Cosima Wagner

Cosima Wagner
Cosima Wagner (1870).

Cosima Francesca Gaetana Wagner, née de Flavigny, from 1844 known as Cosima Liszt; (24 December 1837 – 1 April 1930) was the daughter of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. She was first married to pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, but became famous as the second wife of the German composer Richard Wagner and, after his death, as director of the Bayreuth Festival for 31 years.

Asteroid 644 Cosima is named in her honour.



She was born out of wedlock, at Bellagio on Lake Como[1] Italy, to the Countess Marie d'Agoult, a longtime mistress of Franz Liszt. Cosima was their second child. Her birthday was 24 December (as shown on her baptismal registration in the Como Cathedral archives)[2] but was usually celebrated on the 25th, which has led to confusion among biographers.

Cosima's parents separated when she was barely two years old, and with her brother and sister, Cosima was left in the care of Liszt's mother, Anna Liszt, in Paris. However when Liszt took up with Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847, the princess arranged for her own 72-year old governess, Madame Patersi de Fossombroni, to instruct the children. Cosima thereafter rarely saw her mother, who began a literary career under the pseudonym Daniel Stern; and Liszt himself was busy travelling throughout Europe, furthering his career as a virtuoso pianist. Cosima and her siblings were essentially brought up as orphans: at one period Liszt did not see his children for 9 years.[3] It is thought that both Wittgenstein and Fossombroni influenced the development of Cosima's personality, instilling in her a submissive and restrained character.[4][5] In October 1853 when she was almost 16, during one of Liszt's visits to Paris, Cosima first met Richard Wagner.[6] Cosima was described at that time by Marie Hohenlohe, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein's daughter, who was the same age as Cosima:

"Poor Cosima...was in the throes of adolescence - tall, angular and fair-skinned with a large mouth and long nose, the very image of her father. Only her long golden hair was of rare lustre and great beauty. And her poor child's heart seethed with all the fury of a volcano. Dark passion and boundless vanity pulsated through her veins."[7]

Marriage to von Bülow

In 1855 Cosima began taking piano lessons from the piano virtuoso, teacher and orchestral conductor Hans von Bülow, who had been one of Liszt's pupils since 1851. When von Bülow fainted after conducting the overture to Tannhäuser to a hostile audience in October 1855 it was Cosima who tended him.[8] After this event they announced their engagement.[9] On August 18, 1857, Cosima married von Bülow: she was 20 years old, he 27. During their honeymoon they travelled around Europe, and stopped in Zurich to see Wagner, who was working on Tristan und Isolde; Wagner was 24 years her senior and still married to Minna Planer.[10] They witnessed at first hand the deterioration of Wagner's marriage to his first wife Minna, following his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck.

During the early part of her marriage to Hans, from 1858 to 1862,Cosima set up a writing room at home and contributed to the Revue Germanique, an indication of her literary ambitions, and a portent of her future role as Wagner's scribe.[11] She also became part of Berlin's social establishment, organising soirees for journalists, artist and politicians while Hans was constantly touring throughout Europe. [12]

Cosima's marriage was not happy. Hans was a distant figure, more devoted to her father Liszt than to Cosima. In addition Cosima had to deal with Hans' depressions, insecurity and poor health.[13] In August 1858 she asked the son of one of Wagner's sponsors, a man named Karl Ritter (who was himself also trapped in a loveless marriage), to help her commit suicide. They both took a boat out on to Lake Geneva, where Cosima declared that she would drown herself, only desisting when Ritter threatened to follow suit should she do so.[14] Cosima was also greatly affected when her younger brother Daniel died of consumption in 1859 at the age of 20: she nursed him through his last illness, and when Cosima's first child was born in 1859 she named her Daniela in his memory. In 1863 her second child was born, Blandine: named after Cosima's late sister.

