In Leipzig there were two higher-class schools, one called St. Thomas’s School, and the other, and the more modern, St. Nicholas’s School. The latter at that time enjoyed a better reputation than the former; so there I had to go. But the council of teachers before whom I appeared for my entrance examination at the New Year (1828) thought fit to maintain the dignity of their school by placing me for a time in the upper third form, whereas at the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden I had been in the second form. My disgust at having to lay aside my Homer–from which I had already made written translations of twelve songs–and take up the lighter Greek prose writers was indescribable. It hurt my feelings so deeply, and so influenced my behaviour, that I never made a friend of any teacher in the school. The unsympathetic treatment I met with made me all the more obstinate, and various other circumstances in my position only added to this feeling. While student life, as I saw it day by day, inspired me ever more and more with its rebellious spirit, I unexpectedly met with another cause for despising the dry monotony of school regime. I refer to the influence of my uncle, Adolph Wagner, which, though he was long unconscious of it, went a long way towards moulding the growing stripling that I then was.
The fact that my romantic tastes were not based solely on a tendency to superficial amusement was shown by my ardent attachment to this learned relative. In his manner and conversation he was certainly very attractive; the many-sidedness of his knowledge, which embraced not only philology but also philosophy and general poetic literature, rendered intercourse with him a most entertaining pastime, as all those who knew him used to admit. On the other hand, the fact that he was denied the gift of writing with equal charm, or clearness, was a singular defect which seriously lessened his influence upon the literary world, and, in fact, often made him appear ridiculous, as in a written argument he would perpetrate the most pompous and involved sentences. This weakness could not have alarmed me, because in the hazy period of my youth the more incomprehensible any literary extravagance was, the more I admired it; besides which, I had more experience of his conversation than of his writings. He also seemed to find pleasure in associating with the lad who could listen with so much heart and soul. Yet unfortunately, possibly in the fervour of his discourses, of which he was not a little proud, he forgot that their substance, as well as their form, was far above my youthful powers of comprehension. I called daily to accompany him on his constitutional walk beyond the city gates, and I shrewdly suspect that we often provoked the smiles of those passers-by who overheard the profound and often earnest discussions between us. The subjects generally ranged over everything serious or sublime throughout the whole realm of knowledge. I took the most enthusiastic interest in his copious library, and tasted eagerly of almost all branches of literature, without really grounding myself in any one of them.
My uncle was delighted to find in me a very willing listener to his recital of classic tragedies. He had made a translation of Oedipus, and, according to his intimate friend Tieck, justly flattered himself on being an excellent reader.
I remember once, when he was sitting at his desk reading out a Greek tragedy to me, it did not annoy him when I fell fast asleep, and he afterwards pretended he had not noticed it. I was also induced to spend my evenings with him, owing to the friendly and genial hospitality his wife showed me. A very great change had come over my uncle’s life since my first acquaintance with him at Jeannette Thome’s. The home which he, together with his sister Friederike, had found in his friend’s house seemed, as time went on, to have brought in its train duties that were irksome. As his literary work assured him a modest income, he eventually deemed it more in accordance with his dignity to make a home of his own. A friend of his, of the same age as himself, the sister of the aesthete Wendt of Leipzig, who afterwards became famous, was chosen by him to keep house for him. Without saying a word to Jeannette, instead of going for his usual afternoon walk he went to the church with his chosen bride, and got through the marriage ceremonies as quickly as possible; and it was only on his return that he informed us he was leaving, and would have his things removed that very day. He managed to meet the consternation, perhaps also the reproaches, of his elderly friend with quiet composure; and to the end of his life he continued his regular daily visits to ‘Mam’selle Thome,’ who at times would coyly pretend to sulk. It was only poor Friederike who seemed obliged at times to atone for her brother’s sudden unfaithfulness.
