Cosima Wagner Reconsidered

By John W. Barker

Cosima Liszt-Bülow-Wagner is inseparable from the saga of Richard Wagner (1813-83) and his artistic legacy. Controversial as Wagner’s art was to be for generations, his stature was never in doubt. But our image of Cosima has been a curiously shifting one. It continues to be so, in ways worth assessing, if only so that we might understand what lies behind the shifts.

In her lifetime, Cosima became a monument, especially after Wagner’s death and through her long central role in the Bayreuth Festivals. She was an awesome national figure, and her control of the family archives gave her command over the image projected of her. Beginning with Carl Friedrich Glasenapp’s multi-volume “official” biography, Richard Wagner’s Leben und Werken (1876-77, enlarged through its fifth edition, 1910-23), she was treated as an important personality, perhaps the most important one, in Wagner’s life, and characterized within a range from objectivity through respect to adulation. Presentation of how she fulfilled her role has been played out through more than a century of Wagner biography and scholarship, but regularly in the context of her husband’s life and career.

We should recall, first of all, that Cosima’s own life might be divided roughly into three segments: 1837-68, her childhood, youth, first marriage to Hans von Bülow through its collapse; 1869-83, her life with and marriage to Wagner, fully covered in her Diaries; 1883-1930, her years as dominant force in the Bayreuth Festival organization, decline into lonely senility, and death. She joined her life with Wagner’s when she was not yet twenty-seven and he fifty-two; when he died, not yet seventy, she was forty-five, and still had half of her life to live before death at age ninety-two.

The first serious treatment of her life on its own terms was by Richard Graf Du Moulin-Eckart, Cosima Wagner: Ein Lebens- und Charakterbild, Vol. I, which dealt with the years 1837-83, published in 1929, a year before her death. It was followed, in the year after her death, by Vol. II, subtitled Die Herrin von Bayreuth. Du Moulin-Eckert’s picture of Cosima was charged with romanticized idolatry, and its tone was followed by a more concise digest by Max Millenkovich-Morold, Cosima Wagner, Ein Lebensbild (2nd edition, 1937), who devoted only two of its seven chapters to the years after 1883.

Only as Cosima’s correspondence and her Tagebücher (Diaries) were finally released for publication was there renewal of attention, for English-language readers notably through three more-or-less popular biographies (Alice Hunt Sokoloff, 1969; George Marek, 1981; Geoffrey Skelton, 1982), which consistently dealt only with the years up to Wagner’s death. An alternate to the generally sympathetic treatment of her was an unfinished biography, Cosima Wagner-Liszt: Der Weg zum Wagner-Mythos, by an outcast grandson, Franz Wilhelm Beidler, which opened up the picture of Cosima’s post-Richard life in Bayreuth amid the scrapping Wagners, but was not formally published until 1997. Cosima does, however, emerge very much as the central figure of Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family (2007). But now there is the first comprehensive but balanced biography, published by Oliver Hilmes as Herrin des Hügels, Das Leben der Cosima Wagner, and translated by Stewart C. Spencer as Cosima Wagner, the Lady of Bayreuth, both published in 2010.

Through the years of Wagner biography, Cosima has certainly come in for some critical scrutiny. But in recent decades her image has become ever more darkened. A key figure in the mounting negative-ization of Cosima has been Joachim Köhler, a prolific freelance historian and journalist, who has been wielding a wide scythe in these fields. He began his efforts in this regard with Zarathustras Gehimnis. Friedrich Nietzsche und seine verschlüsselte Botschaft (1989), translated by Ronald Taylor as Zarathustra’s Secret, in which Köhler argued that the philosopher was a reckless homosexual who went mad and died of syphilis. From there he went on to Friedrich Nietzsche und Cosima Wagner (1996), translated by Taylor as Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation (1998), in which he portrayed the philosopher as the victim of the Wagners, especially Cosima. Following Wagners Hitler. Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker (1997; trans. Taylor as Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple, 2000), presenting Richard and Cosima as providing the clear basis for Nazism, Joachim launched his most massive assault on the Wagners: Der Letzte der Titanen-Richard Wagners Leben und Werke (2001), translated by Stewart C. Spencer as Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans (2004).

