Translation © Robert W. Eshbach, 2019



Richard Wagner, 1861
Photo: Pierre Petit

Richard Wagner to Joseph Joachim [i]

Zürich, March 17, 1858

Dear Friend,

News of you has reached me through Clara Schumann and through Kirchner that has reassured me somewhat concerning your dismaying remoteness from me. More than this reassurance, my belief in the noble earnestness of your character enables me to entrust to you a matter that requires the delicate and discreet consideration of a friend, in the full sense of the word, if I am to approach you for counsel and help. I ask you then not to take my confidence in an unkindly way if I convey my request to you with the following.

From time to time, such an oppressive and consuming concern for my existence arises, through the unmitigated insecurity of my external circumstances, that years ago I consulted with Liszt, whether it would be possible to expect of the Grand Duke [Carl Alexander] of Weimar, who once appeared as my protector, that he would grant me an annuity for the assurance of an undisturbed domestic tranquility, for which I could commit myself, if I should someday receive amnesty, to personally perform my operas in Weimar at his command, etc. Liszt was dubious about this possibility, and seemed therefore not to wish to have anything conferred on him or on me by pressing the matter at the Weimar court. — In the meantime, I am again, as I have been for a considerable time, in the position of being most uncomfortable for want of an adequate and secure subsidy, since my alternative income from theaters is of such haphazard and unpredictable nature that I cannot rely on it in the slightest, and its often unexpected failure to appear causes me the most disagreeable embarrassment. Only the patronage of a prince can protect me against this, which, if it does not spare me from all need of earning money from my labors, would at least allow me the reassuring support of a secure livelihood. So it may well be forgiven me that I have had my eye on the King of Hanover for some time. His great and earnest love of art, his eagerness to secure excellent artists for himself by means of unrestrained liberality, and further, his outspoken affinity for my music, as I have been led to believe, are surely good excuses for me.

So it occurred to me then, that it would perhaps be necessary only to make him aware of me, my situation and my wish, in order to prompt him, completely on his own, to take vigorous action to help me.

I have chosen you, dear Joachim, as it made such good sense, to accord me this great act of friendship; anyhow, had I not known of your presence in Hanover and your influence on the King, I probably would not have been able to stoop to it. Therefore, I ask you first for your advice in this matter, and if you believe that you can give me a hopeful and auspicious word from him, then I would ask you to take up my cause and to bring my wish before the King in any manner that seems appropriate to you, and thus to be my gracious advocate.

My thought would be that the King, informed of my plight by friends, would of his own free will offer me a yearly stipend, adequate to secure my subsistence as well as primarily to ensure undisturbed tranquility for my work; in return for which I would commit myself to deliver my subsequent dramatic compositions to him in a special edition, allow them to be performed at the court theater without further remuneration, and finally, after — hopefully before long — attaining amnesty, to appear every year at the command of the King for a determined amount of time, personally to conduct whichever of my works he wishes to hear. I would add, with respect to the current splendid artistic resources of the court theater, that I would commit myself, in the event that I could personally participate, to producing my new works first in Hanover.

Now, valued friend, see what you may think of this; whether you can give me hope, and whether, as my friend, you wish to take this on with your influence. I am dependent more than I can say to you on a favorable decision in this matter; for it is one last thing that I can decide to try for the security of my — this between us — abject existence! —

Let me therefore hear good news from you soon, and remain as constantly my friend as it was easy for you to become!

With warm greetings


Richard Wagner

What Joachim thought of this proposal is not known. In any case, there is no evidence that he ever replied. To Joseph, it must have seemed astoundingly craven. Here was the author of Das Judenthum in der Musik, who had libelously accused the “cultured Jew” of making a commodity of Art, admitting that without the prospect of Joachim’s help he would not have been able to stoop to making a commodity of his own. Here was the author of Art and Revolution seeking amnesty; the man who wrote of the Artwork of the Future: “Yet truly of its own immortal force will it maintain itself and blossom forth: not merely cry for maintenance on pretext of some outward-lying aim. For mark ye well, this Art seeks not for gain!” “‘Utopia! Utopia!’ I hear the mealy-mouthed wise-acres of our modern State-and-Art barbarianism cry,” he wrote, “the so-called practical men…” This is the man who wrote to Liszt: “Can you come in May? On May 22nd I shall be forty. Then I shall have myself re-baptised; would you not like to be my godfather? I wish we two could start straight from here to go into the wide world. I wish you, too, would leave these German Philistines and Jews. Have you anything else around you? Add the Jesuits, and then you have all. ‘Philistines, Jews and Jesuits,’ that is it; no human beings. They write, write, and write; and when they have ‘written’ a great deal, they think they have done something wonderful. Stupid fools! do you think our heart can beat for you? What do these wretched people know about it? Leave them alone, give them a kick with your foot, and come with me into the wide world, were it only to perish bravely, to die with a light heart in some abyss.” [ii]

