THE LOVE AFFAIRS
By RUPERT HUGHES
Author of "Contemporary American Composers," "The Musical Guide", etc.
I. FRANZ LISZT
II. RICHARD WAGNER
III. TSCHAIKOVSKI, THE WOMAN-DREADER
IV. THE HEART OF A VIOLINIST
V. AN OMNIBUS CHAPTER
VI. ROBERT SCHUMANN AND CLARA WIECK
VII. MUSICIANS AS LOVERS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
MISS SMITHSON Frontispiece
GEORGE SAND, FROM THE PORTRAIT BY L. COLAMATTA
PRINCESS CAROLYNE VON SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN AND CHILD
RICHARD AND COSIMA WAGNER
RICHARD WAGNER AT BAYREUTH
MARTIN LUTHER AND CATHERINA VON BORA
GIOACCHINO A. ROSSINI
OLYMPE PELISSIER, AS "JUDITH" IN THE PAINTING BY VERNET
CLARA WIECK, AT THE AGE OF FOURTEEN
CLARA AND ROBERT SCHUMANN
CLARA (WIECK) SCHUMANN
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF GREAT MUSICIANS
"Liszt, or the Art of Running after Women."—NIETSCHE.
Liszt's life was so lengthy and so industriously amorous, that it is possible only to float along over the peaks, to touch only the high points. Why, his letters to the last of his loves alone make up four volumes! And yet, for a life so proverbially given over to flirtations as his, the beginnings were strangely unprophetic. He had reached the mature age of six before he began to study the piano; compared with Mozart, he was an old man before he gave his first concert—namely, nine years. Then the poverty of his parents and the ambition of his father found assistance in a stipend from Hungarian noblemen, and he was sent to Vienna to study. When he was eleven years old, after one of his concerts, Beethoven kissed him. He survived. Then on to Paris and duchesses and princesses galore. Here he became a proverb of popularity as "Le petit Litz"—the French inevitably gave some twist to a foreign name, then as to-day, when two of their favourite painters are "Wisthler" and "Seargent."
Liszt's childhood was therefore largely fed upon the embraces and kisses of rapturous women, even as was the young Mozart's, the difference being that it became a habit in Liszt's case. Even then he used to throw money among the gamins, as later he scattered it in how many directions, with what liberality, and with what princeliness, and from what a slender purse!
The father and mother had gone to Paris with him; but soon the mother went back to Austria—she was a German, the father alone being Hungarian. With his father the lad remained, and found him a severe and domineering master. But in 1827 he died, leaving his sixteen-year-old son alone in Paris. That stalwart self-reliance and sense of honour, which gave nobility to so much of Liszt's character, now showed itself; he sold his grand piano to pay the debts his father had left him, and sent for his mother to come to Paris, where he supported her by giving piano lessons. Then, as later, he found plenty of pupils, the difference being that then, as not later, he took pay for his lessons, though not even then from all.
Here he was at sixteen, tall and handsome, and with a face of winsomeness that never lost its spell over womankind. Sixteen-year-older that he was, he was a man of great fame, and the grind of acquiring technic was all passed. Moscheles had already said of him in print: "Franz Liszt's playing surpasses everything yet heard, in power and the vanquishing of difficulties." Here he was, then, young, beautiful, famous, a dazzling musician, and Hungarian. What do you expect?
It makes small difference what you expect, for the reality was that his heart was eager for the seclusion of a monastery; his soul pined for religious excitement only! At fourteen he had begun to rebel against his nickname, "Le petit Litz." It was with the utmost difficulty that his father had been able to keep him from making religion his career, and giving up his already glittering fame. Never in his life did he cease to thrill with an almost hysterical passion for churchly affairs and ceremonies.
At fourteen he had dedicated his first composition to the other sex. It was a set of "exercises," and the compliment was paid to Lydia Garella, a quaint little hunchback, whom he used afterward to refer to as his first love. But it was later, when he was giving lessons to support his mother, and just turned seventeen, that he drifted into what was really his first love. The Comte de Saint Criq, then Minister of the Interior, had an only daughter, the seventeen-year-old Caroline. The young comtesse' mother gave her into Liszt's charge for musical education. The young comtesse was, they say, of slender frame and angelic beauty, and deeply imbued with that religious ardour which, as in Liszt's case, often modulates as imperceptibly into love, as an organist can gradually turn a hymn into a jig, or an Italian aria into a hymn.
The mother was fond of presiding at the music lessons, and of leading the young teacher to air his views about religion and life, and she watched with pleasure the gradual development of what was inevitable, a more than musical sympathy between the daughter and the teacher. But the romance seemed to win her approval, and when suddenly she saw that she was soon to die, she made a last request of her husband, that he should not refuse the young lovers their happiness. He allowed his wife to die in confidence that the affair met his approval, but without the faintest intention of permitting so insane a thing as a marriage of his daughter with an untitled musician. His business affairs, however, kept him away from home, and from thought upon the subject. After the death of the mother, the comtesse and the pianist met and wept together; then resumed their music lessons, reading much between the lines, and far preferring dreamy duets to difficult solos.
Liszt had read little but music and religion; the slim, fair comtesse had read much verse and romance. So she was his teacher in that literature which would most interest a brace of young lovers. There was no one at home to note how late he stayed of evenings, and one night he returned to his own house to find it locked and his mother asleep. Rather than disturb her, he spent the night on the steps. Another evening, Franz and Caroline found parting such sweet sorrow, that when he reached her outer door, he found it locked for the night. He was compelled to call the porter from those slumbers which only doorkeepers know, and this man was doorkeeperishly wrathful at having his beauty-sleep broken; he growled his rage. This is the only time recorded when Franz Liszt failed to respond to a hint for money. His head was too high in the clouds, no doubt. The servant, thus suddenly awakened to the impropriety of affairs, hastened the next morning to inform the comte that his daughter was studying the music of the spheres as well as that of the piano, and that her lessons were prolonged till midnight.
The next time Franz came to teach, the ghoulish porter gleefully informed him that his master wished to speak to him. The comte was most politely firm, and murdered the young love with most suave apologies for the painful amputation. The difference in rank, it went without saying, put marriage out of the question, and, therefore, all things considered, he could not derange monsieur to the giving of more music lessons,—for the present, at least.
The young musician took the coup de grace bravely; without a word he gave the comte his hand in mute acceptance of his fate, and bowed himself out. The true bitterness of his loss he sought to hide by fleeing to the Church. His love had been pure and ardent. It had been found impossible. His hopes had been put to death; therefore an end to the world. He bent his burning head low upon the cold steps of Saint Vincent de Paul, and resolved to renounce the world. He wrote ten years later, and still with suffering: "A female form chaste and pure as the alabaster of holy vessels, was the sacrifice I offered with tears to the God of Christians. Renunciation of all things earthly was the only theme, the only word of that day."
Caroline, too, sank under the bitterness of the loss. She fell dangerously ill, and when she recovered she thought only of the convent; but her father, who had so easily exiled her lover, knew how to persuade her to marriage. A few months later she became Madame d'Artigou; they say she gave her husband no affection, and that her heart was still, and always, Liszt's; while in his heart she was for ever niched as the young Madonna of his life.
For the present the shock of sacrifice threatened his whole career, and his life and mind as well. Again the monastery beckoned him, and now it was his mother's turn to oppose the Church in its effort to engulf this brilliant artist. After a long struggle he yielded to her, but for a time he was a recluse, and his melancholy gradually wore out his health; until at length he was given up for a dying man, and obituary eulogies actually were published. But as Mark Twain wrote of himself: "The reports of his death were greatly exaggerated."
When Liszt gave up all hope of entering the Church, he began a restless orgy of effort for mental diversion; all manner of theories and foibles allured him.
As Heine said of him, his mind was "impelled to concern itself with all the needs of mankind, impelled to poke its nose into every pot where the good God cooks the future." The theatre offered for a time another form of dissipation than his religious hysteria. He hated concerts, and compared himself to a conjurer or a clever trick poodle; he took up with the Revolution of 1830; Saint-Simonianism enmeshed him; later he fell under the spell of the Abbe Lamennais. Then Paganini came to Paris and fascinated and frightened Liszt, as he frightened the world with his unheard-of fiddling. It was his privilege to drive Liszt back to the piano with an ambition to rival Paganini; as rival him he did. Next Berlioz and romanticism fevered his brain, and then in 1831, the twenty-year-old Liszt and the twenty-one-year-old Chopin struck up their historic friendship, and the two men glittered and flashed in the most artistic salons of Paris. It was about this time that the Polish Countess Plater said, speaking of the genial Ferdinand Hiller and the two cronies:
"I would choose Hiller for my friend, Chopin for my husband, Liszt for my lover."
There seems to have been a snow-storm of love affairs at this period. It is impossible even to name the flakes. Gossip of course gathered into the catalogue every woman whom Liszt saw more than once; but we need not pay this tribute to malice by mentioning the names of all of Liszt's hostesses. Among those who may be more definitely suspected of being made victims by, or victimising, him is the Comtesse Adele Laprunarede, afterward Duchess de Fleury. She, of course, was, as De Beaufort says, "sparkling, witty, young, beautiful." Her home was lonely and rural; her husband was very old; Liszt, to repeat, was a musician and Hungarian. The old comte was blind enough to invite him to spend the winter months at his chateau. For a whole winter Liszt was kept there in her castle a prisoner, with fetters of silk. The old comte seems never to have suspected. When Liszt eventually, like Tannhaeuser, mutineered against the charms of the Venusberg and returned to Paris, he wrote many letters to the comtesse, in which, as he himself said, he gained his "first practice in the lofty French style."
