E. Belfort Bax November 1911

Richard Wagner
(review article)

Source: New Age, 23 November 1911, p. 87-88;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

These volumes,[1] containing the detailed account of his own life and, at times, the outpourings of his innermost soul on the part of the great maestro, have been widely read and discussed since their issue last spring. The autobiography has generally been treated as a disgraceful self-relation comparable, though in a different way, to Rousseau’s “Confessions.” It has been stated often enough that the true Wagner, as here self-revealed, stands before us in an abject light with his character forever shattered. After a careful perusal of these 870 pages, I find myself utterly incapable of echoing the popular verdict. On the contrary, these Confessions of Wagner, as they might be termed, with their frank exposure of shortcomings, poverty, the meannesses and degradation incidental to it, have only raised my sympathy with the author as man. There is something eminently human in this autobiography. It is easy to find weak points in Wagner’s character; it is easy to call him a sponge; indeed, it is not to be denied that his dependence on friends and sometimes mere acquaintances for financial assistance and sometimes even for board and lodging, gives an unpleasing colour to much of the life before us. But as regards this, it must not be forgotten that we have to do with a genius of a peculiarly high order which, if it was to manifest itself at all, could only do so under conditions that it set for itself. Wagner, earning a precarious livelihood for himself and wife as music teacher, or as conductor at some small theatre, would not have produced “Lohengrin,” “The Meistersinger,” or “The Ring.” As a matter of fact, he did do something equivalent to this during his first residence in Paris, when he kept his small household, often increased by indigent friends, who shared his hospitality, by the repellent labour of arranging pianoforte scores of the Italian operas of the period, writing short stories and other journalistic hackwork for musical papers. But during all this time, though desiring eagerly to do so, he could produce no serious work. The nature of Wagner’s genius required, in order to realise itself, perfect freedom from material wants and worries. When we understand this we can appreciate better the master’s willingness to accept, and, at times, even to solicit, financial and other assistance from friends and acquaintances.

Wagner’s amatory adventures, real and alleged, have to be guessed at from hints thrown out in the course of the autobiography rather than from detailed narrative. For our autobiographer was no Casanova. It is certain that during his stay in Zurich he got the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being a slayer of domestic peace. I well remember in the ‘eighties of the last century at least one old gentleman, among the rapidly diminishing and now extinct coterie of old ‘forty-eighters then resident in the town, for whom the name of Wagner was as a red rag to a bull. The mention of the great composer invariably opened the floodgates of a torrent of moral indignation from this worthy bourgeois. It was even an amusement for some of his younger friends to introduce the subject and defend Wagner’s alleged delinquencies in order to call forth the emphatic expression of opinion to the effect that it mattered not how great an artist a man might be, if he fell short of the correct standard of private morality he was anathema to the speaker!

Whatever may be the truth of Wagner’s general relations with women, it is certain that he showed the most exemplary forbearance with his wife Minna. This woman, with whom he contracted a legal marriage in spite of the fact that, according to conventional notions, her conduct seems to have been distinctly “polyandrous,” already had a daughter by a previous lover when she made Wagner’s acquaintance, and apart from this seems to have run rather freely after other men. Only a few weeks from their wedding, in November, 1836, Wagner being thirty-three years old, she ran off with a rich merchant. Though doubtless not without her good qualities, this Minna, even apart from any question of sexual irregularities (of which, moreover, it is only fair to say, we hear no more in later years), must have been a very trying person for a highly-strung, extremely sensitive nature like Wagner to get on with. Sprung from a lower middle-class family, with a very imperfect education, with no appreciation for ideals, artistic or otherwise, their mutual relations are easy to be understood. That he should subsequently have found happiness in the constant affection of a really refined and intellectual woman, such as was Liszt’s daughter, Cosima von Bülow, we can very well understand.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Wagner’s sensibility was purely aesthetic. The autobiography bears constant witness to the sensitiveness of his moral nature. As an instance we might cite the story narrated (vol. i., p. 91) of the attack, in which he joined, on an unpopular fellow-guest named André in a public Biergarten at Würzburg. Respecting this “wicked trick,” as he calls it, Wagner says: “I relate this incident to atone for a sin which has weighed very heavily on my conscience ever since. I can compare this sad experience only with one out of my earliest boyhood days-namely, the drowning of some puppies in a shallow pool behind my uncle’s house in Eisleben. Even to this day I cannot think of the slow death of these poor little creatures without horror. I have never quite forgotten some of my thoughtless and reckless actions; for the sorrows of others, and in particular those of animals, have always affected me deeply to the extent of filling me with a disgust of life.”