With Köhler – in this admittedly cursory survey of the literature – we reach a plateau in the creation of the Black Legend of Cosima. She is pictured as ambitious, domineering, nasty, controlling, and manipulative. This is an image Köhler did not originate, but one to which he had given the fullest biographical currency.

Without question there were negative sides to Cosima’s personality. By far the darkest is her anti-Semitism. This is also a stain on Wagner himself, and is not to be dismissed lightly after a century and a half. Still, it might be argued that Richard’s anti-Semitism was of a cultural sort, viewing Jews as having no culture of their own and as bent only on money-grubbing. By contrast, Cosima’s hatred of Jews had a more racial tinge to it, and Wagner’s own anti-Semitic remarks were recorded by her with her own underscoring. Her inherent sentiments were reinforced later when the viciously anti-Semitic English-born, German-assimilated nationalist Houston Stewart Chamberlain became her son-in-law and the ideologue of the family’s Bayreuth Wagner industry. With his guidance, Bayreuth became a center of rabid German nationalist and anti-Semitic passions. Cosima herself seems to have welcomed the first associations with Hitler in the inter-war years, assisting the slide into the Nazi embrace fulfilled by her daughter-in-law, Winifred. There is simply no evading such dark dimensions in Cosima’s story.

It is, however, her diaristic role as recorder of her husband’s actions, thoughts, and expressions that has become pivotal in the creation of Cosima’s image. Her own rigorous archival control – and that by the Wagner family – for many decades strictly limited access to important documentation of her life. Only at length did her correspondence begin to become available, and especially notable was the eventual publication of her voluminous diaries: Die Tagebücher, 1869-1883, ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack (2 vols., 1976-77), translated by Geoffrey Skelton as Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, 1869-1883 (1978-08). The very fact that such materials, and especially the Diaries, could at last be studied and utilized turned attention to Cosima herself, and issues of her personality, as never before possible. From close study to critical examination, issues of her reliability have often turned sympathy against her.

The Tagebücher are tricky sources. Cosima undertook to write them for her children, in order that they might have the picture of her marriage to their father as she wanted it understood, preserving along the way his innumerable pearls of knowledge or wisdom. There is no question that her reports are self-serving, riddled with biases, shaped by her own agendas. Almost as important as what she includes is what she omits: she had a regular habit, when she disliked personalities or (otherwise documentable) events, of simply making no mention of them whatsoever. There are scholars who sneer at anyone who uses these Diaries as being only Cosima’s dupes. Yet, these journals are essential sources. Their use for chronological issues is indisputable: Cosima’s relentless day-by-day reports always give us dates essentially and correctly. Obviously, what these Diaries contain must always be used with a careful critical eye, but with such caution they are among the most important sources for Wagner scholars – and for trying to understand Cosima herself.

I have been obliged to give much thought to Cosima and her image because of two books I have written on the last days, months, and years of Wagner’s life. One is Wagner and Venice (2008), and the other, to appear shortly, is Wagner and Venice Fictionalized. At least as much as Wagner scholarship has evolved over the decades, so has the plentiful fictional treatments of the composer’s life, so many of which have concentrated on the end of his life. Setting aside film “biographies” (a category all in itself), I have studied one short story, nine novels, three plays, and one opera. As platforms for the exercise of free imagination, these fictional treatments are invaluable for tracing the shifting images of Richard and Cosima, perhaps even more openly than the scholarly ones.

With the short story (by Vernon Lee, 1890) and Thomas Mann’s famous novella, Death in Venice (1912), set apart as peripheral, however significant, five novels, written over a half-century, set an earlier pattern for portraying Cosima. These novels are by Gabriele D’Annunzuo (1900), Franz Werfel (1924), Gustav Renker (1933), Zdenko von Kraft (1943), and Joachim von Kürenberg (1947). In all of these, Cosima is a presence, but she lacks a clearly defined character, with Richard obviously the dominant figure. It was during a respite in this fictional output that the publication of Cosima’s letters and diaries occurred. Then, in 1993, several years before the strongly anti-Wagner publications by Köhler, a massive novel by Egon Günther launched a new fictional trend: his was followed by three theater-pieces (by Bernd Schünemann, 1996; Herbert Rosendorfer, 1999/2001; Graham Billing (2001), an opera (by Jonathan Harvey, with librettist Jean-Claude Carrière, 2007), and two more novels, one by no less than Köhler himself (2006), the other by Wagner scholar Raymond Furness (2008). These vary in tone, though most submit Wagner and his works to some kind of ridicule. Above all, in most of them Cosima herself emerges as a dark dragon-lady: to be sure, acknowledged as a “wronged woman,” but nagging, bitterly jealous, vindictive, and generally hostile. She is recurrently treated as more a jailor than a wife, her marriage to Wagner totally dysfunctional, a battleground, a mutual prison.