But this intrigue was followed by his appearance in the procession of George Sand's lovers. Ramann, in his biography, writes of the curious state of society of the Paris of this Revolutionary period: "Women were beginning to demand freedom and to experiment with the writing of perfervid romances, which questioned the very foundation principles of marriage and made a religion of Affinity."
George Sand was a chief crusader against the curse of monogamy. She practiced this anarchy in the guise of religion, as the old crusaders out-heathened the barbarians, and raided civilisation in the name of the Cross. George Sand's gospel, summed up briefly by Ramann, is as follows:
"'Love,' says the authoress, 'is Christian compassion concentrated on a single being. It belongs to the sinner, and not to the just; only for the former it moves restlessly, passionately, and vehemently. When thou, O noble and upright man,' she continues, with deceitfully fantastic warmth, 'when thou feelest a violent passion for a miserable fallen creature, be reassured that is genuine love; blush not therefore! so has Christ loved who crucified him.' According to this view, the love that sins from love must be virtue. One can scarcely be alarmed then when she says: 'The greater the crime, so much the more genuine the love which it accomplishes;' or, when Leone Leoni, steeped in passion and crime, but talented and adorned with manly beauty, exclaims to his beloved, 'As long as you hope for my amendment you have never loved my personal self.' It also appears to correspond with this casuistry of erotic fancy, when the heroes of her tragedies, of sky-storming earnestness, but adorned with all unnatural qualities, give themselves up to the latter as to an intoxicating spell, and in the delirium of self-delusion hold sin for virtue, and the unnatural for higher truth and beauty. With this creed, experimental love was a logical sequence, and great constancy was already to be unprogressive stubbornness. 'All love exhausts itself,' said Sand in 'Lelia'; 'disgust and sadness follow; the union of the woman with the man should therefore be transitory.'"
If the putting of preachment into practice is virtue, George Sand was the most virtuous of all novelists, for the hotel of her large and roomy heart was for the entertainment of transients only. It was in 1834, when Liszt was twenty-three and Sand thirty, that he was caught in the vortex swirling around "the fire-eyed child of Berry." Alfred de Musset introduced Liszt to her, as later Liszt passed her on to Chopin—or should we say she discarded the poet for the Hungarian, as later the Hungarian for the Pole? it would be more gallant and quite as true. Like Chopin, Liszt was at first repelled at the sight of George Sand. But soon he was entangled in that "cameraderie" which was the fashionable name for liaison in that time.
From her the Comtesse de Laprunarede had borrowed him for her snow-begirt castle, and when he returned to Paris there was another woman there, awaiting her turn to carry him off. This was the Comtesse Marie Catherine Sophie d'Agoult, who was born on Christmas night, in 1805, and therefore was six years older than Liszt, whom she met in 1834. It was not till six years later that the comtesse took up literature as a diversion, and made herself some little name as an art critic and writer, choosing, as did George Sand, a masculine and English pen-name, "Daniel Stern."
The comtesse had been married in 1827; her marriage settlement was signed by King Charles the Tenth, the Dauphin, and others of almost equal rank. The comte was forty-five, she only half his age. He seems to have been a by no means ideal character, and she found her diversion in the brilliant society she gathered into her salon. For some time she seems to have been fascinated by Liszt before she could reach him with her own fascinations.
Indeed she was always the pursuer, and he the pursued. This is the more strange, since, at least at first, she was extremely handsome. Ramann has thus pictured her:
"The Countess d'Agoult was beautiful, very beautiful, a Lorelei: slender, of lofty bearing, enchantingly graceful and yet dignified in her movements, her head proudly raised, with an abundance of fair tresses, which waved over her shoulders like molten gold, a regular, classic profile, which stood in strange and interesting contrast with the modern breath of dreaminess and melancholy that was spread over her countenance; these were the general features which rendered it impossible to overlook the countess in the salon, the concert-room, or the opera-house, and these were enhanced by the choicest toilets, the elegance of which was surpassed by few, even in the salons of the Faubourg St. Germain. That fantastic dreams were hidden behind the purity of her profile, and passion, burning passion, under the soft melancholy of her expression, was known to but a few, at the time that her connection with the young artist began."
Her "Souvenirs" justify the accusation of unusual vanity as the mainspring in her motives, but if it were only her passion for conquest that made her seek Liszt, she was punished bitterly. In 1834 she captured him, and the preliminary formalities of flirtation were hastily overpassed. But once they were embarked on the maelstrom of passion, they seem to have been of exquisite torment and terror to each other. Liszt fell into a period of atheism which, to his constitutionally religious soul, was agony. As for the comtesse, death entered upon the romance and took away one of her three children. For awhile she was only a broken-hearted mother, and the intrigue seems to have had a moment's pause, but only to return.
Now, however, it had for Liszt something of unfreshness and monotony. He determined to break loose, and in the spring of 1835 told the comtesse that he was going to leave her. She, however, would not consent. He yielding as gracefully as he could, took a lodging in a quiet part of the city, where his life consisted of music, literature, and the comtesse, who visited him incessantly. Her love had quite infatuated her, to take the tone of the time; nowadays we might say that she found it so serious that she desired to make it honest. The means she hit upon were such as might strike a foolish woman as an inspiration. Believing that the long way round was the short way home, she thought to atone for her past foibles by casting them into sudden insignificance—to clear the sultry air by a thunder crash.
When Liszt heard that the comtesse planned to leave her husband, and even her children, and go into foreign exile with him, he felt that the comtesse was taking the bit into her teeth with a vengeance, but saw as he would on the lines, and cry "whoa" as he would, the runaway comtesse still insisted on running away.
Liszt called on her mother to interfere; she was run over. He appealed to her former confessor; his staying hand was shaken loose. He called on the venerable family notary; the old man was upset by the roadside—as I shall be also if I do not release this runaway metaphor.
The comtesse's mother persuaded the daughter to leave Paris for Basle, hoping that a change of scene would bring a change of mind; Liszt followed. It seems to me, however, more probable that the mother, learning that her daughter was determined to leave Paris with Liszt, went with her in the desperate effort to save appearances. But, however that may be, we find the comtesse and the mother at one hotel, and Liszt at another. A few days later, Liszt returned to his hotel to find his room choked with the comtesse' trunks, and to learn that the mother had gone back to Paris in despair. The comtesse had, as they say, "brought her knitting" and come to stay.
Paris is not easily excited over an intrigue conducted according to the established codes by which the intriguers bury their heads in the sand, as a form of pretence that nobody knows that they are billing and cooing beneath the sand, though of course everybody knows it, and they know that everybody knows it, except possibly the one other person most interested. But Paris was dumbfounded that a very prominent and beautiful comtesse should leave her husband and her children in broad daylight, and go visiting the most famous pianist in the world. The pianist was to blame, of course, in the public eye, and the whole affair was branded as a flagrant case of abduction. But, as we know now, it was the pianist who was the victim of this Sabine procedure.
Liszt's actions in this affair seemed, as usual, to be an outrage upon the ordinary laws of decency, but when the truth was learned, we find, as the world found—as usual, too late to change its opinion of him—that he did everything in his power to undo the evil into which his passion had hurried him, and to set himself right with the usual standards of society. And, as usual, he failed absolutely, because of the curious and insane stubbornness of the woman.
Some years later, even the Comte d'Agoult, as well as the comtesse' brother, the Comte Flavigny, confessed that Liszt had acted as a man of honour. The comte had obtained a legal separation from his wife, retaining their daughter. Liszt now proposed marriage. Both being Catholics, it was necessary to experience a change of heart and become Protestants. He exclaimed one day: "Si nous etions Protestants" but the comtesse crushed this hope with a sharp "La Comtesse d'Agoult ne sera jamais Madame Liszt."
Liszt bowed to the inevitable, and kept together his many patches of honour as well as he was permitted. The comtesse had a personal income of four thousand dollars a year, which was as nothing. According to Liszt's secretary, during the time of her stay with Liszt, she spent sixty thousand dollars, the most of which Liszt earned himself by his concerts. The pianist and the comtesse soon left Basle for Geneva, where they remained till 1836, with the exception of one journey to Paris, which Liszt made for a concert. But he returned rather to literature than to music, as on another occasion did Wagner.
For five years Liszt and the comtesse travelled about Switzerland and Italy, he occasionally being convinced that he was seriously in love with the woman who had been so imperious and unreasonable. A few conservatives outlawed him, but there were people enough who forgave him, or approved him, to give him an abundance of society of the highest and most aristocratic sort.
In 1836 his old flame, George Sand, visited Liszt and the comtesse. They toured Switzerland on mules. George Sand has described the wanderings in her "Lettres d'un Voyageur," where Franz represents Liszt, Arabella, the comtesse, and where one may read a poetic description of the comtesse' beauty even after being drenched with rain. Beauty that is water-proof is beauty indeed!
It is in this book of hers that Sand prints such illuminating epigrams as these:
"There are great errors which are nearer the truth than little truths."
"The most beautiful creations of genius are those which succeed to the epoch of the passions. The experience of life ought to precede art; art requires repose, and does not suit with the storms of the heart. The finest mountains of our globe are extinguished volcanoes."