What attracted me in my uncle most strongly was his blunt contempt of the modern pedantry in State, Church, and School, to which he gave vent with some humour. Despite the great moderation of his usual views on life, he yet produced on me the effect of a thorough free-thinker. I was highly delighted by his contempt for the pedantry of the schools. Once, when I had come into serious conflict with all the teachers of the Nicolai School, and the rector of the school had approached my uncle, as the only male representative of my family, with a serious complaint about my behaviour, my uncle asked me during a stroll round the town, with a calm smile as though he were speaking to one of his own age, what I had been up to with the people at school. I explained the whole affair to him, and described the punishment to which I had been subjected, and which seemed to me unjust. He pacified me, and exhorted me to be patient, telling me to comfort myself with the Spanish proverb, un rey no puede morir, which he explained as meaning that the ruler of a school must of necessity always be in the right.
He could not, of course, help noticing, to his alarm, the effect upon me of this kind of conversation, which I was far too young to appreciate. Although it annoyed me one day, when I wanted to begin reading Goethe’s Faust, to hear him say quietly that I was too young to understand it, yet, according to my thinking, his other conversations about our own great poets, and even about Shakespeare and Dante, had made me so familiar with these sublime figures that I had now for some time been secretly busy working out the great tragedy I had already conceived in Dresden. Since my trouble at school I had devoted all my energies, which ought by rights to have been exclusively directed to my school duties, to the accomplishment of this task. In this secret work I had only one confidante, my sister Ottilie, who now lived with me at my mother’s. I can remember the misgivings and alarm which the first confidential communication of my great poetic enterprise aroused in my good sister; yet she affectionately suffered the tortures I sometimes inflicted on her by reciting to her in secret, but not without emotion, portions of my work as it progressed. Once, when I was reciting to her one of the most gruesome scenes, a heavy thunderstorm came on. When the lightning flashed quite close to us, and the thunder rolled, my sister felt bound to implore me to stop; but she soon found it was hopeless, and continued to endure it with touching devotion.
But a more significant storm was brewing on the horizon of my life. My neglect of school reached such a point that it could not but lead to a rupture. Whilst my dear mother had no presentiment of this, I awaited the catastrophe with longing rather than with fear.
In order to meet this crisis with dignity I at length decided to surprise my family by disclosing to them the secret of my tragedy, which was now completed. They were to be informed of this great event by my uncle. I thought I could rely upon his hearty recognition of my vocation as a great poet on account of the deep harmony between us on all other questions of life, science, and art. I therefore sent him my voluminous manuscript, with a long letter which I thought would please him immensely. In this I communicated to him first my ideas with regard to the St. Nicholas’s School, and then my firm determination from that time forward not to allow any mere school pedantry to check my free development. But the event turned out very different from what I had expected. It was a great shock to them. My uncle, quite conscious that he had been indiscreet, paid a visit to my mother and brother-in-law, in order to report the misfortune that had befallen the family, reproaching himself for the fact that his influence over me had not always, perhaps, been for my good. To me he wrote a serious letter of discouragement; and to this day I cannot understand why he showed so small a sense of humour in understanding my bad behaviour. To my surprise he merely said that he reproached himself for having corrupted me by conversations unsuited to my years, but he made no attempt to explain to me good-naturedly the error of my ways.
The crime this boy of fifteen had committed was, as I said before, to have written a great tragedy, entitled Leubald und Adelaide.