Richard Wagner

In November 1863, Wagner visited Cosima and von Bülow in Berlin, where Hans was giving a concert. While von Bülow was rehearsing, Wagner and Cosima took a carriage ride through Berlin. According to Wagner's autobiography Mein Leben (which was dictated to Cosima later) here they proclaimed their love for each other:

"We fell silent and all joking ceased. We gazed mutely into each other's eyes and an intense longing for the fullest avowal of the truth forced us to a confession, requiring no words whatever, or the incommensurable misfortune that weighed upon us. With tears and sobs we sealed a vow to belong to each other alone."[15]

However it was not until June 1864, when King Ludwig II of Bavaria settled all Wagner's debts and sponsored his future works, that Cosima and Wagner met again. Wagner was living at Haus Pellet, near Lake Starnberg when Cosima and her children arrived. Hans did not arrive until a week later, by which time Wagner and Cosima were lovers.[16] Cosima became pregnant by Wagner almost immediately with a daughter, Isolde, who was born on 10 April 1865. When Wagner moved to Munich in October 1864, Cosima set herself up as his "secretary", moving von Bülow and her children to a nearby house, but spending most of her time at Wagner's. This created a scandal which, together with Wagner's efforts to interfere in Bavarian politics, resulted in Wagner's expulsion from Munich.[17]

Richard and Cosima Wagner in Vienna (May 1872).

In 1866 Wagner set up house in a villa at Tribschen, paid for by King Ludwig, on the shore of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Wagner's first wife, who had been separated from him for many years, died of a heart condition in January 1866.[18] Cosima followed Wagner to Tribschen in April of that year, stirring up more speculation in the Munich press about the nature of their relationship, which was heightened further by Cosima's becoming pregnant that summer.[19] Wagner and Cosima even prevailed on Ludwig to sign a declaration in the press that they were not having an affair. Wagner's second daughter Eva was born in February 1867, and Cosima returned to live with von Bülow in Munich in April. Following the premiere of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in June 1868, under the baton of von Bülow, Wagner and Cosima left Munich in September for a holiday in Italy.[20] During this holiday, Cosima wrote to von Bülow that she wanted a divorce. She was now again pregnant with Wagner's third child, their only son, Siegfried Wagner. In November 1868 Cosima moved in permanently with Wagner at Tribschen, along with their children, Isolde and Eva. Although often racked with guilt about her treatment of von Bülow, she never again lived with him, and remained Wagner's companion until his death in 1883.

In June 1869 Cosima gave birth to Siegfried, and von Bülow could no longer pretend that his marriage could be saved. He wrote to Wagner "It must be so."[21] However Cosima's Catholicism was a stronger bar to divorce, and her father Franz Liszt was now deeply involved in the Church, having taken minor orders. It was only after Cosima converted to Protestantism that she and von Bülow were divorced on 18 July 1870. Cosima and Wagner were finally married on 25 August 1870 in Lucerne.[22]

On 25 December of that year (the day she usually celebrated her birthday, although it actually fell the day before), Cosima woke to the sound of music. She recorded the events in her diary:

"When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away Richard came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his "Symphonic Birthday Greeting." I was in tears, but so, too was the whole household; Richard had set up an orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! The Tribschen Idyll - thus the work is called!"[23]

This was the memorable first performance of the chamber piece which was later renamed the Siegfried Idyll.

From 1869 to 1883, Cosima kept a detailed diary of daily life with Wagner, which was later published.[24] In addition, Cosima helped Wagner write his autobiography Mein Leben, which he dictated to her.[25] Cosima's diary frequently reveals the level of devotion she felt for Wagner, and the resentment she felt toward her parents. Her diary entry for March 23, 1871 reads: "I read old letters from my father, which show me once again that I had neither a father nor a mother. Richard has been everything to me, he alone has loved me."[26] Cosima's diaries also reveal that she shared, in concentrated form, her husband's aversion to Judaism.

At Wagner's side she saw the construction of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, the establishment of the Bayreuth Festival, the first performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen and, finally the 1882 Festival where Parsifal was premiered. During this time Wagner's health was failing, and Cosima often had to tend his many ailments, including his worsening heart condition. The end came on 13 February 1883, when Wagner had a final heart attack while they were in Venice. His son Siegfried remembered the occasion of Wagner's death and Cosima's reaction:

"The chambermaid brought the news that my father had been taken ill. I shall never forget the sight of my mother rushing out through the door. It expressed the force of the most passionate anguish, and she ran into the half-open door so hard that it almost broke."[27]

The last entry in Cosima's diary dates from the evening before his death, and she wrote no more of it after his death. Cosima sat with Wagner's body for 25 hours, she then refused to eat for over four days. It was only a telegram from Hans von Bülow that revived her:"Soeur, Il faut vivre."[28] Cosima had her hair cut off and sewn into a cushion which was placed on Wagner's body. After the burial service Cosima was found lying on the coffin in the open grave and only came out when Siegfried went to fetch her.[29]

The First Lady of Bayreuth

Cosima Wagner in 1905.

