My Life — Volume 2

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the Online Distributed Proofreaders website.

My Life, Volume 1

By Richard Wagner







MINNA had been lucky enough to find quarters near Zurich which
corresponded very closely with the wishes I had so emphatically
expressed before leaving. The house was situated in the parish of Enge,
a good fifteen minutes’ walk from the town, on a site overlooking the
lake, and was an old-fashioned hostelry called ‘Zum Abendstern,’
belonging to a certain Frau Hirel, who was a pleasant old lady. The
second floor, which was quite self-contained and very quiet, offered us
humble but adequate accommodations for a modest rent.

I arrived early in the morning and found Minna still in bed. She was
anxious to know whether I had returned simply out of pity; but I
quickly succeeded in obtaining her promise that she would never again
refer to what had taken place. She was soon quite herself again when
she began to show me the progress she had made in arranging the rooms.

Our position had for some years been growing more comfortable, in spite
of the fact that at this time various difficulties again arose, and our
domestic happiness seemed tolerably secure. Yet I could never quite
master a restless inclination to deviate from anything that was
regarded as conventional.

Our two pets, Peps and Papo, largely helped to make our lodgings
homelike; both were very fond of me, and were sometimes even too
obtrusive in showing their affection. Peps would always lie behind me
in the armchair while I was working, and Papo, after repeatedly calling
out ‘Richard’ in vain, would often come fluttering into my study if I
stayed away from the sitting-room too long. He would then settle down
on my desk and vigorously shuffle about the papers and pens. He was so
well trained that he never uttered the ordinary cry of a bird, but
expressed his sentiments only by talking or singing. As soon as he
heard my step on the staircase he would begin whistling a tune, as, for
instance, the great march in the finale of the Symphony in C minor, the
beginning of the Eighth Symphony in F major, or even a bright bit out
of the Rienzi Overture. Peps, our little dog, on the other hand, was a
highly sensitive and nervous creature. My friends used to call him
‘Peps the petulant,’ and there were times when we could not speak to
him even in the friendliest way without bringing on paroxysms of howls
and sobs. These two pets of course helped very much to increase the
mutual understanding between myself and my wife.

Unfortunately, there was one perpetual source of quarrel, arising from
my wife’s behaviour towards poor Nathalie. Until her death she
shamefully withheld from the girl the fact that she was her mother.
Nathalie, therefore, always believed that she was Minna’s sister, and
consequently could not understand why she should not have the same
rights as my wife, who always treated her in an authoritative way, as a
strict mother would do, and seemed to think herself justified in
complaining of Nathalie’s behaviour. Apparently the latter had been
much neglected and spoiled just at the critical age, and deprived of
any proper training. She was short in stature and inclined to become
stout, her manners were awkward and her opinions narrow. Minna’s hasty
temper and continual jeering made the girl, who was naturally very
good-natured, stubborn and spiteful, so that the behaviour of the
‘sisters’ often caused the most hateful scenes in our quiet home. I
never lost my patience at these incidents, however, but remained,
completely indifferent to everything going on around me.

The arrival of my young friend Karl was a pleasant diversion in our
small household. Ho occupied a tiny attic above our rooms and shared
our meals. Sometimes he would accompany me on my walks, and for a time
seemed quite satisfied.

But I soon noticed in him a growing restlessness. He had not been slow
to recognise, by the unpleasant scenes that again became daily
occurrences in our married life, at what point the shoe pinched that I
had good-naturedly put on again at his request. However, when one day I
reminded him that in coming hack to Zurich I had other objects in view
besides the longing for a quiet domestic life, he remained silent. But
I saw that there was another peculiar reason for his uneasiness; he
took to coming in late for meals, and even then he had no appetite. At
first I was anxious at this, fearing he might have taken a dislike to
our simple fare, but I soon discovered that my young friend was so
passionately addicted to sweets that I feared he might eventually ruin
his health by trying to live on large quantities of confectionery. My
remarks seemed to annoy him, as his absences from the house became more
frequent, I thought that probably his small room did not afford him the
comfort he required, and I therefore made no objection when he left us
and took a room in town.

As his state of uneasiness still seemed to increase and he did not
appear at all happy in Zurich, I was glad to be able to suggest a
little change for him, and persuade him to go for a holiday to Weimar,
where the first performance of Lohengrin was to take place about the
end of August.

