Orpheus in his Underwear

Harold James

In 1892 the English Wagnerphile Mary Burrell tracked down a proof copy of the autobiography dictated by Wagner covering the first 51 years of his life, which had been printed privately in an edition of only 15 for his friends and patrons. She was appalled: she believed the picture Mein Leben gave of Wagner was so unpleasant that the work must have been a forgery by the Master’s enemies. The book was only published, in a version made doubly inaccurate by dependence on the sloppily-printed private edition and by deliberate excision of controversial passages, in 1911. In 1963 it appeared in its complete form, based on a transcript of Cosima Wagner’s manuscript. This is now available in English.

It is easy to see why Mrs Burrell was so shocked. Mein Leben contradicts the late 19th-century picture of the composer painted by his widow and a band of rather unsavoury disciples – most prominently among them, the racist ‘philosopher’ Houston Stewart Chamberlain – and after that by Cosima’s English daughter-in-law, Winifred. Wagner proved for many Englishmen and women the perfect expression of the night-side of European life: the first of these strange disciples, Jessie Laussot, makes her appearance in Mein Leben as one of Wagner’s mistresses in his years of exile. But in Mein Leben there is little of the dark side. What we find instead is a very characteristic early 19th-century hero: a kind of Lucien de Rubempré, leaping from misfortune to extravagant fortune and then falling again, running at full pace up and down metaphorical mountains (as well as real ones: there are lyrical passages in the book describing Wagner’s highly energetic walking tours in the Swiss Alps). We have Wagner, still nominally at school, as a student gambler, duellist and dissolute, saved only by the most amazing luck from the grasp of dangerous enemies. Then he began composing, and also sketching opera plots; his family thought they had done well for the young man in obtaining a post for him as conductor at the Magdeburg Theatre. It turned out to be a disaster: Wagner was not paid properly; and after a performance of his opera was cancelled because the cast had beaten itself bloody in a brawl before the curtain went up, he had to leave Magdeburg. Worse still: he had only stayed with the Magdeburg company because he had met, and fallen for, an ambitious actress Minna Planer, who had an illegitimate daughter and saw an opportunity for herself in bedding the theatre conductor when he was drunk. Wagner married her: not long afterwards she ran away with a rich burgher called Dietrich. Wagner tracked the pair down to a Dresden hotel bedroom. His wife’s good looks had got Wagner a job in Königsberg: now he had to leave because of the Dietrich scandal. He went to Riga, where he was dismissed after two seasons, and from there to Paris, like all impoverished Lucien de Rubemprés, in order to meet the great.

In 1842 his family’s money baled him out and he returned to Germany. His opera Rienzi was an immediate success in Dresden and won him a post as Royal Saxon Kapellmeister. Minna was delighted: Wagner had made it. Then he spoilt it all: he became involved in the politics of 1848, made a speech attacking the Court, and in May 1849 appeared on the barricades alongside Bakunin. By chance (again) he escaped being imprisoned and thus avoided a likely death sentence. The rest of Mein Leben describes Wagner’s exile, spent mostly in Switzerland, but with interludes in Paris, London, Wiesbaden and Vienna. Again there were terrible money worries; and the book ends, like a Balzac novel, when the troubles are over. He has found the perfect woman, Cosima, wife of his young protégé Hans von Bülow, and he has found a loyal patron, the King of Bavaria. On the last page he hears of the death of his old enemy, the German-born Parisian composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wendelin Weissheimer, a minor German composer and Wagner groupie, provides the epitaph by ‘bursting out into harsh laughter at the strange coincidence that this operatic master, who had done so much harm, should not have lived to see this day’.

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