"If you wish to arrive at truth, be reconciled to what is contrary; the white light only results from the union of the coloured rays of the spectrum."
"The oyster boasts and says: 'I have never gone astray,' Alas, poor oyster! thou hast never walked."
When Liszt had made his concert trip to Paris, the comtesse had awaited him at Sand's home. Then, after his famous duel with Thalberg—the weapons being pianos—he joined the group at Nohant, where Chopin and Sand, and Liszt and D'Agoult, and such guests as they gathered there, led a life of elaborate entertainment which made Nohant as famous as another Trianon. Meanwhile, there was going on a duel, the weapons of which were not pianos, but those invisible stilettos with which two women conduct a deadly feud, and politely tear each other's eyes out. George Sand was famous then beyond her present-day esteem, and she was a woman of vigour almost masculine and of a straightforwardness which was almost an affectation. She loved to go about in boots and blouse, and to ride bareback; she smoked cigars, and wrote at night. The Comtesse d'Agoult was eminently feminine. She would rather have spent one thousand francs on a gown than on anything else under heaven, except another gown. She had in her certain literary capabilities, not very marvellous, to be sure, but strong enough to provoke jealousy of the overpraised Sand, who had also, incidentally, been on very intimate terms with the present lover of the comtesse.
Unhappy is the lover who tries to play peacemaker between two of his mistresses. This is enough to bring lava from any "extinguished volcano." Liszt, after almost vain efforts to avoid downright hair-pulling, decided to take the comtesse away from Nohant. He seems to have sided with her against Sand, and said afterward: "I did not care to expose myself to her insolence" (sottise). Chopin, however, took sides with Sand, and it is said that his heart chilled toward Liszt, who spoke bitterly of this estrangement, but on Chopin's death wrote a biographical sketch full of affection, and of an admiration better balanced than the over-flowery style which marks all of Liszt's writings.
When the comtesse left Nohant, which Liszt never saw again, they went to Lyons, where he gave a concert for the benefit of the poor and working people. For what purposes of benevolence indeed did Liszt not give concerts! So great and so discriminating and so self-sacrificing was his charity, that it would almost plead atonement for a million such unconventionalities as his. He was not content to devote the proceeds of a single concert to some object of charity, but even gave money, and whole tours. Besides this concert at Lyons, and various others, one might mention the concert given for the flood sufferers at Pesth, and for the poor of his native town, and the concert tour by which he made Beethoven's monument possible at Bonn. Add to this the other sums he scattered to poor artists like Wagner from his meagre purse, and you will see one reason why women, who are more susceptible and perceptive of such qualities of character, were almost as helpless to resist Liszt's personality as he theirs. Even when he was "la petit Litz," he was found holding a street-cleaner's broom while he went to change a gold piece. And in his later years, his servant always filled two of his pockets with coin, one with copper, and one with silver; and the man used to say that when his master came home at night, the copper mine was usually untouched, but the silver deposit exhausted.
It was in Lyons that the comtesse began her literary career, by a French translation of Schubert's "Erl-Koenig." She later obtained a considerable fame, as I have said, under the name of Daniel Stern. In the fall of 1837 Liszt and the comtesse went to Italy, where, especially at Bellaggio, they appear to have been genuinely happy. He seems to be describing himself when he writes:
"Yes, my friend, when the ideal form of a woman floats before your dreaming soul, a woman whose heaven-born charms bear no allurement for the senses, but only wing the soul to devotion, and if you saw at her side a youth of sincere and faithful heart, weave these forms into a moving story of love, and give it the title, 'On the Shores of the Lake of Como.'"
To us, who think of Liszt always by his last pictures, presenting him in his venerable age, it is hard to remember that at this time he was only twenty-seven. It was at this time, too, that he wrote the only composition he ever dedicated to the comtesse. In later years, it was almost the only composition of his that she would praise; it was a fantasia on the "Huguenots." The two lovers continued their wanderings through Italy and Austria, he giving concerts for the flood sufferers and the Beethoven monument and she travelling with him. While in Rome in 1839, the comtesse had borne him a son, Daniel, having previously given him two daughters,—Blandine, who married the French statesman, Emile Olivier, and died in 1862; and Cosinia, the famous wife of Wagner. All three children had been legitimised immediately upon their birth.
Meanwhile, he and the comtesse were drifting apart, in spite of these three hostages to fortune. It is difficult to justify Liszt's desertion of the woman, except by slandering her memory, and it is difficult to save her memory without slandering his. The cause, as explained by Ramann, is, that she cherished an ambition to be Liszt's Muse, and made strong demands for the acceptance of her opinions upon his works. We can easily imagine the situation: A sensitive, fiery composer, who is incidentally the chief virtuoso of the world, dashes off a gorgeous composition, and in the first warmth of enthusiasm plays it to his companion. She, desirous of asserting her importance, listens to it with that frame of mind which makes it easy to criticise any work of art ever created—the desire to find fault. Benevolent and sincere as her intentions may have been, the criticisms of this shallow and musically untrained woman must have driven Liszt to desperation.
It is a rare musician that can tolerate the faintest disapproval of even his poorest work, and frequently a critic lauds to the skies all of the composer's works except one or two, and then, in order to give his eulogy an appearance of discrimination and remove the taste of unadulterated gush, inserts a mild implication that this one or these two compositions are not the greatest works in existence—that unhappy critic is practically sure to find that his eulogy has been accepted as a mere matter of course, and his criticism bitterly resented as a gratuitous and unwarranted assault upon beautiful creations which his small skull and hickory-nut heart are unable to grasp.
Liszt was never especially philosophical under fault-finding, and to have a fireside critic after him, nagging him day and night, must have soured all the milk of human kindness in his heart. The comtesse was stubborn in her views, and her artistic conferences with Liszt degenerated into violent brawls. The young French poet, De Rocheaud, "assisted," as the French say, at one of these combats between an hysterical woman and a thin-skinned musician. The poet believed in Muses and such things, using as an argument that beautiful fable which Dante built on the most slender foundations.
"Think of Dante and Beatrice," exclaimed De Rocheaud. "Think how the divine poet listened to her words as to revelations. Be thou Dante, and she Beatrice." "Bah, Dante! bah, Beatrice!" cried Liszt, "the Dantes create the Beatrices. The genuine die when they are eighteen years old."
At length the gipsy spirit moved Liszt to make a long continental tour to complete the depletions in his purse. He did not care to take the comtesse and the children with him. With much difficulty he persuaded her to go to Paris and live with his mother, since she was on bad terms with her own family. Later he succeeded in reconciling the comtesse with these, also. After the death of her mother, the comtesse inherited a fortune, but Liszt continued to support the children.
The comtesse died of pleurisy in 1876, at the age of seventy-one. How long these sweethearts of musicians last!
Thus closes the chapter of Liszt's affairs with the Comtesse d'Agoult. It had lasted, all things considered, surprisingly long—five years.
A pleasant note of character was sounded by Liszt, which rings him to the difficult love affair of Robert Schumann. In one of his letters, Liszt tells how fond he had been of Schumann and Wieck and his daughter Clara. Then came the famous struggle between father and suitor for the possession of the girl. Liszt took Schumann's side, because he thought he was in the right; he even went so far as to break off all intercourse with Wieck—who took his revenge by publishing ferocious criticisms on Liszt's playing.
In 1845 Liszt wrote a letter of calm, cool friendship to George Sand, his "Dear George." For years he roved Europe, flitting from ovation to ovation, from flirtation to flirtation. But he was drifting unwittingly toward the grand affair of his life. A woman—the woman—was waiting for him in Russia. Mr. Huneker says of Liszt and the Comtesse d'Agoult: "Every one knows that he was as so much dough in her hands." So, in a more than different way, we shall find him—who had slain his hecatomb of hearts—helpless in the power of his one great love. Again he is first compelling, then compelled.
February 8, 1819, in Monasterzyka in Kiev, Carolyne von Ivanovska was born. She was the only daughter of a rich Polish nobleman. The parents soon separated, and the child's life was divided between them. The father brought her up, as La Mara tells, as if she were a boy. He made her the companion of his conversations late into the night; and, in order to make her the more congenial a comrade, he taught her to ride wild horses and smoke strong cigars. Then the other half of the year, she was the ward of her "beautiful, lovely, elegant" mother, who doted on society, and introduced her daughter to the capitals and the salons of Europe.
So, says La Mara, "under constantly changing surroundings, now in the midst of the world, now in the deep solitude, Carolyne von Ivanovska lived her first years."
When she was seventeen, her father bought her a husband, the son of the Field Marshal Fuerst Wittgenstein, and on May 7, 1836, she gave her hand to the Prince Nicolaus von Sayn-Wittgenstein, seven years her senior. He was at the time a cavalry captain in the Russian army, a handsome, but intellectually unimpressive man. To quote La Mara again: "From this marriage the Princess Carolyne gained only one happiness: the birth of a daughter, the Princess Marie, on whom she centred the glowing love of her heart."
While the two fathers-in-law lived, the children-in-law were kept together; but the old men soon went their way. Then the young wife gave up attempting to endure the unhappiness of her home, and sought solace from her loneliness in the full blaze of literary and artistic society. In February, 1847, Franz Liszt floated in across her horizon, "auf Fluegeln des Gesanges." Of course, he gave a concert in Kiev for charity. Among the contributions, he received a one-hundred-rouble note—about $75. Liszt desired to thank the good-hearted one in person—Kismet!
Even if the princess had not been beautiful, La Mara thinks she would have overwhelmed Liszt with "her wonderful eloquence and her unbelievable intellectuality." It was a case of congeniality at first sight. There were many meetings. The concert affected the princess deeply (when she died she bequeathed that programme to her daughter). The day after the concert, she heard a Pater Noster of his sung in the church. Liszt talked of his plans for compositions. He said he wished to express in music his impressions of Dante's "Divina Commedia," with a diorama of scenic effects. To fit out the diorama, it needed about $15,000.
The princess, carried away with the idea, offered him the money from her own purse. The diorama was never built, but it required a great many conferences, and it seemed appropriate that Liszt should visit her at her estate, Woronince. He arrived on the tenth birthday of her little daughter, Marie. This was in February, the same month of their first meeting. But he could not stay many days, as his concert tour took him to Constantinople and elsewhere. But in the summer and again in the autumn they met, and they celebrated together his birthday and her saint's day.
She there and then resolved to give up her life to him, and to marry him as soon as might be. She believed in the autocracy of genius, and felt that she recognised her mission in the world—to follow and aid this maker of music. Separation from her husband was tame, but this was a horrifying breach of conventionality, such another as the Comtesse d'Agoult had smitten Paris with thirteen years before. But none the less, in April, 1848, she took her daughter and left Russia, after she had provided herself, by the sale of a portion of her dowry, with a sum, as La Mara says, of a million roubles—equal to about $750,000—a tidy little parcel for an eloping couple.
For her husband and mother-in-law she left letters—it would seem that there must have been little else to leave—explaining that she would never return. At the same time she instituted divorce proceedings, and announced that she was asking the Church to grant her freedom. Being a Catholic, it was necessary for her to persuade the Pope himself to permit her to wed Liszt. In the meanwhile, her husband went to the Czar and loudly bewailed the loss of his daughter and all his money. The old story—"My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter! Oh, my Christian ducats! Justice! the law! My ducats and my daughter!"
The princess fled across the Russian border, just at the time of the Revolution of 1848. At the Austrian boundary Liszt's faithful valet met her; in Ratibor she found Liszt's friend, the Prince Lichnovski, who some months after fell a martyr to the revolution. He conducted her to Liszt. A few days later they visited the prince for two weeks at one of his castles. The troubles of the revolution and the barricaded streets drove them from the country to Weimar, where Liszt had been given the post of Kapellmeister.
It was this third-rate town that became the birthplace of a new school of German opera, for years the hub of the musical universe. Here in Weimar the princess lived thirteen years. She placed herself under the protection of the Grand Duchess of Weimar, Maria Polovna, the sister of the Czar and a friend of her childhood. She chose the Altenburg chateau for her home. A year later, Liszt, who had found a neighbouring hotel too remote, took up his home in one of the wings of the chateau. Here he spent the most profitable years of his artistic life. His twelve Symphonic Poems, his Faust and Dante Symphonies, his Hungarian Rhapsodies, and many other important works, including also literary compositions, he achieved here. The irritation he had felt at the superficial meddling, and domineering criticism of his would-be Muse, the Comtesse d'Agoult, was changed to such a communion as the old Roman king Numa enjoyed with his inspiring nymph, Egeria.
During the princess' stay in Weimar, constant pressure was brought upon her to return to Russia to arrange a settlement of affairs. She feared returning to that great prison-land, which cannot be easily entered or left, lest they should forbid her return to Liszt. Even threats to declare her an exile and confiscate her goods, would not move her. Eventually the property she had inherited from her father was put in her daughter's name, by the Czar's order—an arrangement Liszt had long pleaded for in vain. The husband's feelings were mollified by the appropriation to him of the seventh part of her property, and the arrangement of a guardianship for the daughter.
The prince, being a Protestant, now proceeded to get a divorce, which he obtained without difficulty. He speedily married a governess in the household of Prince Souvaroff. None the less, the struggles went on for the freedom of Princess Carolyne. In 1859 her daughter, Marie, was married to Prince Constantin zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfuerst, aid-de-camp and later grand steward of the Austrian emperor. Now that the daughter was safely disposed of, the princess took active steps for her own freedom. She chose, as a pretext for the dissolution of her marriage, the statement that she had entered into it unwillingly at her father's behest. Her Polish relatives were shocked at the idea of divorce, and brought witnesses to prove that the first years of her marriage were peaceful and content. But in spite of this the divorce was granted in Russia, and the Pope gave it his sanction.
The princess, however, was not satisfied with a merely technical success. She would consummate her marriage with Liszt in a blaze of glory and with all the blessings of religion upon it. In the spring of 1860, she had gone to Rome to further her divorce proceedings. Liszt was to arrive and be married on his fiftieth birthday, the princess then being forty-two. All went merrily as a marriage bell. It is generally believed that Liszt's "Festklaenge" was written for this occasion as a splendid orchestral wedding festival of triumph.
Accordingly, at the proper time, Liszt went to Rome—as he thought. Really, he was going to Canossa. The priest was bespoken, and the altar of the church of San Carlo al Corso decorated. On the very eve of the wedding, when Liszt was with the princess, they were startled to receive a messenger from the Pope, demanding a postponement of the marriage, and the delivery for review of the documents upon which the divorce had been granted. The papers were surrendered, and the disconsolate princess gave way to a superstitious resignation to fate.
It seems that the amiable relatives of the princess, chancing to be in Rome and hearing of the wedding, determined to prevent it at all cost. Before the Pope they charged her with securing the divorce by perjury. The princess had friends at court, who could have procured the satisfactory conclusion of the matter. The Cardinal Hohenlohe offered his own chapel for the marriage. But the princess was as immovable in her new determination as she had been in her old.
She had resisted for thirteen years the efforts of the Russian court to decoy her back to Russia. For the next fifteen years she resisted Liszt's ardent wooing to marriage. Even when, on the 10th of March, 1864, her former husband died and gave her that divorce which even Rome considers sufficient, she would not wed. Her stay of one year in the Holy City had brought her into the whirlpool of Church society and Church politics. She turned her voracious intellect toward theology; and the interests of the Church, as La Mara says, grew in her eyes far more important than the petty ambitions of art.
The woman with a mission had changed her mission. Knowing how powerful was her influence over Liszt, she thought to begin her new work at home, and it was on Liszt that she practised her first churchly seductions.
In his youth it had taken all the power of his father and mother to keep him out of the Church; small wonder, then, that when, in the evening fatigue of his life, the woman of his heart beckoned him to the candle-lighted peace of vespers, he should yield.
Religion had always been as much an art to him, as art had been a religion. By papal dispensation Liszt was admitted into Holy Orders on the 25th of April, 1865, and the Cardinal Hohenlohe, who had not been granted the privilege of marrying Liszt, was given the privilege of shaving his head and turning him into a tonsured abbe.
There was a great sensation in 1868, when Liszt, who had thirty years before run away from Paris with a comtesse, returned as a saint, and in full regalia conducted a mass of his own, at Saint Eustache. The critic and dictionary-maker, Fetis, declared that the whole affair was simply an advertising scheme of Liszt's. But Liszt was taking himself seriously. The Pope had called him "My dear Palestrina," and he desired to reform church music as Palestrina had done.
The fact that this ecclesiastical passion was brief, does not prove that it was not sincere; in Liszt's case it would rather prove its sincerity. And by corollary the fact that it was sincere, rather proved that it would be brief.
The artistico-ecclesiastical life, or, as the German puts it so much more patly, "das kloesterlich-kuenstlerische Leben," began to wear upon him. For a time Liszt remained in Rome, taking a dwelling in the Via Felice; later, in June of the year 1863, he moved to the Oratorio of the Madonna del Rosario, where the Pope, Pius IX., visited him to hear his miraculous music. He saw the princess often, usually dining with her, and letters fluttered thickly between his home and hers in the Piazza di Spagna, and later in the Via del Babuino.
Liszt was never a man for one of your gray existences. He was homesick for Weimar, and was a constant truant from Rome. But he had duties enough with his ambition as a composer and conductor, and his cloud of pupils whom he taught without price. To his excursions we owe four volumes of letters to the princess. The volumes average over four hundred pages each of smallish type. They are in French, and have been all published, the last volume appearing in 1902, under the editorship of La Mara. Also a publication of the princess' letters has been announced by her daughter, who wisely believes that in a matter which has become the gossip of the world, the best defence is the fullest possible presentation.
In Liszt's letters there is not much of the grand style he had affected after his first elopement with De Laprunarede, though there is much that is hysterical:
"How it is written above that you should be my Providence and my good angel here below! I incessantly have recourse to you with prayers, supplications, and benedictions."
"My words flow always to you as my prayer mounts to God."
"Since I must not have the bliss of seeing you again this evening, let me at least tell you that I will pray with you before I sleep. Our prayers are united as our souls." (Nov. 4, 1864)
"Next to my hours in the church the sweetest and dearest are those I spend with you." (Feb. 18, 1869.)
"My ancient errors have left me a residue of chagrin that preserves me from temptation. Be well assured that I tell you the truth and all the truth." (Nov. 10, 1870.)
