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21 Jul 2010
Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth
Originally published in German as Herrin des Hügels, das Leben der Cosima Wagner (Siedler, 2007), this new book by Oliver Hilmes is an engaging portrait of one of the most important women in music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Famous as the wife of the pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow, who ran off to marry the composer Richard Wagner, Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt and eventually the matriarch who forged her last husband’s legacy at Bayreuth. Hilmes begins his study of Cosima in the present at the annual Bayreuth Festival, which continues to attract audiences. In explaining his interest in Cosima, Hilmes identifies his sources (pp. 349-50), which are in this case voluminous and extend beyond the woman’s diaries, which have already been published in German and English translation. This is an account of an exceptional woman, who transformed conventional widowhood into a living monument to her husband’s memory and also shaped music performance internationally through her development of the Festival at Bayreuth.
Hilmes divides his work into chapters that cover Cosima’s life logically, started with her early life as the illegitimate daughter of Liszt and the French author Marie d’Agoult. He follows with an account of Cosima’s relationship with Liszt’s one-time student Hans von Bülow, which ultimately resulted in what Hilmes calls a marriage of convenience. Here Hilmes is good to show the misunderstandings that have emerged over the years, and to allow some of the documents to speak for themselves, which emerges neatly in his coverage of an episode in which Bülow encountered Cosima with Wagner on the street (pp. 58-59), a scene which has a different character depending on whom one reads. Hilmes’ approach opens the door to a fresh account of Cosima’s affair with Wagner, her divorce from Bülow, and her eventual marriage with Wagner. This portion of the book is of interest for the subtext that emerges in the section headings. Since Bülow conducted the premiere of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, the presence of that title as a subhead (p. 77) offers a useful point of reference. Likewise, other references to literature and other topics emerges as with “Human, All Too Human” (p. 112) and others. Despite the subtle references, Hilmes is nowhere arch or judgmental. He discusses the sense of guilt Cosmia felt in the way she treated Bülow sensitively. Elsewhere Hilmes shows how active a role Cosima played in Wagner’s life, and this anticipates the role she would take in shaping Bayreuth as an institution later in her own life.
The account of Cosima’s life with Wagner is lively and engaging. The freshness with which Hilmes approaches the episode invites an investigation of the sources and also a rereading of those famous diaries of Cosima in light of the perspectives that are found here. Wagner’s death is depicted with proper reverence, yet shown to be the turning point in what emerges as a kind of musical cult (p. 158), as Cosima identifies herself almost entirely with Wagner and also their home — she even uses Wahnfried as an eponym in correspondence with her daughter Daniela. This is a fascinating aspect of Cosima’s life, and it merits attention in Hilmes treatment of it. In turn, it sets the stage for the international attention that reaches Bayreuth and the role that the Festival takes in shaping German culture. The question of antisemitism emerges in this book, and its treatment is appropriately open; elsewhere Hitler’s relationship with Wagner’s music comes into play, as does the ways in which Cosima shaped the future of Bayreuth as she approached her later years. Hilmes discusses Siegfried Wagner sufficiently and also treats some of the family relationships with a deft hand. As found in other books, the Wagners are a subject that merit separate treatment, and Hilmes offers a nice balance in discussing the family matters, while always retaining the focus on Cosima as his subject.
Part of the attraction of this biography is the lively style the Stewart Spencer brings to the translation. It reads well, and flows with a natural, authorial sense of the language. Spencer seems as engaged in the subject as the author, and that is due to his own work on Wagner and his music. For these and other reasons, this biography has much to recommend for those interested in Cosima and her hand in shaping one of the important institutions in German music in the last century.
James L. Zychowicz