Richard Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer in Paris (1839-1842)

How Wagner invented his founding myth

By Ulrich Drüner 29 December 2020

© Giacomo Meyerbeer par M. Albitez,1842. Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra de Paris © akg-images / Album / Oronoz Richard Wagner à Paris. Portrait par Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1842. © Lebrecht Music Arts / Bridgeman Images

Richard Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer in Paris  (1839-1842)

From left to right:
Giacomo Meyerbeer par M. Albitez,1842. Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra de Paris © akg-images / Album / Oronoz
Richard Wagner à Paris. Portrait par Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1842. © Lebrecht Music Arts / Bridgeman Images

Published in his book, Richard Wagner: Die Inszenierung eines Lebens(*), Ulrich Drüner’s research is not without tarnishing Wagner’s image. His analysis sheds new light on the creative work of this exceptional artistic genius, but also weighs up the historic consequences stemming from it, the price of which over the years has been very high.

Born in Leipzig in 1813, Richard Wagner was 24 years old when he took up his post as Kapellmeister at the theatre in Riga. In the summer of 1837, in the far-off Lithuanian capital, he nurtured other ambitions. After Würzbourg, Magdebourg and Königsberg, the air most decidedly did not suit him. He had recently begun work on the composition of Rienzi, his third opera, a work which would later make his name on the great operatic stages of Europe. Before Rienzi, his first operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, had not yet been given an airing; that Wagner should have left for the conquest of the Parisian Mecca of opera with so little baggage seems daring at the very least. In writing to Eugene Scribe from Riga, the most admired librettist of his time, to ask him for a libretto, he was behaving like an inexperienced young film-maker who, after two failures, invites himself to Hollywood to make a film tailored for the Oscars. Scribe did not reply.

Wagner fled Riga in July 1839, crippled with debts, and reached England with his wife. He then stayed in Boulogne-sur-Mer where fashionable Paris had its coastal retreat. Amongst its regular visitors, the seaside resort counted the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, as Parisian as he was Berliner and whose works Robert le diable and Les Huguenots had received triumphant acclaim in Paris. These two works had made him the uncontested master of “Grand Opera”, of the “total art work”, a genre from which Wagner had already drawn inspiration for his Rienzi. Meyerbeer, whom Wagner had previously contacted whilst in Riga, received him at his hotel in Boulogne and did not conceal the strong impression that the libretto and the music of Rienzi had made on him. He promised his young compatriot to do his best to help him.

Once in Paris, the Wagner couple, on whom luck had not yet smiled, set up home in the Rue de la Tonnellerie, in a rather poor area on the right bank.

Letters of recommendation from Meyerbeer arrived at last! The celebrated composer had reached Berlin where His Majesty, the king of Prussia, appointed him as his Generalmusikdirektor. For Wagner, the routine of the fledgling composer began: suing for introductions, meeting personalities as amiable as they were little inclined to pursue their acquaintance with him. Our young hero had only one success under his belt: the performance of the overture to his Columbus. But that did not bring in a penny and his savings were melting away like ice on a summer’s day.

The letters he wrote to his master became more and more urgent. In response, Meyerbeer put him in contact with the editor Maurice Schlesinger. Wagner, like so many of his colleagues, all pinched by hunger and eager to work for a morsel of bread, had to resign himself to performing meagre writing tasks to survive: a far cry from his grandiose projects.

Schlesinger was not the first music editor to come to Paris, where there were a hundred or so of them. A Jew of Berlin origin like Meyerbeer, he had edited Robert le diable and Les Huguenots and, thanks to his fellow countryman, had earned a handsome fortune. How could he not have shown consideration towards this young protégé who was so warmly recommended? Thus it was that in December 1840, Schlesinger hired Wagner for a nine-month period and paid him 4,570 francs. A considerable sum, it corresponded at the time to the annual income of a university lecturer and was twice that of a professional musician. Prolonged over a whole year, that is 6080 francs, Wagner’s salary was close to that of a president of the Parisian tribunal. Schlesinger was, therefore, very generous and our musician, paid like a prince. In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner nevertheless accused Schlesinger of being “a monstrous acquaintance”, of paying him below the usual rate and of “exploiting” him with “humiliating” tasks. These accusations, made in 1865, came very late. Indeed, in his letters from 1841, Wagner evokes the good humour and entente cordiale that prevailed between himself and his editor, as well as his “exacting” but “indispensable” work.

How does one explain these contradictory opinions twenty-five years apart?

The autobiography that King Louis II of Bavaria commissioned from Wagner in 1865, was destined, according to its author, to serve as a “beacon of truth” for posterity. Reading the 5,000 pages of Wagnerian prose, of all possible truths, the only valid one as far as our composer was concerned was that which served his own interests as a creator. Now, 1865 was also the year in which Wagner was to give the first performance of three operas, Das Reingold, Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde. It was out of the question that our brilliant fugitive

“unjustly” hounded and “starved” by his enemies, should admit to his monarch that he was a paltry manager. Indeed, between 1839 and 1842, in spite of his comfortable Parisian income, “Wagner was poor”, for lack of being sensible. The forthcoming performance of his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, prompted him to move into a spacious flat in the opulent Rue du Helder, which he furnished luxuriously. Unfortunately, his opera was never played and Wagner found himself with debts amounting to 6,250 francs and pursued by his creditors until 1845.