The manuscript of this drama has unfortunately been lost, but I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye. The handwriting was most affected, and the backward-sloping tall letters with which I had aimed at giving it an air of distinction had already been compared by one of my teachers to Persian hieroglyphics. In this composition I had constructed a drama in which I had drawn largely upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, and Goethe’s Gotz van Berlichingen. The plot was really based on a modification of Hamlet, the difference consisting in the fact that my hero is so completely carried away by the appearance of the ghost of his father, who has been murdered under similar circumstances, and demands vengeance, that he is driven to fearful deeds of violence; and, with a series of murders on his conscience, he eventually goes mad. Leubald, whose character is a mixture of Hamlet and Harry Hotspur, had promised his father’s ghost to wipe from the face of the earth the whole race of Roderick, as the ruthless murderer of the best of fathers was named. After having slain Roderick himself in mortal combat, and subsequently all his sons and other relations who supported him, there was only one obstacle that prevented Leubald from fulfilling the dearest wish of his heart, which was to be united in death with the shade of his father: a child of Roderick’s was still alive. During the storming of his castle the murderer’s daughter had been carried away into safety by a faithful suitor, whom she, however, detested. I had an irresistible impulse to call this maiden ‘Adelaide.’ As even at that early age I was a great enthusiast for everything really German, I can only account for the obviously un-German name of my heroine by my infatuation for Beethoven’s Adelaide, whose tender refrain seemed to me the symbol of all loving appeals. The course of my drama was now characterised by the strange delays which took place in the accomplishment of this last murder of vengeance, the chief obstacle to which lay in the sudden passionate love which arose between Leubald and Adelaide. I succeeded in representing the birth and avowal of this love by means of extraordinary adventures. Adelaide was once more stolen away by a robber-knight from the lover who had been sheltering her. After Leubald had thereupon sacrificed the lover and all his relations, he hastened to the robber’s castle, driven thither less by a thirst for blood than by a longing for death. For this reason he regrets his inability to storm the robber’s castle forthwith, because it is well defended, and, moreover, night is fast falling; he is therefore obliged to pitch his tent. After raving for a while he sinks down for the first time exhausted, but being urged, like his prototype Hamlet, by the spirit of his father to complete his vow of vengeance, he himself suddenly falls into the power of the enemy during a night assault. In the subterranean dungeons of the castle he meets Roderick’s daughter for the first time. She is a prisoner like himself, and is craftily devising flight. Under circumstances in which she produces on him the impression of a heavenly vision, she makes her appearance before him. They fall in love, and fly together into the wilderness, where they realise that they are deadly enemies. The incipient insanity which was already noticeable in Leubald breaks out more violently after this discovery, and everything that can be done to intensify it is contributed by the ghost of his father, which continually comes between the advances of the lovers. But this ghost is not the only disturber of the conciliating love of Leubald and Adelaide. The ghost of Roderick also appears, and according to the method followed by Shakespeare in Richard III., he is joined by the ghosts of all the other members of Adelaide’s family whom Leubald has slain. From the incessant importunities of these ghosts Leubald seeks to free himself by means of sorcery, and calls to his aid a rascal named Flamming. One of Macbeth’s witches is summoned to lay the ghosts; as she is unable to do this efficiently, the furious Leubald sends her also to the devil; but with her dying breath she despatches the whole crowd of spirits who serve her to join the ghosts of those already pursuing him. Leubald, tormented beyond endurance, and now at last raving mad, turns against his beloved, who is the apparent cause of all his misery. He stabs her in his fury; then finding himself suddenly at peace, he sinks his head into her lap, and accepts her last caresses as her life-blood streams over his own dying body.
I had not omitted the smallest detail that could give this plot its proper colouring, and had drawn on all my knowledge of the tales of the old knights, and my acquaintance with Lear and Macbeth, to furnish my drama with the most vivid situations. But one of the chief characteristics of its poetical form I took from the pathetic, humorous, and powerful language of Shakespeare. The boldness of my grandiloquent and bombastic expressions roused my uncle Adolph’s alarm and astonishment. He was unable to understand how I could have selected and used with inconceivable exaggeration precisely the most extravagant forms of speech to be found in Lear and Gotz von Berlichingen. Nevertheless, even after everybody had deafened me with their laments over my lost time and perverted talents, I was still conscious of a wonderful secret solace in the face of the calamity that had befallen me. I knew, a fact that no one else could know, namely, that my work could only be rightly judged when set to the music which I had resolved to write for it, and which I intended to start composing immediately.