About the same time I induced Minna to go with me for our first ascent
of the Righi, a feat we both accomplished very energetically on foot. I
was very much grieved on this occasion to discover that my wife had
symptoms of heart disease, which continued to develop subsequently. We
spent the evening of the 28th of August, while the first performance of
Lohengrin was taking place at Weimar, in Lucerne, at the Schwan inn,
watching the clock as the hands went round, and marking the various
times at which the performance presumably began, developed, and came to
a close.

I always felt somewhat distressed, uncomfortable, and ill at ease
whenever I tried to pass a few pleasant hours in the society of my wife.

The reports received of that first performance gave me no clear or
reassuring impression of it. Karl Ritter soon came back to Zurich, and
told me of deficiencies in staging and of the unfortunate choice of a
singer for the leading part, but remarked that on the whole it had gone
fairly well. The reports sent me by Liszt were the most encouraging. He
did not seem to think it worth while to allude to the inadequacy of the
means at his command for such a bold undertaking, but preferred to
dwell on the sympathetic spirit that prevailed in the company and the
effect it produced on the influential personages he had invited to be

Although everything in connection with this important enterprise
eventually assumed a bright aspect, the direct result on my position at
the time was very slight. I was more interested in the future of the
young friend who had been entrusted to my care than in anything else.
At the time of his visit to Weimar he had been to stay with his family
in Dresden, and after his return expressed an anxious wish to become a
musician, and possibly to secure a position as a musical director at a
theatre. I had never had an opportunity of judging of his gifts in this
line. He had always refused to play the piano in my presence, but I had
seen his setting of an alliterative poem of his own, Die Walkure,
which, though rather awkwardly put together, struck me by its precise
and skilful compliance with the rules of composition.

He proved himself to be the worthy pupil of his master, Robert
Schumann, who, long before, had told me that Karl possessed great
musical gifts, and that he could not remember ever having had any other
pupil endowed with such a keen ear and such a ready facility for
assimilation. Consequently I had no reason to discourage the young
man’s confidence in his capacity for the career of a musical director.
As the winter season was approaching, I asked the manager of the
theatre for the address of Herr Kramer, who was coming for the season,
and learned that he was still engaged at Winterthur.

Sulzer, who was always ready when help or advice was needed, arranged
for a meeting with Herr Kramer at a dinner at the ‘Wilden Mann’ in
Winterthur. At this meeting it was decided, on my recommendation, that
Karl Ritter should be appointed musical director at the theatre for the
ensuing winter, starting from October, and the remuneration he was to
receive was really a very fair one. As my protege was admittedly a
beginner, I had to guarantee his capacity by undertaking to perform his
duties in the event of any trouble arising at the theatre on the ground
of his inefficiency. Karl seemed delighted. As October drew near and
the opening of the theatre was announced to take place ‘under
exceptional artistic auspices.’ I thought it advisable to see what
Karl’s views were.

By way of a debut I had selected Der Freischutz, so that he might open
his career with a well-known opera. Karl did not entertain the
slightest doubt of being able to master such a simple score, but when
he had to overcome his reserve in playing the piano before me, as I
wanted to go through the whole opera with him, I was amazed at seeing
that he had no idea of accompaniment. He played the arrangement for the
pianoforte with the characteristic carelessness of an amateur who
attaches no importance to lengthening a bar by incorrect fingering. He
knew nothing whatever about rhythmic precision or tempo, the very
essentials of a conductor’s career. I felt completely nonplussed and
was absolutely at a loss what to say. However, I still hoped the young
man’s talent might suddenly break out, and I looked forward to an
orchestral rehearsal, for which I provided him with a pair of large
spectacles. I had never noticed before that he was so shortsighted, but
when reading he had to keep his face so close to the music that it
would have been impossible for him to control both orchestra and
singers. When I saw him, hitherto so confident, standing at the
conductor’s desk staring hard at the score, in spite of his spectacles,
and making meaningless signs in the air like one in a trance, I at once
realised that the time for carrying out my guarantee had arrived.

It was, nevertheless, a somewhat difficult and trying task to make
young Ritter understand that I should be compelled to take his place;
but there was no help for it, and it was I who had to inaugurate
Kramer’s winter season under such ‘exceptional artistic auspices.’ The
success of Der Freischulz placed me in a peculiar position as regards
both the company and the public, but it was quite out of the question
to suppose that Karl could continue to act as musical director at the
theatre by himself.

Strange to say, this trying experience coincided with an important
change in the life of another young friend of mine, Hans von Bulow,
whom I had known in Dresden. I had met his father at Zurich in the
previous year just after his second marriage. He afterwards settled
down at Lake Constance, and it was from this place that Hans wrote to
me expressing his regret that he was unable to pay his long-desired
visit to Zurich, as he had previously promised to do.