The “truth” about Wagner is contained in this paradox: amid luxury, his genius was stimulated; but amid disaster, it was heightened as never before. It was in Paris that the miracle occurred. Having left the luxurious apartment in the Rue du Helder, he withdrew to a hovel in Meudon where, in eight weeks, he composed his fourth opera, Die Fliegende Holländer, his first stroke of genius. This contradiction regarding creative conditions was to accompany him all his life. From the sensual exaltation of brocades and perfumes as much as from the stress of financial worries, Wagner drew the excitement and nervousness from which his creative impulse sprang. This mental state was indispensable to his ability to transform a diffuse emotion into a work fashioned by his intellect. How could such explanations of the origin of genius, its demands and its fragility have interested a young monarch of eighteen, obsessed as he was by the role of Lohengrin sailing his boat on a lake guided by a swan?

Publication de la traduction française de l'essai antisémite
Publication de la traduction française de l'essai antisémite "Das Judenthum in der Musik" de Richard Wagner, 1869. © Coll. B. Borowski / adoc-photos

To make himself heard in a world not yet his own, Wagner realised that he had to invent his own legend. And therefore re-write history. As early as 1845, he took up part of his “red notebook” again, a private journal that he had been writing since 1835 in view of a future autobiography that would be entirely advantageous to himself. The “Paris myth” appeared for the first time in an 1852 text, Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde, then in a more extensive version in 1865 under the title Meine Leben. In this autobiographical account, Wagner tells of being virtually dead of hunger in Paris as a result of Schlesinger’s ill-treatment, but also of being harassed by “intrigues” fomented against him by his “rival” Meyerbeer. Having died the previous year, Meyerbeer could not contradict him and establish the truth of the matter. And the truth was that, as early as 1840, Meyerbeer recommended Rienzi and Die fliegender Holländer to theatre directors in Dresden and Berlin, an undertaking that marked the real beginning of Richard Wagner’s career. The two operas were performed in Dresden in 1842 and 1843 and in Berlin from 1844 onwards.

In reality, the quarrel between the two men went back to 1850, when Meyerbeer created the eponymous figure of his opera Le Prophète, based on Jean de Leyde. This character, however, stole the limelight from Siegfried, the Wagnerian hero par excellence, for which Wagner had produced the first sketches in 1848. Whilst the prophet and Siegfried are both pure Hegelian heroes, their respective interpretations are worlds apart. For Wagner, he assumes the features of a redeemer; for Meyerbeer, those of a tyrant. Placing these two mythical figures within human history, Meyerbeer was probably in the right of it, not Wagner. On stage, their heroes have in common the fact of declaring themselves, in Hegelian vein, to be the only ones capable of ensuring man’s salvation. Wagner, understanding in time the foreseeable failure of his Siegfried, entrusted his heroine, Brünnhilde, and not his hero, with the power of redeeming humanity, an unprecedented role in that misogynous century. But in 1850, Wagner decided to attack Meyerbeer directly, calling him a “prophet maker” and aiming at him a redoubtable arrow that was to have heavy consequences: his pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik (September 1850, re-edited countless times).

The Parisians Schlesinger and Meyerbeer gave Wagner a pretext, in a classic example of anti-Semitic extrapolation, to denounce each Jewish artist as an enemy. History teaches us that, in every era, genius and heroes have committed similar betrayals in the construction of their defining narratives. For Wagner, the “myth” was enacted from 1839 until 1842, in the “wicked” city that was Paris where, he claimed, he narrowly escaped dying in prison. In 1850, he once more proclaimed:

“The revolution can only rise from the ashes of Paris”. These terrible words almost made him the “prophet” of 1914 and of 1939!

For a long time, the French capital continued to be the target of Wagnerian controversies. In 2013, at the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, his unfounded reproaches were still common currency. They had been so useful! Neither in 1870 nor in 1914, even less in 1939 or later in 1950 were German

Wagner scholars tempted to seek proof in order to confirm, or not, the falsified financial information that the composer had chosen to mention in his autobiography. Whilst, until 2013, the authority of that instructive though sulphurous autobiography was contested, such contestations were marginal for lack of documents. It is only since the major periodicals and other documents of the period have been put on line that we have been able to deconstruct these legends which are nothing but pure falsehoods. Wagner earned a lot of money in Paris, but he wasted even more. As for Meyerbeer, he never plotted against him, as the correspondence and journals of the Berlin composer, accessible for the last ten years or so, can testify. It is vain to seek in them the slightest explanation of the wrath of his worst enemy, Wagner. The myth was not, however, debunked: it continued to dominate Wagnerian biography until 2013. It was high time to put an end to it.

(*) Richard Wagner. Die Inszenierung eines Lebens. Biografie. München, Blessing 2016

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