Wagner as I Knew Him - Ferdinand Praeger - ebook

SELDOM has the proverb “The child is father to the man” been more completely verified in the life of any prominent brain-worker than in that of Richard Wagner. The serious thinker of threescore, with his soul deep in his work, is the developed school-boy of thirteen lauded by his masters for unusual application and earnestness. All his defects and virtues, his affections and antipathies, can be traced to their original sources in his childhood. No great individuality was ever less influenced by misfortune or success in after-life than Wagner. The mission he felt within him and which he resolutely set himself to accomplish, he unswervingly pursued throughout the varied phases of his eventful career. Beyond contention, Richard Wagner is, I think, the greatest art personality of this century,—unequalled as a musician, great as a poet as regards the matter, moral, and mode of expression, whilst in dramatic construction a very Shakespeare.

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Table of contents

CHAPTER I.1813-1821.

CHAPTER II.1822-1827.

CHAPTER III.1822-1827. Continued.


CHAPTER V.1832-1836.

CHAPTER VI.1836-1839.



CHAPTER IX.PARIS, 1839-1842.

CHAPTER X.PARIS, 1839-1842. Continued.


CHAPTER XII.1843-1844.



CHAPTER XV.1849-1851.

CHAPTER XVI.1850-1854.



CHAPTER XIX.1855. Continued.

CHAPTER XX.1855-1856.


CHAPTER XXII.1857-1861.


CHAPTER XXIV.1865-1883.


THE EARL OF DYSARTMy Lord:If an intimacy, an uninterrupted friendship, of close upon half a century during which early associations, ambitions, failures, successes, and their results were frankly discussed, entitles one to speak with authority on Richard Wagner, the man, the artist, his mental workings, and the doctrine he strove to preach, then am I fully entitled so to speak of my late friend.To vindicate Wagner in all things is not my intention. He was but mortal, and no ordinary mortal, and had his failings, which will be fearlessly dealt with. My sole purpose is to set Richard Wagner before the world as I knew him; to help to an honest understanding of the man and his motives as he so often laid them bare to me; and I unhesitatingly affirm that, when seen in his true character, many a hostile, plausible, and unsparing criticism, begotten of inadequate knowledge or malice, will shrivel and crumble away when exposed to the sunlight of truth.The daring originality of Wagner’s work could not help provoking violent opposition. Revolution in art as in aught else has ever been wedded to storm and tumult.Of all things, Wagner was a thinker. The plot, construction, and logical development of his dramas, the employment of those wondrous character-descriptive tone-themes, their marvellous combination, his ten volumes of serious matter, especially “The Work and Mission of my Life,” emphatically testify to his deliberate studied thinking, and friend and foe alike readily acknowledge the originality of his thought.Here then entered the art world, in the person of Richard Wagner, a quite natural subject for discussion. Here was a thinker, an original thinker, and Carlyle says that “the great event, parent of all others, in every epoch of the world, is the arrival of a thinker, an original thinker.” No matter for marvel, then, that the air thickened with criticism as soon as the Thinker proclaimed himself.The persistency and vigour with which Wagner pursued the end,—an end to which, primarily, he was unconsciously impelled by instinctive genius,—the emphatic enforcement of the Gospel it was the sole purpose of his thinking manhood to inculcate, led him to reject worldly advancement, to endure painful privation, to utter fierce denunciation against pseudo-prophets, and to be the victim of malignant insult and scornful vituperation. And why? Because his mission was to preach Truth.Wagner was “terribly in earnest.” His earnestness forces itself home to us through all his works; and in his strenuous striving to accomplish his task, he involuntarily said and did things seemingly opposed to the very principles he had so dogmatically enunciated. But on investigating the why of such apparent contradictions, it will be found that they are but paradoxical after all, and that never has Wagner swerved from the direct pursuit of his ideal. Thus he says, “I had a dislike, nay, a positive contempt, for the stage, its rouge and tawdry tinsel,” and yet within its precincts he was spell-bound. He was chained to it by indissoluble links. It was the pulpit from which he was to expound his gospel. Again, he accepted from friends the most reckless sacrifices without the simplest acknowledgment or gratitude, yet it was not ingratitude as is commonly understood; he accepted the service not as done to himself, but for the glorification of true art, and in that consummation he felt they were richly recompensed. He, when he felt it his duty to speak plainly, spared the feelings of none by an incisive criticism which cut to the core, and yet an over-sensitiveness made him writhe under the slightest censure.Towards Jews and Judaism he had a most pronounced antipathy, and yet this did not prevent him from numbering many Hebrews among his most devoted friends. Pursued with the wildest ambition, he steadfastly refused all proffered titles and decorations. He formulated most positive rules for the music-drama, and then referring to “Tristan and Isolde,” states: “There I entirely forgot all theory, and became conscious how far I had gone beyond my own system.”[1] With Meyerbeer in view, he emphatically insisted that after sixty no composer should write, as being incapacitated by age and consequent failure of brain power, and then when long past this period he not only writes one of his greatest works, but when seventy and within the shadow of death, was engaged upon another of engrossing interest, viz. on the Hindoo religion. Lastly, whilst vehemently protesting the inseparability of his music from its related stage representation and scenic accessories, compelled by fate, he traversed Europe from London to St. Petersburg to produce in the concert room orchestral excerpts from the very works upon whose inviolability he had in such unequivocal terms insisted,—selections too, though arranged by himself, which give but the most incomplete conception of the dramas themselves.This seeming jarring between theory and practice in so powerful a thinker requires explanation, and in due course I shall exhaustively treat the same.Wagner and I were born in the same town, Leipzic, and within two years of each other. This was a bond of friendship between us never severed, Wagner ever fondly delighting to talk about his early surroundings and associations. His references to Leipzic and prominent local characters were coloured with strong affection, and to discuss with one who could reciprocate his deep love for the charmed city of his birth, was for him a certain source of happiness.Wagner’s first music-master, properly so called, was Cantor Weinlig of Leipzic. From him he received his first serious theoretical instruction. Weinlig, too, was well known to me. He was an intimate friend of my father, Henry Aloysius Praeger, director of the Stadttheater and conductor of the famous Gewandhaus concerts, the latter post being subsequently filled by Mendelssohn among other celebrities. Between Weinlig and my father, whom the history of music has celebrated as a violinist of exceptional skill and as a sound contrapuntist, constant communications passed, and I was very often the bearer of such.Common points of interest like this—striking Leipzic individualities, the house at Gohlis, a suburb of Leipzic where poor Schiller spent part of his time, the masters of St. Nicolas’ School, where we both attended, though at different periods—I could multiply without end, each topic of absorbing interest to us both, and productive of much mutual expansion of the heart, but I will here refer to one only—that connected with Carl Maria von Weber. “Der Freischütz” was first performed at Dresden, the composer conducting, on the 22d January, 1822. Wagner, then in his ninth year, was living at Dresden with his family. In his letter to Frederick Villot, he says of Weber: “His melodies filled me with an earnestness, which came to me as a bright vision from above. His personality attracted me with enthusiastic fascination; from him I received my first musical baptism. His death in a distant land filled my childish heart with sorrowful awe.” “Der Freischütz” was almost immediately produced at Leipzic, and Weber came to Leipzic personally to supervise the rehearsals and to acquaint my father, then the conductor of the theatre, as to the special reading of certain parts. The work excited the utmost enthusiasm in Leipzic, and was performed there innumerable times. I, the son of the conductor, having free entry to the theatre, went nightly, and acquired thus early a thoroughly intimate acquaintance with the work, such as Wagner also had gained by his frequent visits to the Dresden theatre through his family’s connection with the stage. In after-life we found that Weber and his works had exercised over both of us the same fascination. In 1844, the remains of the loved idol, Weber, were removed from Moorfields Chapel, London, to Dresden. At that time I was residing in London, and, in conjunction with Max von Weber, the composer’s eldest son, and others, obtained the necessary authority and carried out the removal. Wagner was in Germany. There he received the body, and on its final interment pronounced the funeral oration over the adored artist.In this country, where I have now lived for an unbroken period of fifty-one years, I was Wagner’s first and sole champion, and, notwithstanding all the calumny with which he was persistently assailed (which even now has not entirely ceased), stood firmly by him.It was through my sole exertions that the Philharmonic Society in 1855 offered Wagner the post of conductor. His acceptance and retention of the post for one season are now matters of history.Wagner returned to London in 1877 to conduct the “Wagner Festival” concerts at the Albert Hall. As his sixty-fourth birthday fell during these concerts, some ardent friends promoted a banquet in his honour at the Cannon Street Hotel on the 23d May. To that banquet I was invited, and great was my amazement when Wagner, the applauded of all, spontaneously and without the least hint to me, warmly and affectionately said:— “It is now twenty-two years ago since I came to this country, unacknowledged as a composer and attacked on all sides by a hostile press. Then I had but one friend, one support, one who acknowledged and boldly defended me, one who has clung to me ever since with unchanging affection; this is my friend Ferdinand Praeger.”My Lord, I have felt it desirable to address these preliminary remarks to you as indicative of the manner in which I propose to treat my friend’s life and work. Wagner was extremely voluble, and, with his intimate friends, most unreserved. He was a man of strong affections and strong memory, and to those he loved he freely spoke of those whom he loved, and thus I believe I am the sole recipient of many of his early impressions and reminiscences, of his thoughts and ambitions in after-life. Therefore shall I tell the story of his life and work, as he made me see it and as I knew him, keeping back nothing, believing as I do that the world has a right to know how its great men live: their lives are its lawful inheritance.It is with deep affection that I undertake a work prompted by your Lordship’s love for the true in art, and it is to you that I dedicate the result of my labour.Ferdinand Praeger.

