Wagner and the fairer sex | Music | DW | 04.10.2012
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Wagner and the fairer sex

Richard Wagner's women did not have it easy sharing life with the headstrong composer. A symposium at Berlin's State Opera investigates the marks Minna Planer, Mathilde von Wesendonck and Cosima von Bülow left behind.

"Music is a woman," Richard Wagner wrote in "Opera and Drama." Her organism is a vessel "merely for bearing, not for begetting; that force of creation lies beyond it." Wagner believed that only once fertilized by a poet's thoughts can music bring forth "true, vibrant melody."

For Wagner, art and personal life were always tightly interwoven. That may help explain why posterity has viewed both the composer's female stage figures as well as the real women in his life as Wagner's self-sacrificing servants. One presumes they ignored their own needs for the love of the maestro, but experts taking part in a symposium at Berlin's State Opera argued that there are other facets of the issue to consider.

Minna, the first

For 30 years, Wagner was married to Minna Planer. Orginally from a region which today borders the Czech Republic, Minna was an extremely successful actress in her youth. Their relationship had many ups and downs, burdened as it was by affairs and chronic poverty - which were exacerbated by Wagner's extravagant lifestyle. After their wedding in Königsberg in 1836, Minna followed her husband to Riga, Latvia. They were forced to flee from creditors to London and Paris three years later.

Minna Wagner with dog Watercolor by Clementine Stockar-Escher, Zurich, 1853

Minna Wagner

Minna has come to be viewed as a down-to-earth, motherly woman who took care of Wagner, but was not of his intellectual caliber. Yet music journalist Dorothee Riemer pointed out that the two must have carried on intense exchanges, since more than 400 letters between them remain to this day.

"Wagner later dismissed his first marriage as youthful folly, yet he himself once said that he could not live without her," Reimer noted. "Indeed, with the exception of 'Parsifal,' he drew up all of his operas with her."

However, Wagner did not take to heart Minna's need for material security. Upon participating in the May Uprising of 1849 in Dresden, the composer lost his well-to-do position as the Saxon court’s Kapellmeister and ultimately found himself on "wanted" posters everywhere. Wagner's marriage with Minna was further put to the test in Zurich, where the two were given asylum.

Mathilde, the muse

In Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a wealthy patron, Richard Wagner found a soul mate who inspired his work. "Wagner's muse had a dramatic impact on the creation of 'Rheingold,’" said Detlef Giese, dramaturg at Berlin's State Opera. In addition, he noted, people are familiar with Wagner's musical scores of five of her poems - the "Wesendonck-Lieder," as they are known today. The composer dedicated the prelude to the "Walküre" to her, and the love triangle between him, Minna and Mathilde inspired "Tristan und Isolde," Giese said.

Mathilde Wesendonck Pastel by Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1856

Mathilde Wesendonck

The presumably platonic relationship between Wagner and writer Mathilde Wesendonck, who also enjoyed playing the piano, became so intimate that it led to conflicts with their spouses. After Minna intercepted a gushing letter from Wagner to Mathilde, the composer fled to Venice. In spite of it all, Mathilde's husband, Otto Wesendonck, remained a loyal patron of Wagner's, supporting the composer's project of creating a festival hall in Bayreuth.

Following the demise of his relationships with Minna and Mathilde, Wagner turned his attentions to Cosima von Bülow, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and French countess Marie d'Agoult. As her biographer Oliver Hilmes notes, Cosima was still married to conductor Hans von Bülow when she became Wagner's lover and manager. Wagner was doing well financially during that time, receiving, as he was, generous support from Bavarian King Ludwig II. The couple, who ultimately married in 1870, already had three children together: Isolde, Eva and Siegfried. With them, Cosima would later found the Bayreuth dynasty.

Cosima, mistress of the Green Hill

Cosima Wagner, around 1870

Cosima Wagner

Hilmes describes Wagner's second wife as a bossy, cool person - someone who would demand back manuscripts from those whom Wagner had gifted. Beatrix Borchardt, professor at the Hamburg University of Music and Theater, likens Cosima to Clara Schumann: "Both established themselves as public figures, and made clear the impact they had on their husbands' work."

Following Richard Wagner's death in 1883, Cosima took over direction of the Bayreuth Festival until 1906, turning it into a magnet for high society. Though Wagner did not leave a will or instructions for the future of the festival, his widow Cosima transformed what was originally an experiment into an institution. She laid the foundation for the cult of Wagner while completely devoting her life to the composer's works. Despite being aware of her power and autonomy, Cosima ultimately sacrificed her own identity to preserve public remembrance of Wagner's creative genius.

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