But to attempt a quotation from these letters would be like proffering a spoonful of brine, and saying, "Here is an idea of the ocean." The letters are full of minute details of their busy lives and of other notable people. There is much, of course, about music and travel, and a vast amount of religious ardour. There is also much expression of the utmost devotion and loneliness. Years of this life of reunion and separation went on.
Writing to the princess on the 21st of June, 1872, he mentions Wagner, whose marriage to Cosima von Buelow (nee Liszt) scandalised the world and alienated even Liszt. There are biographers who deny this, but in this letter to the princess, Liszt encloses Wagner's letter of most affectionate appeal for reconciliation, and with it his answer, giving his long-withheld blessing. Describing this reunion with Wagner, Liszt is moved to say to the princess:
"God will pardon me for leaning to the side of mercy, imploring his and abandoning myself entirely to it. As for the world, I am not uneasy as to its interpretation of that page of what you call 'my biography.' The only chapter that I have ardently desired to add to it, is missing. May the good angels keep you, and bring me to you in September."
Through many others of his letters rings this vain "leit-motif" like the wail of Tristan. But nothing could remove the spell the Church had cast upon the princess.
She sank deeper and deeper into seclusion, and during the twenty-seven years she lived in Rome she left her home in the Via del Babuino only once for twenty-four hours. She grew more and more immersed in the Church and its affairs. Gregororius said she fairly "sputtered spirituality." She began to write, and certain of her essays were revised by Henri Lasserre, under the name, "Christian Life in Public," and were widely read, being translated into English and Spanish. Her chief work was a twenty-four-volume study bearing the thrilling title, "Interior Causes of the Exterior Weakness of the Church." This ponderous affair she finished a few days before her death, with hand already swollen almost beyond the power of holding the pen.
Here in Rome, as in Russia and at Weimar, where she was, there was a salon. But she grew wearier and wearier of life, and weaker and weaker, until she spent months and months in bed, and would rarely cross her door-sill. To the last she and Liszt were lovers, however remote. And his letters are rarely more than a few days apart. He continues to sign himself, even in the final year of his life, "Umilissimo sclavissimo." His last letter concerned the marriage of his granddaughter Daniela von Buelow to a man with the ominous sounding name of "Thode." Daniela was the daughter of Liszt's daughter, Cosima, by her first husband. The marriage took place at Wagner's home, "Wahnfried," in Bayreuth.
It was appropriate that Liszt should spend his last years in the company of this Wagner, for whose success he had been the chief crusader, as for the success of how many another famous musician, and for the charitable comfort of how numberless a throng, and in what countless ways! It was doubly appropriate that his last appearance in public should be at the performance of "Tristan and Isolde"—that utmost expression of love that was fiery and lawless and yet worthy of the peace it yearned for and never found.
Liszt died on the 31st of July, 1886. His will declared the princess to be his sole heir and executrix. She outlived him no long time. On the 8th of March, 1887, she died of dropsy of the heart. She was buried in the German cemetery next to St. Peter's, in Rome. Her grave bore the legend:
"Yonder is my hope." At her funeral they played the Requiem, Liszt had written for the death of the Emperor Maximilian. She had wished that this music should "sing her soul to rest."
Surely, one would say, if love were ever to be the woof of any life, it must interweave the life of this man Wagner; for he gave to every whim and fervour of the passion an expression so nearly absolute that we are driven almost to say: Old as music is, and ancient as love songs are, music never truly gave full voice to desire in all its throbs until Richard Wagner created a new orchestra, a new libretto, a new music, a new harmony, and a new fabric of melody.
"Tristan and Isolde" seems to be so nearly the last word in dramatised love that it seems also to be nearly the first word. From the Vorspiel's opening measures, gaunt and hungry with despair and longing, to the last measures of the Liebestod, sublime with resignation and divinely sad with the apotheosis of adoration, this opera sounds every note of the emotion of man for woman, and woman for man.
Surely, you would say, the creator of this masterwork must have had a heart thrilled with mighty passion for womankind; surely he must have lived a life of strange devotion.
But how often, how often we must warn ourselves against judging the creator from his creations, the artist from his art. In his letter to Liszt, announcing his intention to write this very opera, Wagner said:
"As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of my dreams, in which, from beginning to end that love shall be thoroughly satiated. I have in my head 'Tristan and Isolde,' the simplest, but fullest, musical conception. With 'the black flag,' which waves at the end, I shall then cover myself—to die."
The truth was that Wagner, as so many another creative genius, spent his love chiefly upon the beings that he begot within his own heart. Every genius is more or less a Pygmalion, and his own imagination is the Aphrodite that gives life to the Galateas that he carves. I have shown by this time that certain musicians have been most excellent lovers, and there would be documents enough to prove Wagner another, but we know it for a fact that his one great passion was for his art. There is not recorded anywhere, I think, another such idolater of ideals as Richard Wagner. To his theory of the perfect marriage of music and poetry, he sacrificed everything,—his heart's blood, his sensitiveness to criticisms, his extraordinary fondness for luxuries, his sense of pride, and to these he added human sacrifice,—his wife, his friends, and any one who stood in his way. He made himself a pauper, and begged and borrowed every penny he could scrape from every friend who could be hypnotised into supporting his creeds. As a result, after years of humiliation such as few men ever did, or ever cared to, endure, after a battle against the highest and the lowest intellects, he attained a point of glory which hardly another artist in the world's history ever reached. He reached such a pinnacle that critics were not lacking who said that he often threatened to give Art a more important place in the State than Religion.
Nothing but the most complete success, and nothing but the most beneficial revolution could justify such a creed or such a life as Wagner's. Both were eminently justified. He reaped a superb reward, but he earned every mite of it. When his days of power and of glory came, however, he spent them with another woman than the one who had gone through all his struggles with him; had suffered all that he suffered, without any aid from hope, without any belief in his personality or his creeds, supported only on the courage and the dog-like fidelity of a German Hausfrau to her Mann.
Wagner was as plainly destined for war as any Richard the Third, born with hair and teeth. For he was born in the midst of the Napoleonic wars at Leipzig, in 1813, and the dead bodies on the battle-field were so many that they raised a pestilence, which carried off Wagner's father when the child was six months old; and also threatened the life of his elder brother and of the babe himself. His life was one long truceless war. He once said to Edouard Schure: "The only time I ever went to sea, I barely escaped shipwreck. Should I go to America, I am sure the Atlantic would receive me with a cyclone."
Wagner's first love was his mother. In fact, Praeger, his Boswell, said: "I verily believe that he never loved any one else so deeply as his liebes Muetterchen." She must have been a woman of winning manners, for, though she had seven children, the oldest fourteen, she got another husband before her first one was a year in his grave; the second was an actor. Wagner was so fond of his mother that through his life he never could see a Christmas tree alight without tears.
There were other loves that busied his heart. He was remarkably fond of animals, particularly of dogs. He suffered keenly when his parrot Papo died; he wrote his friend Uhlig: "Ah, if I could say to you what has died for me in this devoted creature! It matters nothing to me whether I am laughed at for this." His dog Peps died in his arms, and he wrote Praeger: "I cried incessantly, and since then have felt bitter pain and sorrow for the dear friend of the past thirteen years, who has walked and worked with me." One of Wagner's last plans was to write a book to be called "A History of My Dogs." Anecdotes galore there are of his humanity to dogs and cats and other members of our larger family.
Wagner had also a famous passion for gorgeous colours; his music shows this. He liked fine stuffs peculiarly, and even in his pauperdom wore silk next to his skin. When fortune found him, he made a veritable rainbow of himself with his dressing-gowns, and even with many-coloured trousers. His stomach was not so fond of luxury, and he was not addicted to wine or beer, and for long periods drank neither at all. He injured his health by eating too fast, though this was not, as in Haendel's case, from gluttony, but from absent-minded interest in his work. Yet there is something strangely human and captivating in the story that, when he was eight years old, he traded off a volume of Schiller's poems for a cream puff.
Wagner's career shows a curious growth away from his early ideas. He was at first an artistic disciple of Meyerbeer, and not only drew operatic inspirations from him, but was saved from starving by Meyerbeer's money and by his letters of introduction; later he came to abhor Meyerbeer's operas, and to despise the man himself and his ways. Wagner earned himself numberless powerful enemies by his fierce hatred for the Jewish race, and by his ferocious attack in an article called "Judaism in Music." Yet his first flirtation was with a Jewess, and it was not his fault that he did not marry her. She lived in Leipzig, and was a friend of his sister. She had the highly racial name of Leah David, and was a personification of Jewish beauty, with her eyes and hair of jet and her Oriental features. It has been remarked that all of Wagner's heroes and heroines fall in love at first sight.
He began it. His first view of Leah plunged him into a frenzy. "Love me, love my dog," was an easy task for Wagner, and he was glad of the privilege of caressing Leah's poodle, and of mauling her piano. He never could fondle a piano without making it howl. Now Leah had a cousin, a Dutchman and a pianist. Wagner criticised his execution, and was invited to do better. The man hardly lived who played the piano worse than Wagner, and the result of the duel was a foregone defeat. The last chapter of this romance may be quoted from Praeger:
"Wagner lost his temper. Stung in his tenderest feelings before the Hebrew maiden, with the headlong impetuosity of an unthinking youth, he replied in such violent, rude language, that a dead silence fell upon the guests. Then Wagner rushed out of the room, sought his cap, took leave of Iago, and vowed vengeance. He waited two days, upon which, having received no communication, he returned to the scene of the quarrel. To his indignation, he was refused admittance. The next morning he received a note in the handwriting of the young Jewess. He opened it feverishly. It was a death-blow. Fraulein Leah was shortly going to be married to the hated young Dutchman, Herr Meyers, and henceforth she and Richard were to be strangers. 'It was my first love sorrow, and I thought I should never forget it, but after all,' said Wagner, with his wonted audacity, 'I think I cared more for the dog than for the Jewess.'"
