A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, by Richard Wagner: Summary and Response.
In this story we get a glimpse of the time when the lives of two great German composers, Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven, come together for a brief moment. During this time, Beethoven is already a famous composer, who has, however, somewhat fallen out of favor with the Viennese audiences, who prefer simpler and more fashionable compositions than what Beethoven produces. Wagner, on the other hand, is still trying to make his way into fame, though fame is not his goal at all. Wagner is a young man infatuated with music, especially Beethoven’s music. Wagner struggles to make a living writing dance music, while dreaming of writing serious compositions, like those of Beethoven.
Throughout the story we see the importance Beethoven’s works to Wagner, and how much Beethoven’s music influenced Wagner’s later works. With the money that Wagner has accumulated from selling his galops and pot-pourris, which is a very modest sum, Wagner sets out to Vienna in hopes of meeting Beethoven. Wagner realizes that the great composer is nearing the end of his life, and therefore he, Wagner, is in danger of missing out on the chance to meet this great genius, unless he acts soon.
Not being able to afford a more comfortable journey, Wagner walks the long way to Vienna. On his way, Wagner runs into an Englishman, who repeatedly offers Wagner a ride to Vienna. Wagner, however, refuses, citing his instinctive dislike of the man and the feeling that he will cause problems for Wagner once in Vienna. This turns out to be true, as once the two get to Vienna, it becomes apparent that Beethoven does not admit any Englishmen, who often make the journey to meet him. Wagner, who unknowingly stays in the same house as the Englishman, is taken for an Englishman himself, and is denied access to Beethoven, until he writes the composer to explain his situation.
Once Beethoven reads Wagner’s letter, Wagner is invited to meet Beethoven, but the Englishman tags along and forces his way into Wagner’s apartments. Wagner gets rid of the Englishman, and explains that his dislike for all Englishmen stems from the fact that they travel to look at him, just like they travel to look at an exotic animal, just because he is famous and different. They do not appreciate his work, or understand all he tries to express, they are only interested, because he is famous.
During the visit, Beethoven also confides in Wagner. He talks about the Viennese audiences’ inability to understand his latest work, Fidelio , in its original form. He says they only like it because, after its initial bad reviews, he has followed the advise he was given and has changed the opera in accordance. He also talks about his Last Symphony, and finally says that writing serious music is a thankless task, and he would do better financially, if he wrote dance music, like young Wagner.
Throughout the story we see that Wagner holds Beethoven in the highest regard. He undertakes a crazy journey, on foot and with almost no money, just to meet the composer once. Wagner tells us in the very beginning of the story that the first time he hears Beethoven’s symphony performed is when he falls in love with Beethoven’s music. In fact, he makes numerous references to madness and fever in describing how deeply he feels about the composer’s work.
As the story progresses, we see Wagner making numerous sacrifices, like spending his meager earnings on hearing Beethoven’s opera in Vienna and suffering the company of the obnoxious Englishman, all for the love of Beethoven’s music. The end of the story shows Wagner overjoyed at Beethoven’s explanation of his Last Symphony, once again illustrating the importance of Beethoven’s works to Wagner and the influence Beethoven has on him.