I must now explain my position with respect to music hitherto. For this purpose I must go back to my earliest attempts in the art. In my family two of my sisters were musical; the elder one, Rosalie, played the piano, without, however, displaying any marked talent. Clara was more gifted; in addition to a great deal of musical feeling, and a fine rich touch on the piano, she possessed a particularly sympathetic voice, the development of which was so premature and remarkable that, under the tuition of Mieksch, her singing master, who was famous at that time, she was apparently ready for the role of a prima donna as early as her sixteenth year, and made her debut at Dresden in Italian opera as ‘Cenerentola’ in Rossini’s opera of that name. Incidentally I may remark that this premature development proved injurious to Clara’s voice, and was detrimental to her whole career. As I have said, music was represented in our family by these two sisters. It was chiefly owing to Clara’s career that the musical conductor C. M. von Weber often came to our house. His visits were varied by those of the great male-soprano Sassaroli; and in addition to these two representatives of German and Italian music, we also had the company of Mieksch, her singing master. It was on these occasions that I as a child first heard German and Italian music discussed, and learnt that any one who wished to ingratiate himself with the Court must show a preference for Italian music, a fact which led to very practical results in our family council. Clara’s talent, while her voice was still sound, was the object of competition between the representatives of Italian and German opera. I can remember quite distinctly that from the very beginning I declared myself in favour of German opera; my choice was determined by the tremendous impression made on me by the two figures of Sassaroli and Weber. The Italian male-soprano, a huge pot-bellied giant, horrified me with his high effeminate voice, his astonishing volubility, and his incessant screeching laughter. In spite of his boundless good-nature and amiability, particularly to my family, I took an uncanny dislike to him. On account of this dreadful person, the sound of Italian, either spoken or sung, seemed to my ears almost diabolical; and when, in consequence of my poor sister’s misfortune, I heard them often talking about Italian intrigues and cabals, I conceived so strong a dislike for everything connected with this nation that even in much later years I used to feel myself carried away by an impulse of utter detestation and abhorrence.
The less frequent visits of Weber, on the other hand, seemed to have produced upon me those first sympathetic impressions which I have never since lost. In contrast to Sassaroli’s repulsive figure, Weber’s really refined, delicate, and intellectual appearance excited my ecstatic admiration. His narrow face and finely-cut features, his vivacious though often half-closed eyes, captivated and thrilled me; whilst even the bad limp with which he walked, and which I often noticed from our windows when the master was making his way home past our house from the fatiguing rehearsals, stamped the great musician in my imagination as an exceptional and almost superhuman being. When, as a boy of nine, my mother introduced me to him, and he asked me what I was going to be, whether I wanted perhaps to be a musician, my mother told him that, though I was indeed quite mad on Freischutz, yet she had as yet seen nothing in me which indicated any musical talent.
This showed correct observation on my mother’s part; nothing had made so great an impression on me as the music of Freischutz, and I tried in every possible way to procure a repetition of the impressions I had received from it, but, strange to say, least of all by the study of music itself. Instead of this, I contented myself with hearing bits from Freischutz played by my sisters. Yet my passion for it gradually grew so strong that I can remember taking a particular fancy for a young man called Spiess, chiefly because he could play the overture to Freischutz, which I used to ask him to do whenever I met him. It was chiefly the introduction to this overture which at last led me to attempt, without ever having received any instruction on the piano, to play this piece in my own peculiar way, for, oddly enough, I was the only child in our family who had not been given music lessons. This was probably due to my mother’s anxiety to keep me away from any artistic interests of this kind in case they might arouse in me a longing for the theatre.
When I was about twelve years old, however, my mother engaged a tutor for me named Humann, from whom I received regular music lessons, though only of a very mediocre description. As soon as I had acquired a very imperfect knowledge of fingering I begged to be allowed to play overtures in the form of duets, always keeping Weber as the goal of my ambition. When at length I had got so far as to be able to play the overture to Freischutz myself, though in a very faulty manner, I felt the object of my study had been attained, and I had no inclination to devote any further attention to perfecting my technique.
Yet I had attained this much: I was no longer dependent for music on the playing of others; from this time forth I used to try and play, albeit very imperfectly, everything I wanted to know. I also tried Mozart’s Don Juan, but was unable to get any pleasure out of it, mainly because the Italian text in the arrangement for the piano placed the music in a frivolous light in my eyes, and much in it seemed to me trivial and unmanly. (I can remember that when my sister used to sing Zerlinen’s ariette, Batti, batti, ben Masetto, the music repelled me, as it seemed so mawkish and effeminate.)