As far as I could make out, his mother, who had been divorced from his
father, did all in her power to restrain him from embracing the career
of an artist, and tried to persuade him to enter the civil or the
diplomatic service, as he had studied law. But his inclinations and
talents impelled him to a musical career. It seemed that his mother,
when giving him permission to go to visit his father, had particularly
urged him to avoid any meeting with me. When I afterwards heard that he
had been advised by his father also not to come to Zurich, I felt sure
that the latter, although he had been on friendly terms with me, was
anxious to act in accordance with his first wife’s wishes in this
serious matter of his son’s future, so as to avoid any further disputes
after the friction of the divorce had barely been allayed. Later on I
learned that these statements, which roused a strong feeling of
resentment in me against Eduard von Bulow, were unfounded; but the
despairing tone of Hans’s letter, clearly showing that any other career
would be repugnant to him and would be a constant source of misery,
seemed to be ample reason for my interference. This was one of the
occasions when my easily excited indignation roused me to activity. I
replied very fully, and eloquently pointed out to him the vital
importance of this moment in his life. The desperate tone of his letter
justified me in telling him very plainly that this was not a case in
which he could deal hastily with his views as to the future, but that
it was a matter profoundly affecting his whole heart and soul. I told
him what I myself would do in his case, that is to say, if he really
felt an overwhelming and irresistible impulse to become an artist, and
would prefer to endure the greatest hardships and trials rather than be
forced into a course he felt was a wrong one, he ought, in defiance of
everything, to make up his mind to accept the helping hand I was
holding out to him at once. If, in spite of his father’s prohibition,
he still wished to come to me, he ought not to hesitate, but should
carry out his wishes immediately on the receipt of my letter.

Karl Ritter was pleased when I entrusted him with the duty of
delivering the letter personally at Bulow’s country villa. When he
arrived he asked to see his friend at the door, and went for a stroll
with him, during which he gave him my letter. Thereupon Hans, who like
Karl had no money, at once decided, in spite of storm and rain, to
accompany Karl back to Zurich on foot. So one day they turned up
absolutely tired out, and came into my room looking like a couple of
tramps, with visible signs about them of their mad expedition. Karl
beamed with joy over this feat, while young Bulow was quite overcome
with emotion.

I at once realised that I had taken a very serious responsibility on my
shoulders, yet I sympathised deeply with the overwrought youth, and my
conduct towards him was guided by all that had occurred for a long time

At first we had to console him, and stimulate his confidence by our
cheerfulness. His appointment was soon arranged. He was to share Karl’s
contract at the theatre, and enjoy the same rights; both were to
receive a small salary, and I was to continue to act as surety for
their capabilities.

At this time they happened to be rehearsing a musical comedy, and Hans,
without any knowledge of the subject, took up his position at the
conductor’s desk and handled the baton with great vigour and remarkable
skill. I felt safe as far as he was concerned, and all doubt as to his
ability as musical director vanished on the spot. But it was a somewhat
difficult task to overcome Karl’s misgivings about himself, owing to
the idea ingrained in his mind that he never could become a practical
musician. A growing shyness and secret antipathy towards me soon
manifested itself and became more noticeable in this young man, in
spite of the fact that he was certainly gifted. It was impossible to
keep him any longer in his position or to ask him to conduct again.

Bulow also soon encountered unexpected difficulties. The manager and
his staff, who had been spoiled by my having conducted on the occasion
already mentioned, were always on the look-out for some fresh excuse
for requisitioning my services.

I did, in fact, conduct again a few times, partly to give the public a
favourable impression of the operatic company, which was really quite a
good one, and partly to show my young friends, especially Bulow, who
was so eminently adapted for a conductor, the most essential points
which the leader of an orchestra ought to know.

Hans was always equal to the occasion, and I could with a clear
conscience say there was no need for me to take his place whenever he
was called upon to conduct. However, one of the artistes, a very
conceited singer, who had been somewhat spoiled by my praise, annoyed
him so much by her ways that she succeeded in forcing me to take up the
baton again. When a couple of months later we realised the
impossibility of carrying on this state of things indefinitely, and
were tired of the whole affair, the management consented to free us
from our irksome duties. About this time Hans was offered the post of
musical director at St. Gall without any special conditions being
attached to his engagement, so I sent the two boys off to try their
luck in the neighbouring town, and thus gained time for further

Herr Eduard von Bulow had, after all, come to the conclusion that it

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