Most important, all seven of the later fictionalizations either make reference to or are totally founded upon what has become a corollary to Cosima’s Black Legend: the Carrie Pringle Myth. Making sense of Cosima’s shifting image can only be achieved by sorting out the effects of that myth.

Carrie Pringle was an English-born soprano who was recommended by conductor Hermann Levi to Wagner, who auditioned her in August 1881, during his preparation of the Parsifal premiere in the following year. He accepted her as one of the Flowermaidens for the performances that summer. We also know that she sent him a telegram in May 1882 as birthday congratulations; and that she sent another to Cosima in February 1883 offering condolences on Wagner’s death. So much is fact. Also fact is that she was not accepted back into the cast for the posthumous revival of the opera at Bayreuth in 1883, apparently at Levi’s decision.

Beyond those facts, however, a pattern of stories began to assemble: starting with a supposed statement made in rage by Cosima’s estranged daughter, Isolde; augmented by chatter in the Bayreuth rumor mill; fleshed out during the 1930’s, and ripening in the post-war era; to be given a kind of scholarly sanctioning in 1979. These stories had it that Wagner had developed, or hoped to have, a romance with Pringle; that the jealous Cosima had arranged for Pringle to have an “accident” onstage, to fall through a trapdoor; that Pringle, in Italy in the winter of 1882-83, was in contact with Wagner, who invited her to visit him in the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice, where the Wagners were wintering; that Cosima discovered this invitation and, on the morning of February 13, 1883, created a furious row with her husband, as a result of which Wagner had his fatal heart attack that afternoon; that Cosima was, thereafter, plagued with guilt for her responsibility in his death; and that Cosima was the one who banned Pringle from the Parsifal revival.

Everything in the foregoing paragraph is gossip, rumor, fantasy. Two possible pieces of evidence to support aspects of them have been raised. First, some words in a pseudo-autopsy written by Wagner’s physician refer to “mental excitements” as a possible contribution to the composer’s death, but upon which the doctor would not speculate. The reference has been construed as referring obliquely to the argument with Cosima over Pringle, but that is the flimsiest of speculation that is hardly decisive. Second, it is known that Pringle wrote a letter to Cosima, supposedly expressing regret over any part she played in the Master’s death. The problem is, this letter was destroyed by Bayreuth archivist Otto Strobel before it could be published or studied. That it might have given some credence to the stories of a Wagner-Pringle romance, or of the argument, can never be known. Under the circumstances there exists no factual, tangible evidence to support the Carrie Pringle Myth. It was effectively demolished in 2004 by Stewart C. Spencer, but it has continued to draw arguments for and against, and seemingly will not die.

One way to confront the Carrie Pringle Myth is to measure it against a larger subject: Cosima’s handling of Richard’s total amorous career. From the beginning of their life together, she knew about all of his identified inamorata. Of his two youthful girlfriends in Würzburg in 1833, Therese Ringelmann and Friederike Galvani, predated Cosima’s own birth, but she knew about them when Richard dictated his memoirs, Mein Leben, to her. All the others Cosima knew about directly, and personally. Jessie Lausot (1829-?), was the intended partner in an aborted elopement in 1850. With her Richard had sporadic correspondence thereafter, to Cosima’s full knowledge, and Cosima met and socialized comfortably with her during a family stay in Florence in 1876. There was, meanwhile, the incompatible first wife, Minna (1809-66), whom Cosima met at the Asyl outside Zurich, during a visit on her honeymoon with Bülow. Also there was Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902), the great muse of Tristan und Isolde – whom Cosima effectively came to supersede in importance.