CHAPTER I.1813-1821.

SELDOM has the proverb “The child is father to the man” been more completely verified in the life of any prominent brain-worker than in that of Richard Wagner. The serious thinker of threescore, with his soul deep in his work, is the developed school-boy of thirteen lauded by his masters for unusual application and earnestness. All his defects and virtues, his affections and antipathies, can be traced to their original sources in his childhood. No great individuality was ever less influenced by misfortune or success in after-life than Wagner. The mission he felt within him and which he resolutely set himself to accomplish, he unswervingly pursued throughout the varied phases of his eventful career. Beyond contention, Richard Wagner is, I think, the greatest art personality of this century,—unequalled as a musician, great as a poet as regards the matter, moral, and mode of expression, whilst in dramatic construction a very Shakespeare. With an ardent desire to reform the stage, he has succeeded beyond his hopes; and well was he fitted to undertake such a gigantic task. His family—father, step-father, eldest brother, and three sisters—and early surroundings were all connected with the stage. Cradled in a theatrical atmosphere, nurtured on theatrical traditions, with free access to the best theatres from the first days his intellect permitted him to enjoy stage representations, himself a born actor, and with earnestness as the rule of his life, it is no matter for surprise that he stands foremost among the great stage reformers of modern times.By birth he belonged to the middle class. A son of the people he always felt himself; and throughout his career he strove to soften the hard toil of their lot by inspiring in them a love for art, the power to enjoy which he considered the goal of all education and civilization. To him the people represented the true and natural, untainted by the artificiality that characterized the wealthy classes.HIS FATHER, FREDERICK WAGNER.Painstaking, energy, and ability seem to have been the attributes of Wagner’s ancestors. His paternal grandfather held an appointment under the customs at Leipzic as “thorschreiber,” i.e. an officer who levied toll upon all supplies that entered the town. Family tradition describes him as a man of attainments in advance of his station, a characteristic which also distinguished his son Frederick (Richard’s father). Frederick Wagner, born in 1770, also held an appointment under the Saxon government. A sort of superintendent of the Leipzic police, he spent his leisure time in studying French. Although unaided, he must have attained some degree of proficiency; as subsequently he was called upon to make use of it, and it proved of great service to him. He was a man of literary tastes, and was famed in Leipzic for his great reading and knowledge. Goethe and Schiller were then the beacon-lights of young German poetry. Their pregnant philosophical reasoning, clothed in so attractive, new, and beautiful a garb, fascinated Frederick Wagner, and he made them his serious study—a love which was inherited by his son Richard, who oft in his literary works refers to Goethe and Schiller as the two greatest German poets.Like all natives of Leipzic he was passionately fond of the stage. The enthusiasm of all classes of society in Leipzic for matters theatrical is historic. Frederick Wagner attached himself to a company of amateur actors, and threw himself with such zest into the study of the histrionic art as to achieve considerable distinction and court patronage. The performances of this company were not unfrequently open to the public; indeed, at one time, when the town theatre was temporarily closed, the amateurs replaced the regular professionals, the Elector of Saxony evincing enough interest in the troupe to pay the hire of the building specially engaged for their performances.When the peace of Europe was disturbed by the wild, ambitious plottings of Napoleon, a body of French troops were quartered at Leipzic under Marshal Davoust. It was now that Frederick Wagner’s self-taught French was turned to account, as he was appointed to carry on communications between the German and the French soldiers. The Saxon Elector submitting to the French conqueror, the government of the town passed into French hands. Davoust, with the shrewd perspicacity of an officer of Napoleon’s army, saw the solid qualities of Frederick, and directed him to reorganize the town police, at the same time nominating him superintendent-in-chief. He did not retain this appointment many months, as he died of typhoid fever, caught from the French soldiers, on the 22d of November, 1813.Of his “dear little mother” Wagner often spoke to me, and always in terms of the fondest affection. He described her as a woman of small stature, active frame, self-possessed, with a large amount of common sense, thrifty and of a very affectionate nature.The Wagner family consisted of nine children, four boys and five girls. Richard, the youngest of all, was born on the 22d May, 1813, at Leipzic. At the time of his father’s death he was therefore but six months old. The eldest of the children, Albert, was born in 1799. He went on the stage as a singer at an early age, having a somewhat high tenor voice. In 1833 we find him stage manager and singer at Wurtzburg, engaging his brother Richard as chorus director. He afterwards became stage manager at Dresden and Berlin, dying in 1874.LUDWIG GEYER.Three of Wagner’s sisters, Rosalie, born 1803, Louisa, born 1805, and Clara, born 1807, were also induced to choose the stage as a profession, each being endowed with unmistakable histrionic talent. Although not great they were actresses of decided merit. Laube, an eminent German art critic and writer, has given it as his opinion that Rosalie was to be preferred to Wilhelmina Schroeder, afterwards the celebrated Schroeder-Devrient, but this praise Wagner considered excessive, attributing it to the critic’s friendly relations with the family.The unexpected death of Frederick Wagner threw the family into great tribulation. A small pension was allowed the widow by government, but with eight young children (one, Karl, born some time before, had died), the eldest but fourteen years of age, the struggle was severe and likely to have terminated disastrously, notwithstanding the watchful thrift of Frau Wagner, had not Ludwig Geyer, a friend of the dead Frederick, generously helped the widow. Geyer was a favourite actor at Leipzic. A man of versatile gifts, he was poet, portrait-painter, and successful playwright. For two years he continuously identified himself with the Wagner household, after which, in 1815, he assumed the whole responsibility by marrying his friend’s widow. Shortly after his marriage Geyer was offered an engagement at the Royal Theatre, Dresden, which would confer on him the highly coveted title of “Hofschauspieler,” or court actor. He accepted the appointment, and the whole family removed with him to the Saxon capital. At this time Richard was two years old. Frederick Wagner, as