Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cosima: The Lady of Bayreuth

Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth, by Oliver Hilmes, Translated from the German by Stewart Spencer, Yale University Press, 2010.

I will admit it. I am an enthusiast. I get enthused about a certain subject and will pursue it with a passion until I get bored with it or get enthused about something else and then will come back and get enthused all over again later. Two Saturdays ago, I saw the high definition simulcast of Wagner’s Die Valkerie from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Thus, I became enthused about Wagner operas all over again.

Richard Wagner is, without a doubt, the most controversial figure in the history of music. Wagner was controversial when he was alive and has become more controversial over time. Wagner was arrogant, egotistical, racist and sexist. He was also a genius.

Cosima Wagner

The book which I just finished reading is a biography of Wagner’s second wife, Cosima. Cosima Wagner was born in 1837 and died in 1930. Her life spanned most of the 19th century and lasted well into the 20th. The illegitimate daughter of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, Cosmia and her sister and brother were raised first by their grandmother and then by a stern and uncompromising governess.

Richard & Cosima Wagner

As usual, fact is more interesting than fiction. Married to the conductor Hans Von Bulow, with whom she had two children, Cosima had an affair with Wagner right under her husband’s nose and, apparently, within his knowledge. Wagner’s affair with Cosima became so notorious that it forced Wagner to move to the shore of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland to avoid embarrassing Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig of Bavaria. Ultimately Cosima bore Wagner three children, Isolde, Eva and Siegfried. Finally divorced from Von Bulow in 1870, Cosima married Wagner.

Cosima's Children by both Wagner and Von Bulow with the conductor Hans Richter.

Hilmes details the establishment of the Festival Theatre at Bayreuth and the family’s installation in their Bayreuth estate, Wahnfried, which means “Free from Delusion.” After Wagner’s death in 1883, Cosima became the head of what can best be described as “the Wagner industry.” Hilmes details how Cosima watched rehearsals of Wagner’s operas at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus from a curtained booth where she could not be seen and sent out written criticisms and instructions to the singers and musicians.

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus

As well as jealously guarding her dead husband’s artistic vision, Cosima also ruled her children and their spouses with an iron hand. When her daughter Isolde refused to leave her husband whom Cosima felt had insulted her, Isolde was disinherited and abandoned. Led by Siegfried Wagner, the family cut off Isolde’s inheritance claiming that Isolde was not Wagner’s daughter. Isolde filed a lawsuit but lost due to the fact that under Bavarian law the man whom her mother was married to at the time of her birth, Hans Von Bulow, was presumed to be her father. Disowned by her family, Isolde died of tuberculosis and a broken heart in 1919.

Rabidly anti-semitic and a fanatic German nationalist, Cosima welcomed the First World War and wished for the overthrow of the Weimar Republic. The old lady's wishes were answered when she was introduced to her great admirer, Adolf Hitler.

The story of Cosima Wagner and her descendants reads like a giant National Enquirer article. If juicy gossip about dead people is your thing, then this book is definitely for you. The translation is very good and the book is a page turner. The Bad Catholic highly recommends this book for anyone interested in Wagner, opera, or European history.

1 comment: