Wagner, Cosima (1837–1930)

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Wagner, Cosima (1837–1930)

Daughter of one great musician and wife of another who was instrumental in helping found Bayreuth, the festival featuring her husband's operas, and ensuring its survival as an annual event of worldwide fame . Born Cosima Liszt in Bellagio, on Lake Como, on December 24, 1837; died in Bayreuth, Germany, on April 1, 1930; illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt (the pianist and composer) and Countess Marie d'Agoult (who wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Stern); educated in Paris; married Hans von Bülow (the conductor), on August 18, 1857 (divorced 1870); married Richard Wagner (the composer), on August 25, 1870; children: (first marriage) daughters Blandine von Bülow and Daniela von Bülow (Wagner); (conceived with Wagner during first marriage) Isolde Wagner and Eva Wagner; (with Wagner before second marriage) Siegfried Wagner.

Every year opera lovers from around the world gather in the small German town of Bayreuth for the only festival dedicated exclusively to the works of a single composer, Richard Wagner. For well over a century, this small town has been transformed annually by the arrival of some of the world's best conductors, prima donnas, set decorators, and costume designers, converging to stage productions for audiences willing to pay premium prices to hear Wagner's most famous works, and especially to watch the sagas of Teutonic gods unfold, transporting the audience in a wash of beautiful music from Bayreuth to the Nordic halls of Valhalla. Although the festival was conceived because of Richard Wagner's genius, its survival and prosperity are due largely to his wife Cosima, who made the performances there both artistically viable and financially profitable. Although Cosima Wagner was not a musician, her influence on the music world has been incalculable, and it was under her leadership particularly that the Bayreuth Festival grew from a German event into one of international stature.

What love has done for me, I shall never be able to repay.

—Cosima Wagner

From the time of her birth, the life of Cosima Liszt defied social convention. She was born in Bellagio on Lake Como on December 24, 1837, the illegitimate daughter of Countess Marie d'Agoult , who wrote under the pseudonym of Daniel Stern and was often compared with George Sand , and the famous composer and pianist Franz Liszt. Cosima was one of three children born to the couple, and grew up largely in Paris, although she often went to her father's residence in Weimar. She also spent time with her paternal grandmother and under the care of various governesses. From birth, she was at the center of European cultural life, acquainted with the most famous musicians, artists, and writers of the period. Her life was one of extremes, in which her parents were lionized but she was illegitimate. She was by nature a quiet and orderly person, and yet her bohemian origins would always play a central role in her long and productive life.

After receiving an excellent education in Paris, Cosima married Hans von Bülow, the conductor and pianist, on August 18, 1857, a few months before her 20th birthday. The couple had two daughters, Blandine von Bülow and Daniela von Bülow (Wagner) . Among her husband's associates was the composer Richard Wagner, notorious throughout Europe as a ladies' man as well as a musical and political revolutionary. When Cosima was still a child, Richard had been caught up in the Revolution of 1848 that swept across the Continent, further shaking the already weakened foundations of the old medieval Europe.

A typical Romantic, Richard Wagner was a strange combination of revolutionary and conservative, pushing for a new and different future while desiring a return to the past. He had come to Paris to find backers to produce his operas and did not always have great success. Except for meeting Cosima, Richard's memories of Paris would not be happy ones.

When Richard entered Cosima's life, he was 51 and separated from Minna Wagner , his wife of 29 years. Cosima was 26. While he was known for his many liaisons, and she was a young wife and mother, it was not surprising that he should be especially taken by Cosima, whom he described as "young and exceptionally gifted, the very image of Liszt, but intellectually his superior." In 1864, thanks to subsidies paid by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Richard and Hans von Bülow were working on a musical collaboration when the attraction between the composer and the conductor's wife blossomed into an affair. Cosima regarded her marriage as empty and loveless, and was so drawn to Richard, whom both she and her husband regarded as a genius, that all risks seemed worthwhile. When she became pregnant with Richard's child, Von Bülow was aware of the situation but did not intervene. All three feared that if King Ludwig learned of their domestic triangle, he would withdraw his support. When Cosima's daughter was born, she was named Isolde (Wagner) , and the triangle continued.

By November 1868, Cosima had given birth to a second child, Eva (Wagner) , with Richard. The composer's first marriage had produced no children, and he delighted in his daughters. In 1868, Cosima left von Bülow, and in 1870 she married Richard Wagner, almost a year after their son, Siegfried, was born.