For Joachim, who, unable to play the hypocrite, had so recently broken off artistic and personal relations with Liszt, and who chafed constantly under the humiliating conditions of his employment, the idea that he should now put himself forward at court as Wagner’s sponsor was surely as preposterous as it was insulting. The deleterious consequence of the commercialization of daily life was one of the central dilemmas of the nineteenth-century, as it is of our own. The trivialization of art through commerce was, and is, a central preoccupation of all serious artists; with Mendelssohn and Schumann it had been a defining concern. However, whereas Mendelssohn and Schumann addressed themselves to a newly-affluent public, hoping to knit them into an organic community through a deeper appreciation of art, Wagner and Liszt dreamed of creating communities of artists — independent geniuses, leaders and preachers whose main means of support would be the disinterested funding of the state. In Weimar, Liszt found his Carl Alexander; in Bavaria, Wagner would find his Ludwig — young, idealistic princes, both, who could be held in thrall by the charismatic personalities of the artists in their employ. But Joachim’s experience in Hanover with even so art-loving a king as George V had taught him that dependence upon the “protection” of a king was a highly problematic model for artists to follow. Unquestionably, as a Jew he knew that the favor of a monarch, freely given, could be freely revoked. Had not the recent history of the Jews been a struggle against just such “protection?” Enlightenment and capitalism had provided them a path to freedom and independence. Joseph may well have had Hermann Wittgenstein’s words in his ears as he read Wagner’s letter: “I began my career in other and troublesome circumstances. Thrown back upon my own powers, I was never despondent, never solicited or received any man’s favor, and endeavoring to emulate my betters, I never became an object of their contempt.” [i] Wagner’s brand of servile, reactionary, racist, anti-capitalist Romanticism could hold no charms for him. Subsequent relations between Joachim and Wagner went from chilly to cold, never again to thaw.

[i] McGuinness/WITTGENSTEIN, p. 3.


Hanover Opera House

Zürich, 17 III 1858

Lieber Freund!

Durch Clara Schumann, sowie durch Kirchner, sind mir Nachrichten von Dir zugekommen, die mich über Dein bedenkliches Entfernthalten von mir einigermassen beruhigt haben. Mehr als diese Beruhigung giebt mir aber mein Glaube an den noblen Ernst Deines Charakters den Muth, mich Dir in einer Angelegenheit anzuvertrauen, für welche ich, wenn ich Dich darin um Rath und Hülfe angehe, der zarten und verschwiegenen Rücksicht eines Freundes, im vollen Sinne des Wortes, bedarf. Ich bitte Dich daher, mein Zutrauen nicht unfreundlich aufzunehmen, wenn ich Dir mit folgendem mein Anliegen mittheile.

Von Zeit zu Zeit stellt sich bei mir, durch die gänzliche Unsicherheit meiner äusseren Verhältnisse hervorgerufen, eine so niederdrückende und verzehrende Sorge um mein Bestehen ein, dass ich schon vor Jahren Liszt zu Rathe zog, ob es möglich sein würde, dem Grossherzoge [Carl Alexander] von Weimar, da er einmal die Miene meines Protectors zeigte, zuzumuthen, dass er mir zur Sicherung einer ungestörten häuslichen Ruhe, eine Pension bewillige, für die ich mich verpflichten könnte, wenn ich dereinst amnestirt wäre, auf seinen Ruf und Wunsch meine Opern in Weimar persönlich aufzuführen, u.s.w. Liszt zweifelte an diesere Möglichkeit, und schien deshalb sich und mir durch Anregung der Sache beim Weimarischen Hofe nichts vergeben zu wollen. —

