Still, the theatre was his first love, a love rather intensified than otherwise when his mother removed back again to Leipzig and Richard was sent to Nicolai Lyceum. How the family lived at this time is hard to say, but probably it was done through the help of his sister and other relatives. Anyhow, it was not till later that Wagner learnt the meaning of the word poverty, and then it entered like iron into his soul; and in the meantime he got a good general education. Leipzig was then hardly more musical than Dresden. Bach had worked and died there; Mozart, not so long before Wagner’s birth, had visited it and got to know some of Bach’s motets by the astounding process of memorizing the separate parts and putting them together mentally. It was far from being the busy, if somewhat philistine, musical centre we know to-day. It had its Gewandhaus concerts, but their state may be inferred from a report written by Mendelssohn long afterwards, in which he spoke of dismissing the incompetents of the band, who went away as men who had lost their bread. It had its opera, which was doubtless as good as the average German opera of the time. But without a conservatoire, without musicians of the first rank, with its middling orchestra, it cannot be compared with, say, Vienna, where the very air breathed music and great musical traditions and memories abounded. Bach, the poor organist and schoolmaster, was little more than a name to all save his pupils and their pupils. His Matthew Passion lay there untouched, with the dust thick on it, and there it remained until Mendelssohn had it sung a century after its first and only previous performance.
Here Wagner took lessons on the pianoforte from Gottlieb Mueller, and never learnt to play. Later he worked at counterpoint with Weinlig. But at first the drama and not music continued to hold his attention. He studied Greek plays and Shakespeare, and his highest ambition was to achieve a stupendous drama which in the matter of sensations and murders should eclipse anything yet done. But it dawned upon him that without music his play could not make its full and proper effect, so into music he went, and was at once caught in the impetuous torrent of the time. He could not play, but he could read scores, and soon all Beethoven was as well known to him as his mother’s face. Accounts, more or less trustworthy, are given of his singing and whistling the chamber works; and it is an undoubted fact that he made a pianoforte transcription—one would much like to see it—of the Choral Symphony. He tried his hand at composition, and wrote some things that are without value; he sketched one opera which came to nothing, and in 1833 completed another, The Fairies (Die Feen_), which was not produced till more than fifty years afterwards. The following year he was appointed conductor of the Magdeburg Theatre, and with this appointment may be said to end his apprenticeship to the trade he was to follow for some years.