a thorough Leipzic citizen, had already interested his family in theatrical matters; now by Geyer becoming the head of the household, the stage and its doings became the every-day topic, and therefore the next consequence was its adoption by the eldest children, Albert, Rosalie, Louisa, and Clara. What wonder then that Richard was influenced by the theatrical atmosphere in which he was trained.From the first Geyer displayed the tenderest affection towards the small and delicately fragile baby. Throughout his life Wagner was a spoilt child, and the spoiling dates from his infancy. Both step-father and mother took every means of petting him. His mother particularly idolized him, and seems, so Wagner told me, to have often built castles in the air as to his future. They were drawn towards the boy, first, because of his sickly, frail constitution; and secondly, owing to his bright powers of observation, which made his childish remarks peculiarly winning. As the boy grew up he remained delicate. He was affected with an irritating form of erysipelas, which constantly troubled him up to the time of his death.BOYHOOD AT DRESDEN.Ludwig Geyer’s income from all sources,—acting, portrait-painting, and play-writing—did not amount to a sum sufficient to admit of luxuries. Poor Madame Geyer, with her large, growing family, had still to keep a watchful eye over household expenditure. Portrait-painting was not a lucrative occupation, and play-writing less so, yet she contrived that the girls should receive pianoforte lessons. It was customary for needy students of the public schools to eke out their existence by giving lessons in music, languages, or sciences; indeed, it was not uncommon to find some students wholly dependent on such gains for the payment of their own school fees. The fees usually paid in such instances were sadly small, and not unfrequently did the remuneration take the form of a “free table.” At that time there was scarcely a family in Germany that had not its piano. A piano was then obtainable at a cost incredibly small compared with the sums paid to-day. True, the cases were but coloured deal or some common stained wood, whilst the mechanism was of the least expensive kind. In shape they were square, with the plainest unturned legs. Upright instruments had not then been introduced.The Wagner family went to Dresden in 1815, and from that time, up to the date of his entering the town school at the end of 1822, Richard received either at school or at home no regular tuition. The boy was sickly and his mother was content to let him live and develop without forcing him to any systematic school work. It would seem that he received irregular lessons in drawing from his step-father, as Wagner told me that Geyer had hoped to discover some talent in him for the pencil, and on finding he had not the slightest gift, he was very much disappointed. As a boy, he continued to be a pet with Geyer, accompanying his step-father in his rambles during the day or attending with him the rehearsals at the theatre. Such home education as he did receive was of the most fragmentary kind, a little help here and there from his sisters or attention from Geyer or his mother. Music lessons he had none. All he remembered in after-life was having listened to his sisters’ playing, and only by degrees taking interest in their work. His own reminiscences of his boyhood were plain in one point—he certainly was not a musical prodigy. He fingered and thumbed the keyboard like a boy, but such scraps as he played were always by ear.Anxieties for a second time now began to thicken round the Wagner family. The court actor Geyer was laid on a sick-bed. He was not of a robust constitution, and conscious of failing health and apprehensive of death, sought anxiously to find some indication in young Richard of any decided talent which might help him to suggest as to the boy’s future career. He had tried, as I have said, to find whether his step-son possessed any skill with the pencil, and sorrowfully perceived he had none. In other directions, of course, it was difficult for Geyer to determine as to any particular gift, if we remember the tender years of the boy. As to music, it would have been nothing short of divination to have predicted that there lay his future, since up to that time Richard had not even been taught his notes. But the court actor was an artist, and with unerring instinct detected in a simple melody played by Richard from memory that in music “he might become something.”THE WAGNER HOUSEHOLD.Richard had been fascinated by a snatch of melody which was constantly played by his sisters. He caught it by ear, and was one day strumming it softly on the piano when alone. His mother overheard him. Surprised and pleased at the boy’s unsuspected accomplishment, Geyer was told, and the melody was repeated in a louder tone for the benefit of the invalid in the next room. It was the bridal chorus from “Der Freischütz.” Although a very simple melody and of easy execution, it must have been played with unusual feeling for a child to prompt Geyer almost to the prophetic utterance, “Has he perhaps talent for music?” Wagner heard this, and told me how deeply he was impressed by it. On the next day Geyer died, 13th September, 1821. Richard was then eight years and four months old, and preserved the most vivid remembrance of his mother coming from the death chamber weeping, but calm, and walking straight to him, saying, “He wished to make something of you, Richard.” These words, Wagner said, remained with him ever after, and he boyishly resolved “to be something.” But he had not then the faintest notion in what direction that something was going to be. Certainly music was not forecast as the arena of his future triumphs, since in his letter to F. Villot, dated September, 1860, he tells us that it was not until after his efforts in the poetical art, and subsequent to the death of Beethoven, 1827, i.e. six years after Geyer’s death, that he seriously began to study music.For a second time was the family thrown into comparative adversity. But the embarrassment was less serious than in 1813, since the three eldest children were now at an age to contribute materially to the general support. A trifling annuity was again awarded to the widow, and with careful thrift she resumed her sway of the household. The family at this time consisted of the widow; Albert, twenty-two years; Rosalie, eighteen; Julius, seventeen, apprenticed to a goldsmith; Louisa, sixteen; Clara, fourteen; Ottilie, ten; Richard, eight and four months; and Cecilia Geyer, six, the only child of Frau Wagner’s second marriage. The two eldest girls and Albert had already embraced the theatrical profession. Family circumstances were therefore not so pinched as at the death of Frederick Wagner.No plan having yet been devised as to the future of Richard, he was sent on a visit to an uncle Geyer at Eisleben, between which place and his mother’s home at Dresden, he spent the next fifteen months, when it was decided to enter him at the Kreuzschule (the Cross School), Dresden.