Wagner entered the university at Leipzig and for a time went the pace of student dissipations; he has described them in his "Lebenserinnerungen." He took an early disgust, however, for these forms of amusement and was thereafter a man, whose chief vices were working and dreaming.
One of his early creeds was free love; and though he gave up this theory, his works as a whole are by no means an argument for domesticity. In fact they are so devout a pleading for the superiority of passion over all other inspirations, that it is astounding to hear Wagnerians occasionally complain of modern Italian operas as immoral—as if any librettos could be immoral in comparison with the Nibelungen Cycle.
Wagner's first libretto, "The Wedding" (Die Hochzeit), horrified his sister so, that he destroyed it at her request. His third, "Das Liebesverbot," was based on Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," with the slight distinction that where Shakespeare's play is a preachment for virtue, Wagner himself said that his libretto was "the bold glorification of unchecked sensuality." Years afterward, admirers of his put the work in rehearsal, but gave it up as too licentious. This apostle of unrestrained amours found himself most prosaically married and involved in the most commonplace struggle for daily bread, when he was only twenty-three.
In 1833, at the age of twenty, Wagner had taken up music professionally, and got a position as chorus-master. In 1834, he became musical director at the theatre in Magdeburg. The company, made up principally of young enthusiasts, who worked day and night, rehearsed Wagner's opera, "Das Liebesverbot." The first night there was a crowded house, but the troupe went all to pieces. The next night was to be Wagner's benefit. Fifteen minutes before the curtain rose, he found the audience consisted of his landlady, her husband, and one Polish Jew. A free fight broke out behind the scenes; the prima donna's husband smote the second tenor, her lover, and every one joined in; even that small audience was dismissed. In this company die erste Liebhaberin was Wilhelmine Planer, one of twelve children of a poor spindle-maker. When the Magdeburg company went to pieces, Wagner went to Leipzig and offered the opera to a manager, whose daughter was the chief singer. The manager said that he could not permit his daughter to appear in such a work. Eventually, Wagner drifted to Koenigsberg, where he became director of the theatre, and where Wilhelmine had found a position. The two had become engaged in Magdeburg, and they were married at Koenigsberg, on November 24, 1836.
The theatre soon followed the example of that at Magdeburg and went into bankruptcy. During the honeymoon year, Wagner had composed only one work, an overture, based on "Rule Britannia." At that time "The Old Oaken Bucket" had not been written. He then drifted to Riga, where he became music-director and his wife a singer. Now his relentless ambition seized him and he determined to consecrate the rest of his life to glory. His wife found herself consecrated to poverty and the fanatic ideals of a husband, to whom starvation was only a detail in the scheme of his life,—a scheme and a life for which she had neither inclination nor understanding.
Wilhelmine, or Minna, as she was called, is described as pretty by some and as of a "pleasing appearance," by others. The painter Pecht called her very pretty, but blamed her for a sober, unimaginative soul. Richard Pohl calls her a prosaic domestic woman, who never understood her husband, and who might have been an impediment to his far-reaching ideas, if Richard Wagner could have been impeded in his career by anything. Wagner himself seems to have been genuinely fond of her, though never, perhaps, deeply in love with her. He called her an "excellent housewife," who lovingly and faithfully shared much sorrow and little joy with him.
The young couple lived at Riga in an expensive suburb, whence it was said they could reach the theatre only by means of a cab, though Glasenapp denies this story. Minna brought to her husband not a penny of dowry, and he brought to her a number of debts, and a hopeless lack of economy. The first year he tried to get an advance of salary, and offered to do anything, "except bootblacking and water-carrying, which latter my chest could not endure at present." Then he decided that fame and fortune awaited him, as they usually do, just over the horizon. The only trouble with the horizon, as with to-morrow and the will-o'-the-wisp, is that it is always just ahead.
When the Wagners applied for a passport, to leave Riga, they did so in the face of certain suits for debt. They were told that they could have the passport as soon as they showed receipts for their bills. That was too ridiculous a condition to consider, so Minna disguised as a peasant woman, and a friendly lumberman took her across the border as his wife. The friends of Wagner took up a purse for him, and by elaborate manoeuvres got him across the Russian border in disguise. He reached the seaport of Pillau, found his wife and his dog there, and set sail in a small boat.
Thus he embarked for the future, "with a wife, an opera and a half, a small purse, and a terribly large and terribly voracious Newfoundland dog." The composer, his wife, and the dog were all three outrageously seasick. They arrived finally after violent storms in London, where the chief event was the loss of the dog. When he came back, the three decided that Paris offered a better chance, so thither they went. Meyerbeer befriended them with letters of introduction and much encouragement, on the receipt of which the cautious couple diluted their few remaining pence in champagne.
Wagner began to write songs, which he offered to sell for prices ranging from $2.50 to $4.00; he asked the publisher obligingly to grant him the latter sum, "as life in Paris is enormously expensive"!
Wagner was so poor that about the only thing he could afford to keep was a diary. Here he wrote down alternate accounts of his abject poverty and of his abnormal hopes. In Villon's time, the wolves used to come into the streets of Paris at night. They were not all dead by 1840, it would seem, for one of them made his home on Wagner's door-step. He wrote in his diary that he had invited a sick and starving German workman to breakfast, and his wife informed him that there was to be no breakfast, as the last pennies were gone.
In one of his moments of desperation, he brought himself to the depth of asking Minna to pawn some of her jewelry. She told him that she had long ago pawned it all. She faced their distress like a heroine. Wagner used to weep when he told of her self-denial, and the cheerfulness with which she, the pretty actress of former days, cooked what meals there were to cook, and scrubbed what clothes there were to scrub. For diversion, when they had no money for theatres and the opera, the genius and his wife and the dog could always take a walk on the boulevard.
Wagner could not play any instrument, not even a piano, and so he tried for a position in the chorus of a cheap theatre; but his voice was not found good enough for even that. His long sea voyage had given him an idea for an opera, "The Flying Dutchman." He was driven to sell his libretto for a hundred dollars to another composer.
It would not do to follow Wagner's artistic progress in this place; that is an epic in itself. Finally, however, he managed to get his "Rienzi" written and accepted in Dresden. He scraped up money enough to go back to his Fatherland, and to take his wife to the baths at Teplitz, her health having broken under the strain of poverty. It is at this period that he closed an autobiographic sketch, with these words: "In Paris I had no prospects for years to come, so in the spring of 1842 I left there. For the first time, with tears in my eyes, I saw the Rhine; poor artist that I was, I swore eternal allegiance to my German Fatherland."
But his German Fatherland seems to have sworn everything except allegiance at him. From this moment he emerged into fame, or rather into notoriety; he thrust his head through the curtain of obscurity, as if he were a negro at a country fair, and with remarkable enthusiasm the whole critical fraternity proceeded to hurl every conceivable missile at him. It was well for him that his skull was hard.
"Rienzi" made an immediate success. But he was in his thirtieth year before even this unwelcome success was achieved. It is typical of the indomitable greatness of the man that even thus late in life, and after all his trials, he could put away from him success of such a sort, and turn back into the wilderness of exile and ignominy for years, until he could find the milk and honey land of art, which only his own magnificent fanaticism and the unsurpassed friendship of one man, Liszt, inspired him with the hope of reaching.
To the woman, Minna Planer, who had cooked his meals, washed his clothes, and darned his socks, this refusal of prosperity was a final blow of disenchantment. She had understood him little enough before, but now she lost track of him altogether. Her feelings were those of Psyche, when she found that her lover was a god with wings and a mania for flight. So far as concerned the further marriage of their minds, he now disappeared for her into the blue empyrean; when she sought to embrace his soul, she clasped thin air.
As for Wagner's heroism for his art, has there ever been anything like it? Some of his operas he did not see performed for years and years. He saw hardly the hope of winning his crusade this side the grave of martyrdom. That he believed in presentiments will be understood in his powerful feeling throughout the composition of "Tannhauser," that sudden death would prevent his finishing it. The world knows the value of these presentiments. Mendelssohn, too, in his letters tells of receiving on one occasion a letter which he feared to open, so strong was his feeling that it contained disastrous news. When at length he found courage to rip the envelope, the news was of the best. If, by chance, either of these presentiments had proved true, who would have been satisfied with the explanation of mere coincidence? The value, however, of Wagner's presentiment lies in the fact that, in spite of his despairful misgivings, he persevered in his ideals, and, if there has been never so great a triumph granted a musician, it is perhaps largely because no other musician so relentlessly worshipped his artistic ideals or sacrificed to them with such Druidic ruthlessness.
Carl Maria von Weber paid great heed to his wife's artistic advice, and called her his "gallery." But there are wives and wives, and however deeply our humanity may sympathise with poor Minna Planer, our love for evolution can only rejoice that she was not permitted to tie her husband down to the narrow-souled ideals of the good-hearted, stupid little housewife she was. Wagner understood her far better than she understood him. He sympathised with her even in her resistance to his career. To the last it made him indignant to hear her spoken of slightingly.
