Cosima von Bülow (née Liszt) met the composer Richard Wagner briefly in 1853, lived with him from 1864, bearing three children, and married him in 1870. She was a devoted wife, who put up with every whim and eccentricity of a being she acknowledged as the embodiment of genius: she had married her first husband after she had heard him conducting the overture to Tannhäuser and realised that genius needed genius to interpret it: in her relation with Richard she was to display her own genius too. From 1869 she kept an extensive diary in which almost no insignificant or significant event or word concerning Wagner was omitted. It formed an extensive and intimate record. For a long time the diary remained unpublished because of a characteristically bitter family dispute in Bayreuth, though some of its substance had appeared in a garbled and unacknowledged form in the early biography of Wagner by Glasenapp, and was subsequently used by other Wagner scholars. This diary was published in Germany a few years ago, and became instantly a central work for an understanding of Wagner; the edition is now complete in English, in a magnificent and accurate translation by Geoffrey Skelton, and is accompanied by the splendidly detailed notes of the German edition by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, with additions by the translator.
The second volume covers the period 1878 to the day before Wagner’s death in February 1883 – just over five years – while the first volume deals with nine. Cosima now knew Wagner better and felt more (though never totally) confident in handling her new husband; her guilt at abandoning Von Bülow grew blunter. As a consequence, her observations are more revealing. In the first volume the composition of the last act of Siegfried and of Götterdämmerung remained a mystery confined to Richard’s study; Cosima discusses Parsifal much more in this volume and we feel that she is taking part in the composition. The Diaries say a great deal about Parsifal and also about the general issue of the relationship between the artist and his work.
The diary entries always begin by describing Richard’s (R.’s) health, the way in which he spent the night and the dreams that he had. This volume chronicles a physical decline: the composer was exhausted by the business of producing Parsifal in 1882 and had constant stomach trouble which eventually weakened his heart. Though his end was unexpected, Cosima had thought about his death for a long time. The Diaries are obsessively about death – of the next-door neighbour in Bayreuth, Staff, of Karl Brandt, the Bayreuth stage engineer, of the racist thinker Count Gobineau, of Wagner’s dogs Molle and Brange (the deaths of the dogs are more visibly affecting than any of the others). There are also near-deaths: Siegfried, Wagner’s son, is seriously ill; Hans von Bülow is believed to be on the point of dying. Present, too, for Richard and Cosima are the important dead of the past. Wagner tells his wife: ‘Do you know that sometimes, when I have a musical thought, I catch my mouth set just like Beethoven’s in his death mask?’ He dreams regularly of Beethoven and Goethe with their faces set by death. Mozart’s statue of the Commendatore summons R. – on 8 February 1883 Cosima writes: ‘As we are finishing our meal, we hear him loudly singing “Don Giovanni tu m’invitasti”,’ and Wagner, ill in Venice, five days later went to that infernal banquet.
The deaths of friends are part of aging, but visions of Death of the grander kind grew out of operatic and musical tradition and out of Wagner’s own work. Much of the language here is Wagnerian (inevitably, this is more obviously so in the German version). Cosima notes repeatedly that she should die at the same time as her husband. When R. plays the piano, she hears the sounds that will make her blessed in death. She spends the days after R.’s death in a fast of lamentation and grief: her children believed she would die – or like Isolde be apotheosised – for it was in Isolde’s language that she thought. She did not die because of her son Siegfried: like Sieglinde in Die Walküre, she assembles the shattered sword of her man in order to prepare her son against the world. Her diaries were Siegmund’s sword destined for Siegfried: Siegfried, like his namesake, was not to be educated in schools, so that nothing could distract from Richard’s memory.
This continual internal reference to the fantasies and stories that Wagner built up in an entirely private world in which Cosima was a privileged spectator gives to the Diaries a quality alternately dream-like (like the second act of Tristan) and nightmare-like (like the third act). ‘R. had a good night – when we part after the morning hour, he tells me he often asks himself whether I am real, whether I am not a dream!’ Everything seems to merge with everything; R. carries dreams into the day. His is the realm of illusion and magic. In Cosima’s vision, most of the Wagnerian canon exists to answer questions that have been posed by the canon: ‘Over coffee he said to me that in fact Siegfried ought to have turned into Parsifal and redeemed Wotan (instead of Amfortas) in the course of his wanderings.’ The Wagnerian text is like a sacred text, capable of interpretation at innumerable levels.
