Friday, May 21, 2010

Cosima Wagner

The death of Wolfgang Wagner in March, mourned across Germany, severed a national artery. He was the last of Richard Wagner's grandchildren and the longest ruler of the Bayreuth Festival, the annual rite during which Wagner's operas are ceremonially performed in a theater designed by the composer for that purpose in an ornate Bavarian town. Wolfgang took over the festival in 1966, on the death of his more gifted brother, Wieland. Never much of an artist himself, Wolfgang carried on the family business in his grandfather's name when, in fact, its existence and much of its character stem from the dark, controlling mind of the composer's widow, the formidable Cosima Wagner.

Bayreuth, when Richard Wagner died in 1883, was a wobbly enterprise that had put on two "Ring" cycles in seven years and had no funds left for more. Cosima, 45 years old and a mother of four, turned the festival into an annual event and a national shrine, a meeting place for German industry, high society and the farthest fringes of the political right.

Cosima's role has been officially played down and steam-cleaned since her death in 1930 at age 92. Oliver Hilmes's absorbing biography—"Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth"—is the first to obtain unfettered access to public-owned parts of the family archives. It reveals Cosima as an obsessive control freak, motivated more by hatred than by love, willing to sacrifice all but one of her children to the glory of a self-made cause.

Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth
By Oliver Hilmes
(Yale, 366 pages, $40)

No part of her life was conventional or stable. She was born in an Italian love-nest beside Lake Como in 1837 to the Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt and his married Parisian mistress, the Countess Marie d'Agoult. Liszt registered Cosima and her sister, Blandine, under false parental names and abandoned them to the care of nurses while he crisscrossed Europe with Marie on concert tours. When the couple split up, the children were entrusted to the governess of Liszt's next mistress and kept away from their mother. For nine years, 1844 to 1853, Liszt did not see his daughters at all. Cosima, shunted off to Berlin, fled into a teenage marriage with the neurotic pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a pupil of her father's.

Theirs was never a happy home. Bülow, tormented by headaches, was abusive, and Cosima, with two small daughters, contemplated suicide. One day, on a ride with Richard Wagner, her father's friend, she glimpsed salvation. A charismatic revolutionary with a half-abandoned wife, Wagner was no great catch. But his fortunes were about be transformed by a young monarch, King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was prepared to support his work lavishly.

Wagner moved to Munich with Bülow as his conductor and Cosima as his lover, a liaison too exotic for the local Catholic establishment to tolerate for long. Banished to Switzerland, he had a daughter and son with Cosima before the scandal broke and they became the most notorious couple in civilization.

Wagner and Cosima were together for less than 20 years, during which time they shifted the center of musical gravity away from Beethoven's humane universality toward a mystic German primitivism. Wagner, with Cosima as his wife, finally realized the staging of his epic "Ring," composed the ethereal "Parsifal," created his ideal theater at Bayreuth and fulminated against the Jews in widely read polemics. Cosima, whose mother tongue was French, turned equally pro-German and anti-Semitic, the perfect spouse.

Far from being the femme fatale of public fantasy, Cosima, according to Mr. Hilmes, disliked sexual relations with her husband and was obliged to endure in silence his late flings with, of all indignities, another Frenchwoman and a Bayreuth chorus girl.

Dissuaded from starving herself upon Wagner's death, Cosima set about enshrining Bayreuth as his earthly legacy. In practical terms, her success was remarkable. By 1906, when she handed the reins to her wimpish son, Siegfried, Cosima had run 15 festivals and ranked among the richest women in Germany. "There is a Wagnerian idea," she told her children, "but there can be no Lisztians because your grandpapa, great artist though he was, did not implement any ideas, any more than Beethoven or the others did."

But the "Wagnerian idea" was one that Cosima refined to her own specification. Meeting the crank British historian Houston Stewart Chamberlain—who wooed all three of her daughters and married the youngest, Eva—Cosima espoused his "scientific" racism, which proclaimed so-called Aryans to be the highest human form. Chamberlain persuaded Cosima to disinherit her elder daughters, Bülow's children, and establish Eva with Siegfried as the true heirs to Bayreuth. The resulting lawsuits exposed Cosima's infidelities to the tiniest domestic detail, related by house servants. Chamberlain's power bid collapsed when the other side threatened to out Siegfried as a predatory homosexual.