Wagner's appeals for money to his friends, who supported him in his moneyless art, are constantly mingled with tender allusions to Minna. When he would borrow Liszt's last penny, he usually wanted a large part of it for Minna. I do not find him convicted of ever using rough language to her. She was not so patient. Wagner's friend, Roeckel, wrote to Praeger in reference to the agony Wagner suffered from the gibes of criticism:
"I keep it always from him; Minna is not capable of withholding either praise or blame from him, although I have tried hard to prove to her that it deeply affects her husband, whose health is none of the strongest."
When he was implicated in the revolution of 1849, and was forced to flee for his life, he escaped in the disguise of a coachman, and finally, with Liszt's ever-ready aid, reached Zurich. As soon as he found himself there, he borrowed further money from Liszt, to send for Minna, who had remained behind and "suffered a thousand disagreeable things."
Wagner had been supporting her parents, and he borrowed sixty-two thalers more to help them. When Minna did not come immediately, Wagner wrote an anxious letter of inquiry to a friend.
Surely, there can be nothing tenderer than his allusion to her in another letter to Liszt:
"As soon as I have my wife I shall go to work again joyfully. Restore me to my art! You shall see that I am attached to no home, but I cling to this poor, good, faithful woman, for whom I have provided little but grief, who is serious, solicitous, and without expectation, and who nevertheless feels eternally chained to this unruly devil that I am. Restore her to me! Thus will you do me all the good that you could ever wish me; and see, for this I shall be grateful to you! yes, grateful!... See that she is made happy and can soon return to me! which, alas! in our sweet nineteenth-century language, means, send her as much money as you possibly can! Yes, that is the kind of a man I am! I can beg, I could steal, to make my wife happy, if only for a short time. You dear, good Liszt! do see what you can do! Help me! Help me, dear Liszt!"
At last she came, and he wrote Heine a letter of rejoicing. But once with him, she began again her opposition to his high-flying theories. She wanted him to write a popular French opera for Paris. She was humiliated at his borrowing for his self-support, and could not see much glory in his creed: "He who helps me only helps my art through me, and the sacred cause for which I am fighting." He seemed more than afraid of her opinion, and wrote to Uhlig:
"She is really somewhat hectoring in this matter, and I shall no doubt have a hard tussle with her practical sense if I tell her bluntly that I do not wish to write an opera for Paris. True, she would shake her head and accept that decision, too, were it not so closely related to our means of subsistence; there lies the critical knot, which it will be painful to cut. Already my wife is ashamed of our presence in Zurich, and thinks we ought to make everybody believe that we are in Paris."
At last, she nagged him into her theory, although he fairly loathed writing a pot-boiler, and considered it the purest dishonesty. He went to Paris, but returned, having been able to accomplish nothing. On his return, he wrote in his "A Communication to My Friends," that a new hope sprung up within him. His friend Liszt was then directing the opera at Weimar.
"At the close of my last Paris sojourn, when I was ill, unhappy, and in despair, my eye fell on the score of my 'Lohengrin,' which I had almost forgotten. A pitiful feeling overcame me that these tones would never resound from the deathly pale paper; two words I wrote to Liszt, the answer to which was nothing else than the information that, as far as the resources of the Weimar Opera permitted, the most elaborate preparations were being made for the production of 'Lohengrin.'"
It was in "Lohengrin" that he first put in play his theory of the marriage of poetry and music, his idea being their complete devotion, with poetry as the master of the situation. He believed in independent melodies no more than in strong-minded wives. He lived this artistic theory in his own domestic relations, and it was not his fault that Minna, his melody, found it impossible to live in the light upper air of his poetry. He was so discouraged, however, by this time, by finding no encouragement at home, and a frenzy of hostility from the critics,—a frenzy almost incredible at this late day, in spite of the monumental evidences of it,—that for six years, after the completion of "Lohengrin," he wrote no music at all.
He felt that he must first prepare the soil of battle with the critics in their own element—ink-slinging. On this fact Mr. Finck comments as follows:
"Five years,—nay, six years, six of the best years of his life, immediately following the completion of 'Lohengrin,'—the greatest dramatic composer the world has ever seen did not write a note! Do you realise what that means? It means that the world lost two or three immortal operas, which he might have, and probably would have, written in these six years had not an unsympathetic world forced him into the role of an aggressive reformer and revolutionist."
He received some money, and more fame, and still more enemies as a result of his powerful literary tilts against Philistinism. Then he took up the Nibelungen idea, planning to devote three years to the work; "little dreaming that it would keep him with interruptions for the next twenty-three years." For the accomplishment of this vast monument he asked only a humble place to work. He wrote Uhlig:
"I want a small house, with meadow and a little garden! To work with zest and joy,—but not for the present generation.... Rest! rest! rest! Country! country! a cow, a goat, etc. Then—health—happiness—hope! Else, everything lost. I care no more."
He found all in Zuerich, where he and his wife rowed about the lake, and accumulated friends. He found special sympathy in the friendship of Frau Elise Wille, a novelist. Perhaps she was more than a friend, for one of his letters to her is superscribed "Precious."
But all the while he suffered much from erysipelas and dyspepsia, and was occasionally moved with violent despair to the edge of suicide, for he was exiled from his Fatherland, and he was an outlaw from the world of music, which he longed to enlarge and beautify. He compared himself to Beethoven:
"Strange that my fate should be like Beethoven's! he could not hear his music because he was deaf.... I cannot hear mine because I am more than deaf, because I do not live in my time at all, because I move among you as one who is dead.... Oh, that I should not arise from my bed to-morrow, awake no more to this loathsome life!"
Financial troubles and the discouragement of his wife were still among the most faithful torments. His letters to Liszt are abundant with alternations of artistic ecstasy and material misery. It is worth recording that, "my wife has not scolded me once, although yesterday I had the spleen badly enough." To add to his misery, Minna became addicted to opium. In 1858 he wrote Liszt:
"My wife will return in a fortnight, after having finished her cure, which will have lasted three months. My anxiety about her was terrible, and for two months I had to expect the news of her death from day to day. Her health was ruined, especially by the immoderate use of opium, taken nominally as a remedy for sleeplessness. Latterly the cure she uses has proved highly beneficial; the great weakness and want of appetite have disappeared, and the recovery of the chief functions (she used to perspire continually) and a certain abatement of her incessant excitement, have become noticeable. The great enlargement of her heart will be bearable to her if only she keeps perfectly calm and avoids all excitement to her dying day. A thing of this kind can never be got rid of entirely. Thus I have to undertake new duties, over which I must try to forget my own sufferings."
The young pianist, Tausig, visits him, and he thinks of him as his son, saying, "My childless marriage is suddenly blest with an interesting phenomenon." But the young Tausig gives him unlimited cares, and "devours my biscuits, which my wife doles out grudgingly even to me." His allusions to Minna are always full of tender solicitude, though it is evident that she wears upon him. His temper, peculiarly violent at the slightest opposition, must have been a serious problem under her open disbelief in his genius and his creeds; and yet he thought he could not prosper without her.
In 1860 he is again borrowing money for her, and writing to Liszt:
"According to a letter; just received, D. thinks it necessary to refuse me the thousand francs I had asked for, and offers me thirty louis d'or instead. This puts me in an awkward position. On the one hand I am, as usual, greatly in want of money, and shall decidedly not be able to send my wife to Loden for a cure, unless I receive the subvention I had hoped for."
These letters to Liszt make a remarkable literature. The two men were bound together by such artistic sympathy, and Liszt was so much a soldier for Wagner's crusade, and so ready with financial help, that he was more than friend or brother. It was, in Wagner's own phrase, "the gigantic perseverance of his friendship," that endeared him beyond words to the struggler. Even Minna seems to have been extremely fond of Liszt—what woman was not? It was to Liszt that she was indebted for rescue from downright starvation. More than this, Minna's parents were supported via Liszt, and it somewhat beautifies the otherwise unbeautiful spectacle of Wagner's splendid mendicancy that, when he borrowed, it was as much for his wife and her parents as for himself.
Liszt was not the only friend in need. There was Frau Julie Ritter, who sent him money from Dresden for several years.
This brings us to a time of stress when Minna began to suffer from the fickleness of some one nearer to her than fortune. Wagner began to cast meaning glances over the garden wall. As Mr. Henderson says: "He was as inconstant as the wind, a rover, and a faithless husband. His misdoings amounted to more than peccadilloes."
It was in Zuerich that Wagner gave Minna some other causes for uneasiness than his habit of being late at meals. Hans Belart, in his "Wagner in Zuerich," refers to Wagner's flirtation with Emilie Heim, the wife of a conductor, who lived so near the Wagners that their kitchen-gardens adjoined. Emilie was a beautiful blonde with a beautiful voice, and she and Wagner were wont to sing duets together, as he wrote them; and she was the soloist in a concert he gave. How much cause Minna may have had for jealousy, we can hardly know, but it seems certain that she felt she had a sufficiency, and that she made so much ado about it that Wagner found it advisable to move. In later years he and Emilie met again. Wagner gave her the pet name of "Sieglinde," and told her that she should illumine his Walhalla as Freia, the eternal, blue-eyed, gold-haired goddess of spring. According to Belart, Minna was the inspiration for Wotan's virtuous but nagging wife Fricka!