In 1862 Wagner had affairs with two quite different ladies. One was an actress, Friederike Meyer, talented but soon disfigured by illness, and eventually a dropout from Wagner’s life. The other has come to be known as “the other Mathilde,” one Mathilde Maier (1833-1910), an intelligent and warmly compatible woman, who refused to move in with Wagner (he probably would have married her had he been free of Minna), but who maintained an intermittent and cordial correspondence with him. Cosima met both during a visit to Wagner in Biebrich in July 1862, with Bülow: Cosima even tried to give Friederike some career advice. When in 1880 Cosima was confronted with scurrilous journalistic accounts of connections between Wagner and both Maier and Meyer, she laughed it off (Diary, 4 April).

The next woman in Wagner’s life proved a major case, if a complicated one. This was Judith Gautier (1846-1917), precocious daughter of the poet Théophile Gautier and the opera singer Ernesta Grisi. She first appeared on the scene when she, her then-husband Catulle Mendès, and a writer friend, visited Wagner and Cosima in their first household together, in Tribschen near Lucerne – twice in the summer of 1869 (July, August). Judith made a favorable impression on Cosima, and won her gratitude when, back in Paris, Judith affected a reconciliation between Cosima and her father, Liszt. Judith and Mendès visited Tribschen twice more (September 1869, July 1870).

By that time her marriage was breaking up and when Judith visited Bayreuth for the Ring premiere in the summer of 1876, she brought her new companion, the (Jewish) musician Louis Benedictus. Whatever their previous emotional relationship, at this time Wagner made blatant amorous advances to her, and for months thereafter, through an intermediary, he conducted a secret and highly charged correspondence with her. In February 1878, however, Cosima discovered the correspondence and felt deeply betrayed; her response was that Wagner could write to her no more, and only she would continue correspondence with Judith. Judith (and Benedictus) visited Bayreuth again in 1881, and Wagner renewed amorous advances, notably embarrassing Cosima, but Judith returned, behaving just a bit bizarrely, for the Parsifal premiere in 1882.

Whereas Wagner’s relationships with the earlier women were definitely quite carnal, that with Judith has never been definitively established – she herself was everlastingly vague on the matter. Clearly, though, her involvement with Wagner, whatever its ultimate nature, was the only serious marital challenge Cosima faced. It should be noted that, at the time Judith first came into their lives, Cosima had just given birth to her last child, Siegfried, and apparently had decreed an end to conjugal relations with Richard thereafter – which, of course, might have made him a vulnerable target.

Most important, Cosima from the start felt a strong attraction to Judith. They were both musically trained. Judith was French, and Cosima, who was raised as a French-speaker, could enjoy reverting to conversation in that language. Each had suffered childhoods of parental neglect and dismal marriages, so they had much in common emotionally. A lively letter-writer, like her husband, Cosima wrote regularly to Judith over the years. There were exchanges of gifts between them, notably at Christmas 1876. Cosima used Judith’s help in ordering many of the luxury garments the Wagner household required. After the February 1878 crisis, there was some rupture in correspondence, but Cosima seems to have placed her displeasure more on Richard than on Judith. With the latter, contacts continued, and on after Richard’s death. The real breach came only in 1898, because of Cosima’s objections to Judith’s plans to give a private marionette performance of Parsifal, still so tightly guarded a Bayreuth commodity.

Interesting, too, is the way the two great triumphs of Wagner’s last years served as reunions for Wagner and so many of his women. To be sure, Mathilde Wesendonck, offended by Cosima’s demands for Wagner papers in her possession, had boycotted the premiere of Tristan in Munich in 1865, but she and her husband did attend the Ring in 1876, though apparently not Parsifal in 1882. On the other hand, like Gautier, “the other Mathilde,” Maier, attended both the 1876 and 1882 events.

In other words, while the 1878 crisis involving Judith Gautier was enough to shake Cosima, it did not end her ability to have continuing contacts, of reasonable degrees of cordiality, with four of Wagner’s former inamorata, Judith included.

