Richard Wagner Recontextualized

By Tristan D'Agosta

Richard Wagner recontextualized:

Letters to and from Aleppo Spontini

abstract. The recent discovery of several letters between Richard Wagner and Aleppo Spontini has sparked interest in the lifelong relationship the two men had. Who was Spontini, and what made a man whose elbow was always wet worth Wagner’s time? Wagner divulged some of his most personal feelings in his letters to Spontini. In addition to resolving the mystery surrounding the first Italian production of Tannhäuser, these intimate correspondences have illuminated our understanding of one of the greatest composers of all time.

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Richard Wagner, composer, conductor, inventor of the music drama, had one of the most extraordinary egos ever to be contained in such a short figure. Rarely pictured with a woman unless one of them was sitting down, he stood about 5′ 5″, and wore his beret crookedly such that the corner tipped up and gave him an extra inch. A guest flautist at the Dresden opera, secured in lieu of the regular who was cast out by Wagner for developing a static charge that had equalized with the brass section the previous evening, said of him:

I could see nothing but his forehead, and even that was obscured when he turned a page of his score. Having never performed Hans Heiling I had some difficulty with entrances.

This flautist, too, was cast out. The other returned but was grounded for the rest of the season.

Wagner not only believed the German race was superior to all others, he believed he was superior to all Germans. “I must have brilliance and beauty and light,” he said, as he lavishly squandered other people’s monetary attests. He once spent five Taler on an onion. Many refused his flagrant demands for patronage, but he managed to live until he died.

What interest could a man of “brilliance and beauty and light” have in Aleppo Spontini, an unknown Italian conductor who had little money, little musical talent, and a wife so hideous that Wagner pictured her as he wrote for the Nibelungs? Letters between the two men, of which there is now an extensive collection, shed remarkably little light on the question. The earliest known meeting the gentlemen had was in Paris in 1840, as eluded to in this letter from Spontini:

Dear Richard,

You are right about Meyerbeer. He is a lager, you are a stout.

Finding myself in Paris for a few days, I came across the small restaurant where we met nearly five years ago – Le Gris’s. A wave of nostalgia ushered me in and I sat at the very table where you had ordered sun-dried snails with yak butter and I the grilled gizzard. How we laughed.

Faithfully yours,

Aleppo

P. S. I have enclosed a calzone, since I know you have an interest in foreign food. Let me know your opinion and I will inform Italy.

The reference to Meyerbeer is one of many. Wagner’s hatred of Meyerbeer is notorious and prompted many petty attacks, most famous of which are his pamphlet, “Jewry in Music,” and an incident at a dinner party in which he pickpocketed Meyerbeer’s handkerchief, blew his nose in it, and replaced it without telling him. Wagner laughed up his sleeve until getting his head caught in it, ultimately leaving through the back entrance. The next Halloween he egged Meyerbeer’s house. The next Christmas he egged Meyerbeer. The next Easter he egged a rabbit, which fell into Meyerbeer’s coleslaw. These offenses grew into rabid anti-Semitism, then cooled to regular anti-Semitism after a vaccination.

Wagner’s reply to Aleppo, worth quoting in its entirety, corroborates his bigotry:

Dear Aleppo,

Meyerbeer a lager! He is carbonated urine! He is the Manischewitz of beers! To serve him on the same table as Beethoven, as in the concert I attended last evening, is an atrocity.

I remember Le Gris’s for the worst sun-dried snails with yak butter I have ever had. Like my vision for opera, my indigestion is epic.

Aleppo, I have been brooding lately. Minna has been distant. I dream about the day nine years ago when she left me for an army officer. When she came back, I asked her why she ran off with him, and do you know what she said? That by no fault of posture, my chin sticks out farther than my nose, and both are so pointed she could not kiss me without being pricked. I have never fully recovered from those words.

Thy

Richard

P.S. Your calzone arrived spilling from the envelope; what was not lost in transit or absorbed into your letter had to be discarded.

Wagner’s letters to Spontini are full of stark mood changes. The almost childlike tone in the last paragraph does not occur in correspondences with anyone but Spontini, although he once wrote Liszt that he was moved by a pelican. How was Spontini able to get beyond Wagner’s magnificent ego? As one scholar put it, “It is like dodging a planet.” Was he just lucky, a random target of bottled affections?

There may be some method in it after all. Note, for example, that the first paragraph of almost every one of Aleppo’s letters is some sort of compliment. Examples:

Dear Richard,

I think your distinction between “music drama” and “opera” is revolutionary. I have looked up “opera” in the dictionary, and it gives the following weak, flowery definition:

opera. n. A dramatic work set to music.

The difference is marked and needs no further explanation.