CHAPTER II.1822-1827.

HIS first visit to Eisleben—the going among strange people, new scenery, and for the first time sleeping away from his mother’s home—was the first great event of his life, and left an indelible impression on him. The details he remembered in connection with this early visit, at a time when he was not nine years old, point to the vividness of the picture of the whole journey in his mind and his strong retentive memory.

The story I had from Wagner in one of our rambles at Zurich in 1856.


“My first journey to Eisleben,” said Wagner to me, “was in the beginning of 1822. Can one ever forget a first impression? And my first long journey was such an event! Why, I seem even to remember the physiognomy of the poor lean horses that drew the jolting ‘postkarre.’ They were being changed at some intermediate station, the name of which I have now forgotten, when all the passengers had to alight. I stood outside the inn eating the ‘butterbrod,’ with which my dear little mother (‘mein liebes Mütterchen’ was the term of endearment invariably used by Wagner, when referring to his mother) had provided me, and as the horses were about to be led away, I caressed them affectionately for having brought me so far. How every cloud seemed to me different from those of the Dresden sky! How I scrutinized every tree to find some new characteristic! How I looked around in all directions to discover something I had not yet seen in my short life! How grand I felt when the heavy car rolled into the town of Eisleben! Even then Eisleben had a halo of something great for my boyish imagination, since I knew it to be the birthplace of Luther, one of the heroes of my youth, and one that has not grown less with my increasing years. Nor was it without a reason that, at so early a period, religion should occupy the attention of a boy of my age. It was forced upon my family when we came to Dresden. The court was Roman Catholic, and in consequence, no inconsiderable pressure was brought to bear upon all families who were connected in any manner with the government to compel them to embrace the court-religion. My family had been among the staunchest of Lutherans for generations. What attracted me most in the great reformer’s character, was his dauntless energy and fearlessness. Since then I have often ruminated on the true instinct of children, for I, had I not also to preach a new Gospel of Art? Have I not also had to bear every insult in its defence, and have I not too said, ‘Here I stand, God help me, I cannot be otherwise!’

