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 Königsberg, 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 Königsberg, 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