The critical period of Wagner’s activity while he filled the post of conductor of the Royal orchestra at the Dresden Court Theatre – a period to which belong the composition and production of Rienzi, Der Fliegende Hollander, and Tannhauser, and the composition, though not the production, of Lohengrin – is described in great detail. Perhaps one of the most interesting portions of the whole work is that dealing with the events of 1848 and 1849, especially the latter year, in which the insurrection broke out and which saw the flight of the maestro from Dresden and eventually from Germany. Wagner’s narrative of his intimacy with the quondam theatre-manager and later Socialist, Rockel, and the anarchist, Michael Bakunin, together with his own political activity which took the form at one time of assisting Rockel with his paper, the Volksblatt, culminating in the graphic description of the barricades in the streets and his own escape, form very good reading. Especially interesting is the light thrown upon the character of Bakunin, for whose courage and unselfish devotion Wagner had unbounded admiration and for whom personally he seems to have entertained a strong affection. With Germany for the time being barred to him, the maestro had now to cast about him how to fashion his future. Fortunately he found friends in Switzerland as elsewhere. He worked on “Tristan and Isolde,” as well as on the text of the “Niebelungen”; but it is no part of our purpose here to give an outline sketch of the autobiography. The course of Wagner’s life can only be profitably studied in his own very full and detailed account.

There are, of course, many criticisms that might be made as regards the book itself. For example, for many readers the extreme elaboration of the circumstances often connected with somewhat squalid backstairs intrigues, as to the getting-up of concerts and opera performances, might doubtless have been cut down with advantage. Most of the details are absolutely destitute of any living interest at the present day, and throw no special light on the character of our author or of any other person of note. The meannesses or otherwise of forgotten theatre and concert impresarios, etc., have no sort of interest for the present generation. On the other hand, praise can be given for the impartial manner in which the composer deals with the story of his matrimonial relations. While he gives Frau Minna Wagner full credit for all the good qualities she may have possessed in the way of a certain amiability and good nature, the fact remains that she must have been a terrible burden to him. The allusions to Cosima Von Bülow, who subsequently became his wife, are comparatively few and slight during the period with which the biography deals, for it is only brought down to the year 1864, ending with the author’s first call to Munich. Up to this time the relations with Cosima would not seem to have begun to shape themselves in any definite manner.

For my own part, rather than have had quite such a profusion of detail as regards the external circumstances in the composer’s career, I should have preferred to be let a little more into the arcana of his creative activity – how and when this or that motif, with which the world is by this time so familiar, came to him; what changes its working out underwent and how the latter arrived at its final form; where the art or the technique of composition occasioned him most trouble and how often he corrected or rewrote. Respecting all these matters we learn little or nothing, and yet they are points which have infinitely more interest for us to-day than all the squalid and tiresome details of the struggle of a mighty genius for recognition.

Opportunely, as a supplement to the autobiography, comes the volume of the Family Letters of Richard Wagner, translated by Mr. Ashton Ellis. They complete the impression given us by the former work of a warm-hearted, sensitive man with the faults of the artistic temperament, the inevitable self-centredness, the surrender to moods, etc., undeniably present, but hardly to an exaggerated extent, and certainly not to the extent that has been represented by many critics. As the title of the book implies, the letters in question are to the composer’s relations, to his sisters and his brothers-in-law and their children. For throughout his life Wagner maintained the most cordial relations with his family. Especially close and confidential is his correspondence with his sister Cecilia and her husband, Edouard Avenarius, a member of the publishing firm of Brockhaus, of Leipsic, to another member of which firm Wagner’s other sister, Luise, was married. Altogether Wagner’s relations with his family seem to have been of the happiest.

To my thinking, as already said, the autobiography leaves one with the impression of a thoroughly human and likeable character, warm-hearted and impulsive, but never really mean; at times, perhaps, too suspicious of those with whom he came in contact, although at other times too trusting. These impressions, which might be discounted as being gained from Wagner’s own account of his life and doings, are certainly confirmed by the purely private letters to members of his family recently published and which Mr. Ashton Ellis has so conscientiously translated with explanatory notes in the volume before us.

This is scarcely the place to deal with the position of Wagner in the evolution of musical art and in the history of human culture generally. Of the epoch-making character of Wagner’s genius no one doubts at the present day. That he has revolutionised opera is clear enough. The one point to remark upon is his not having directly contributed much to “absolute music,” as he would have termed it. Beyond one or two independent overtures, there is no musical creation of his which has not a direct connection with the stage. And yet the indirect influence of Wagner may be seen in most of our modern classical compositions. For the rest, one is struck by the fact of the width of Wagner’s outlook. He was eminently an all-round man. He looked at his art from the point of view of human life and culture in general, being the first famous composer of whom this can be said. Not all the carpings of critics as to the pretended imperfections of character discoverable in the record of his own life now before us will suffice to rob Wagner of his legitimate claims as a truly great modern man.

A word as to the translation of My Life. We have not had an opportunity of comparing it with the original, but can say that the style of the English is admirable and seldom betrays its character as a translation. It is, indeed, quite exceptionally good in this respect. Mr. Ashton Ellis’s translation of the Letters gives the impression of being extremely faithful in its adhesion to the original if, perhaps, a trifle less idiomatic than the English of the anonymous translator of the autobiography.

1. My Life. By Richard Wagner. (Macmillan.)
Family Letters of Richard Wagner. (Heinemann.)