“My good uncle tried his best to put me through some regular educational training. It was intended that he should prepare me as far as he could for school, as the famous Kreuzschule was talked of for me. Yet, I must confess I did not profit much by his instruction. I preferred rambling about the little country town and its environs to learning the rules of grammar. That I profited little was, I fear, my own fault. Legends and fables then had an immense fascination over me, and I often beguiled my uncle into reading me a story that I might avoid working. But what always drew me towards him was his strong affection for my own loved step-father. Whenever he spoke of him, and he did so very often, he always referred to his loving good-nature, his amiability, and his gifts as an artist, and then would murmur with a tearful sigh ‘that he had to die so young!’

“It was arranged that I should enter the Dresden school in December, 1822, just at a time when my sisters were busy with the exciting preparations for the family Christmas-tree. How good it was of my mother then to let us have a tree, poor as we were! I was not pleased to go to school just three days before Christmas Day, and probably would have revolted had not my mother talked me over and made me see the advantages of entering so celebrated an academy as the Kreuzschule, pacifying my disappointment by allowing me to rise at early dawn to do my part to the tree. Now I cannot see a lighted Christmas-tree without thinking of the kind woman, nor prevent the tears starting to my eyes, when I think of the unceasing activity of that little creature for the comfort and welfare of her children.”


Wagner was deeply moved when, on Christmas Day, he found amongst the usual gifts, such as “Pfefferkuchen” (ginger-bread) and “Stolle” (butter cake), a new suit of clothes for himself, a present from his thoughtful mother for him to go to school with. Throughout his life Wagner was always remarkably prim and neatly dressed, caring much for his personal appearance. The low state of the widow’s exchequer was well known to Richard, and he could appreciate the effort made for him. He was no sooner at school than he attracted to himself a few of the cleverest boys by his early developed gift of ready speech and sarcasm. “Die Dummer haben mich immer gehasst” (the stupid have ever hated me) was a favourite saying of his in after-life. The study of the dead languages, his principal subject, was a delight to him. He had a facility for languages. It was one of his gifts. History and geography also attracted him. He was an omnivorous reader, and his precise knowledge on any subject was always a matter of surprise to the most intimate. It could never be said what he had read or what he had not read, and here perhaps is the place to note a remarkable feature in Wagner’s disposition, viz. his modesty. Did he require information on any subject, his manner of asking was childlike in its simplicity. He was patient in learning and in mastering the point. But it should be observed that nothing short of the most complete and satisfactory explanation would satisfy him. And then would the thinking-power of the man declare itself. The information he had newly acquired would be thoroughly assimilated and then given forth under a new light with a force truly remarkable.

In stature Wagner was below the middle size, and like most undersized men always held himself strictly erect. He had an unusually wiry, muscular frame, small feet, an aristocratic feature which did not extend to his hands. It was his head, however, that could not fail to strike even the least inquiring that there he had to do with no ordinary mortal. The development of the frontal part, which a phrenologist would class at a glance amongst those belonging only to the master-minds, impressed every one. His eyes had a piercing power, but were kindly withal, and were ready to smile at a witty remark. Richard Wagner lacked eyebrows, but nature, as if to make up for this deficiency, bestowed on him a most abundant crop of bushy hair, which he carefully kept brushed back, thereby exposing the whole of his really Jupiter-like brow. His mouth was very small. He had thin lips and small teeth, signs of a determined character. The nose was large and in after-life somewhat disfigured by the early-acquired habit of snuff-taking. The back of his head was fully developed. These were according to phrenological principles power and energy. Its shape was very similar to that of Luther, with whom, indeed, he had more than one point of character in common.

In answer to my inquiries about his school period at Dresden, he told me that he was remarkably small, a circumstance not unattended with good fortune, since it served to increase the favour of his school professors, who looked upon his unusual mental energy in comparison with his pigmy frame as nothing short of wonderful.

As a boy he was passionate and strong-headed. His violent temper and obstinate determination were not to be thwarted in anything he had set his mind to. Among boys such wilfulness of character was the cause of frequent dissensions. He rarely, however, came to blows, for he had a shrewd wit and was winningly entreating in speech, and with much adroitness would bend them to his whims.


Erysipelas sorely tried the boy during his school life. Every change in the weather was a trouble to him. As regards the loss of his eyebrows, an affliction which ever caused him some regret, Wagner attributed it to a violent attack of St. Anthony’s fire, as this painful malady is also called. An attack would be preceded by depression of spirits and irritability of temper. Conscious of his growing peevishness, he sought refuge in solitude. As soon as the attack was subdued, his bright animal spirits returned and none would recognize in the daring little fellow the previous taciturn misanthrope.

Practical joking was a favourite sport with him, but only indulged in when harm could befall no one, and incident offered some funny situation. To hurt one willingly was, I think, impossible in Wagner. He was ever kind and would never have attempted anything that might result in real pain.

His superabundance of animal spirits, well-seconded by his active frame, led him often into hairbrained escapades which threatened to terminate fatally. But his fearless intrepidity was tempered and dominated by a strong self-reliance, which always came to the rescue at the critical moment.

On one occasion when the boys of the Kreuzschule were assembled in class for daily work, an unexpected holiday was announced for that day. A chance like that was a rare thing at schools on the continent. The boys, wild with excitement, rushed pell mell from the building, and showed their delight in the usual tumultuous manner of school-boys freed from restraint. Caps were thrown in the air, when Wagner, seizing that of one of his companions, threw it with an unusual effort on to the roof of the school-house, a feat loudly applauded by the rest of the scholars. But there was one dissentient, the unlucky boy whose cap had been thus ruthlessly snatched. He burst into tears. Wagner could never bear to see any one cry, and with that prompt decision so characteristic of him at all periods of his life, decided at once to mount the roof for the cap. He re-entered the school-house, rushed up the stairs to the cock-loft, climbed out on the roof through a ventilator, and gazed down on the applauding boys. He then set himself to crawl along the steep incline towards the cap. The boys ceased cheering at the sight and drew back in fear and terror. Some hurriedly ran to the “custodes.” A ladder was brought and carried up stairs to the loft, the boys eagerly crowding behind. Meanwhile Wagner had secured the cap, safely returned to the opening, and slid back into the dark loft just in time to hear excited talking on the stairs. He hid himself in a corner behind some boxes, waited for the placing of the ladder, and “custodes” ascending it, when he came from his hiding-place, and in an innocent tone inquired what they were looking for, a bird, perhaps? “Ja, ein Galenvogel” (yes, a gallows bird), was the angry answer of the infuriated “custodes,” who, after all, were glad to see the boy safe, their general favourite. He did not go unrebuked by the masters this time, and was threatened with severe chastisement the next time he ventured on such a foolhardy expedition.