On the other hand, my bent for music grew stronger and stronger, and I now tried to possess myself of my favourite pieces by making my own copies. I can remember the hesitation with which my mother for the first time gave me the money to buy the scored paper on which I copied out Weber’s Lutzow’s Jagd, which was the first piece of music I transcribed.
Music was still a secondary occupation with me when the news of Weber’s death and the longing to learn his music to Oberon fanned my enthusiasm into flame again. This received fresh impetus from the afternoon concerts in the Grosser Garten at Dresden, where I often heard my favourite music played by Zillmann’s Town Band, as I thought, exceedingly well. The mysterious joy I felt in hearing an orchestra play quite close to me still remains one of my most pleasant memories. The mere tuning up of the instruments put me in a state of mystic excitement; even the striking of fifths on the violin seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world– which, I may mention incidentally, had a very real meaning for me. When I was still almost a baby, the sound of these fifths, which has always excited me, was closely associated in my mind with ghosts and spirits. I remember that even much later in life I could never pass the small palace of Prince Anthony, at the end of the Ostra Allee in Dresden, without a shudder; for it was there I had first heard the sound of a violin, a very common experience to me afterwards. It was close by me, and seemed to my ears to come from the stone figures with which this palace is adorned, some of which are provided with musical instruments. When I took up my post as musical conductor at Dresden, and had to pay my official visit to Morgenroth, the President of the Concert Committee, an elderly gentleman who lived for many years opposite that princely palace, it seemed odd to find that the player of fifths who had so strongly impressed my musical fancy as a boy was anything but a supernatural spectre. And when I saw the well-known picture in which a skeleton plays on his violin to an old man on his deathbed, the ghostly character of those very notes impressed itself with particular force upon my childish imagination. When at last, as a young man, I used to listen to the Zillmann Orchestra in the Grosser Garten almost every afternoon, one may imagine the rapturous thrill with which I drew in all the chaotic variety of sound that I heard as the orchestra tuned up: the long drawn A of the oboe, which seemed like a call from the dead to rouse the other instruments, never failed to raise all my nerves to a feverish pitch of tension, and when the swelling C in the overture to Freischutz told me that I had stepped, as it were with both feet, right into the magic realm of awe. Any one who had been watching me at that moment could hardly have failed to see the state I was in, and this in spite of the fact that I was such a bad performer on the piano.
Another work also exercised a great fascination over me, namely, the overture to Fidelio in E major, the introduction to which affected me deeply. I asked my sisters about Beethoven, and learned that the news of his death had just arrived. Obsessed as I still was by the terrible grief caused by Weber’s death, this fresh loss, due to the decease of this great master of melody, who had only just entered my life, filled me with strange anguish, a feeling nearly akin to my childish dread of the ghostly fifths on the violin. It was now Beethoven’s music that I longed to know more thoroughly; I came to Leipzig, and found his music to Egmont on the piano at my sister Louisa’s. After that I tried to get hold of his sonatas. At last, at a concert at the Gewandthaus, I heard one of the master’s symphonies for the first time; it was the Symphony in A major. The effect on me was indescribable. To this must be added the impression produced on me by Beethoven’s features, which I saw in the lithographs that were circulated everywhere at that time, and by the fact that he was deaf, and lived a quiet secluded life. I soon conceived an image of him in my mind as a sublime and unique supernatural being, with whom none could compare. This image was associated in my brain with that of Shakespeare; in ecstatic dreams I met both of them, saw and spoke to them, and on awakening found myself bathed in tears.
It was at this time that I came across Mozart’s Requiem, which formed the starting-point of my enthusiastic absorption in the works of that master. His second finale to Don Juan inspired me to include him in my spirit world.
I was now filled with a desire to compose, as I had before been to write verse. I had, however, in this case to master the technique of an entirely separate and complicated subject. This presented greater difficulties than I had met with in writing verse, which came to me fairly easily. It was these difficulties that drove me to adopt a career which bore some resemblance to that of a professional musician, whose future distinction would be to win the titles of Conductor and Writer of Opera.
