Interpretation of Dreams

Harold James

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 For a long time the diary remained unpublished because of a characteristically bitter family dispute in Bayreuth, though some of its substance had appeared in a garbled and unacknowledged form in the early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.

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