Keeper Of the Shrine: Cosima Wagner (WSJ 17/5/10)
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.