REVIEW: Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth – Oliver Hilmes

(Yale University Press 2011)

I picked this up at Blackwell’s music shop in Oxford (along with lots of CDs of twentieth century music) – something of a departure for me, since I don’t tend to read biography, and I’m not a big fan of Richard Wagner’s music.

Hilmes’ biography of Cosima, Wagner’s second wife, turns out to be a fascinating study, both of the woman and her family – she was one of Franz Liszt’s illegitimate daughters – and her role as Wagner’s helper, and later gatekeeper of his legacy. The book covers a lot of ground, since Cosima was a long-lived woman, and introduces many people who were both intimately involved with the Wagners as well as only on the periphery.

Cosima and her elder sister, Blandine, and younger brother Daniel, were born to Liszt and his mistress Marie d’Agoult: when the couple split up, the children seem to have been essentially left in limbo, living with Liszt’s mother and having very little contact with either parent, and their education supervised by two appalling, strict governesses. Hilmes makes a lot of Cosima’s exposure to Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and speculates that it informed her tendency towards mental masochism, but I suspect that being brought up to regard one’s father as a genius whose children weren’t worthy of him has a lot to do with Cosima’s later hero-worship of Wagner.

Cosima married the conductor Hans von Bülow, and through him became acquainted with Richard Wagner (who was still married to his first wife). The von Bülows’ marriage was not a happy one, with neither party behaving particularly well to the other, and Cosima became Wagner’s mistress – two of the children she had while married to von Bülow were later acknowledged to be Wagner’s, though never officially, which caused a good deal of unhappiness and strife after Wagner’s death.

She sounds the kind of woman who should never have married anyone as selfish and egotistical as Wagner – Cosima’s tendency to treat Wagner’s every pronouncement as prophecy or truth can’t have been good for either of them. After his death, she took over the running of the Bayreuth Festival, and single-mindedly promoted a Wagner cult of which she was high priestess.

Hilmes drew upon a vast array of archive documentation and his book is full of entertaining detail: Cosima emerges as a fascinating character, dominant and yet subservient, but also thoroughly unpleasant (she was perhaps even more anti-Semitic than Wagner, and treated even colleagues and family friends who were Jewish with barbed comments and faint praise), controlling and snobbish. She seems to have tried to manipulate and influence everyone with whom she came into contact, and appears to have been a major source of conflict in her children’s marriages: not one of the von Bülow or Wagner children were happy or well-adjusted, and a lot of pressure was put on the youngest, Siegfried (the only one of Cosima and Wagner’s children he acknowledged legally) as Wagner’s heir, which he was unable to live up to. The book also covers German cultural history of the time, and Cosima’s contribution to the politicisation of Wagner as a hero of German nationalism.

The book is well-written, and well-translated into English by Stewart Spencer. In general Hilmes seems to be admirably objective, except perhaps having a tendency to be a good deal more sympathetic towards Liszt’s treatment of his children than I think he deserves.

Recommended to anyone interested in music or German history.

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2 Responses to REVIEW: Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth – Oliver Hilmes

  1. calmgrove says:

    This sounds fascinating—I’m not as familiar with Wagner and his circle as I should be, despite a degree in music. The portrait of Cosima on the book’s cover certainly confirms that Liszt was her father, doesn’t it?

    • Ela says:

      I hadn’t considered that, but yes, you’re right! However, the photos of Cosima as a younger woman don’t show the relationship quite so obviously.

      I’m not a fan of Wagner, but the book was fascinating.

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