It is against that background that we may judge the Carrie Pringle Myth. It is not implausible that the vulnerable Wagner – in ill health but still with alpha-male delusions – might have been drawn to Pringle (who, from the one authenticated photograph of her does not seem to have been notably attractive). Not implausible, but hardly proven. It is plausible that, by 1883, weary after fifteen years of life with Richard, could have become angry with him over some kind of silly flirtation. Plausible, but absolutely not proven. Against the total picture of Cosima’s attitudes towards Richard’s amorous record, and her long patience with him, the Pringle Myth, as it has snowballed, would not appear to carry much credibility.

After all, since Cosima herself was Richard’s most distinguished conquest, taken from the arms of her legal husband to bear Wagner three children out of wedlock, and to live “in sin” with him for a good four years before their marriage in August 1870. She knew full well that Richard already had a reputation as a skirt-chaser, and that he regarded sexual gratification among his entitlements. With his arrogance, extravagances, shifting moods and increasingly testy temperament, he was a handful as a spouse. To put up with him as she did certainly testifies in her favor.

She was successful for exactly the reasons that his first wife, the shallow and emotionally flawed Minna, failed. Cosima was, for one thing, a superb musician in her own right, rigorously trained in piano by her future husband Bülow. She might well have gone on to a successful career as a concert artist, had not her father contemptuously forbidden it. Instead, she committed herself to the ideal of serving a great musician with selfless devotion. The unstable and callous Bülow utterly failed her, but Wagner became the man she realized she wanted. Der Meister, the Man of the Century. She had will-power that matched his. With her sharp mind and boundless energy, she became his manager and secretary. She took his dictation, she prepared his scores, she filtered his outside contacts, she conducted his business (and even some private) correspondence, she handled the finances.

However her emotions might have moved from initial passion to noble devotion, it is difficult to deny that they retained strong feelings for each other. After all, she had given Richard what he had been denied for so long: children, a devoted family circle. Cosima’s Diaries are full of extensive emotional outpourings: of guilt over Bülow, of deep feelings for Richard, of painful reactions to strained moments with him. It is so easy to shrug all these off as posturing, certainly for the benefit of her dear children, who should never see how unpleasant either she or Richard might actually be. Yet, it would be equally foolish to deny that there was sincere emotion behind many of such expressions. Likewise derided as mere posturing was her behavior at the time of his death: her smashing her way to his death-scene; her remaining with his body for some twenty-four hours; her cutting off of her hair to deposit it in his coffin; her desolation and temporary withdrawal on the return to Bayreuth. I do not think that these gestures could have been entirely pretended: Cosima was, quite truly, shattered by her husband’s death, even though she knew from the state of his health that it could not be far off. That she talked sporadically of needing, like Isolde, to die with her Tristan, is by no means an absurdity for a highly sensitive woman steeped in the romantic mentality of her time and in her husband’s creations.

As a musician herself, moreover, Cosima had a deep bond with Richard as did none of the other women in his life, not even Judith Gautier. She could work with Wagner in preparing his scores, giving reactions. They could regularly play four-hand piano duets and score reductions together. Her pianistic talents even came to be a family secret. Her son Siegfried has testified that the first time he heard his mother play the piano was on the day his father died, just before which she spun out Schubert’s song, Lob der Tränen (“Praise of Tears”), in her father’s transcription. She did not play again after that day, until January 5, 1917, when her grandson, little Wieland Wagner, was born: she celebrated by playing a few bars of the Siegfried Idyll that Richard had written for her after her son Siegfried’s birth. Meanwhile, her inherent musicality had enabled her – behind the scenes, at the auditions, in the wings at rehearsals – to steer the Bayreuth Festival tradition to the high standards that made it a central monument of German culture.

Strength of will was a central feature of Cosima’s life. It made her take control of many aspects of her husband’s life and affairs. Whether such control became tyranny and manipulation or stable guidance is a matter of interpretation rather than plain fact. What is fact is that Cosima Liszt-Bülow-Wagner was an extraordinary personality. She was a forceful woman who could make her way in what was still altogether a man’s world. She was a person with a range of qualities, from admirable to repulsive, often contradictive. Which is to say that she was a complex personality. Which, ultimately, is just to say that she was profoundly human.






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