Cosima Wagner, The Lady of Bayreuth: Review

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One of the rabbit holes I encountered in writing about Mad King Ludwig was, of course, composer Richard Wagner, born 200 years ago yesterday. I’ve studied a bit since then about Wagner, and one cannot study Wagner without learning more about the woman behind the man — his wife, Cosima.

Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth is a very thorough biography of this woman who can only be called a force of nature.

She was born the illegitimate daughter of pianist Franz Liszt, composer of crazy-hard piano pieces (go to 5:45 to hear the part you’ll recognize from cartoons). Liszt and his countess lady friend had three children together, including Cosima, but like many artiste-types, they never felt the need to marry and so Cosima was raised largely by her grandmother and later by stern governesses.

Cosima and Hans von Bulow

Encouraged by her father, Cosima married conductor Hans von Bulow when she was 19. The marriage was not a success, although they had two daughters, Daniela and Blandine. Cosima met composer Richard Wagner and they began an affair, which apparently everyone except von Bulow was aware of.

Richard Wagner is the subject of many books himself — sure, he was a great composer. But he was also egotistical and sounds like he would be terrible to live with. He had a huge sense of entitlement and felt he should have the best of everything. No “starving artist” did he intend to be! “Is it such an outrageous demand to say that I deserve the little bit of luxury that I can bear? I, who can give pleasure to thousands,” he asked.

One thing in the book which fascinated me was how gossipy the newspapers of the day were. There was no internet or TV or celeb mags back then, so I guess the newspapers fulfilled that role. One newspaper referred to Cosima as Wagner’s “carrier pigeon” and mentioned her collecting money from the royal exchequer “for her ‘friend’ (or whatever).” Cosima’s husband challenged the newspaper editor to a duel, which he declined.

Cosima and Wagner had two daughters, Isolde and Eva (conveniently named for major figures in Wagner’s operas) while Cosima and von Bulow were still married. When Cosima and Wagner finally had the longed-for son, Siegfried, von Bulow and Cosima divorced at last.

Cosima Wagner's children: Isolde, Eva, Siegfried, Blandine, and Daniela

Cosima Wagner’s children: Isolde, Eva, Siegfried, Blandine, and Daniela — public domain photo

I think this is the most adorable photo of all of Cosima’s children. And you can clearly see who the favored child is: little “Prince” Siegfried, surrounded protectively by all his sisters. Their life’s goal is to advance his prospects.

Wagner wrote a piece called “Siegfried Idyll” or “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” for Cosima’s Christmas Eve birthday the year after Siegfried’s birth. He arranged for a group of musicians to come to the house on Christmas morning and play the piece standing along the stairwell to awaken Cosima. “After it had died away,” Cosima recorded in her diary, “R. came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting.’ I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household.”

Cosima and Wagner

With von Bulow out of the way, life for the Wagners became as normal as it ever would be. Wagner was busy composing, and his crowning glory was his “Ring Cycle” of 4 operas, given at his specially-built opera house in Bayreuth. I was amazed at some of the attendees at the first performance of the Ring operas: Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Nietzsche, Liszt, Bruckner — practically a who’s-who of famous artists of the day.

Twenty-four years younger than Wagner, Cosima was 45 when he died in Italy of a heart attack in 1883. In typical dramatic fashion, Cosima refused to leave Wagner’s body for 24 hours, even sleeping in the bed with his body and jumping into his open grave after the body had been put into it.

Cosima made herself into the protector of the Wagner “brand,” and promoted it aggressively. ‘Beyreuth’ became almost a type of religion for those drawn to the city for its Wagner performances. Even beyond the music, she promoted German pride and anti-Semitism, relentlessly picking at Jewish musician Hermann Levi who conducted many of the performances.

Cosima insisted on deifying her late husband. When a tenor came to audition for a part in an upcoming production and sang a piece by another composer, Cosima was shocked and asked him if he could sing something by Wagner.

She was known by rulers and the social elites far and wide. “Socially speaking, Cosima rules the roost,” said one associate. She was a thorough correspondent: “Forgive the brevity of this letter,” she once wrote, “but it is the 26th I have written since yesterday.”

Rift between Cosima and Isolde

A rift developed between Isolde and her husband Franz Beidler, and the other Wagners. The reasons for this are a bit fuzzy, but Isolde ended up being disinherited from the considerable money coming into the Wagners by that point, and most likely this led to her early death from tuberculosis at age 53. Cosima ordered that Isolde’s name never be uttered in her presence — an indication of the importance Cosima put on the Wagner family industry above even members of the Wagner family. Her daughter Blandine once said, “Mama has never cared about me. It is enough that I can tell my conscience that Mama never suffered on account of me.”

So total was Cosima’s blackout of her oldest daughter with Wagner that she didn’t even learn of her death until ten years after it had occurred.

The rift between Cosima and Isolde meant that Isolde’s son was out of the running as Wagner’s heir. Eva had married at 41 and had no children, and so securing the family dynasty fell to Siegfried, who was gay (not that Cosima knew or would admit to this).

Eva and Cosima got busy searching for a suitable bride for “Fidi” as they called him, and eventually found one: Winifred Williams, an orphan raised by a foster father who had educated her in music — particularly Wagner’s music. The two met, where Winifred wrote that “we looked at each other in silence for at least 1 1/2 minutes.” The two married in 1915 — she was 18, he was 46.

Hitler and the Wagners

In the 1920s, Hitler came onto the scene. His mania over German exceptionalism and the purity of the Aryan race aligned quite well with the Wagners’ view of the world, and when he visited them at Wahnfried in 1923, Siegfried said, “Hitler is a splendid person, the true soul of the German people.” Whether Cosima herself actually met Hitler (she was in failing health by this time) is uncertain.

After their children were born, Siegfried Wagner returned to his affairs with men and emotionally abandoned Winifred. She was so taken with Hitler and his eyes (“tremendously alluring, entirely blue, large and expressive”) that to this day there are rumors of an affair between them.

Cosima died in 1930 at the age of 90. She had lived through huge social changes and had been witness to much of the musical history of the 19th century and much 20th century history as well.

This book may be a bit more than you wanted to know if you’re just casually interested, but I found it fascinating. Step over, Hillary Clinton: Cosima Wagner was a woman of power way before her time.

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2 thoughts on “Cosima Wagner, The Lady of Bayreuth: Review

  1. Wow you gave us a great history lesson in the arts, etc. Thank you!
    P. S. Happy Valentine’s Day 2013

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