Wagner's Revolutionary Years
[ Issue 10 ]

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Wagner's Revolutionary Years

In this essay Joan Willmott-Clarke explores Wagner's Revolutionary Years — especially after 1848.

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Wagner's Revolutionary Years — Joan Willmott-Clarke


Even before Richard Wagner was born in 1813, most of Europe was smouldering with discontent. The Napoleonic Wars and the defeat of Imperial Germany in 1806 heralded the end of the old German aristocracy and the Holy Roman Church. Germany was now hundreds of States loosely connected, the main forces being Prussia and Austria. Class barriers were breaking down, social reforms were being introduced. Inspired by the French Revolution, the Greeks’ successful struggle against Turkish oppression and the uprisings in Poland, hungry workers and landless peasants were listening to students, writers and teachers quoting the French thinkers Voltaire, Rousseau and Victor Hugo, English writers like Tom Paine and Charles Dickens, America’s Declaration of Independence issued by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and in Germany their own Goethe, Schiller and Heine. With the establishment of people’s assemblies, liberal politicians like Karl von Rötteck and Karl Theodor Welcker, helped to formulate demands for press freedom and other democratic rights.

Artists and musicians were also involved in constructing this new era. In Prussia, Hungary, Silesia, Austria, Italy and other parts of Eastern Europe, oppression and hunger were driving those who could flee to emigrate to England, America and other countries. Australia was enriched by the arrival of many European singers and performers such as the Hungarian violinist, Miska Hauser, the Tyrolese Singers, the Rainer Family, the brilliant zither player Viet Rahm, and many other talented Europeans. Many brought not only their music to Australia, but also their love of freedom. The Tyrolese Singers were friends of Jenny Lind and Mendelssohn. Like Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz, Chopin and Verdi, to name just a few great talents, Mendelssohn before he died in 1847 also supported the new freedoms.

In the early part of the 19th century there were revolts in many German cities. In 1817 the students of Jena University called on other German students to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation. When 500 students responded by marching to Wartburg to demand constitutional changes and a united fatherland and the rally was marred by soldiers burning books, one student summed up the situation saying that the German people had had great hopes for change but remained disappointed.

But there were important developments in Frankfurt when the early parliamentary Assembly met. While German States shared the same language and culture, their demands now were for political unity. In that period there were festivals and meetings to promote the nationalist movement which must have influenced a very young Wagner. There were the Karlsbad Decrees of 1819, the Frankfurt Decrees of 1831-32, and the Viennese Decrees of 1834. In Offenburg in 1847 the German people of Baden drew up a statement demanding restoration of their “violated constitution”. It included freedom of speech and belief, with no interference “in matter concerning teachers and pupils”. In addition the statement called for the military to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution with representation in the German Confederation. There were other demands, political and economic. Under pressure the German sovereigns granted changes, promising more liberal constitutions and a German Parliament.

During the latter months of 1848 there were stormy disagreements between the Prussian and Austrian leaders not always without bloodshed, as when the cavalry attacked men, women and children clamouring for food. In July 1848 Archduke Johann issued a statement to the German people announcing that he had been elected their Imperial Administrator and promised total freedom for the fatherland. By August-September a Berlin Workers’ Congress had issued its decrees. With Liberals, Socialists, Conservatives and even Communists all drawing up their programs, the struggle for power in the National Assembly continued — and so did the fighting. In Berlin the Civil Militia fired at revolutionary workers whose weapons were shovels and sticks. In November the Prussian National Assembly was forced to dissolve.

Like many of Europe’s musicians, Wagner welcomed the new freedoms. In his Dresden home he had often entertained August Röckel, his musical director and editor of Dresden’s radical paper, the Volksblätter. Also a regular guest at his house was the Russian anarchist, Bakunin, who had joined the Czech and Polish uprisings against Austrian oppression. When in May 1849 the Saxon Government rejected the new constitution the people presented to it, Wagner and his colleagues realised that they had to act quickly. Wagner’s first reaction was to take his family to stay with relatives in Chemnitz, not far from Leipzig. The Revolutionaries had already called on the people to “Hurry swiftly with weapons and ammunition. Now is the time!” It certainly was. In Berlin when the workers stormed the Armoury, the King left.

On May 9, when Wagner returned to Dresden, he sought out his friend Bakunin who was resting in the Town Hall. In his memoirs Wagner described what he found: “With a cigar in his mouth, Bakunin received me, seated on one of the mattresses distributed over the floor of the Town Hall. At his side was a very young Pole (a Galician) named Haimberger, a violinist whom he had once asked me to recommend to Lipinsky.” (Karl Lipinsky was a well-known violinist who had been leader of the Dresden orchestra.) Wagner goes on to describe Haimberger as “a raw and inexperienced boy”, who had become attached to Bakunin and had joined him on the barricades. Barely a week later warrants were issued for the arrest of many of the “revolutionaries”, including Wagner, Röckel and Bakunin. Wagner went to Leipzig to see Liszt who procured for him a false passport to help him cross the Swiss border and get to Zurich. When he went to say goodbye to his wife Minna in Chemnitz, he learned that Bakunin and Röckel were already in prison.

Wagner managed to escape to Zurich and soon after arriving there he received a request from young Julius Haimberger who was also seeking refuge, for a warrant had been issued by the new Emperor Franz Josef for his arrest. The young rebel’s father was an Imperial Councillor at the Viennese Court but the family had disowned the young violinist and had cut him off without money. Wagner immediately wrote to August Röckel’s brother, Eduard, who had already escaped to England. By 1853 Haimberger was playing at the St James Theatre in London.

Australia was to benefit from Haimberger’s misfortune, for in 1855 he was performing in Coppin’s theatre in Melbourne with the Tyrolese Singers with whom he travelled and performed on the goldfields and in all the eastern States of Australia. Having married one of the Tyrolese Singers, in 1867 he and his family left Sydney for America.

He was not in Australia when in 1877 William Lyster with his opera company from New York gave Melbourne a theatrical treat by producing Wagner’s Lohengrin. This opera which had stirred such interest in Europe, particularly Germany, had never been produced in the colony. To sing the lead of Elsa, Lyster had brought out one of Germany’s greatest sopranos, Antonietta Link. The Melbourne papers were full of praise for the production at the Prince of Wales Opera House. It was a sensational success. A proud German resident of Melbourne decided to report its reception to Wagner. The letter was accompanied by photos of Melbourne (“a marvellous city”), with the suggestion that Wagner should visit here. Wagner rejected the invitation, but sent his compliments to Lyster and hoped that any of his works produced in Australia would be given in English.

Within a very few years both Lyster and Wagner were dead. As for that talented young violinist whom Wagner had befriended, he never returned to Australia or, apparently, to his family and Fatherland.

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