Wagner, Richard Wilhelm

In Zurich the Wagners were again miserably poor, and perhaps small wonder that practical Minna could not understand her husband's attitude in refusing to pander to public taste. There were their own necessities to provide for, and also their share in the support of her parents. While devoting himself to creative work, there were but meager returns from performances of the operas. Wagner, though   of tireless industry "his chief vices: working and dreaming" often could not pay his own way; the man whose operas years later were to bring in an annual profit of $50,000 had at various periods in his life to make of himself a beggar in order to guard for himself time in which to write these operas. Biographers not a few find this hard to forgive; others who speak of "splendid mendicancy " assert that no shame should be attached to this mendicancy, the world profiting so greatly thereby. And of a truth all Wagner asked at this time was " a small house, with meadow and a little garden; to work with zest and joy." For several years he was provided regularly by Frau Julie Ritter with a small sum, and to the faithful Liszt he seldom turned in vain, Liszt giving joyfully; only sorry that he could not send as freely as once he had been able. But in spite of the good friends there were days so dark Wagner not infrequently harbored the thought of ending it all by ending his life. Ill health was probably at the bottom of these moods quite as often as outward circumstances, for Wagner was never robust, almost his whole life being tormented by frequent attacks of erysipelas, and for year a sufferer from dyspepsia and overworn nerves. His devotion to his art and his persistence therein in the face of continued public indifference, miserable health and poverty, was nothing short of marvelous. But it would be misleading not to call attention to what of cheer there was in the long days of exile, not to refer to the circle of valued friends, to Wagner's liking of the sturdy Swiss people, and to his deep love for the beauty of the land. He rejoiced, too, in the solitude, and it was amid the beauty and quiet of his exile surroundings that there came the dream of the Nibelung poem, the shaping and finishing of the great Tetralogy. Early in 1854 the four poems were finished; by midwinter of 1855 the scores of Rheingold and Walküre were completed, and work begun on the music of Siegfried. And at this time the story of Tristan and Isolde and the story of Parsifal were beginning to appeal to his imagination; this is the period of his coming under the influence of Schopenhauer, whose influence marks subsequent work.

A letter from London arrived late in 1854 inquiring if he would accept the post of conductor of the Philharmonic Society, followed later by an offer of $1000 for the four months of service. The music critics derided him throughout his stay in London. They announced that he was no musician at all; spoke of the absolute chaos of the so-called music written by him, and did their utmost to defame him and themselves. But the members of the orchestra, recognizing a great leader, rallied to his support, the Queen showed him marked favor, the public did not accept the critics' judgment as final; and, though again and again tempted to resign, he remained in the uncongenial situation to the last concert. He had found time in London to practically finish the first two acts of Walkure, and on his return to Switzerland occupied himself for some time with the Nibelung. In 1856 the Walkure was completed, and two acts of Siegfried were finished. Then he turned to Tristan and Isolde, proceeding with the opera in a charming retreat on a height overlooking the lake of Lucerne. It was here that the genial music of the second act of Siegfried was written, and then Nibelung was laid aside that the story of Tristan and Isolde might take its place. Early in 1857 the poem was ready, and the music of the first act was written the same year. The second act of the great love story progressed and reached completion in the congenial environment of Venice; but the Saxon official not allowing him long refuge in Venice, he went on to Lucerne, and there finished the opera. On its completion there followed the old story of delay, and it was seven years before the first presentation was given of this greatest of love stories in opera form. Meanwhile ill health, poverty and domestic difficulties added their quota to Wagner's hapless struggles. Minna, suffering from failing health, had developed an irritability and suspiciousness that found vent in private and public outburst. She kept his house carefully, she made the most of their irregular income; but to offset these were her excitability, her lack of faith in her husband's genius, her asking him when he railed at the public taste: "Why don't you write something for the gallery?" In the autumn of 1859 the pair were together in Paris, pleasantly established in a quiet street and Wagner ready to make an effort to get his work to public notice. He succeeded in arranging for a number of concerts at the Theatre Ventadour, at which concert selections were given from Der Fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser, and Tristan, and aroused much enthusiasm, although the concerts were attended by a large financial loss loss increased rather than repaired by added ones given at Brussels.