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26 June, 2013
Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
Wagner
by Walter Rowlands


"Had it not been for Meyerbeer, my wife and I would have starved in Paris," Wagner once told a friend, in speaking of his dark days, and he always esteemed the composer as a man, though his honesty in art matters forced him to condemn Meyerbeer's music.

Wagner wandered over Europe for many years. Born in Leipsic and dying in Venice, he lived in many cities during the years between. His youth was spent at Leipsic and Dresden; then he was choir-master at Wurzburg; next musical director at the Magdeburg theatre, conductor at Königsberg and at Riga. Proceeding thence by way of London to Paris, in 1839, he remained in the French capital until the spring of 1842, thence going to Dresden, where he served as court conductor for seven years. Forced to fly from Dresden because of his part in the uprising of 1849, he at first went to Liszt at Weimar, and then to Zurich by way of Paris. At Zurich he stayed, with some intermission, until 1861, when he received permission to return to Germany. The misfortunes he met there decided him, after three years, to return to Switzerland, and he was on his way thither when Ludwig II. ascended the throne of Bavaria, and invited him to go to Munich and work. The end of 1865 found Wagner at the lovely Villa Triebschen, on Lake Lucerne, where he composed the "Meistersinger," and worked on the "Nibelungen." In 1872, Wagner settled in Bayreuth, where, soon after, the house which he called "Wahnfried" was built for him.

At last the great composer's wanderings were coming to an end, but, as we have said, he died in Venice, and not at his own home. He was, however, buried there, in the garden of the villa.

It is at "Wahnfried" that the artist has drawn Wagner discussing some musical question with Liszt, Frau Wagner seated near by.



Wagner's first wife was a beautiful and talented actress and singer, by name Wilhelmina Planer, whom he married at Riga in 1834. She was a faithful helpmate for years, sacrificing to him her own career, but did not comprehend his genius, and as years went by they drifted apart. The composer's professional intercourse with Hans von Bülow led to an intimacy with the latter's wife, Cosima von Bülow, who was an illegitimate daughter of Liszt by the Countess d'Agoult. In 1861 Richard and Wilhelmina Wagner separated, and in 1866 she died. Four years later, Cosima, then divorced from Von Bülow, was married to Wagner, whom she both worshipped and well understood. Their union was a very happy one, blest with one son named Siegfried, and Madame Wagner long survived her illustrious husband, and laboured indefatigably to carry on his work and increase his fame.

Wagner owed much to Cosima, born Liszt, and still more to her father, who was a never-failing friend. In a work published in 1851, Wagner says: "I was thoroughly disheartened from undertaking any artistic scheme. Only recently I had proofs of the impossibility of making my art intelligible to the public, and all this deterred me from beginning new dramatic works. Indeed, I thought that everything was at an end with artistic creativeness. From this state of mental dejection I was raised by a friend. By most evident and undeniable proofs, he made me feel that I was not deserted, but, on the contrary, understood deeply by those even who were otherwise most distant from me; in this way he gave me back my full artistic confidence.

"This wonderful friend, Franz Liszt has been to me. I must enter a little more deeply into the character of this friendship, which to many has seemed paradoxical; indeed, I have been compelled to appear repellent and hostile on so many sides, that I almost feel the want of disclosing all that relates to this sympathetic intercourse.

"I met Liszt for the first time in Paris, and at a period when I had renounced the hope, nay, even the wish, of a Parisian reputation; and, indeed, was in a state of internal revolt against the artistic life I found there. At our meeting Liszt appeared the most perfect contrast to my own being and situation. In the Parisian society, to which it had been my desire to fly from my narrow circumstances, Liszt had grown up from his earliest age, so as to be the object of general love and admiration, at a time when I was repulsed by general coldness and want of sympathy. In consequence, I looked upon him with suspicion. I had no opportunity of disclosing my being and work to him, and therefore the reception I met with on his part was altogether of a superficial kind, as indeed was quite natural in a man to whom every day the most divergent impressions claimed access. But I was not in a mood to look with unprejudiced eyes for the natural cause of his behaviour, which, friendly and obliging in itself, could not but hurt me in that state of my mind. I never repeated my first call on Liszt, and, without knowing or even wishing to know him, I was prone to look upon him as strange and adverse to my nature.

"My repeated expression of this feeling was afterward reported to Liszt, just at the time when the performance of my 'Rienzi,' at Dresden, attracted general attention. He was surprised to find himself misunderstood with such violence by a man whom he had scarcely known, and whose acquaintance now seemed not without value to him. I am still touched at recollecting the repeated and eager attempts he made to change my opinion of him, even before he knew any of my works. He acted not from any artistic sympathy, but led by the purely human wish of discontinuing a casual disharmony between himself and a fellow creature; perhaps he also felt an infinitely tender misgiving of having hurt me unconsciously. He who knows the terrible selfishness and insensibility in our social life, and especially in the relations of modern artists to each other, cannot but be struck with wonder, nay, delight, by the treatment I experienced from this extraordinary man.

"Liszt soon afterward witnessed a performance of 'Rienzi,' at Dresden, on which he had almost to insist, and after that I heard from all the different corners of the world, where he had been on his artistic excursions, how he had everywhere expressed his delight with my music, and indeed had - I would rather believe unintentionally - canvassed people's opinions in my favour.

"This happened at a time when it became more and more evident that my dramatic works would have no outward success. But just when the case seemed desperate, Liszt succeeded by his own energy in opening a hopeful refuge to my art. He ceased his wanderings, settled down in the small and modest Weimar, and took up the conductor's bâton, after having been at home so long in the splendour of the greatest cities of Europe. At Weimar I saw him for the last time, when I rested a few days in Thuringia, not yet certain whether my threatening prosecution would compel me to continue my flight from Germany. The very day when my personal danger became a certainty, I saw Liszt conducting a rehearsal of my 'Tannhäuser,' and was astonished at recognising my second self in his achievements. What I had felt in inventing the music, he felt in performing it; what I wanted to express in writing it down, he proclaimed in making it sound. Strange to say, through the love of this rarest friend, I gained, at the moment of becoming homeless, a real home for my art, which I had longed and sought for always in the wrong place.

"At the end of my last stay at Paris, when ill, broken down, and despairing, I sat brooding over my fate, my eyes fell on the score of my 'Lohengrin,' totally forgotten by me. Suddenly I felt something like compassion that this music should never sound from off the death-pale paper. I wrote two lines to Liszt; his answer was the news that preparations for the performance were being made on the largest scale the limited means of Weimar would permit. Everything that men and circumstances could do was done in order to make the work understood.... Errors and misconceptions impeded the desired success. What was to be done to supply what was wanted, so as to further the true understanding on all sides, and with it the ultimate success of the work? Liszt saw it at once and did it. He gave to the public his own impression of the work in a manner the convincing eloquence and overpowering efficacy of which remain unequalled. Success was his reward, and with this success he now approaches me, saying: 'Behold, we have come so far, now create us a new work that we may go still further.'"

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