NOTE: A shortened version of this article appeared in Wagner Notes, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York.

Cosima Biography

Considering that Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt Bülow Wagner was the person most responsible for framing the role of Wagner in 20th Century German cultural and political life, it is remarkable that Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth, by Oliver Hilmes, is the first serious academic study of her life.  On that ground alone the volume claims an essential place in the Wagner library.  The elegance of its writing, the assurance and confidence of its English translation, the originality of its research and the dispassionate approach of its author make the book not only a duty but a pleasure.

I had been aware of only two Cosima biographies in English.  One, Cosima Wagner: Extraordinary Daughter of Franz Liszt by Alice Hunt Sokoloff (Dodd, Mean & Company 1969), is a hagiography.  The other, Cosima Wagner, by George R. Marek (Harper & Row 1981), is quite entertaining and accurate enough to merit a blurb from Clifton Fadiman calling Cosima one of the most repulsive women of her century.  Hilmes cites “an uncritical and, linguistically speaking, risibly bombastic account” by Richard De Moulin Eckart (1929-31), as well as works by Ilse Lotz (1935) and Max Millenkovich-Morold (1939), none of which I know.  But Hilmes’ volume is what we want: a definitive account written not by a Wagnerian, or worse yet by a “Bayreuthian,” but by a scholar.

Cosima’s life might be neatly summarized in three periods:  Her childhood and early adulthood prior to meeting Richard Wagner; her 18 years spent with Wagner, first as mistress then as wife, but always as idolator; and the 47 years spent between Wagner’s death on February 13, 1883 and Cosima’s own on April 1, 1930, her last recorded words directed to Hans von Bülow: “Forgive me.”

Bülow’s spirit may by now have done so; he never did in life, and so vast were her offenses and so profound their consequences that it is difficult for either history or art to do so, ever.

As the illegitimate, but acknowledged, daughter of the young and priapic Franz Liszt, Cosima was ignored by her father (who spent years on the road) and, after Liszt dumped Cosima’s mother Marie d’Agoult, was sent with her sister and brother to live with Liszt’s mother Anna.  At age 12, this grandparental affection was abruptly severed when the children (at the instigation of Liszt’s then-current paramour, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein) were sent to be raised by seventy-year old Madame Louise Adélaǐde Patersi de Fossombroni, whose “teaching programme was as terrifying as her name.”  (p. 19)

The children were forbidden to attend concerts or the theater, strictly constrained in demeanor and conduct, and taught how to drink tea and biscuits properly.  Their letters to Liszt were censored, and to their mother were forbidden.  Even when their father visited after seven years’ absence, he found little time for them and they were permitted to express only abject veneration towards him.  Original ideas, in particular, were discouraged in these young women.

Upon Madam Patersi’s decline, at age 17 Cosima and her sister joined the provincial Berlin household of Liszt’s friend Franziska von Bülow – “a strict, suspicious, cold and deeply frustrated matriarch with two failed marriages behind her” — and her “highly gifted, eccentric and perpetually sickly son, Hans.” (p. 37)

In 1855, at age 19, Cosima spent an all-nighter talking with Hans after his conducting a concert that included the Tannhäuser overture, and their special relationship led to their eventual marriage in 1857.  It was apparently a hollow relationship, with Bülow more attentive to his career, his tenuous health, and his service to Richard Wagner than to his wife.  They nevertheless had two daughters, Daniela and Blandine.

Wagner had first met Cosima in Liszt’s company when she was a child of 15, and ironically Bülow decided to spend part of their honeymoon with Wagner at the Asyl in Zurich.  Others staying at this pleasant refuge at that time were Wagner’s wife of 20 years, Minna, and his muse, Mathilde Wesendock.  “Bülow played from Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, while Wagner sang all the parts.”  (p. 44)  Indeed he did.

Another visit by the Bülows to the Zurich Asyl a year later coincided with the infamous row when Minna found out about Mathilde, as well as a visit from Cosima’s long-banished mother Marie d’Agoult.  There was a brief and inconclusive meeting between Wagner and Bülow’s wife in 1861 in Bad Reichenhall, and another the next year in Biebrich (where Wagner recalled that his playing of Wotan’s Farewell prompted in Cosima a look of “supreme transfiguration”).  Then on November 28, 1862, Wagner and Cosima took a cab ride together in Berlin, “sealed their vows” to each other, and became spiritually united.

That is, at least from her point of view.  In fact Wagner continued his relationships with Mathilde Maier, Maria Volkl, Eliza Wille and others.

The next part of Cosima’s life was, in many was, the least complicated: She served Richard Wagner.  No deception was too great, no adultery too shameful, no humiliation too onerous for her to bear if Richard required it.  She lied to Bülow, she lied to Ludwig, she carried pennies in a wheelbarrow from the Munich treasury, she relocated her family to be with Wagner, and she made herself available to the Master when and how he pleased.  As early as 1865 she began a project to control Wagner’s reputation by recalling his past written correspondence, demanding the return of his letters from Tausig, Cornelius and even Mathilde Wesendonck.  She accompanied Wagner to parties, did her best to manage his relationship with Ludwig, bore Wagner’s illegitimate child, and insisted upon her honor in a letter to Ludwig that, “in terms of its sheer hypocrisy and mendacity,… takes some beating.” (p. 96)  She converted from Catholic to Protestant for him.