Despite Wagner's death the Bayreuth Festival nevertheless continued in the summer of 1883 with 12 performances of Parsifal, given by the same artists and assistants who had worked with the composer on the 1882 premiere; but with no overall authoritative figure in charge, problems arose.[30] In 1884 Cosima emerged from her self-imposed seclusion to direct rehearsals; at first simply by means of written notes despatched to the artists. Despite many objections to her supposed lack of qualifications for the task, she continued to govern the festivals for the next 23 years and she undoubtedly saved Wagner's vision from fading into obscurity.

Cosima directed the Bayreuth Festival until 1906, when following an Adams-Stokes attack, she retired for health reasons. During her regime a total of 15 festivals took place. In addition to revivals of Parsifal, she gradually introduced the other nine operas which make up what has become known as the Bayreuth canon and increased the total number of performances each year to 20. During her tenure, she insisted that the staging of the 1876 premiere performances of the Ring Cycle be strictly adhered to. Her son, Siegfried, carried on this rigid "Bayreuth style" until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when the Festival stopped operating. When the Festival re-opened in 1924, it continued under the direction of Siegfried.

Cosima died on April 1 1930 at the age of 92 in Bayreuth. Her body lies beside that of Richard Wagner in the garden at Wahnfried.

The Bayreuth Festivals under Cosima

Cosima's productions had continued the naturalistic designs of the mid-nineteenth century,[31] but by reproducing literally all the composer's stage directions, using flat painted scenery and few stage props she produced a realism which was held to ignore the inner meaning and universality of the dramas. In 1889 Bernard Shaw referred to her as the "chief remembrancer".[32] The more symbolic or abstract stagings envisaged by Adolphe Appia were dismissed by Cosima, who felt that Wagner's own productions left nothing more to be discovered with regard to staging and directing, it was only necessary to perfect the detail. This error of this view was to become even more apparent when full electric lighting was introduced for the 1888 festival. (Electricity had been used earlier only for spots, projections such as the Ride of the Valkyries and for the Grail.) Previously the stage was lit by thousands of tiny gas jets, whose shimmering could give a sense of movement and life to the stage setting. Despite the potential of the new electric lighting to allow effects hitherto undreamt of, the actuality was more prosaic: it revealed only the wear and tear on the flat scenery. However, it has to be acknowledged that avant-garde productions in the years immediately following Wagner's death would have endangered the viability of the festivals, when the theatre was only half-full on average. It was only from 1891 that seats were oversubscribed and the festivals firmly established on the musical scene.

On the positive side, Cosima gave performances without cuts after thorough preparation, and replaced the prevailing histrionic attitudinizing with real acting and economy of gesture. No longer could singers deliver their arias from the footlights. She also insisted upon pellucid enunciation and maximum dramatic expression of the meaning of the texts, even having the singers declaim their parts without music during the preliminary rehearsals. But although note values and dynamics were rigidly adhered to, natural vibrato, portamento and legato became of lesser importance in singing, leading to the "Bayreuth bark"; melody was subordinated to drama, spontaneity to method. Harshly declaimed consonants (prominent in German) were emphasised over the vowels, which carry the melody. Good and bad examples of singing during the Cosima era can be heard on recordings of the time.[33]

Many famous names from the musical world came to Bayreuth during Cosima's era, mainly to hear Parsifal, then exclusive to the Festspielhaus (at least in Europe), imbibing the quasi-religious atmosphere: Bartok, Bruckner, Busoni, Chabrier, Cortot, Debussy, Delius, Dukas, Elgar, Fauré, Humperdinck, Mahler, Massenet, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Reger, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Sullivan, Vaughan Williams, Webern and Wolf.[34]