And:

Dear Richard,

I have only just recovered from a moving experience with your bust. Its scowl seemed to penetrate me and soon I was overwhelmed; even your warm, fuzzy mane recedes in humility from a chin so terrific that man dare not stroke it. I aspire to your chin.

Many have flattered Wagner, but few have won his love, and some have been poked in the eye. Wagner’s friendship was always for sale, but Aleppo was not a man of means, not even of birth, although he was born. It might be noted that Aleppo took a great interest in Wagner’s work. An early example is in this letter from 1848:

Dear Richard,

I have just returned from my trip abroad, where I had the opportunity of seeing The Flying Dutchman. I am awestricken, hardly able to write, and my thigh is itching. You must tell me how you came up with the idea for it.

I am sorry for the brevity of this letter, but I am a little nauseous from my wife’s Entrails in Clam Broth, which I love but something had expired.

Your friend always,

Aleppo

P.S. I am prepared to give up sending the calzone. It has been years and we have had no success.

Fans of Der Fliegende Holländer will be interested in Wagner’s reply:

Dear Aleppo,

My creditors are after me again – I had such a close scare, when one actually confronted me! I asked him what the devil is that, pointing over his shoulder, and ran when he looked.

As for The Flying Dutchman, I got the idea when I was in Holland and saw a man parachuting out of a fifth story window: I imagined, what if he never reached the ground? Only a woman in love with his portrait could cure such antigravity.

Thy

Richard

There were others who equally adored Wagner, his work, and even his chin, yet received no special affections. In response to one fan letter, Wagner tersely wrote:

Schneigelstein,

I will not dignify such petty groveling with a response!

Herr Wagner

Aleppo’s unique charm, therefore, must be credited to the mysterious ways of the heart.

The most interesting subject of correspondence between the two men regards Aleppo’s efforts to produce Tannhäuser in Italy. The idea came to Aleppo one night while he and his cat were chewing at either end of a fish. According to this account, he could not sleep owing to stifling heat and the scare of an owl flying in through his bedroom window. Soon after rising, he realized that his purpose must be to spread the genius of Wagner over Italy “like cream cheese on a slice of toast.” Thus he proposes the idea to Wagner:

Dear Richard,

Congratulations on your marriage to Cosima! It is a perfect match, an act of Providence.

I am thinking of putting on Tannhäuser in Italy. My life is purposeless if I do not do some real good in the world. Let me know your thoughts, as I beg to remain

Your friend,

Aleppo

Wagner’s reply:

Dear Aleppo,

Adolf Braun, a rather haughty but obscure tenor, shares your enthusiasm about my marriage. I told him I was to marry Herr Liszt’s daughter, to which he replied, “Fine choice, Herr Wagner! Bearded women are not to my taste, either.” Chuckling, he trotted away. I later learned he had thought I said “hairless” instead of “Herr Liszt.” Petty fool! He blushes now when I peer at him, as it should be.*

As for putting on Tannhäuser, you have my blessing and I hope to hear more from you about it. But I must run – my wife is trying to bow the piano. Ever your friend,

Thy

Richard

[*The credibility of such an error actually taking place is dubious, as the German word for “hairless” is “unbehaart.” It is more likely that Wagner was making a subtle attack on Meyerbeer, who is known to have had a weak mustache.]

And so Aleppo began the long, ill-fated Italian production of Tannhäuser.

At first things went remarkably smoothly, as a letter from the time implies:

Dear Richard,

Things are going remarkably smoothly.

Details are sporadic over many letters. Most names are of unknown persons, e.g. Nicholas Gratzo, the tenor, Joseph del Vino, the production designer, and Ella Salmon, who was to play Venus. Rehearsals began in the summer of 1871. Letters indicate that Aleppo remained in good spirits, despite occasional incidents:

Friday’s rehearsal went impeccably, excepting a brief disruption when a cellist’s bow ignited in measure 268 of the Venusberg scene. I am afraid we shall have to reduce the tempo.

Your friend,

Aleppo

Aleppo was unfazed by this and other small mishaps. The first real omen of disaster came when Aleppo, passionately waving his baton, almost lost an eye. His letters following the incident mark one of the few occasions in which he appealed to Wagner’s compassion for comfort:

Richard, I have lost an eye. Not merely misplaced it-lost it. I was veritably possessed during the overture and waved the point of my baton right into the cornea. I am ill! Will I follow poor Lully* and die in a conducting accident?

[*Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87) notoriously died of a stubbed toe. As was the convention of the period, Lully kept time by thumping the ground with a heavy staff; in one fateful measure of a Te Deum he misthumped, crushing his toe. The wound turned gangrenous and led to his death.]

Aleppo’s wound, however, was not serious, and he made a full recovery.

