A celebration of the Wagner legend: wives, husbands and muses
Wagner has come to be known as a legendary figure, not just for his ideas, his music or his outspokenness. In fact, the legend was fuelled more often than not by coincidences in which life imitated art and vice versa. By naming his children Isolde, Eva and Siegfried, Wagner was unabashedly equating the love child of his artistic life to that of his personal life. By having Hans von Bulow conducted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, the world was quick to associate the ironic fate of the conductor’s to that of King Mark’s – both were betrayed by their comrade and wife. Last but not least, it was almost too good to be true that everyone caught up in Wagner’s scandalous affairs, the increasingly estranged Wagners, the genteel Wesendoncks and the newly married von Bülows were present at the Asyl, Wagner’s abode in Zurich in April 1857!
Much has been said about Wagner’s promiscuity and turbulent affairs to add to the score of notoriety. Whether these are fiction or truth, one thing remains indisputable, and that is Wagner’s own confession of the importance of feminine inspiration in his life.
Writing to his friend Theodore Uhlig on December 1849, Wagner remarked that “Women, indeed, are the music of life; they absorb everything more openly and unconditionally, in order to embellish it by means of their sympathy.” Similarly, in a letter to Liszt in October 1858, Wagner spoke candidly about the significance of his doomed affair with Mathilde Wesendonck. “The love of a tender woman has made me happy; she dared to throw herself into a sea of suffering so that she might say ‘I love you!’ … We were spared nothing – but as a consequence I am redeemed and she is blessedly happy because she is aware of it.” And just before Wagner’s death from a heart attack in 1883, the composer was working on the unfinished treatise, On the feminine in humanity.
Moral debates aside, the three women in Wagner’s life played indispensable roles at the various stages of the composer’s career. Minna, Wagner’s wife for thirty years, sustained the family’s income when Wagner was shunned by the Parisian circle. Mathilde’s company and poetry unleashed Wagner’s creativity, bearing fruits in Tristan und Isolde and the setting of the five Wesendonck songs. Cosima was an avid champion of Wagner’s causes. She became the bedrock of the household and directed the operations of the Bayreuth Festival House after her husband’s death.
Which brings us full circle to the fateful meeting at the Asyl. Perhaps Wagner, his muses and their stories would never have transcended into legends without the lenience of Oscar Wesendonck and Hans von Bülow?