I now wanted to set Leubald und Adelaide to music, similar to that which Beethoven wrote to Goethe’s Egmont; the various ghosts from the spirit world, who were each to display different characteristics, were to borrow their own distinctive colouring from appropriate musical accompaniment. In order to acquire the necessary technique of composition quickly I studied Logier’s Methode des Generalbasses, a work which was specially recommended to me at a musical lending library as a suitable text-book from which this art might be easily mastered. I have distinct recollections that the financial difficulties with which I was continually harassed throughout my life began at this time. I borrowed Logier’s book on the weekly payment system, in the fond hope of having to pay for it only during a few weeks out of the savings of my weekly pocket-money. But the weeks ran on into months, and I was still unable to compose as well as I wished. Mr. Frederick Wieck, whose daughter afterwards married Robert Schumann, was at that time the proprietor of that lending library. He kept sending me troublesome reminders of the debt I owed him; and when my bill had almost reached the price of Logier’s book I had to make a clean breast of the matter to my family, who thus not only learnt of my financial difficulties in general, but also of my latest transgression into the domain of music, from which, of course, at the very most, they expected nothing better than a repetition of Leubald und Adelaide.
There was great consternation at home; my mother, sister, and brother-in-law, with anxious faces, discussed how my studies should be superintended in future, to prevent my having any further opportunity for transgressing in this way. No one, however, yet knew the real state of affairs at school, and they hoped I would soon see the error of my ways in this case as I had in my former craze for poetry.
But other domestic changes were taking place which necessitated my being for some little time alone in our house at Leipzig during the summer of 1829, when I was left entirely to my own devices. It was during this period that my passion for music rose to an extraordinary degree. I had secretly been taking lessons in harmony from G. Muller, afterwards organist at Altenburg, an excellent musician belonging to the Leipzig orchestra. Although the payment of these lessons was also destined to get me into hot water at home later on, I could not even make up to my teacher for the delay in the payment of his fees by giving him the pleasure of watching me improve in my studies. His teaching and exercises soon filled me with the greatest disgust, as to my mind it all seemed so dry. For me music was a spirit, a noble and mystic monster, and any attempt to regulate it seemed to lower it in my eyes. I gathered much more congenial instruction about it from Hoffmann’s Phantasiestucken than from my Leipzig orchestra player; and now came the time when I really lived and breathed in Hoffmann’s artistic atmosphere of ghosts and spirits. With my head quite full of Kreissler, Krespel, and other musical spectres from my favourite author, I imagined that I had at last found in real life a creature who resembled them: this ideal musician in whom for a time I fancied I had discovered a second Kreissler was a man called Flachs. He was a tall, exceedingly thin man, with a very narrow head and an extraordinary way of walking, moving, and speaking, whom I had seen at all those open-air concerts which formed my principal source of musical education. He was always with the members of the orchestra, speaking exceedingly quickly, first to one and then the other; for they all knew him, and seemed to like him. The fact that they were making fun of him I only learned, to my great confusion, much later. I remember having noticed this strange figure from my earliest days in Dresden, and I gathered from the conversations which I overheard that he was indeed well known to all Dresden musicians. This circumstance alone was sufficient to make me take a great interest in him; but the point about him which attracted me more than anything was the manner in which he listened to the various items in the programme: he used to give peculiar, convulsive nods of his head, and blow out his cheeks as though with sighs. All this I regarded as a sign of spiritual ecstasy. I noticed, moreover, that he was quite alone, that he belonged to no party, and paid no attention to anything in the garden save the music; whereupon my identification of this curious being with the conductor Kreissler seemed quite natural. I was determined to make his acquaintance, and I succeeded in doing so. Who shall describe my delight when, on going to call on him at his rooms for the first time, I found innumerable bundles of scores! I had as yet never seen a score. It is true I discovered, to my regret, that he possessed nothing either by Beethoven, Mozart, or Weber; in fact, nothing but immense quantities of works, masses, and cantatas by composers such as Staerkel, Stamitz, Steibelt, etc., all of whom were entirely unknown to me. Yet Flachs