When Wagner retreated to his villa at Tribschen, Cosima followed him there with her husband in tow, “even if it is difficult to imagine how this remarkable ménage à trois actually functioned.”  (p. 98) After they returned to Berlin, Cosima herself did an about-turn and took up residence at Tribschen.  It was there that she gave birth to her and Wagner’s second illegitimate daughter, Eva.  Finally on October 3, 1868, Cosima wrote to Bülow announcing her decision to leave him and live permanently with her lover.  The birth of their son Siegfried in 1869, the granting of a divorce from Bülow, and their marriage on August 25, 1870, formalized the relationship that was to end only in Wagner’s death 13 years later.

Hilmes is acutely perceptive in his explanation of this appalling relationship.  Noting the guilt that plagued Cosima arising from her treatment of the innocent Bülow, Hilmes draws from her diary and concludes:

Cosima dealt with these emotional conflicts by deifying her new lover.  Whenever Wagner spoke to her, it was “always divine, unique.”  She worshipped him to the point of idolatry, and more than once we find in her writing that “every utterance from him is like doctrine to me.”  The more she revered Wagner and the more godlike he appeared to her, the sooner she could come to terms with her “guilt.”  She compensated for her complexes with regard to her first husband by suggesting that she had abandoned him for a demigod and, indeed, that she had had no choice in the matter.  She was determined to serve this divine being at all costs and in that way to atone for the failure of her marriage to Bülow.” (p. 105)

Indeed, Hilmes suggests that Cosima might be described today as having a masochistic personality disorder – not that she derived sexual pleasure from her own pain, but rather that in some profound sense she experienced ecstasy from suffering.

While not criticizing this analysis, I find a much more compelling rationale for her self-demeaning conduct in a much more obvious source:  Wagner’s music gave meaning to Cosima’s hitherto empty life.  The great moments of her marriage, one senses, came when Wagner handed her the score to the Siegfried Idyll, which he had composed for her alone, or when, in her diary entry after a 1878 concert that featured Siegfried Idyll and the Parsifal prelude, she realized:  “There stands he who called forth these wonders, and he loves me.  He loves me!”

Without Wagner, Cosima was a cipher.  She raised her daughters to be ciphers too, to “note when it is time for you to disappear” and to “draw a veil over whatever may embarrass another person.”  Her son Siegfried she taught to be a second Richard Wagner, and her daughters she taught to be of service to Siegfried.  The limited nature of her own gifts – except as martyr and apostle — became apparent after Wagner’s death in 1883, when Cosima was 45 years old.

It was during this remaining period of her life that Cosima’s toxic mixture of quasi-religious devotion, self-definition through her husband’s accomplishments, virulent judgmentalism, implacable anti-Semitism, and megalomaniac confidence all combined to cause irreparable harm to Wagner’s artistic legacy, and to lay the groundwork for the rise of right-wing German nationalism.

Cosima stayed in Wagner’s home in Bayreuth and wore widow’s weeds every day for the next 47 years – even to her children’s weddings.  She refused to allow Wagner’s piano to be played or Wagner’s chair to be sat in.  She decided that the Bayreuth Festival should be Wagner’s artistic testimony and therefore her remaining life’s work.  Lacking creativity, she became instead a curator.  And as her assertion of artistic control continued, the Bayreuth Festival – the theatre built by the most visionary and innovative theatre professional of his time – became widely regarded as an artistic backwater, “the centre of an old-fashioned and even tedious performance style.”  (p. 288)

How she managed this crime is an appalling story, and the best part of Hilmes’ book.  Cosima gathered a core of unquestioning supporters and locked them into an ideology of her own – not her husband’s – devise.  Adolf von Gross administered the finances and kept the enterprise afloat.  Hermann Levi and Karl Ritter stayed loyal to the Festival despite Cosima’s constant taunting and marginalization of Levi as “less than a true man” because of his Jewishness.  Hans von Wolzogen performed numerous tasks at Cosima’s bidding, including editorial control of the Bayreuther Blätter — a delegation that was injudicious on a variety of levels.  “Outside Bayreuth,” notes Hilmes, “the editor of the Bayreuther Blätter was regarded as a simpleton and nowhere taken seriously.”  (p. 161)  Carl Friedrich Glasenapp became the official Richard Wagner hagiographer and the vacuous and bigoted Houston Stewart Chamberlain the in-house philosopher.