Recording table-talk can often produce a picture filled with contradictions, since emphasising bon mots leads to the neglecting of a systematic overall vision. Martin Luther clearly did have a system of thought, but it is not satisfactorily depicted in his table-talk; in Cosima’s Diaries, on the other hand, the chatty obiter dicta do build up to a coherent picture even though there appear to be repetitions, equivocations and negations. Partly this greater degree of illumination came from the more intimate circle in which the remarks were made. Cosima writes, self-consciously as always when her vision in concerned, that ‘Luther held table conversations, we hold bed conversations.’ One or two outsiders – the conductor and pianist Josef Rubinstein and after 1880 the painter Paul von Joukowsky – are part of the Wagner household: but wife and children hold the centre of the stage, Luther was surrounded by persistent and insistent disciples and rarely succeeded in escaping.
A characteristic of the kind of language used in the strained and claustrophobic domesticity of the Wagner household was that it allowed a private reformulation of pictures taken from the public world. When Bayreuth and the public festivals of 1876 and 1882 intrude, Cosima and R. wish that they could cut themselves off from the bustle; they long for the seclusion of the villa Tribschen, their first secure refuge of love. At times the villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth looks like a second Tribschen. Cosima says that the world of Wahnfried is quite separate from the outside world; it has its own mysterious principles for the adulatory cult of Richard Wagner. A constant source of regret is that the two elder (Von Bülow) daughters have been educated in the outside world and hence do not draw close to the Wahnfreid one. Here the big conflicts of the 19th century are reformulated in a domestic setting: ‘R. asks for tea, calls tea Catholicism, coffee Protestantism, tea is more elegant.’ In the circumstances of Wahnfried, the cult of Wagner becomes nothing more than the apotheosis of the Bismarckian pater familias, a slightly peculiar Wotan in carpet slippers who is here depicted developing his own brand of toilet water (eau de Richard!). Wotan’s mythical family is transposed: ‘R. is pleased with the simplification of the gods’ serving staff in the Ring.’ It is fitting that R. died on an Italienreise, one of the essential parts of the ‘cures’ of the 19th-century German bourgeoisie brought up on Winckelmann and Goethe. If Wagner’s work embodies the sufferings and greatness of the 19th century, his household venerates something very much less grandiose.
Wagner admired his century and its principles, although here he hates its embodiment. He had turned from being an admirer of Bismarck (the picture given of the Prince who united Germany in the first volume of the Diaries is flattering), and from the mid-1870s contemplated his former idol with intransigent hostility: ‘What does a Junker of that sort know about Germany?’ Bismarck had used national ideals in a game of political compromise: his policies were as a result frivolous and petty. The composer believed that military uniforms killed individualism. But the Bismarckian state offered new possibilities for artistic expression.
Commentators on Wagner from Bernard Shaw on have noted the importance of industrial society to the work: R. welcomed technology. He writes that ‘in no art-form – neither in painting nor in architecture, scarcely even in music – has there been such perceptible progress as in the construction of pianofortes.’ Medicine had replaced religion as the main centre of human concern for the 19th century: Wagner’s body was far more important to him than his soul. His son Siegfried was to be trained as a physician, it appears, so that he might apply scientific knowledge to human difficulties.
Wagner was torn between his private realm of fantasy and his perception of progress in public life; he was in constant uncertainty whether to keep his work secret or whether to submit to the judgment of the public. Parsifal he felt particularly strongly about: it should not be subjected to the debasement of the commercial stage, but the composer was disappointed when the citizens of Bayreuth bought only a few scats for the 1882 production. Wagner disliked Brahms’s popularity, but he liked Beethoven most when Beethoven was most popular; he was in addition a determined populariser and arranger of his own works. Serious disciples were appalled at the case with which he took selections from his works and played them out of the context of the Gesamtkunstwerke as piano reductions. Frequently in these Diaries Wagnerian highlights appear in quite ludicrous surroundings – Die Walküre next to the German popular song ‘Ach du lieber Augustin’.
The complexity of choice between private and public worlds, between Wahnfried and Bayreuth, tormented Wagner when he thought about Parsifal. This volume of the Diaries deals at length with the creation and then the production of the last work. Cosima, I think, offers interesting solutions to two puzzles which have surrounded our interpretation: why was there a break in musical style between the mature works (Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger), which, despite their vastly differing tonal colours, bear an obvious relation to each other, and Parsifal, which takes up the apparent simplicity of Lohengrin and even, in a deceptive way, simplifies that opera further; secondly, what does the Christianity of Parsifal imply?
Wagner frequently expresses here the view that the sensuousness of Tristan was unrepeatable; the last work – a Stage Dedication Festival (Bühnenweihspiel) and not a music drama – is to represent an experience which is intentionally a renunciation of the principles which Wagner had upheld for most of his creative life. At one point here, he associates the idea of music drama with the material prosperity of the new Bismarckian Reich which he believed was vain since there were children with bare feet begging in the street in Bayreuth and the villages around it.
