SOMEWHERE I have recently seen this collection of "Family Letters" referred to by a well-wishing journalist in advance of its integral English publication—a few of the letters or portions thereof having been elsewhere translated by me before—as ''a supplement to Wagner's Autobiography." Upon the assumption that we yet may be given a reliable translation of Mein Leben, to some extent I can accept that description, as all the intimate expressions of a great man s personality may be said to supplement each other in a sense, But the true counterpart of these letters of Richard Wagner s to his blood-relatives and connections is to be found, of course, in those to his first wife "Minna," at the end of my preface to which I breathed the hope, now more than two years since, that they might "soon be supplemented by an English rendering of the delightful Familienbriefe" ; and in fact it is by the barest chance that the latter rendering did not then take first place, as was my own desire when the two collections made almost simultaneous appearance in their original vernacular, winter 1907—8.
For my own part, as between the three works just named, in the matter of self—portraiture I should give decided preference—and should have even before seeing any of them—to the one which displays to us the author in the most levelling of all human relations, that of the member of a large family conclave, and youngest but one of a numerous middle-class brood. Here no possible suspicion of attitudinising can arise in the mind of the most inveterate carper; if I may be allowed to appeal to personal experience of a similar quiverful, elder brothers and sisters knock all that sort of thing out of their juniors mighty soon. And so we get a picture of the naked human spirit in the driest and most neutral of lights, even the letters addressed to a younger generation, those to two or three adoring nieces, being sobered by the certainty that they will be shewn to the girls' parents. Yet what letters they are, the majority of those to his nieces! Take No. 65, for instance, with its "I court the affection of nobody, and leave people to think what they like of me; but . . if but a finger of true unconditional love is held out to me from anywhere, I snatch at the whole hand as possessed, draw the whole mortal to me by it if I can, and give him, an' it may be, just such a thorough hearty kiss as I should like to give yourself to-day." As pendant to which I may cite that to his brother-in-law Eduard of almost ten years earlier "I know no first nor last midst those my heart belongs to; I've only one heart, and whoever dwells there is its tenant from bottom to top" (p. 56).
After reading the above pair of extracts, and comparing them with the letters to Uhlig or Liszt, one may be pretty sure that if this collection is not ten times its present size, the fault largely lies at the recipients' door; either in that lack of responsiveness so common among large families, particularly when most of the grown-ups have young progeny of their own to attend to, or in simple neglect to treasure up a store whose future value was not realised (cf. p. 278). Yes, and—as my friend Herr Glasenapp informs us in his thumbnail sketch at this volume's end—it is to the half-sister, Cecilie Avenarius, her famous brother's only junior, that we owe the conservation of the main bulk of those family—letters we do possess; just as it was to her and her husband that by far the chief constituents of its first half were addressed. On the other hand, I cannot quite share the belief my friend expresses, that a want of such care and forethought on the part of other members of the family has deprived us of very many fellows to these documents; themselves they offer too much indication that at various periods in their author's life, e.g. that directly preceding and succeeding his first marriage, all ordinary correspondence with his kinsfolk was suspended for a good long while, as so often is the case with less uncommon individuals in like circumstances. Nevertheless, it is tolerably certain that letters passed between Richard Wagner and his sister Ottilie Brockhaus or her husband in the summer of 1837 concerning the divorcement of Minna then actively contemplated (cf. "R. to M. Wagner," p. 502), whilst sister Clara Wolfram's long Zurich visit of the late summer and early autumn I 856 must have entailed at least one letter from her host himself before and after it, to say nothing of his arranging for Minna's visit to her two years previously. So that there still is faint hope of just a few emerging from some secretive purchaser's portfolio in course of time,
Turning to another aspect of our collection as it stands, one of its distinctive features is that— setting aside a few applications to music-publishers— it presents us with the earliest of Richard Wagner's private missives as yet discoverable ; though in that respect it is run pretty close by the "Letters to Apel' quite lately contributed by me to The English Review, which in their turn richly supplement our rather scanty record for the 'thirties. The 'forties, on the contrary, here shew a harvest more abundant than in any other volume of the master's letters ; whilst the total time-span bridges nearly all his adult life, little more than its eight last years being unaccounted for besides those earlier gaps.
Regarding the technique of the present edition a very few words will suffice. With the exception of eight letters to Minna included by Herr Glasenapp in the original edition before it was decided to issue the whole of that extensive group apart, nothing whatever has been consciously omitted by me in this Englishing of a correspondence transcribed by my friend and colleague from the autographs themselves ; similarly, all the un-signed footnotes are mere reproductions from his, On the other hand, for internal reasons I have transposed the sequence of two or three undated letters, added one of Albert Wagner's narrating the Mother's death (pp. 141-5), and furnished the least possible dressing of what I may term connective tissue,—all such additions of mine being indicated by square brackets, as my colleague has restricted himself to curved. Having experimented in the "Minna" volumes with "Thy" for the signature where Wagner employs the second person singular throughout a letter, and having found the experiment successful—so far as can be judged from its provoking no adverse comment in any quarter—I have continued it here, as stamping a degree of intimacy for which our own colder nation has no symbol in general use.
In conclusion, I have just one appeal to address to the reader: an appeal of a practical nature on both sides. Feeling that what has greatly militated against a truer knowledge of R. Wagner's character as man has been a limitation of the sale of kindred volumes by their comparatively high cost, I have persuaded my present publishers to issue this one at a price within the means of all who crowd the cheaper sections of the house at performances of his dramatic works, or take the most modest of parts in their representation. With them and their numberless friends it must rest, alike to justify our present, and to shape our future policy. For at least one more volume of letters is ready for printing in the event of a cordial reception of this.
WM. ASHTON ELLIS.
BRIGHTON, July 1911.