg, having gained much experience if not any money. He was offered a post at Zurich; but though that town was destined to be his home for years long afterwards, it evidently did not tempt him then, for he returned to Leipzig.
Here at once began one of those squalid intrigues which drive serious opera-composers crazy. Several of Richard's pieces had been played; he had occupied one responsible position and been asked to take another; he had the finished score of his opera; and he was young and by nature sanguine to the verge of lunacy. He thought he had only to call on the Intendant of the opera with his masterpiece and its production would be assured. He did call, and soon he received a promise that his work would be done. But Leipzig was now Mendelssohn's stronghold and no rival could be tolerated. One of the great man's friends and admirers, Hauser, determined that the work should not be done. He opined that Wagner did not know how to compose nor how to orchestrate; he found the music lacking in warmth. This from a worshipper of Mendelssohn seems a little amusing to-day; but it had a result bad for Wagner in 1834. Underground work went on; and while Wagner waited with what patience he could muster—and I expect that was not much—hoping every day to hear that rehearsals had commenced, his score was quietly put on the shelf. This experience falls to the lot of every writer of operas and is so commonplace an incident that I should do no more than barely mention it did not many followers of Wagner see in it the beginning of that "persecution by the Jews" of which we heard so much a few years ago. It appears to me nothing of the kind. The Jews did not at that date particularly single out Wagner for attack: merely they defended their vested interests exactly as the musical profession in England defended and still defends its vested interests. It should be remembered that he had quite as many friends as enemies amongst the Hebrews; and I never could understand how, to mention only two, two great conductors and intimates of Wagner, Mottl and Levi, could tolerate all the nonsense talked on the subject at Bayreuth. When Brendel published the notorious Judaism in Music it is true many Jewish journalists began to libel Wagner: it is true also that some Jewish professors in the Leipzig conservatoire petitioned that Brendel should be dismissed; but these were the shabby acts of individuals, and far too many shabby acts were perpetrated by Richard's partisans for it to be desirable for them to raise the cry of persecution. Perforce I must say a few words more on this disagreeable topic when I come to deal with the Meyerbeer-Rienzi episode; but I promise the reader to cut it as short as may be. Once for all, despite all protestations, despite Wagner's honest belief to the contrary, I dismiss the Jewish conspiracy theory as rubbish.
Richard's health was in no way injured by the breakdown of the negotiations. His letters of the period are as buoyant as could be wished. He had other schemes. At the Freemasons' concerts his Die Feen overture made a hit. He heard Schroeder-Devrient in Bellini's Montechi e Capuleti, and found to his astonishment that a great singer could create great artistic effects in music of no very high value. He had many friends, and amongst them Schumann and Heinrich Laube—the latter a free-thinking journalist whose utterances so scared the government-by-police, as tending to make people think for themselves instead of peacefully submitting to be governed, that he was put in prison. He was editor of a paper called the Zeitung fuer die Elegante Welt—- a curious title for a journal which frequently praised the democratic Richard. In the summer of 1834 he went for another holiday, this time to Teplitz, where he sketched Das Liebesverbot, his second opera to get finished and the first to be performed—performed, by the way, in a very unusual fashion. Obviously his spirits were not damped: obviously, also, the family which is supposed not to have assisted him assisted him to the extent, at any rate, of enabling him to take a holiday he could not pay for. He had as yet not earned sufficient for his travelling expenses from Leipzig to Wuerzburg and back, to say nothing of holiday trips. As on this trip he planned Das Liebesverbot his thanks were due to his family for being able to begin that work. It is true he had Apel as a friend, but he had not yet formed the habit of borrowing right and left, nor is there any hint in his correspondence of Apel having paid his expenses.
I wish now to pass rapidly over two fresh adventures—the conductorship at Magdeburg and that at Koenigsberg; but first let me point out how the boy's was changing to a man's character. It is plain that he worked very hard at Wuerzburg, for the score of Die Feen is a big one, and teaching his chorus must have occupied many hours a day. It is equally plain that he set to work with the greatest vigour on the new opera. Now, Nietzsche declared that Wagner by sheer will and energy "made himself a musician." That is pure nonsense; but it points to an important characteristic—namely, Wagner did not, even at the age of twenty, trust to inspiration alone, as with his hot and impulsive nature we might have expected, but also to unremitting work. For the remaining fifty years of his life the labours of each day were almost incredible.