Behind Every Great Man . . .
Cosima Wagner, Part 2
Part 2 of 3
Cosima and Richard Wagner were married on August 25, 1870, five weeks after her divorce from Hans von Bülow received final sanction, four years after Minna Planer had died of a heart attack, and seven years and three children after they first fell in love with each other.
Exactly when von Bülow came to understand the full nature of the bond between Cosima and Richard is not known, but his behavior throughout proves that intellectually, he sublimated his emotional stake in it all to the great esteem in which he held Wagner as an artist.
He had the daughters of Cosima and Richard registered as his own children, Isolde and Eva von Bülow. It was not until the birth of their son, who would be known as Siegfried Wagner, that he seems to have finally resolved to go ahead with the divorce from Cosima. Incredibly, even at that point, he wrote to her, “you have preferred to consecrate the treasures of your heart and mind to a higher being: far from censuring you for this step, I approve of it.”
Still, in his inner emotional life von Bülow was not made of wood. His esteem for Wagner the creative genius may not have flagged, but the personal level was a different matter; from the time of the divorce he never spoke to Wagner again, and it was eleven years before he saw Cosima. Overall though, in the matter of the late-life transformation of Richard Wagner the man, the history of art owes almost as much to Hans von Bülow’s successful conquest of his heart by his brain, as it does to the conquest of Wagner’s heart by Cosima’s.
Religion formed another important aspect to these relationships. Franz Liszt was a Catholic whose life mirrored the exuberant, contradictory nature of southern, Catholic Europe: after spending the middle third of his life as the greatest musical virtuoso and showman the world had then seen, tragedy struck him in 1859 and then three years later, when first Cosima’s brother, and then her sister, died in early adulthood. He had already joined the Franciscans, and after these events he undertook formal ordination. Gradually, the flamboyant sinner was transformed into the aging penitent, though he remained a great and prolific musician, composer, and teacher throughout.
Cosima was raised in the Catholic faith as well, of course. It is hard not to see connections between these impulsive, southern, and Catholic elements of her background, indeed elements of the unique European nation that is Hungary, and her youthful vitality as a woman that allowed her to make a total spiritual and biological commitment to Richard Wagner. Certainly at the artistic level — she was a very fine musician herself — all this was part of her legacy from her father, who came to embody the Hungarian spirit in romantic music.
Cosima Liszt and Hans von Bülow had been married in St. Hedwig’s, a Catholic cathedral in Berlin, and their own two daughters, and Wagner’s two who von Bülow immediately accepted into his family, were baptized Catholic. But Wagner himself was nominally Protestant, and two years after her second marriage in a Protestant church, Cosima officially became a convert in a mood she described this way: “what a lovely thing religion is! What other power could produce such feelings!”
Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, Hans von Wolzogen, and the elderly Franz Liszt at Haus Wahnfried Bayreuth circa 1880 (note the portrait of Schopenhauer behind Wagner) (Photogravure by Franz Hafnstaengl after an oil painting by Wihelm Beckman, Liszt Museum, Bayreuth)
The truth is, of course, that by this fully mature stage of his life, Richard Wagner was not so much Protestant as a pioneering visionary in the post-Enlightenment synthesis of the European soul that is even now in its infancy two centuries after his birth, and must eventually encompass genetic, mythical, pagan, Catholic, Protestant, and hopefully Orthodox elements if it is to ultimately succeed. In this sense, Wagnerism itself has nascent religious aspects. I believe Cosima intuitively understood all this, and it provided her with the force she needed to overcome religious objections, from her father for example, just as she eventually overcame all the social sanctions of her affair with Wagner.
A charming episode from their early married life involved Cosima’s 33rd birthday the year they were married. She was in the habit of celebrating her birthday a day late, on Christmas Day, and some time following the birth of Siegfried in June of 1869, Wagner had composed a little private family piece of program music he called “Triebschen Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise.” Tribschen was the villa on Lake Lucerne that the Wagner family occupied at that time, courtesy of his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria; “Fidi” was the family nickname for baby Siegfried. In time for Christmas day 1870, Wagner completed the score for a small orchestra and then assembled fifteen musicians on the steps of the villa, so that this is how Cosima awoke that blessed morning:
Today, the Siegfried Idyll is the only piece of Wagner’s non-operatic music that remains frequently performed.
Despite the apparent bliss of such interludes, Wagner’s scandalous affair with Cosima had long-lasting repercussions for his relationship with the King. By then, the libretti for all four of the Ring cycle operas were complete, as well as the music for all but Götterdämmerung, and Richard and Cosima had long been hoping upon completion, to present this, the apotheosis of Wagner’s vision of total art, at a theater of their own. However, after five years of sponsorship, Ludwig was eager to see some of the material actually make it to the stage, and so against Wagner’s wishes, forced the performance of the first two operas in the cycle, Das Rheingeld and Die Walküre, each on their own, in 1869 and 1870 respectively.
Anxious to retain artistic control over their vision, the Wagners then began exploring the possibility of building their own playhouse, and it was Cosima who suggested Richard consider Bayreuth, a north Bavarian town he was familiar with from a visit long before as a young man. It took six more years, a trial of raising their own funding through local “Wagner societies” and eventually a loan from the relenting King Ludwig, but in 1875 the Bayreuth festival house was finished and the next year the first complete presentations of the Ring cycle took place. On the struggle to build the theater, Richard stated to Cosima: “Each stone is red with my blood and yours.”
Wagner remained intensely creative all his life, completing the music to Parsifal, his final opera, a year before he died and at a time when the coronary artery disease that would soon end his life, was already causing severely painful angina. In many ways, Parsifal is to the Christian side of the hoped-for European spiritual synthesis I have discussed, what the Ring is to the pagan side. Six month after the final performance of its first season in 1882, in which he entered the orchestra pit unseen during the final act and led the opera to its conclusion, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack on the 13th of February 1883, in Venice. He was sixty-nine years old.
Cosima sat with his body for more than 24 hours, refusing all food or rest, and she continued at his side for most of the next two days, during the embalming process. She asked that her daughters cut her hair, which was sewn into a cushion and placed on Wagner’s breast. Then the journey back to Bayreuth began, and on Sunday, February 18th, Richard Wagner’s body was buried in the garden of their home, Wahnfried. After the ceremonies were over, she lay on the coffin so long that young Siegfried had to fetch her into the house, where she went into seclusion for many months, hardly seeing even her family. Eventually, von Bülow proved yet again his total spiritual dedication to Wagner’s legacy, sending her a telegram in French, “sister, it is necessary to live.” Then Cosima Wagner emerged, still only 46 years old, ready to fight the next great, enduring battle of her long life.