As silence fell after the first few bars of the ouverture to his opera Der Bärenhäuter (the man with the bear skin), Siegfried Wagner — conductor on this occasion — knew well that the Parisian public of the Place du Châtelet had come to measure, in the programme which followed: Dusk of the Gods, ouverture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The mastersingers of Nuremberg), written in the little hotel Quai Voltaire (a name dear to Bayreuth habitués), Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), for ever stranded on the flanks of the hill of Meudon, or the posthumous homage of the Siegfried Idyll (to the young man who has to be tolerated, like it or not, as one’s ancestor, as the poet says), the flight of the eaglet against that of the eagle; but strangely, neither Tannhäuser nor Lohengrin appeared on the advertisement for this concert in spring 1900, and this in defiance of all efforts at conciliation by him whose father was given, 40 years ago, the well-known reception by the fathers of his Théâtre du Châtelet audience.
This was on 13th march 1861: Tannhäuser première; the partisans of princess Metternich and the ‘Haute banque allemande’ — a term used at the time — were going to confront the countess Waleska, the minister’s wife, supported by the court of Napoleon III and the subscribers of Paris Opera. Between the two camps, a melomane warrior, marshall Magnan, habitué of the Théâtre Italien where he had heard and appreciated fragments of Wagner’s works. The composer himself was there, and fully there, given that since the rehearsals he had succeeded in pitting against himself all of the theatre managers, insisted on the removal of the leader of the claque, the famous M. David, demanded the replacement of the conductor, M. Dietsch, and, according to Alphonse Royer, the unfortunate director, found an unpleasant word for just about everybody, except perhaps this expression of sympathy with the pretty Mlle Sax who was pursued by a satyr-musician escaped from his woods: ‘Don’t touch Sax, oh faun!’, which subsequently did not do any good to his own soirées with the orchestra...
The signal came from the members of the Jockey-Club, since Wagner, placing his ‘Bacchanale’ in the first act, refused to work for their opera glasses. Hence, domestic servants were installed in the cheapest seats; they were equipped with hunting whistles and with little toy dogs that barked on having their bellies pressed; whistlers of good will were enlisted, placed under the theatre’s peristyle, who were paid an advance before putting two fingers in their mouth by way of prelude; some protest was raised against the ‘Bacchanale’ (the sovereigns were in their box), a few whistles were to be heard, targeting the duet Venus-Tannhäuser which was never-ending, but it was the minstrels’ contest that unleashed the storm. ‘Enough, enough!’, howled a delirious hall shaken by inextinguishable laughter, while a clown, making the most of a moment of calm, began to whistle: ‘I have good tocacco in my snuffbox...’, a hit tune immediately taken up by the choirs whose volume was second only to its improvisation. A smell of burning, which for a moment was hanging in the air, prompted a cry: ‘Wagner has set the theatre on fire’, while the grammarians (they existed in those times!) conjugated in unison and in all modes, the verb ‘I Tannhäuse’. Critical review was not behind: ‘It is certain that if M. Wagner succeeded in pouring, to the Parisians, Suresnes wine in the place of Bordeaux, he could hope to serve them, later, vinegar and make them find it excellent’, Jouvin wrote in ‘Le Figaro’. And Henri Rochefort predicting: ‘How could one dare put a pack of dogs into a grand opera? Why not? It was pretty clear that at the third perform-ance not a cat would be left in the hall...’.
The alchemy of Lohengrin tolerated hardly any better the clamour of these patriots who prevented the performances of the Eden (director Carvalho having refused the Opera-Comique this piece) by heckling directly the conductor Lamoureux — true-blue Bordelais — who was enjoined by a probable admirer of Rouget de Lisle to sing La Marseillaise, request immediately supported by the ‘Vive la France!’ of two spectators in the pit, on the point of suffering a stroke, the whole in this rare atmosphere of chemical smells which were exhaled by the tubes of assafoetida or the capsules of Richer quintessence.