Frau Wille was another torment to Minna, but Frau Wesendonck was more. Belart even implies that Minna grew so jealous of the Wesendonck that she poured out her woes to a dancing-master named Riese, who revered Meyerbeer. When Minna, who was at least, says Mr. Finck, as well advanced as the eminent critics of the time, failed to understand the music of "The Walkuere," when indeed she called it "immoral amorous asininity,"—an opinion for which perhaps the duets with Frau Heim were partly responsible,—Wagner used to slam on his hat and go for a walk, while Minna would seek Herr Riese.
The affair with the Frau Wesendonck is something of mystery, that is, if Wagner's word is good for anything. She died in 1902, and at her death Mr. Huneker summed up her affair with Wagner as follows:
"Mathilde Wesendonck is dead. Who was she? Well, she was Isolde when Wagner was Tristan down on the beautiful shores of Zurich in the years of 1858 and 1859. When he was in sore straits and had not where to lay his head, he went to Zuerich, and Mr. Wesendonck rented to him for next to nothing a little chalet. There he dreamed out the second and third acts of 'Tristan und Isolde,' and succeeded in deeply interesting Mrs. Wesendonck in them. There had already been trouble between him and his patient first wife, Minna, because of his attentions to this woman, and in 1856 the Wagners were on the point of a separation. Richard wrote to his friend Praeger in London: 'The devil is loose. I shall leave Zuerich at once and come to you in Paris,' But this time the trouble was smoothed over.
"In the summer of 1859 the attachment of Wagner and Mrs. Wesendonck had reached such a stage that Wesendonck practically kicked the great composer out of his paradise. In later years, when questioned about it, Wesendonck admitted that he had forced Wagner to go. In 1865 Wagner wrote to the injured husband:
"'The incident that separated me from you about six years ago should be evaded; it has upset me and my life enough that you recognise me no longer and that I esteem myself less and less. All this suffering should have earned your forgiveness, and it would have been beautiful and noble to have forgiven me; but it is useless to demand the impossible, and I was in the wrong.'
"It is thoroughly characteristic of Wagner to regard his sufferings as so much more important than those of the husband whom he wronged. Wagner always thought well of himself. But poor Isolde is dead at last. She must have been very old and very sorry for the past. Let the orchestra play the 'Liebestod.'"
Judging from external evidences, there is reason enough to accept such a theory of the relations of Wagner and this sympathetic, beautiful woman. In fact, it stretches credulity to the bursting point to accept any other opinion. And yet, it is only fair to say that Wagner put a very different construction upon the friendship, and to confess that stranger things have happened in real life than the purely artistic wedlock, which Wagner claimed for the intimacy of the two. Mathilde was a poet, and Wagner set to music some of her verses, notably his beautiful "Traume." Besides, she was the inspiration of his Isolde, and she gave him the sympathy Minna denied.
According to a recently published article in a German review, Wagner wrote a long letter to his sister Clara, explaining why Minna had left him, and making himself out to be as thoroughly misunderstood domestically as he had always been musically. It is a long letter, but quoteworthy, the italics being mine:
"MY DEAR CLARA:—I promised you further information regarding the causes of the decisive step which you now see me taking. I communicate, therefore, what is necessary to enable you to contradict various pieces of gossip, to which indeed I am indifferent.
"What for six years has kept and comforted me, and especially has strengthened me in remaining by Minna's side, in spite of the enormous differences in our characters and natures, is the love of that young lady who, at first and for a long time, timid, doubting, hesitating, and bashful, finally more determinately and surely grew closer to me. As there never could be any talk of a union between us, our profound affection took the sadly melancholy character which keeps aloof all that is common and base, and recognises its fount of happiness only in the welfare of the other. From the period of our first acquaintance she had displayed the most unwearied and most delicate care for me, and in the most courageous way had obtained from her husband everything that could lighten my life.
"He could not, in presence of the undisguised frankness of his wife, do anything but soon fall into increasing jealousy. Her nobleness now consisted in this, that she kept her husband informed of the state of her heart and gradually led him to perfect renunciation of her. By what sacrifices and struggles this was attained can be easily guessed; what rendered her success possible, could only be the depth and sublimity of her affection, devoid of every selfish thought, which gave her the power to show it to her husband in such a light that he, when she finally threatened him with her death, had to abstain from her and had to prove his unshakable love for her only by supporting her in her cares for me. Finally, he had to retain the mother of his children, and for their sake—who invincibly separated us—he assumed his position of renunciation. Thus, while he was devoured by jealousy she again interested him for me so far that—as you know—he often supported me. Lastly, when it came to providing me with what I wanted—a house and garden—it was she who by the most unheard-of struggles induced him to buy a pretty little property near his own.
"The most wonderful thing is, that I never had a suspicion of these struggles; her husband, out of love for her, had always to show himself friendly and unconcerned toward me. Not a dark look must he cast on me, not a hair ruffled; the heavens must arch over me, clear and cloudless, soft and smooth must be the path I trod. Such was the unheard-of result of the glorious love of the purest, noblest woman, and this love, which always remained unspoken between us, was compelled finally to reveal itself when I composed and gave her 'Tristan,' Then, for the first time her self-control failed, and she declared to me that now she must die.
"Think, dear sister, what this love must have been to me after a life of toil and suffering, of excitement and sacrifice, such as mine had been. Yet we at once recognised that a union between us must never be thought of, so we resigned ourselves, renounced every selfish wish, suffered and endured—but loved each other.
"My wife with true woman's instinct seemed to understand what was going on. She behaved indeed often in a jealous, scornful, contemptuous manner, yet she tolerated our mode of life, which otherwise was no injury to morality, but looked only to the possibility of knowing each other at the present moment. Consequently I assumed that Minna would be sensible and understand that she had nothing to fear really, that a union between us could not even be thought of, and that therefore forbearance on her side was the most desirable and the best. Now, however, I learn that I have perhaps deceived myself on this point; bits of gossip came to my ear; and she at last so far lost her senses that she intercepted a letter from me and—opened it. This letter, if she had been in a position to understand it, would really have soothed her in the most desirable way, for our resignation was its theme.
"She dwelt only on the confidential expressions and lost the sense. In a rage she came to me and compelled me therefore to declare quietly and decisively how matters stood; namely, that she had brought trouble on herself by opening such a letter, and that if she could not restrain herself, we must part. On this point we agreed; I calm, she passionate. Another day I was sorry for her. I went to her and said: 'Minna, you are very sick. Compose yourself and let us once more talk about the matter.' We concluded with the idea of a Cure for her; she seemed to quiet herself, and the day of her departure for the Cure was approaching; previously, however, she would speak to Frau Wesendonck I firmly forbade her to do so. All my efforts were to make Minna gradually acquainted with the character of my relations to Frau Wesendonck, in order to convince her that she had no need to fear about the continuance of our marriage, and that, therefore, she should behave herself sensibly, thoughtfully, and generously; reject any foolish revenge and every kind of spying. Ultimately she promised this. Yet she could not be quiet. She went behind my back and—without comprehending it herself—insulted the gentle lady most grossly. She said to her: 'Were I like ordinary women, I would go with this letter to your husband!' And thus Frau Wesendonck, who was conscious of never having any secrets from her husband—a thing which a woman like Minna could not understand—had nothing to do but at once to inform her husband of this scene and its cause.
"Here, then, was an attack, in a rough and vulgar manner, an attack on the delicacy and purity of our relations, and in many ways a change was necessary. I succeeded only after some time in making it clear to Frau Wesendonck that, for a nature like that of my wife, relations of such elevation and unselfishness as those existing between us could never be made intelligible, for I was struck by her serious, deep reproach that I had omitted this, while she had always made her husband her confidant. Whoever can comprehend what I have suffered since (it was then the middle of April) must also comprehend in what state of mind I am at last, since I must acknowledge that the uninterrupted endeavours to continue our disturbed relations were absolutely fruitless. I tended Minna at the Cure for three months with the utmost care, and in order to quiet her, I, during this period, broke off all intercourse with our neighbours; in my anxiety for her health I tried everything in my power to bring her to reason and to hold views befitting herself and her age. All in vain! She persisted in the most trivial remarks, she said she was an injured woman, and she had scarcely been quieted, before the old rage broke out again. Since Minna returned a month ago, some conclusion had finally to be reached. The close proximity of the two women was for the future impossible, for Frau Wesendonck could not forget that her highest sacrifices and tenderest consideration for me had been met on my side, through my wife, so rudely and insultingly. People, too, had begun to talk. Enough; the most unheard-of scenes and tormentings of me never ceased, and out of regard for the one and the other, I was forced finally to decide to give up the charming asylum which such tender love had prepared for me.
"Now I needed quiet and perfect composure, for what I have to surmount is great. Minna is unable to understand what an unhappy married life we have led; she imagines the past to have been quite different from what it was, and if I found consolation, distraction, and forgetfulness in my art, she verily believes I had no need of them. Enough. I have come to this resolution with myself: I can no longer bear this everlasting squabbling and distrustful temper if I have to fulfil my life's task courageously. Whoever has observed me sufficiently must wonder at my patience, kindness, even weakness, and if I am condemned by superficial judges I am quite indifferent to them. But never had Minna such an opportunity to show herself more worthy of the dignity (wuerde) of being my wife, than now, when it is necessary for me to keep what is highest and dearest. It lay in her hands to show whether she really loved me. But what such genuine love is, she never once conceived, and her temper carried her away beyond everything.