Wagner told me that whilst on the roof, which, like all roofs of old houses in Germany, was extremely steep, he felt giddy, and was seized with a dread of falling. Bathed in a fever of perspiration, he uttered aloud, “liebe mütterchen,” upon which he felt transformed. It acted on his frame with the power of magic, and helped him to retrace his steps from a position which would appall a practised gymnast. Many years after this, Wagner’s eldest brother, Albert, when referring to Richard having taken part in the rising of the people of Saxony in 1849, which he personally strongly deprecated, told me the above story in illustration of Richard’s extreme foolhardiness. The episode was fully confirmed by Wagner, who then told me of his fears on the roof.

It was not in climbing only that Richard excelled. He was known as the best tumbler and somersault-turner of the large Dresden school. Indeed, he was an adept in every form of bodily exercise; and as his animal spirits never left him, he still performed boyish tricks even when nearing threescore and ten. The roof of the Kreuzschule was not infrequently referred to by me, and when Wagner proposed some venturesome undertaking, I would say, “You are on the roof again.”

“Ah, but I shall get safely down again, too,” was the answer, accompanied with his pleasant boyish laugh.

Richard early began to exhibit his love of acrobatic feats. When as young as seven, he would frighten his mother by sliding down the banisters with daring rapidity and jumping down stairs. As he always succeeded in his feats, his mother and the other children took it for granted that he would not come to grief, and sometimes he would be asked to exhibit his unwonted skill to visitors. This no doubt increased the boy’s confidence in himself—a self-reliance which never left him to the time of his death.

Wagner’s affection for his mother was of the tenderest. It was the love of a poet infused with all his noblest ideality. The dear name, whenever uttered by Richard Wagner, was spoken in tones so soft and tender as to bespeak at once the sympathy and affection existing between the two. A halo of glory ever encircled “mein leibe mütterchen.” Nothing can give a better idea of this gentle love than the passages in “Seigfried,” the child of the forest, where the hero demands of the ugly dwarf, Mime, who had brought him up, “Who was my mother?” an inquiry he repeated after he had killed the hideous dragon, Fafner, and thereby became able to understand the song of the birds. If ever music could give an idea of love, here in these passages we have it. In what touching accents comes, “How may my mother have looked? Surely her eyes must have shone with the radiant sparkle of the hind, but much more beautiful!” Every allusion to his mother in this scene is expressed in the orchestra with an ethereal refinement and originality of conception to which one finds no parallel in the whole range of music of the past. I verily believe that Richard Wagner never loved any one so deeply as his “liebe mütterchen.” All his references to her of his childhood period were of affection, amounting almost to idolatry. With that instinctive power of unreasoned yet unerring perception possessed by women, she from his childhood felt the gigantic brain-power of the boy, and his love for her was not unmixed with gratitude for her tacit acknowledgment of his genius.


One of his early developed affections was a strong love for animals. On this point, and what I know of its strong sway with him in his dramas, I shall have something to say hereafter. Now I shall confine myself to the recital of an incident of his boyhood. To see a helpless beast ill-treated was to rouse all the strong passion within him. Anger would overcome all reason, and he would as a child fly at the offender.

One of his first impressions was a chance visit he paid with some of his school-fellows to a slaughter yard. An ox was about to be killed. The butcher, stripped, stood with uplifted axe. The horrible implement descended on the head of the stately animal, who gave a low, deep moan. The blows and moans were repeated. The boy grew wild, and would have rushed at the butcher had not his companions forcibly held him back and taken him away from the scene. For some time after he could not touch meat, and it was only when other impressions effaced this scene that he became reconciled by his mother reasoning that animals must be killed, and that it was perhaps preferable to dying slowly by sickness and old age. When a man, he could not refer to this incident without a shudder.

In after-life he rarely missed an opportunity of pleading for better treatment of animals, drawing the attention of the municipal authorities to the prevention of wanton cruelty, and arguing that animals, to be killed for human food, should be despatched with the minimum of pain.

CHAPTER III.1822-1827. Continued.

FROM the record of the Kreuzschule it appears that Wagner entered that famous training college on the 22d December, 1822, as Richard Wilhelm Geyer, son of the late court actor of that name. He would then be nearly ten years old.


He told me that he well remembered the eager delight with which he looked forward to the prospect of enjoying systematic instruction. He hoped to be placed high in the school, yet dreaded the entrance examination, conscious how very patched was then his store of information. During his first seven years’ residence in Dresden, from 1815-1822, the Kreuzschule, had been an every-day object to him, and yet on entering the building for the first time as an intending student, a feeling of awe took possession of him. The unsuspected majesty of the building, the echo of his footfall on the stone steps, made his young heart beat with expectant wonder. The result of the examination was to place him in the first form, his bright, quick, intelligent replies proving more valuable than his disconnected knowledge. For the masters of the Kreuzschule he ever retained an affection, their genial bearing and friendly tuition comparing favourably with the pedantic overbearing demeanour of the masters of the St. Nicholas school in Leipzic, where he went later on, men who represented a past and effete dogmatic German pedantry.

The direction of his school studies was almost entirely classic. For Greek he evinced a strong affection. Many a time has he told me that he was drawn towards the history of the Greeks by their refined sense of beauty, and the didactic nature of their drama, embodying as it did their religion, politics, and social existence.