Given these unqualifiable soirées, would it really be surprizing that Wagner poured scorn on the French of 1879, or despised the pink make-up and the rice powder used by French women (Judith Gautier was to teach him that a good complexion comes from Paris alone), these same French who had let him wander, half-starved, in the woods of Meudon, hunting the odd mushroom, or who had sent him on foot to Bordeaux, equipped with a sealed letter from the director of the Conservatoire, Cherubini (‘I am sending you this abominable nerve-racking person to rid myself of him, get rid of him yourself as best you can’), to his colleague, the director of the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux. More astonishing are other declarations, of a later date, it is true: ‘I am supposed to bear a grudge because they whistled at my Tannhäuser? Are they sure, first of all, to have heard it, as it really is?’ Aubert knew, ‘the time of sincere music had not yet come’, or ‘the French, that’s nothing compared to what my compatriots in Germany did to me, prigs who take themselves seriously because they have a doctor’s degree... The tripe they write in the philosophical style remains tripe...’; and Wagner adding, fifteen years later: ‘Still today, it is from Paris that I receive the most flattering appreciation and what is more, I have the assurance that when the French perform my dramas, no other people will perform them as they do’.
Well-known, too, the admiration of Baudelaire, Champfleury, Schuré, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and many others for the composer of Tristan und Isolde, but let us leave the (nearly) last word to Catulle Mendès who did have reason to complain: ‘I limit myself to not giving him the hands that applaud him’.
It is Mallarmé who in the Wagner affair will have the most decisive influence and to the end will remain a fervent admirer of Wagnerian music. During the time of intellectual freedom conceded by Janson de Sailly, ‘the miserable, far-away lycée’ (fifteen minutes from his home by ‘petite ceinture’ inner circle railway, to which five minutes on foot have to be added) and the other establishments where he served towards and against the school inspectorate, against badly informed families and in spite of a difficult state of health (‘for 30 years he unfailingly accomplished this heavy task’, his daughter Geneviève notes with bitterness),Stéphane Mallarmé attends assiduously the Concerts Lamoureux or Pasdeloup, collaborates with Verlaine in ‘La Revue Wagnérienne’, acclaims the noble attitude of Nerval, Banville, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendès, Judith Gautier going on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, speaks of the Opera of Garnier due to be inaugurated on 5 january 1875, insisting that on this occasion a French composer should appear on the posters or, failing which, he adds ‘only one thing could be done: by all means takeTannhäuser and by a display of extraordinary glory take revenge for the outrage formerly committed against this work in the name of France, by about a hundred louts’; the Poet adding however, brave but objective: ‘an even more impossible solution, since the arms, since Alsace, since the blood!’
Mallarmé, translator of E.A. Poe, will he not, in his personal ride towards the Eldorado, don the livery of Marasquin, of Miss Satin or of Madame de Ponty, advising his female readers to choose a corset at Le Bon Marché; that of Brébant’s ‘Chef-de-Bouche’ in the field of gastronomy or that of Marliani, Interior Decorator, prince of the Salons; all this small needle-work which helped him to acquire a modest sailing boat, not exactly comparable, of course, to the Thetis (or should one say, the Flying Dutchman?) which took Wagner from Norway to Boulogne in July 1839... It was necessary, let’s face it, to ‘feed the furnaces of the Great Work!’...
In fact, music might have better responded to Mallarmé’s ambitions than language, the poet writing in Divagations: ‘Music joins verse, since Wagner, to form poetry’ and also ‘each soul is a melody’. The typographical arrangement of Un coup de dés... resembles, does it not, that of musical scores.
Last analogy Wagner/Mallarmé in this dialogue ‘animus/anima’: the women. Their names are Schroeder-Devrient, Minna Planer, Mathilde Maier, Jessie Laussot, Cosima Liszt, Judith Gautier, Marie, Méry Laurent or Berthe Morisot whose fiery look on Manet’s canvas evokes the immortal Carmen of his neighbour Bizet, in Bougival; these inspirers or egerias, surrounded by a pleiad of ‘beaux esprits’ or artists without whom nothing would have been possible: Renoir, Degas, Monet, von Lenbach or others; all of them and individually, all things considered and at the end of the quest, Kundry, Elsa, Elisabeth, if not Isolde...
Here, another story begins.
Claude d'Esplas (The Music Lesson)
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Recital Vagnera Zale, Riga (3-5-1993)
DVD Monsegur Vaillant in Moscow — ADG/Paris 2000