Behind Every Great Man . . .
Cosima Wagner, Part 3
Part 3 of 3
Cosima emerged from mourning after the conclusion of the 1883 season of the Bayreuth Festival. This was only its third season, following the inauguration of the Ring cycle in 1876 and of Parsifal in 1882; various financial, artistic, political, and military considerations meant the Festival did not become a strictly annual event for seven more decades, in 1951. The 1883 season was similar to the previous year; only Parsifal was presented, in a run of twelve performances (there had been sixteen in 1882). Hermann Levi again conducted.
However, despite the fact that cast and conductor were almost identical to those assembled and directed just the year before by Wagner himself, at the end of the festival, Cosima received from one of Wagner’s disciples a lengthy, critical analysis of the many ways the 1883 production departed from the creator’s intentions. This, together with discussions that year to interest von Bülow as conductor for the Festival, and Franz Liszt himself as musical director (both declined), convinced Cosima to undertake the mission that would dominate the rest of her life: she herself became supreme artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival. Further, she determined that, to the best of her power, the Festival would remain under the direction of the Wagner family in perpetuity. And it still is today, despite two world wars, the demonization of things German, the fulfillment throughout the entire West of that very prospect of Jewish materialistic cultural hegemony that repelled Wagner even as a young man, the inevitable family feuds, and the overwhelming pressure to bend Bayreuth’s artistic values toward modern decadence. That is a tribute, not only to Wagner’s persuasive music, which has always attracted talented Aryans and Jews alike, but also to the vital, womanly, folkish drive of Cosima Wagner.
The 1884 Festival was similar to the previous two, and presented Parsifal again. There was no 1885 season, in part because Cosima was laying the groundwork for her first season as artistic director, 1886. That year she added Tristan und Isolde to Parsifal. She remained director for twenty-two years, gradually introducing all ten of Wagner’s mature operas in various combinations over 13 seasons. This established the “Bayreuth Canon” that continues to this day: the four operas of the Ring cycle, the three others that fulfill Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk vision of musical drama (Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal) and the last three romantic operas of his younger adult years: The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.
Today, discussion of Cosima’s regnum at Bayreuth inevitably revolves around her determination to remain absolutely faithful to Wagner’s original productions. Certainly, this argument goes back a long way, with no less illustrious a Wagner devotee than George Bernard Shaw objecting to her style as “chief remembrancer” as early as her third directorial season, 1889. And no doubt with the passage of over a century, her idea that “there is nothing left for us here to create, but only to perfect in detail” was unsustainable. But my feeling is that most of the retrospective criticism for decades now is just the absurd modern infatuation with judging the past by the standards, usually lower, of the present.
During the last 18 years of Richard Wagner’s life, the Ring cycle had been shown to the world for exactly one stage run. The same is true for Parsifal. Tristan had received a handful of runs, and Die Meistersinger had played more, largely because of its resonance with German unification in 1871. In contrast, popular operas of the day, such as many of Verdi’s, could have hundreds of runs all over Europe and the Americas over a comparable period of a decade or two. Given those circumstances, Cosima’s desire to see Richard’s legacy fulfilled in death as it could not have been in life was quite warranted. And although it is true that Wagner’s urge to control as many aspects of production and dissemination of his work as possible was a major factor in the extremely low number of presentations of his music dramas during his lifetime, that was all the more reason for Cosima to remain true to his vision once it had become reality, with Bayreuth established.
Ultimately, this idea of near-total control was part and parcel of Wagner’s artistic vision anyway, part of the idea of the total work of art, of the need to free German opera from crass Jewish commercialism and sponsorship, and of the related need to seek inspiration in Germanic sources. Certainly, the idea that the Wagnerian tradition could be forever fossilized as of 1882 was never possible, but it was completely appropriate that, after his death, there should be a period of consolidation, under Cosima, of the many hard-fought victories they had won over their 19 years together.
Not long before her 69th birthday in 1906, Cosima developed a rhythm disturbance of the heart that left her subject to episodic loss of consciousness. The reins of control at Bayreuth passed to Siegfried, and in the role of artistic director, he changed little that his parents had done. Cosima lived over 23 years after that, effectively in semi-retirement. She remained at Wahnfried and continued to exert a matriarchal influence on family politics and thus, indirectly, on the Festival. But she had no official capacity. Sadly, in those years she became estranged from her third daughter, Richard’s oldest child; Isolde died before her in 1919, and by then had not seen or spoken to Cosima in six years.