He liked to hate, and hated the audiences of Tristan with intensity. The audiences showed Wagner what he believed to be his error; it is in this context that the worst of his notorious and frequent anti-semitic polemics were launched. Tristan was ‘my first Italian opera for an audience of mulattoes’. Later he comments: ‘nothing but hooked noses at Tristan.’ Jews he associated with the cult of material values; and he set out fantasies of cosmic destruction. He had an obsession, common enough in the 19th century, with theatre fires, and was half delighted by the four hundred deaths in the Ringtheater in Vienna just before Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann was to be played: ‘the most useless sort of people frequented such an opera here; if poor wretches are buried alive in a coal mine that both moves and angers him, but a case like this scarcely affects him at all.’ This leads to the vision of ‘burning all the Jews at a performance of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise’, the greatest German literary monument to Enlightenment Jewry. The socialistic early Wagner appears here in a sinister form as the figure who follows Bakunin in wanting the ‘people’ to take their revenge on the ‘plutocracy’.
In order to realise this purpose, Wagner believed that he needed a new style: for its musical Christianity, Parsifal takes as a beginning, not the preceding Wagnerian works, but Mozart, whose immediate successor Wagner imagines himself to be. Parsifal is a working-out of the conflict of Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. As he works on the first act, the composer frequently sings ‘Sostegno e gloria dell’umanita,’ Don Giovanni’s final outburst on the moral self-sufficiency of man. As Donna Elvira leaves, the Don boasts of how women and wine are enough to make life complete and dignified. The Commendatore’s entrance, we read elsewhere, was intended to be echoed in the scene between Parsifal and Kundry, the central scene of the new work: it was inconceivable that Mozart could have repeated such an episode; it required Wagner to work the theology out and make the principle of ‘sostegno e gloria dell’umanita’ hover in the shape of Kundry between sensuality, family affection and religion organised in a sterile and unsustaining way.
The illusory stylistic simplicity (it can’t really be simple if a figure like Kundry is to be portrayed) is part of an attempt of Wagner’s to change the nature of Christianity and take it away from the Churches. Catholicism was the enemy because it ‘has placed a formal structure – with all the entailed hypocrisy – on religious belief’. Until Wagner’s time, Christianity had been defective because it had only been experienced through institutions – it had only been experienced in ‘barbarous epochs’. One of the reasons for its barbarism was its preservation of Old Testament values: Wagner combines his greatest dislikes here when he speculates on the origins of the Papacy in Judaic ecclesiastical organisation. This is his negative task; his positive one is the rescuing of God out of the hands of the priests. The new faith is to be Christocentric: ‘I do not believe in God, but in godliness, which is revealed in a Jesus without sin.’ Godliness was to be the basis for a religion of salvation through innocent suffering.
This doctrine, which was also set out in Wagner’s prose writing at the end of his life, was the doctrine which Neitzsche objected to and the explanation for Nietzsche’s revulsion from Wagner (the account that Cosima gives of the split is confined to trivia – she cannot be critical of her husband and hence is sensitive to a change in his thought). Wagner had used a ‘Christian’ theory dependent on the acceptance of suffering as a way of formulating a vision of his century that went beyond the previous solutions: retreat to the private; rejection of the divine; or the scientific confidence of the racism of Wagner’s friend Count Gobineau, which Wagner rejected because it appeared too mechanistic. He wanted to move away, too, from the Ring cycle, which he saw as a Schopenhauerian conception. During the composition of Parsifal he finds the Ring’s compass too narrow: ‘I did not need the hypothesis of Christianity as Laplace did not need the hypothesis of God to express the negation of the will in the Ring.
Death was the end of the vision of a man trying to attain godliness and sinlessness by a cultivation of suffering. He kept himself alive by attaching himself to movements which were faddish, though he tried to pretend that they were not. There are a variety of beliefs examined in his writing and in Cosima’s account, some of which were quaint, others not. He was anti-clerical and anti-semitic like many German bourgeois; he conducted a fanatical campaign against vivisection; he believed that the Russian Empire would only recover its health when it moved its capital to Odessa. He never knew whether he wanted to be like Amfortas (sinful and wishing to die) or like Parsifal (wishing to live). Since Thomas Mann’s essay on Wagner, the terms ‘suffering’ and ‘greatness’ have become the standard description of the Wagnerian genius: in Cosima’s picture it looks – despite Cosima’s defence – as if suffering is not the prerequisite for the 19th-century genius, and as if suffering was in Wagner’s case nothing more than the seamy side of greatness. The defence for Wagner – brought out here frequently by Cosima – is that Wagner didn’t mean anything and that he should not be taken too seriously: his was a private fantasy, a game played on his own. This is a difficult case to argue, since Cosima (as well as his stepdaughter Winifred and as well as others) did take Wagner to mean something.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.