The Cosima-Chamberlain ideology was the magnet that drew Adolf Hitler to Bayreuth in September 1923. Cosima presided over a brownshirt march-past, giving the Nazi movement cultural legitimacy before her death in April 1930. Hitler, seizing power in January 1933, attended the festival every year until the war began and made sure the Wagners were well off.

Mr. Hilmes argues sympathetically (if repetitively) that Cosima was not as black as she seemed. She was impeded throughout her life by a diminished sense of self-worth, crushed by her neglected childhood and wretched first marriage. Be that as it may, Cosima Wagner made Bayreuth what it is today, a repository of great music, bad ideas and venomous family relations. Wolfgang Wagner, who disinherited his brother's children and his own son to leave Bayreuth in the hands of two rival daughters, Eva and Katharina, was the last grandchild to be dandled on Cosima's meddlesome knee. His recent death gives Bayreuth an opportunity this summer to cleanse its appalling past.

Mr. Lebrecht's next book, "Why Mahler?," will be published by Random House in September.



  1. "...they shifted the center of musical gravity away from Beethoven's humane universality toward a mystic German primitivism."

    Yes, more Beethoven, please!

    One of the nobler notes (double-entendre intended) in the mostly ignoble Second World War, was how the BBC World Service used the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth at the beginning of every broadcast to Europeans. It was an affirmation of the better angels of Britain's nature, that they shared a common civilisation with the Germans, a civilisation of which the Third Reich was an enemy. And so was Britain's ally, Communist Russia, but that doesn't excuse the Third Reich, nor do the Third Reich's evils excuse those - lesser in magnitude but evil nonetheless - of Britain and America. Pope Pius XII probably had the cleanest hands of any Western head of state at that time.

    A poignant vignette whose memory moves me to this day: In May 1995, during the 50th anniversary of VE-Day, I lived in London and worked at the London Library. I did a bit of work in the library's safe, handling precious Renaissance books and pamphlets, and one was a pamphlet by Martin Luther, published in Dresden in the 1520s. It survived in the safe in the London Library, which was damaged by a German bomb in 1940.

  2. An afterthought: Luther, whose considerable virtues I admire in limited ways, was instrumental in the development of the Modern Age, for both good and ill. And one of the ill effects of Luther was the development of nationalism, displacing the prior Catholic European ethos of subsidiarity.

    (Gloss for any of your readers who don't know what "subsidiarity" means: Basically it means that both Church AND state governments should be as local as possible, with the central authorities (the Vatican vis a vis religion, and the Kings or Princes or Emperor vis a vis secular law) exerting minimal power over local laws and customs except in matters of essential unity.)

    Luther and Protestantism changed all that, by instituting a conflation of NATIONAL governments with national religions. After over a century of wars putatively over "religion" in Europe and Britain, in 1648 this ethos became conventionally adopted throughout Western Europe - again, for both good and ill, but the ill effect of this was the development of nationalism...

    ...which led ultimately to the catastrophes of the essentially nationalistic European wars of the 20th century.

    And so, back to Britain - and especially England - isn't it an UGLY paradox, that English nationalism, which began with King Henry VIII's cynical and opportunistic embrace of some convenient portions of Luther's ideas, ultimately led to the catastrophic conflict between English and German nationalisms in 1914?

    And now that the Modern Age has ended (it ended sometime between 1989 with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and 2001 with the Wahabbi "Muslim" attack on USA - and perhaps significantly, the Saudi sect of Wahabbism is the Muslim equivalent of Puritanical Protestantism) - now the only Western leader with any integrity of moral authority happens to be a German Pope!

    Well, you can't say God has no sense of humour. :-) And an old proverb told to me by a Hungarian says, "God writes straight with crooked lines."

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