Wagner never lost an opportunity of dilating upon, by speech and pen, what might accurately be described as the basis of all his art work. The drama of a nation, he persistently contended, was a faithful mirror of its people. Where the tone of the drama was base the people would be found degraded either through their own acts or the superior force of others. Where the mission of the national drama was the inculcation of high moral lessons, patriotism, and love, there the people were thrice blessed. This idea of a national drama for his fatherland possessed him. He longed to lift the German drama from its “miserable” condition, and his model was “the noble, perfect, grand, and heroic tragedy of the Hellenes.” These words I have quoted from a pamphlet, “The Work and Mission of my Life,” written less than ten years ago by Wagner. Their meaning is so clear and they summarize so accurately what Wagner in his younger days oft discussed with me that I am glad to add my testimony to what I know was the ambition of his life.

In his ardent struggles to found a national drama we clearly trace the young Dresden student. Here, indeed, is a plain incontestable instance of the boy as the father of the man. His school studies were pre-eminently Greek language and literature, and it was this which dominated almost the whole of his future career. Hellenic history permeated his entire being, and he gave it forth in the form and model of his immortal music-dramas, in the mode of their development, and in their close union between the stage story and the life of the people.

At school, translations of Æschylus by Apel, a German writer of mediocrity, constituted his chief textbooks. The tragedies suited so well the boy’s nature that he soon became possessed with a longing to read them in the original. So real and fruitful was his earnestness, that by the time he was thirteen he had translated at home, and entirely for his own gratification, several books of the “Odyssey.” This private home work was, he remembered, greatly encouraged by his mother, who, although untutored herself, revered, with a divination characteristic of women of the people, his efforts after a knowledge which she felt would surely be productive of future greatness. This piece of diligent extra school work is another of the many examples of the boy Wagner, “father to the man.” Hard worker he always was. Persistency of application characterized him throughout his life, and when it is stated that during this very period of the “Odyssey” translation, he was also privately studying English to read Shakespeare, who is not amazed at the extraordinary energy of the boy? No wonder that the school professors spoke flatteringly of him, and looked for great things from him, and no wonder that the fond mother felt confirmed in her belief that Richard “would become something,” and that Geyer’s dying utterance would not be falsified.


Wagner’s nature was that of a poet. The metrical skill of the Hellenes fascinated him and fostered his strongly marked sense of rhythm.

As regards mathematics, I never remember him in all our discussions to have uttered anything which might lead me to suppose he had ever any special liking for that branch of education, but at the same time I should add that his power of reasoning was at all times strong and lucid, as if based upon the precision acquired by close mathematical study. In all he did he was eminently logical.

His effort as a poet dates from a very early period. The incident, the death of a fellow-scholar, was just that which would touch a sensitive nature like Richard’s. A school prize was offered for an elegy, and Wagner, eleven years old, competed. The presence of death to him was at all times terrible in its awful annihilation of all consciousness. Whether in man or beast, it was sure to set him pondering on the “whither?” a question to which at a later period of his life he devoted much labour to satisfactorily answer. Although not twelve years old, death had robbed him of his father and step-father, and their dark shadows flitted before him, reviving sad memories which time had paled. It was under this spell that the elegy was written, and it is not astonishing that the prize was adjudged to him. The poem was printed, but, unhappily, not preserved. In telling me of this early creative effort, and in reply to a naturally expressed desire to hear his own opinion about it, he said that beyond the incident he had not the faintest remembrance of the style or wording of the poem, jocularly adding that he would himself much like to see his “Opus I.”

There was a halo of poetry about the Dresden school. Theodore Körner, the poet of freedom, was a pupil at the Kreuzschule up to 1808. His inspiriting songs were sung by old and young. Loved by all, his death, at the early age of twenty-two on the battle-field fighting for German freedom, made him the idol of his countrymen. The boys of his own school were intensely proud of him. To emulate Körner was the eager wish of every one of them, and into Wagner’s poetic nature the poetry of the man and the cause he sung sank deeper than with the rest. The battle-songs of the fiery young patriot received an immortal setting by Wagner’s idol, Weber.


The admiration of the future poet of “Tristan” for the genius of Shakespeare impelled him, as soon as he had sufficiently mastered English, to produce a metrical translation of Romeo’s famous soliloquy. This was done when he had hardly completed his fourteenth year. Up to this period, poetry unquestionably dominated him. All his essays had been literary. Nothing had been done in music. It was now, however, that his latent music forced itself out of him. Up to the time that he entered the Dresden school, in his ninth year, he had received absolutely no instruction in music, and during his five years of school life a few desultory piano lessons from a young tutor, who used to help him at home with his school exercises, embraced the whole of his musical tuition up to the age of fourteen. For the technical part of his music lessons he had a decided dislike. The dry study of fingering he greatly objected to, and to the last never acquired any rational finger method. When joked about his ridiculous clumsy fingering, he would reply with characteristic waggishness, “I play a great deal better than Berlioz,” who, it should be stated, could not play at all.


FOR some time Rosalie and Louisa, Richard’s two sisters, had been engaged at the Leipzic theatre, where they were very popular. Madame Geyer, desirous of being near her daughters and within easy reach of assistance, returned to Leipzic with the younger children and Richard with them. For ten years, from about 1818 to 1828, my father held the post of Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater, under the management of Küstner, a celebrated director. The period of Küstner’s management is famous in the annals of the German stage for the high intellectual tone that pervaded the performances under his direction. The names of some of the artists who appeared there are now historic. So high was the standard of excellence reached in these truly model performances, that the whole character of German stage representations was influenced and elevated by it. This was the theatre at which Rosalie and Louisa were engaged. These were the high artistic performances which the youthful poet Richard witnessed, and which deeply affected the impressionable embryo dramatist.