  1. ^ Skelton, G. (1994) "Cosima Wagner's Diaries: An Abridgement", Random House UK, page ix.
  2. ^ nata il 24 dicembre 1837 at the all'albergo dell'Angelo in Como: see Mary Tibaldi-Chiesa: Vita romantica di Liszt (1937), p. 86, who prints the full entry as a footnote, showing that Liszt acknowledged paternity. Marie d'Agoult also wrote to Liszt on Christmas Day 1840 giving the birth date as 24th: Correspondance, vol. 2 (Paris, 1934), p. 85. (Therefore Cosima's certificate of marriage to Wagner on 25 August 1870 was incorrect in stating her to have been "geboren in Como den 25. Decbr. 1837": Richard Wagner. Briefe. Die Sammlung Burrell. (hg. Burk) (Frankfurt a. M., 1953) # 473B.) Her name appears not to be based on her birthplace, but after St. Cosmas, whose martyrdom in 303 A.D. the church celebrates on 27 December.
  3. ^ Skelton, G. (1994) page ix.
  4. ^ Gutman, Robert W. (1990), Wagner - The Man, His Mind and His Music, Harvest Books. ISBN 978-0156776158 page 212.
  5. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010) "Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth" Yale University Press ISBN 978-0-300-15215-9. pages 18 - 27.
  6. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983) Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century. William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0, page 250
  7. ^ Spencer, Stewart (2000) Wagner Remembered, Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0571196531 pages 79 - 80.
  8. ^ Walker, Alan (2010), Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times (Oxford University Press: New York.) ISBN 978-0-195-36868-0. Page 98.
  9. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010) page 39.
  10. ^ Gregor-Dellin, M. (1983), page 253.
  11. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010) pages 48 - 50.
  12. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010.) Pages 51-52
  13. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010.) Pages 34-37
  14. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983), page 286.
  15. ^ Wagner, Richard (trans. Andrew Gray) (1992) My Life, Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306804816 page 729
  16. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983), page 341
  17. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983), pages 359-365.
  18. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983), page 367.
  19. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983), pages 370-371.
  20. ^ Gutman, Robert W. (1990) page 283.
  21. ^ Gutman, Robert W. (1990) page 286.
  22. ^ Gutman, Robert W. (1990) page 310.
  23. ^ Skelton, G. (1994) page 84.
  24. ^ Skelton, G. (1994).
  25. ^ Wagner, Richard (trans. Andrew Gray) (1992) My Life, Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306804816
  26. ^ Skelton, G. (1994) pages 94-95.
  27. ^ Spencer, Stewart (2000) Wagner Remembered, Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0571196531 page 274
  28. ^ "Sister, you must live." Gregor-Dellin, Martin. (1983) page 523.
  29. ^ Hilmes, Oliver (2010.) pages 153 - 156.
  30. ^ See Frederic Spotts: Bayreuth. A History of the Wagner Festival (Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 91ff and Geoffrey Skelton: Wagner at Bayreuth (London, 1965), pp. 70ff for a full discussion of Cosima's regime.
  31. ^ For a wealth of illustrative material on stage and costume designs for the original productions at Munich, Bayreuth and elsewhere see Detta & Michael Petzet: Die Richard Wagner-Bühne Ludwigs II. (Munich, 1970)
  32. ^ The English Illustrated Magazine, October 1889.
  33. ^ G&T cut over fifty 78rpm sides at Bayreuth in 1904, recorded in the Hotel Sonne, not the Festspielhaus. Many of these discs, plus other recordings by the earliest Bayreuth artists, were issued on a set of 12 CDs by Gebhardt in 2004: 100 Jahre Bayreuth auf Schallplatte: die frühen Festspielsänger 1876-1906 JGCD0062-12 (33 singers, 275 tracks, 305 78rpm sides, recorded 1900-30).
  34. ^ See Robert Hartford: Bayreuth: the early years (London, 1980) for the varied reactions and impressions of these and other visitors to the festivals between 1876 and 1914.

Further reading

  • George R. Marek: Cosima Wagner. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. ISBN 0-06-012704-X
  • Grove Encyclopedia of Music
  • Carr, Jonathan: The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. ISBN 0871139758
  • "Siegfried Idyll." The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. 19 Mar. 2009.
  • Hilmes, Oliver: Cosima Wagner: the lady of Bayreuth. Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-300-15215-9. (translated from German by Stewart Spencer)
  • Oliver Hilmes: Cosimas Kinder. Triumph und Tragödie der Wagner-Dynastie. Siedler Verlag, München 2009, ISBN 978-3-88680-899-1.

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