Yet there is a bitter but firm lesson even in that. Shared control over valuable assets between several branches of a family seldom works for long. If a simple cottage on a lake is difficult to pass on to multiple heirs, imagine attempting to do so for an institution like the Bayreuth Festival. Then imagine it under the control of the descendants of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, with a dual genetic legacy combining great genius and extreme narcissism!
The split between Cosima and Isolde involved precisely this issue of control, since Isolde and her husband, conductor Franz Beidler, hoped at the time of the succession in 1906 to have a dominant role, and instead were eventually disinherited. Deciding in favor of Siegfried was an enormous gamble for Cosima to take, for Isolde and Beidler had a son by then, whereas in the realm of sexuality and reproduction, Siegfried was a bachelor whose life had included some dangerously illegal homosexual scandals.
It’s possible that Cosima decided for Siegfried chiefly in the eternal motherly conviction that the son can do no wrong, but I think there was more to it than that. Cosima’s entire life was marked by an extraordinary combination of excellent intuition and the immense devotion and sacrifice needed to achieve what her intuition told her to try. At the age of 19, she married a promising young musician and two years later, was pregnant with his first child. She bore him that child and another, then fell in love with his hero. Her behavior for the next six years of this delicate balancing act, a period when she bore Wagner’s own three children, was such that despite all the tempests, Hans von Bülow never forswore his dedication to the Wagners, and they in turn, raised his daughters as Richard’s own, just as von Bülow had earlier done for Isolde and Eva in their infancy.
In the end, exactly as Wagner was right all along about Wagner, Cosima had been right all along about him too, the ultimate proof of her good judgment. And it turned out she was right about Siegfried as well.
True to his parental model, in 1915 at the age of forty-six, he married 18 year-old Winifred Klindworth, the adopted daughter of long-time Wagner associate and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Klindworth. In rapid succession, they had four children over the next five years. Winifred became festival director in 1930, after Cosima died that April, and Siegfried that August.
Reading modern references to these events is enlightening, given the childishly bullying logic of the current keepers of culture. Politically correct moderns never seem to get the contradiction between their professed conviction that “gay is good” and carrying their obsession with removing the word “gay” as an insult, so far that everyone can see it remains an insult. So too, commentators on the Wagners in the age of confusion never seem to get the irony in sarcastically pillorying Siegfried’s memory for being untrue to their prochronistic, rainbow notions of homosexuality, because he had a series of children with a “breeder.”
It never occurs to them that Siegfried Wagner might have had the sound will to reproduce of a healthy, mature male who has attained something prominent in life, and Winifred, the healthy drive to fulfill it. Nor that, just as his passionate grandmother was prepared to leave her husband and bear three children to his passionate grandfather, the greatest virtuoso of his day, and his passionate mother was prepared to leave her husband and bear three children to his passionate father, the greatest operatic composer of his day, Siegfried might, just perhaps, have inherited some of the same vital fire, the core of which is the will to procreate. No, to these cynical people who have all the irresponsibility of children with none of the vigor and imagination, and all the carping of the elderly with none of the sacrifice, Siegfried’s marriage to Winifred is always portrayed as a matter of dull duty in pursuit of selfish family interests.
For me, these essentially biological aspects of Cosima and her family are among the most interesting. Nothing is so important in human life, and few things so fascinating, as the sometimes mysterious factors involved in determining who wants to breed, and who gets to breed and with whom, and how much. Nothing is so plainly indicative of the natural vitality of a person, especially a woman, since for women, at least some breeding is almost always an option.
To me, Cosima Wagner was a supremely feminine combination of artistic refinement with a simple, giving embrace of life, who did what her heart told her to do, but followed it up with the work of brain and nerve. And it is clear to me that her youthful passion was the spark that changed Richard Wagner, and allowed him to complete his life’s work. I do not deny that all his apprenticeship was long since over, and the basis of all his theory and mature craft well underway when he fell in love with her; had they not been, she would not have fallen in love with him, for love of art was a crucial component to her passion. What I do say is that Wagner was obviously floundering when their love began, but the tremendous boost to his masculine pride and confidence induced by the physical love of a woman half his age fired him to new heights for two decades, heights he was able to sustain because she followed up her physical offering with total lifelong devotion.
Their story really is the embodiment of Wagner’s exalted lifelong artistic theme, redemption through love. And that in turn, reflects the great moral, religious and biological theme of white, European man: our uniquely high levels of empathy propel us to reach out to the world and understand it more as it is than as other races imagine it to be. In turn that allows us to achieve levels of power and control which that very same empathy can tinge with guilt, leading to a search for conciliation and redemption. Truly, we see here the need for love, and the power of love.