While Wagner had relied upon and found inspiration from Jewish musicians such as Jacques Halévy, Karl Tausig, Karl Ritter, Heinrich Porges, Lilli Lehmann, Angelo Neumann, Hermann Levi and Josef Rubinstein, Cosima attracted virulent anti-Semites like Julius Kniese, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler.  Hatred of Jews became more important to Cosima than the art of her late husband; “In Wahnfried’s jaundice eyes, Jewish ancestry ruled a person out of court as someone who could make an authentic artistic contribution to the Festival.” Levi’s “birth defect” – his Jewish ancestry – was spoken of to his face.  And Felix Weingartner reported that, when he attempted to defend Levi, Cosima “listened to me calmly and at the end remarked that there could be no bond between Aryan and Semitic blood.  ‘I don’t expect we shall ever see eye to eye on this, my dear Weingartner.’”

She maintained the loyalty of her Bayreuth circle with Stalinesque delicacy.  When talented Wagnerians like Peter Cornelius, Richard Strauss and Weingartner himself tried to maintain a career of their own, they were banished.  Her fixation upon the Festival was unnerving: Cosima’s father had the poor taste to die during the 1886 Festival, in the house next to Wahnfried, and such was the pressing nature of Cosima’s obligations that his body remained there until the stench required Cosima to do something – so she put it in a wheelbarrow and removed it to Wahnfried and thence to burial.

Cosima’s utter lack of artistic vision did not prevent her from exercising despotic artistic control of the Festival’s performances.  In her black mourning dress she set up a cloth-covered booth near the stage that “resembled nothing so much as a confessional, while she herself acquired all the characteristics of a high priestess, praising, criticizing and pointing the way ahead.”  (p. 163) She sent notes to Levi and Mottl telling them what tempi the Master wanted certain passages taken.  The stage director also received notes on how the Master wanted things staged, and what gestures were to be used at what moment of the performance.  She rejected the new aesthetic of Appia and Meyerhold in favor of the Master’s approved stagings.

Eventually she and her cohorts dropped the term “Wagnerian” and referred to themselves as “Bayreuthians.”  Their endeavors were no longer limited to mounting old-fashioned productions of Wagner’s work and preventing Parsifal from being seen by anyone else, anywhere else, except at Bayreuth.  Now she and her colleagues published tracts on politics, culture and other “half-baked ideas.”  (p. 199)  They latched onto Arthur de Gobineau’s racist tract Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races and wrote 61 different articles debasing even this putrid original by changing Gobineau’s three “primeval races” – black, yellow and white – into Houston Chamberlain’s two: “German and “others.” (p. 200)  Curious, that – in light of the fact that Cosima was French/Hungarian, Glasenapp was Latvian, Chamberlain was English/Scottish and Cosima’s daughter-in-law and successor, Winifred, was English.

The rest of the story is familiar.  Because she could not create, she conserved, ostensibly for Wagner’s sake and actually for her own. When the expiration of German copyright laws threatened to diminish her and her family’s income, she pressured the German legislature to change them, citing as always “the Master’s wishes.”  (p. 225)  When her son displayed no aptitude whatsoever for either theatre, music or heterosexuality, she required him to compose, conduct, direct and have children.  Her daughter Blandine’s husband shot himself, and her daughter Isolde was defeated and destroyed, ending her life in mental incapacity.  Cosima objected to plans for a 90th birthday commemoration and memorial of Wagner because the concert would also include music by a Frenchman (Massenet) and an Italian (Mascagni).  It is impossible to imagine that, had Wagner lived to see all this done in his name, he would not have wept.

Cosima’s decline after World War I offered her a few isolated reasons for hope.  Her favorite bigot, the charlatan Houston Stewart Chamberlain, became a naturalized German, denounced King George V as a traitor, and married Cosima’s daughter Eva.  Her homosexual son, Siegfried, had four children by the orphaned English girl Winifred Williams.  And the disaster that was post-World War I Germany showed some hope of revival to its former glory.  Then, in 1923, the Bayreuth National Socialist party invited its Bavarian leader to make an address in the town’s Reithalle.  Afterwards, he visited Wahnfried and “knelt before Chamberlain and reverently kissed his hand.”  (p. 303)  Siegfried also fell within the thrall of the charismatic Adolf Hitler, whose continual financial support sustained the Festival over the next twenty increasingly difficult years.

Oliver Hilmes has provided a splendid and entertaining narrative of a unique and sordid tale.  And perhaps we now have the definitive answer to the question, how can Wagner’s music be loved when it is associated with so much hatred?  The answer seems to be that it was not Wagner who fomented hatred – that came afterward, with Cosima.

 

3 Comments

  • A fine review. And its very good to see so many posts now.

  • I have long lamented the fact that there are no serious studies that showed that Cosima was in fact Richard’s Elisabeth Nietche(in a sense that she perverted and hijacked his works for her own ideological ends). Based on this review it seems I was wrong and that Hilmes’ book is simply not popularized enough and that his thesis’ are ignored because there are a lot of careers, academic and otherwise, invested in perpetual repetition of the “Wagner precursor of Hitler” lie.

  • […] Originally Posted by SiegendesLicht Could you please enlighten me? What was so ghastly about her? She did not exactly cover herself in glory during her tenure running the Bayreuth festival following Richard's death. Here are a few details. […]

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