was able to tell me so much that was good about them that the respect which I felt for scores in general helped me to overcome my regret at not finding anything by my beloved masters. It is true I learnt later that poor Flachs had only come into the possession of these particular scores through unscrupulous dealers, who had traded on his weakness of intellect and palmed off this worthless music on him for large sums of money. At all events, they were scores, and that was quite enough for me. Flachs and I became most intimate; we were always seen going about together–I, a lanky boy of sixteen, and this weird, shaky flaxpole. The doors of my deserted home were often opened for this strange guest, who made me play my compositions to him while he ate bread and cheese. In return, he once arranged one of my airs for wind instruments, and, to my astonishment, it was actually accepted and played by the band in Kintschy’s Swiss Chalet. That this man had not the smallest capacity to teach me anything never once occurred to me; I was so firmly convinced of his originality that there was no need for him to prove it further than by listening patiently to my enthusiastic outpourings. But as, in course of time, several of his own friends joined us, I could not help noticing that the worthy Flachs was regarded by them all as a half-witted fool. At first this merely pained me, but a strange incident unexpectedly occurred which converted me to the general opinion about him. Flachs was a man of some means, and had fallen into the toils of a young lady of dubious character who he believed was deeply in love with him. One day, without warning, I found his house closed to me, and discovered, to my astonishment, that jealousy was the cause. The unexpected discovery of this liaison, which was my first experience of such a case, filled me with a strange horror. My friend suddenly appeared to me even more mad than he really was. I felt so ashamed of my persistent blindness that for some time to come I never went to any of the garden concerts for fear I should meet my sham Kreissler.
By this time I had composed my first Sonata in D minor. I had also begun a pastoral play, and had worked it out in what I felt sure must be an entirely unprecedented way.
I chose Goethe’s Laune der Verliebten as a model for the form and plot of my work. I scarcely even drafted out the libretto, however, but worked it out at the same time as the music and orchestration, so that, while I was writing out one page of the score, I had not even thought out the words for the next page. I remember distinctly that following this extraordinary method, although I had not acquired the slightest knowledge about writing for instruments, I actually worked out a fairly long passage which finally resolved itself into a scene for three female voices followed by the air for the tenor. My bent for writing for the orchestra was so strong that I procured a score of Don Juan, and set to work on what I then considered a very careful orchestration of a fairly long air for soprano. I also wrote a quartette in D major after I had myself sufficiently mastered the alto for the viola, my ignorance of which had caused me great difficulty only a short time before, when I was studying a quartette by Haydn.
Armed with these works, I set out in the summer on my first journey as a musician. My sister Clara, who was married to the singer Wolfram, had an engagement at the theatre at Magdeburg, whither, in characteristic fashion, I set forth upon my adventure on foot.
My short stay with my relations provided me with many experiences of musical life. It was there that I met a new freak, whose influence upon me I have never been able to forget. He was a musical conductor of the name of Kuhnlein, a most extraordinary person. Already advanced in years, delicate and, unfortunately, given to drink, this man nevertheless impressed one by something striking and vigorous in his expression. His chief characteristics were an enthusiastic worship of Mozart and a passionate depreciation of Weber. He had read only one book– Goethe’s Faust–and in this work there was not a page in which he had not underlined some passage, and made some remark in praise of Mozart or in disparagement of Weber. It was to this man that my brother-in-law confided the compositions which I had brought with me in order to learn his opinion of my abilities. One evening, as we were sitting comfortably in an inn, old Kuhnlein came in, and approached us with a friendly, though serious manner.
I thought I read good news in his features, but when my brother- in-law asked him what he thought of my work, he answered quietly and calmly, ‘There is not a single good note in it!’ My brother- in-law, who was accustomed to Kuhnlein’s eccentricity, gave a loud laugh which reassured me somewhat. It was impossible to get any advice or coherent reasons for his opinion out of Kuhnlein; he merely renewed his abuse of Weber and made some references to Mozart which, nevertheless, made a deep impression upon me, as Kuhnlein’s language was always very heated and emphatic.
On the other hand, this visit brought me a great treasure, which was responsible for leading me in a very different direction from that advised by Kuhnlein. This was the score of Beethoven’s great Quartette in E flat major, which had only been fairly recently published, and of which my brother-in-law had a copy made for me. Richer in experience, and in the possession of this treasure, I returned to Leipzig to the nursery of my queer musical studies. But my family had now returned with my sister Rosalie, and I could no longer keep secret from them the fact that my connection with the school had been entirely suspended, for a notice was found saying that I had not attended the school for the last six months. As a complaint addressed by the rector to my uncle about me had not received adequate attention, the school authorities had apparently made no further attempts to exercise any supervision over me, which I had indeed rendered quite impossible by absenting myself altogether.
A fresh council of war was held in the family to discuss what was to be done with me. As I laid particular stress on my bent for music, my relations thought that I ought, at any rate, to learn one instrument thoroughly. My brother-in-law, Brockhaus, proposed to send me to Hummel, at Weimar, to be trained as a pianist, but as I loudly protested that by ‘music’ I meant ‘composing,’ and not ‘playing an instrument,’ they gave way, and decided to let me have regular lessons in harmony from Muller, the very musician from whom I had had instruction on the sly some little while before, and who had not yet been paid. In return for this I promised faithfully to go back to work conscientiously at St. Nicholas’s School. I soon grew tired of both. I could brook no control, and this unfortunately applied to my musical instruction as well. The dry study of harmony disgusted me more and more, though I continued to conceive fantasias, sonatas, and overtures, and work them out by myself. On the other hand, I was spurred on by ambition to show what I could do at school if I liked. When the Upper School boys were set the task of writing a poem, I composed a chorus in Greek, on the recent War of Liberation. I can well imagine that this Greek poem had about as much resemblance to a real Greek oration and poetry, as the sonatas and overtures I used to compose at that time had to thoroughly professional music. My attempt was scornfully rejected as a piece of impudence. After that I have no further recollections of my school. My continued attendance was a pure sacrifice on my side, made out of consideration for my family: I did not pay the slightest attention to what was taught in the lessons, but secretly occupied myself all the while with reading any book that happened to attract me.
As my musical instruction also did me no good, I continued in my wilful process of self-education by copying out the scores of my beloved masters, and in so doing acquired a neat handwriting, which in later years has often been admired. I believe my copies of the C minor Symphony and the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven are still preserved as souvenirs.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became the mystical goal of all my strange thoughts and desires about music. I was first attracted to it by the opinion prevalent among musicians, not only in Leipzig but elsewhere, that this work had been written by Beethoven when he was already half mad. It was considered the ‘non plus ultra’ of all that was fantastic and incomprehensible, and this was quite enough to rouse in me a passionate desire to study this mysterious work. At the very first glance at the score, of which I obtained possession with such difficulty, I felt irresistibly attracted by the long-sustained pure fifths with which the first phrase opens: these chords, which, as I related above, had played such a supernatural part in my childish impressions of music, seemed in this case to form the spiritual keynote of my own life. This, I thought, must surely contain the secret of all secrets, and accordingly the first thing to be done was to make the score my own by a process of laborious copying. I well remember that on one occasion the sudden appearance of the dawn made such an uncanny impression on my excited nerves that I jumped into bed with a scream as though I had seen a ghost. The symphony at that time had not yet been arranged for the piano; it had found so little favour that the publisher did not feel inclined to run the risk of producing it. I set to work at it, and actually composed a complete piano solo, which I tried to play to myself. I sent my work to Schott, the publisher of the score, at Mainz. I received in reply a letter saying ‘that the publishers had not yet decided to issue the Ninth Symphony for the piano, but that they would gladly keep my laborious work,’ and offered me remuneration in the shape of the score of the great Missa Solemnis in D, which I accepted with great pleasure.