Of this period, actors, plays, and incidents, I had the most vivid remembrance from the close connection of my father with the theatre and the friendly intercourse of my family with the actors. Wagner would take great delight in discussing the performances and actors. He was fond, too, of hearing what I, in my boyhood, thought of the acting of his sisters, and from our frequent and intimate conversations, bearing on his youthful impressions of the stage, he uttered many striking and original remarks which will appear later on. A popular piece then was Weber’s “Sylvana,” in which Louisa performed the part of the forest child. This part apparently won the youthful admiration of both of us. Wagner’s remembrance of certain incidents connected with it was marvellous to me.

On his return to Leipzic, his first impulse drove him to visit the house in the Brühl in which he was born. Is it not possible that even at that early stage of his life his extraordinary ambition of “becoming something great” might have foreshadowed to him that the humble habitation of his childhood would later on bear the proud inscription, “Richard Wagner was born here”? What struck him at once as very strange was the foreign aspect of that part of the town where the Jews congregated. It was continually recruited by an increasing immigration of the nomadic Polish Jews, who seemed to have consecrated the Brühl their “Jerusalem,” as Wagner christened it and ever referred to it when speaking to me. The Polish Jews of that quarter traded principally in furs, from the cheapest fur-lined “Schlafrock” to the finest and most costly furs used by royalty. Their strange appearance with their all-covering gabardine, high boots, and large fur caps, worn over long curls, their enormous beards, struck Wagner as it did every one, and does still, as something very unpleasant and disagreeable. Their peculiarly strange pronunciation of the German language, their extravagantly wild gesticulations when speaking, seemed to his aesthetic mind like the repulsive movements of a galvanized corpse.


I was sorry to find that Wagner, although generally averse to acts of violence and oppression, was but little shocked at the unreasoned hatred and contempt of the Leipzic populace (especially the lower classes) for the Jews. Their innate thrift, frugality, and skill in trading, were regarded as avarice and dishonesty. Tales of unmitigated cruelty and horror perpetrated by the Jews floated in the brains of the lower Christian (?) populace. The murder of Christian infants for the sake of their blood, to be used in sacrifice of Jewish rites, was a commonplace rejoinder in justification of the suspicion and hatred against this unfortunate race. Crying babes were speedily silenced by the threat, “The Polish Jew is coming.” What wonder, then, to see what was almost a daily occurrence,—a number of Christian boys rush upon an unprotected, inoffensive Jew boy and mercilessly beat him to revenge the imaginary wrongs which the Jews were said to have done to Christian infants. Nor, I am sorry to add, did the fully grown Christian burgher interfere in such brutal scenes; the poor wretched victim, beaten by overwhelming numbers and rolled howling in the mud, was but a Jew boy! Strange to say, Wagner had imbibed some intuitive dislike to the Egyptian type of Hebrew, and never entirely overcame that feeling. No amount of reasoning could obliterate it at any period of his life, although he counted among his most devoted friends and admirers a great many of the oppressed race. Still considerably more odd is it that Wagner’s first attachment was for one of the black-eyed daughters of Judah. When passing in review our earliest impressions of school life, we naturally came to that never-to-be-forgotten period of the earliest blossoms of first love, which then revealed to me this remarkably strange episode. Events of everyday occurrence, which in the lives of ordinary mortals scarcely deserve mentioning, are invested with a significance in the lives of men whose destiny points to immortality. When Wagner came to this curious incident of his school life, amazed, I ejaculated, “a Jewess?” in a tone of “impossible!”

It was after a discussion of Jew-hating, and my pointing to the many friends and adherents he had among the Jews, he with his joyous outbreak of humor said, “After all, it was the dog’s fault,” referring to “Faust,” where Mephisto, as a large dog, lies “unter dem Ofen.” Then followed the story.

He had called at his sister Louisa’s house (by the way, he had an affection for this sister which, in our intimate converse, he likened to that which Goethe in his case speaks of as having for its basis the frontier where love of kin ends and love of sex commences), went to her room, where he found an enormous dog which attracted his attention. Any one acquainted with Wagner knew of his devoted attachment to dogs, of which I shall have more to say hereafter. Not many could understand an affection which included every dog in creation. Wagner would engage in long conversations with dogs, and in supplying their answers would infuse into them much of that caustic wit which philosophers of all ages and countries have so often and powerfully put into the mouth of animals. Richard Wagner delighted to make dumb pets speak scornfully of the boasted superiority of man, thinking that after all the animal’s quiet obedience to the prescribed laws of instinct was a surer guide than man’s vaunted free will and reasoning power. He was fond, too, of quoting Weber on such occasions, who, when his dog became disobedient, used to remark, “If you go on like that, you will at last become as silly and bad as a human being.”

The dog so wholly engrossed Richard’s attention that he failed to notice a visitor, Fräulein Leah David, who had come to fetch her dog, left at her friend’s house whilst paying visits in the neighbourhood. The young Jewess was of the same age as Richard, tall, and possessed that superior type of Oriental beauty more frequently found among the Portuguese Jews. She was on intimate terms with Louisa Wagner, who shortly after married one of the celebrated book publishers of Germany. Leah David made an immediate conquest of Richard. “I had never before been so close to so richly attired and beautiful a girl, nor addressed with such an animated eastern profusion of polite verbiage. It took me by surprise, and for the first time in my life I felt that indescribable bursting forth of first love.”


Wagner was invited to the house of her father, who, like most wealthy Jews, surrounded himself with artists of every kind. Indeed, it was there that Richard made many acquaintances which subsequently proved useful to him. There was an extravagant luxury in the ostentatious house of Herr David, which made the ambitious young student poignantly feel the frugal economy practised in his own home. Wagner’s imaginative brain always made him yearn for all the enjoyments that life could supply. Unlimited means was the roseate cloud that incessantly hovered before his longing fancy. In this respect he differs largely from most other creative great minds, who, by force of inventive genius, have conjured up worlds of power and riches, and yet have lived contentedly on the most modest fare and in the lowliest of habitations.