Seitdem bin ich gerade jetzt wieder seit längrer Zeit in der Lage, das Entbehren einer ausreichenden und sichren Subvention auf das Peinlichste empfinden zu müssen, da meine sonstigen Einnahmen von den Theatern so zufälliger und unberechenbarer Natur sind, dass ich nicht den mindesten Verlass auf sie haben kann, und ihr oft unvermuthetes Ausbleiben mich in die widerwärtigsten Verlegenheiten bringt. Hiergegen kann mich nur die Protection eines Fürsten schützen, die, wenn sie mich auch nicht gänzlich von aller Nothwendigkeit, auf Gewinn von meinen Arbeiten zu sehen, befreite, mir doch wenigstens den beruhigenden Rückhalt eines gesicherten Auskommens für alle Fälle gewähre. So ist es mir denn wohl verzeihlich, dass mein Auge seit einiger Zeit auf den König [Georg V.] von Hannover gefallen ist. Seine grosse und ernste Liebe zur Kunst, sein Eifer, durch rückhaltlose Liberalität sich ausgezeichneter Künstler zu versichern, und hierzu sein ausgesprochenes Gefallen an meiner Musik, wie es mir bekannt geworden, sind gewiss gute Entschuldigungsgründe für mich. So fiel mir denn ein, dass es vielleicht nur nöthig sei, ihn auf mich, meine Lage und meinen Wunsch aufmerksam zu machen, um ihn ganz von selbst zu einer durchgreifenden Hülfe für mich zu veranlassen.

Mir diesen grossen Freundschaftsdienst zu erweisen, habe ich nun, wie es so ganz nahe lag, Dich, lieber Joachim, auserlesen; ja, ohne eben Dich in Hannover und von Einfluss auf den König zu wissen, hätte ich wahrscheinlich dennoch gar nicht auf ihn verfallen können. Somit frage ich Dich zunächst um Deinen Rath in dieser Sache, und glaubst Du durch ihn Dich mich günstig und hoffnungsvoll zeigen zu können, so schliesse ich dann die Bitte daran, Dich meiner anzunehmen, meinen Wunsch, in welcher Weise es Dir geeignet dünkt, an den König zu bringen, und hierbei mein freundlicher Fürsprecher zu sein.

Mein Gedanke wäre, dass der König, von meiner Lage durch Freunde unterrichtet, wie aus freien Stücken zur Sicherung meines Lebensunterhaltes, so wie hauptsächlich zur Wahrung ungestörter Ruhe zum Arbeiten, mir einen genügenden Jahresgehalt aussetzte; wogegen ich mich verpflichtete, meine ferneren dramatischen Compositionen in einem besonderen Exemplare ihm zuzustellen, auch ohne weiteres Honorar sie dem Hoftheater zur Aufführung zu überlassen, so wie endlich, nach — hoffentlich bald — erlangter Amnestirung, auf den Befehl des Königs mich jedes Jahr auf eine bestimmte Zeit in Hannover einzufinden, um je nach Wunsch meine Opern selbst zu leiten. Dem füge ich, mit Hinsicht auf den glänzenden Bestand der gegenwärtigen Kunstmittel des Hoftheaters, bei, dass ich, falls ich eben persönlich mich dabei betheiligen kann, mich auch verbinden würde, meine neuen Werke zuerst in Hannover zur Aufführung zu bringen.

Nun, werther Freund, sieh einmal zu, was Du hiervon denken darfst; ob Du mir Hoffnungen machen kannst, und ob Du für diesen Fall Dich mit Deinem Einflusse als Freund meiner annehmen willst. Es hängt für mich mehr, als ich Dir sagen kann, von einem günstigen Entscheid dieser Sache ab; denn sie ist ein Letztes, was ich für die Sicherung meines — unter uns gesagt — elenden Daseins zu versuchen mich entschliessen kann! —

Lass mich also bald Gutes hören, und bleibe so dauernd mein Freund, als es Dir leicht wurde es zu werden!

Mit herzlichem Grusse


Richard Wagner

[i] Wagner/BRIEFE, IX, pp. 219-221.
[ii] Wagner/CORRESPONDENCE, pp. 272-273.