The decline of the production began when Aleppo observed Joseph del Vino, the production designer, drinking from a long bottle concealed in a beaver skin. He writes,

At first I turned away when he made love to his beaver, but then I heard the glassy “glug-glug” of wine. Seeing no harm I still turned away. But now the effects of this “fruit of the beaver”* are beginning to show: due to his logistical error the costumer did not show up and Gratzo had to sing without pants.

[*This phrase is inexplicable.]

When Gratzo sneezed instead of singing a high B-flat, Aleppo feared he was catching cold and demanded the beaver skin. Joseph did not relinquish the beaver skin. Upset, Aleppo cut the rehearsal short.

From there things only went downhill. Joseph, having shortly thereafter become nothing but a burden, was fired and not replaced. Gratzo did end up contracting a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he was unable to sing for weeks. The first oboist, surprised by a false entrance from the second trombone, bit his reed off. Chaos was rapidly taking hold.

But Aleppo was a remarkably positive person. His faith in the righteousness of his work and the ability of his performers never once faltered. After Gratzo returned, he had nothing but confidence that everything was on the right track:

Dear Richard,

Every day I discover new things in the score of Tannhäuser. Yesterday I found a piece of salami at the end of Act II. I must have dropped it while lunching.

Gaspari Gasparo, who owns the Tortellini Theatre,* is coming to see our last dress rehearsal tonight. Although a rumor has reached him that our production is a catastrophe and he has threatened to replace it with “Rossini on Roller Skates,” I am confident that everything will go smoothly.

Have no fear! Ever yours, I beg to remain

Your devoted

Aleppo

[*In Milan; where Aleppo’s production was being put on.]

The debacle that occurred is described in Aleppo’s lengthy next letter, sent the following day:

Dear Richard,

I am in shock. I would welcome the loss of one eye, both eyes, to avoid this. Our production was a train wreck and it has been cancelled.

I do not know where to begin. It started with Gasparo, who came in fuming about some argument with his wife. Gratzo was immediately terrified and took off his pants. Ms. Salmon fainted from stress. The first oboist, who had been sucking his new reed for hours, warned me that it was too hard.

When order was restored, we went through the overture and the dancing fine, and then Joseph del Vino showed up. He waltzed in, incongruous with the Venusburg music, brandishing a bottle of wine and singing about kidneys. Gasparo recognized him as the production designer. I stopped the music and explained that I had fired him, but del Vino denied it; Gasparo said I did not have the authority. I resumed the rehearsal.

Then the disaster – Richard, my mind still rings with his condemning words. First, our shepherd boy failed to enter. We still don’t know where he is. I tried to play it off by not stopping, but the silences were suspect. Then the chorus, thrown off guard, eased in several measures late, flubbing the words and ultimately falling apart and exiting in shame. When our Virgin Mary statue fell over and broke her nose, Gasparo stood up, shouting, “Enough! Aleppo, you inept fool! Mr. Del Vino has told me about your ‘beaver skin.’ This production is dissolved!”

I turned to my cast, and my orchestra – but they were all in support of going home. My life’s most important work, Richard. They were never even interested.

There is nothing left for me. I have decided to come to Tribschen so that I may visit you. My position, my wife – they are immaterial now.

Despondent,

Aleppo

P.S. So that I may have some resolution, I will bring you the long awaited calzone.

In order to understand how Aleppo felt, it is necessary to consider his faithful nature. Personal insult and attack never bothered him; even bad luck he took with a cheery outlook. Once, during a concert, the first violinist suddenly undressed him, and he took the joke in good spirits. He forgave everyone and hated no one. The fact that he is here “despondent” shows just how much Wagner meant to him – as he said, even his position and his wife were secondary to his dream of being a part of Wagner’s music.

Ironically, after leaving a disaster he called a “train wreck,” Aleppo died in a real train wreck on his way to Switzerland. This poetic ending to the life of a broken man was bittersweet: anticipating the visit to his old friend, he probably died happy; on the other hand, it is perhaps better that he never arrived, for Wagner would not have welcomed him. In his last letter to Aleppo, Wagner warned him not to visit, claiming, falsely, that Cosima could have no visitors, as she was delirious with a fever and unable to say anything coherent except “Please pass the chipmunk” and “Why did you give me a chipmunk.”

Through the Wagner-Spontini letters we have been given clearer insight into a heart historically considered hard and unfeeling; for if anyone could touch a hard heart, Aleppo could. No man was more kind, faithful, and giving. We are ever indebted to him for showing us – and perhaps bringing out – a new side of Richard Wagner.

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Tristan grew up in a small fishing village in Maine and now lives in New Jersey. Some of his work has appeared or is forthcoming in GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, hoi polloi, Poesia, Steam TicketCause & Effect, and others.


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