MAGDEBURG, RIGA, PARIS, 1834-1842.
The trade he had chosen was that of operatic conductor. It was not until eight years later that he made a serious debut as an operatic composer. The Forbidden Love (Das Liebesverbot) is entirely unknown to me; but it may be doubted whether Wagner, with his head full of confused ideas, and as yet no definite and distinctive plan or method, could at this time produce a great work of art. He had to pass through his Rienzi period first. But two points may be remarked. Already he had determined to make his own librettos; and his early association with the theatre enabled him to judge much better than any of the libretto-makers of that or any other time as to what would prove effective on the stage. In the second place, in the music of The Fairies, we see to what an extent he had assimilated Weber; the themes are Weberesque in outline, and the whole colour—colour of harmony and orchestration—is also Weberesque. He went on planning and writing operas, but his daily bread-earning work was rehearsing his company and conducting. The experience must have been invaluable to him; but there is nothing especially remarkable to record of the period. He himself left an account of the failure of The Forbidden Love, which was produced in 1836. The company went to pieces immediately after, and he was glad to find a position at Koenigsberg. This, however, came to nothing, or next to nothing, owing to the director’s failure, and again Wagner had to remove, this time to Riga.
The Riga period is one of the most important of his life. He had married Minna Planer, who is said to have been a very pretty woman and quite incapable of understanding her husband and his artistic aspirations; and he began, slowly and tentatively, to shape a course through life for himself. He continued to gain experience in the production of other composers’ operas; he studied incessantly, and at last he hit upon the idea of writing a grand opera in the Meyerbeer style, and going to Paris with it, in the hope of getting it produced at the opera there. He was harassed by creditors; and with the daring and energy characteristic of the man whom Fate had destined to build Bayreuth, he determined to try by one bold stroke to retrieve his fortunes. He was still a young man when he went to Riga in 1837, but he was in such a feverish hurry for fame and glory, not to say money, that no obstacle was allowed to stand in his way. During the last few years he had composed a number of occasional things—which we need not stop to consider—but nothing on the sumptuous scale of Rienzi. Heroic personages, dramatic or melodramatic situations, opportunities for huge gaily-dressed crowds and scenic display—these were what the young man was after; and in the story of Rienzi he found plenty to fire an imagination always prone to flame and flare at the slightest suggestion. The libretto was written; the music was partly written; and in 1839 Wagner took one of the most momentous steps in all his stormy career—he sailed from Riga, accompanied by his wife and dog, with the intention of reaching Paris by way of London.