A month after she officially left von Bülow, Cosima began to keep a diary. What emerges from these writings is a complex justification of the life she had chosen with her lover. As an illegitimate child who had become a faithless wife, Cosima always saw her personal life as less than ideal, and it was partly in order to justify her life with Richard to their children that she began to write down the events of daily life and to document her husband's creative activity. While Richard's personal life had also been less than perfect, Cosima believed that his music symbolized the triumph of German ideals, and all that was pure and good in the German people. Regarding him as a genius whose philosophy would not only revolutionize music but change the world, the adoring young woman 25 years his junior was ready to support him completely.

For Cosima and Richard, their relationship was larger than life; there is no doubt of their passionate love for each other. In her first entry in the diary, Cosima wrote that their alliance was "not sought after or brought about myself: Fate laid it on me." Certainly she brought a soothing element to the life of this tempestuous genius. Alternately depressed and exhilarated, Richard was overwhelmed by haunting fantasies and dreams. He loved and hated passionately, and was prone to spending enormous sums of borrowed money on extravagant purchases. Quietly and efficiently, Cosima organized their daily life, listened to her husband's scores, took walks with the children, and invited in friends for intimate gatherings in the evening. While flaunting social convention, she remained selflessly devoted to him, believing that no sacrifice was too great for genius. But life with Richard was never easy.

On June 21, 1868, Die Meistersinger premiered in Munich to a triumphant reception, ensuring the further support of King Ludwig. Richard's operas were increasingly performed, but the composer sought even greater outlets for his music. His dream now was to bring together Europe's finest singers, musicians, and set designers to produce his entire cycle of four operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, known collectively as The Ring of the Nibelungen. It would be an unprecedented event in the history of music.

Agoult, Marie d' (1805–1876)

French author and salonnière . Name variations: Marie de Flavigny, comtesse d'Agoult; (pseudonym) Daniel Stern. Born Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on December 31, 1805; died in Paris, France, on March 5, 1876; married the Comte d'Agoult, in 1827, but left him and formed a liaison with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt; children: (with Liszt) three daughters, including Cosima Wagner (1837–1930).

Marie d'Agoult wrote the semi-autobiographic romance Nélida (1845), Lettres Républicaines (1848), Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 (1851), Mes Souvenirs, 1806–33 (1877), Florence et Turin and Dante et Goethe. Her Esquisses Morales et Politiques (1849) is considered her best work.

Wagner, Minna (c. 1800–1866)

German actress . Born Minna Planer around 1800; died in Dresden, Germany, in February 1866; married Richard Wagner (the composer), on November 22, 1836; children: an illegitimate daughter; (with Wagner) no children.

A beautiful and gifted young actress, Minna Planer met Richard Wagner in 1834 while he was chorusmaster and assistant conductor with the Bethmann Company in Magdeburg and she was a young and sought-after actress in the company. She was almost four years older than Wagner and at age 16 had had an illegitimate daughter whom she passed off as her sister. They were married two years later. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship. At the time, Richard's finances were in a terrible state; Minna had to sell a bracelet to redeem his Das Liebesverbot from the copyist. A year later, she returned to her parents' home in Dresden, and Richard sold their wedding presents to pursue her. She eventually rejoined him, and they continued to flee borders and creditors for the next couple of years. Richard borrowed from relatives, pawned all of his and Minna's possessions, then sold the pawn tickets.

By 1840, Richard Wagner was in debtors' prison in France, and the by-now-faithful Minna wrote desperate letters to friends who eventually bailed him out. Their lives changed in 1842 with the successful production of Wagner's Rienzi in Dresden. Seven years later, infatuated with Mathilde Wesendonk , Richard wrote Minna that he could not continue his life with her. But the marriage limped along for three or four more years, Minna ill with heart disease, until he turned his attention to Cosima Liszt (Wagner) . As Minna lay dying in Dresden, the now-affluent Wagner did not visit while he was in the city. She wrote a friend: "Every three months I get a crumb from Richard's abundance." She died in February 1866.

The Wagners had conceived the idea of a yearly festival of his works, and gained the generous support of King Ludwig and other patrons, by 1872, when the foundation stone for the theater was laid in the town of Bayreuth, in Germany's Upper Franconia. In 1874, the Wagners had moved to their new home in Bayreuth, called Wahnfried. Two years later, the first Ring cycle was produced, and received largely positive reviews, but production costs were enormous. As a financial venture, it was not a great success, but as an artistic event, these productions proved a musical and cultural turning point in European history. Richard Wagner's powerful music, combined with exquisite staging, was like nothing ever seen before. The success of Bayreuth would consume Cosima and Richard for the rest of their lives, and his operas would gain an enduring place in opera repertory.

