Wagner, the first European composer! If the name of the composer sounds more German than the noun “Germany”, the artist, himself always in search of notoriety and success that he could not find within the borders of the German Empire, exiled in his younger years to find recognition… elsewhere. And these new horizons, Wagner would seek them from London to Saint Petersburg, passing by Paris, Venice or Zurich, places that were as much living places as places of musical creation and artistic inspiration.
After the failure he suffered in Magdeburg, Richard Wagner was deep in debt; the composer and music director of the troupe of which he tried a final rescue personally went into debt. Having to find a new job, Wagner went to Berlin for the first time in May 1836, hoping to be appointed as Kapellmeister at the Theatre in Königsberg.
He also hoped to have The Ban on Love (Das Liebesverbot) performed at the Königstadt Theatre in the suburbs of Berlin, an attempt that led to no follow-up. The talks were long, very long for the composer to whom the director Anton Jolie had promised to ensure the direction of the 1836-1837 season. “Uncertain situation” noted Wagner in his notebooks, during the summer of 1836.
Curiously, it was the career of Minna, Wagner’s fiancee, that emerged more quickly in Könisgberg. The young actress indeed entered more quickly than her husband into a contract with the town Theatre. Wagner, still waiting for his official appointment, followed his fiancee to Könisgberg. He married her in the Tragheim church on 24 November, 1836.
While awaiting his official appointment at the head of the Theatre, Wagner, champing at the bit, began the composition of an Overture on the British theme Rule Britannia.
Because, in fact, the position promised to Wagner was not as vacant as it was announced. On his arrival in Königsberg, the composer had to face the facts: a certain Louis Schubert was already in charge of the orchestra; temporarily, certainly, while waiting for the reopening of the Riga Theatre which he managed and that was closed for some time. But this “temporary” situation settled and lasted:
“Yet this reopening of the Riga Theatre, which should have already taken place at Easter, was delayed” (Mein Leben). Pending his official appointment, Wagner accepted a post as deputy chief.
On 1 April, 1837, Wagner finally obtained the vacant position of Musikdirektor at the Königsberg Theatre. But Königsberg proved to be an even more resounding failure in the career of the young composer and theatre director than Magdeburg: as soon as he was appointed to the desired and long-awaited post, the bankruptcy of the Theatre seemed inevitable.
Despite Wagner’s personal efforts to save the Theatre and its troupe – “I gave it a precious help here because, thanks to the advice I gave it and the ardour I put into my efforts, I helped keep the damaged ship afloat.”(Mein Leben) – the sentence fell like a guillotine blade:
” I had to realize that the management by the director Hübsch had imposed too heavy sacrifices for his company to resist the attacks of a harmful season. In May he revealed to me himself that he would have to close his theatre. “(Mein Leben)
The troupe was dispersed again, and Wagner, who with this post expected to meet his needs and repay his debts, found himself again with the prospect of pressing creditors.
Wagner himself would say that this year spent in Königsberg was for naught – “a year lost hoping“, a year during which the artistic creation of a Wagner, too entangled in his personal and financial problems, was reduced to nothing but a sinsgspiel, The Happy Bear Family (Die lutige Bärenfamilie), inspired by the Stories within One Thousand and One Nights, started in Königsberg, continued in Riga, but that never materialised.
On the household side, alas, things were not doing better, and during his stay in Königsberg, Wagner deplored his wife Minna’s ever-increasing fits of anger, who then ended up leaving the marital home to run away with a trader named
“Dietrich“, according to Wagner, “a rich merchant who set himself up as a protector for the ladies” (Mein Leben).
Material security, perhaps love, prevailed over the dreams of recognition and glory of her unfortunate husband.
It was both in the hope of obtaining the same material comfort and to save his relationship that Wagner left Königsberg. First he went to Dresden where he hoped to reconquer Minna, then went to Berlin so as to obtain the coveted position of music director at the Riga Theatre. Because moving to Riga – which consisted at the time of an important German community although under Russian jurisdiction – was Wagner’s opportunity to flee the creditors of East Prussia, Magdeburg and Königberg. But these talks, a Wagner seething with impatience and disillusioned said, lasted … an eternity according to him. On 15 June, 1837, Wagner finally signed with Karl von Holtei, – “a dramatic poet quite popular in the world of theatre” (Mein Leben) -, as director of the Riga Theatre.
While awaiting his appointment, Wagner temporarily went back to his parents’ home in Dresden. He came across the novel by Bulwer-Lytton, Cola di Rienzi. The composer saw in it a project for a new opera, a work more up to date, a “Grand Opéra à la française“; the “Pompeian” work of the English novelist indeed lended itself better to multiple effects such as ensembles, marches or bravura arias. At the end of July 1837, Wagner drafted the scenario for the future Rienzi, which was to be staged in Dresden five years later, on 20 October, 1842.
But for the time being, fleeing was what mattered (without Minna, who did not respond to her husband’s desperate appeals), fleeing creditors and hoping for a more favourable personal and professional future: on 25 July, 1837 Wagner left Dresden, via Berlin, Schwerin and Lübeck.
The first sea travel of the composer was to take him to the next stage of his career : Riga!