There was a dark side, however, to this musical legacy. Believing that Germany had depended for too long on French and Italian cultural influence, Richard had always wanted the German people to return to their history and roots to create their own literature, music, and art. In 1870, Otto von Bismarck had succeeded in unifying Germany politically, and the flowering of Richard Wagner's music coincided with a new sense of nationalistic pride, especially since the stories of the Ring cycle were based on Teutonic myth. Reinforced along with these themes was the attitude shared by many Germans that their culture should be "purified" of all foreign influences—Jewish as well as French and Italian. Taking this stance, Richard became increasingly anti-Semitic, as did Cosima along with him.

Cosima concurred, in fact, in all of her husband's opinions. Raised in Paris, with French as her native language, she rarely spoke it once she learned German, because Richard felt that France was culturally inferior. In her diary, she faithfully recorded many nights of conversation in which the couple discussed German racial purity and Richard voiced prejudices against Jews that were shared by many in their culture. In his opinion, Jewry embodied materialistic capitalism, which he saw as a threat to the new German nation. Despite this prejudice, the Wagners had many close Jewish friends, including Jacques Fromental Halévy, the operatic composer, Karl Tausig, the celebrated pianist, and Joseph Rubenstein, who belonged to the family's most intimate circle.

Richard's hatred of Jews as a race but love of individuals as friends was shared by Cosima, whose relationships were very like her husband's. Hermann Levi, the first conductor of Parsifal, was Jewish and close to both the composer and his wife; Levi's friendship with Cosima continued after her husband's death. Of his Jewishness, Levi wrote to Cosima, "I should begin by thanking you for bearing with me, for being able to stand me; for I can hardly stand myself." Cosima did not find such racial self-hatred strange, but took it for granted. The Wagners were cultural rather than biological anti-Semites, believing that if Jews adopted German Christian culture, it would be best for them and for Germany. Although this was a less virulent form of anti-Semitism than the biological racism that later would be espoused by the Nazis, it paved the way for what ultimately followed, and Cosima and Richard and many like them share some responsibility for the virulent racial hatred which ultimately snuffed out millions of lives.

As Richard aged, his health declined, and he became more opinionated. He slept poorly, was tormented by erysipelas and indigestion, and told his children, "You see what a man looks like who is writing his last opera." His fits of anger became worse, and he suffered from heart spasms. Through it all, Cosima smoothed the waters, inviting friends to join them for musical evenings or reading Shakespeare with her husband. As a couple, they were happy and enjoyed their children. Richard remained devoted to Cosima, and believed that without her he never would have written Die Meistersinger, the Ring cycle or Parsifal. He composed songs for her and once, on her birthday, she awoke to the strains of a 45-piece orchestra that had been hired by her husband to surprise her with his exquisite new serenade for their son, the "Siegfried Idyll." When Richard was particularly difficult, Cosima's response was "what can a poor woman do but suffer in love and passion." Despite her devotion, however, Cosima always felt guilty about leaving Hans von Bülow, and suffered because of her separation from the two daughters of that marriage, with whom she was eventually reunited.

Richard Wagner died in 1883, of a heart attack in Venice. Because so much of her life had been devoted to him, friends worried about what would happen to Cosima. Countless times they had heard her say, "Yesterday and today, I put my whole being into a prayer: to die together with Richard." In fact, reality proved quite different. Cosima survived her husband for 47 years, living to age 92, and it was during this period that she blossomed most fully into her own person.

The music world soon learned that Cosima was gifted at more than matters of her family and household. By 1886, she had complete and unchallenged control of the Bayreuth Festival. She proved a much better business manager than Richard had been, and under her guidance the festival became extremely profitable. She also began to shape productions, deciding on musicians, staging, and interpretation in her own way, according to what she felt her husband would have approved or disapproved. Dressed in widow's black, she became a myth in her own right, as "the absent god's semi-divine representative."

In 1906, increasing blindness caused her to turn the directorship of the festival over to her son, Siegfried. Almost 70 by then, and increasingly frail, she remained a strong cultural presence in Bayreuth, and in opera houses around the world where her husband's works were performed. Her imprint was so great that today it is impossible to separate her contributions from his work.

Cosima Wagner's devotion to her husband was combined with intelligence and determination, and her importance in the music world is unquestioned. Bayreuth would never have become the important musical center it remains without her leadership after Richard Wagner's death, and once on her own she made substantial contributions to the staging of some of the world's most beautiful music.


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"Frau Wagner," in The Times [London]. April 2, 1930, p. 19.

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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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