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What ‘R.’ Wrought

The Diary of Richard Wagner The Brown Book: 1865-1882

presented and annotated by Joachim Bergfeld, translated by George Bird
Cambridge University Press, 218 pp., $15.95

Cosima Wagner’s Diaries Vol. II: 1878-1883 additional notes by

edited and annotated by Martin Gregor-Dellin, by Dietrich Mack, translated, with an introduction, postscript, and Geoffrey Skelton
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1,200 pp., $35.00

Cosima Wagner

by George R. Marek
Harper and Row, 291 pp., $16.95

In Search of Wagner

by Theodore Adorno, translated by Rodney Livingstone
NLB (distributed by Schocken Books), 160 pp., $14.50

The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s “Ring” and the Modern World

by L.J. Rather
Louisiana State University Press, 256 pp., $17.50

Bayreuth: The Early Years

compiled, edited, and introduced by Robert Hartford
Cambridge University Press, 284 pp., $19.95

The phenomenon of Richard Wagner has been recounted, analyzed, and discussed in such abundance that it would seem as if the end must be somewhere in sight. Instead, the publication of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries during the centenary (1976) of the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen has provoked an entirely new interest in the man, though perhaps more from historians than from musicians. Books such as Dr. L.J. Rather’s The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s “Ring” and the Modern World radically readjust the emphasis, to the extent of describing many of Wagner’s prose writings as “works of art” and referring to his “greatness as a theoretician in the realm of the sociology of knowledge.” Cosima’s Diaries, however, and in lesser, because shorter, measure, The Diary of Richard Wagner: The Brown Book, have claimed the attention of the world and therefore demand prior examination.

To consider Wagner’s own book first, the sixty or so entries date from August 1865 to the spring of 1882. Before a separation from Wagner, Cosima gave him a calfskin notebook that he might record material which she could read later. About a third of the poems, essays, pensées, reminiscences, sketches for dramatic works that make up the “diary” are now published for the first time. But these heretofore unknown items are disappointing. Wagner equates the non-equatable:

Beeth. = Schopenhauer: his music, translated into concepts, would produce that philosophy.

The megalomania, moreover, would seem to warrant psychiatric attention:

I shall set up full court…. I shall no longer concern myself with anything directly…. Then things shall proceed as at Versailles under Louis XIV…. The world I cannot shape I must merely forget.

(Many of his remarks in Cosima’s Diaries begin with the phrase “If I were emperor….”)

For this reader, the most interesting sections in The Brown Book are the “Annals,” embryonic fragments, written not in grammatical form but as if in free association, of the autobiography intended for Wagner’s benefactor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The finished product, unlike the “Annals,” had to be doubly tailored, first for Cosima, to whom Wagner dictated the text, second for the ingenuous and deeply illusioned young monarch. In these preliminary jottings, Wagner’s belief in astrology is evident—he attributes his inability to write for two months to a “bite from Leo”—and his love of animals, as when he remembers a farewell scene on a Rhine bridge by the presence of “a tired donkey.” (He once risked his life to save his dog.) He was fond of lepidoptera, too, and purchased a collection in Naples.

As for the processes of memory, he recalls events and their chronology in connection with the weather, with menus, and with his health and moods. These stream-of-consciousness “Annals” also show how thoroughly pragmatic was the great spinner of fantasies. But though he notes the dates of important dreams, he does not spell out the contents as Cosima does for him in her Diaries, where, in fact, they offer the most important clues to the man. Most of his dreams were about women, including his first wife, Cosima (again and again), and his mother, whom he sees as attractive, young, and “elegant.” But Wagner on the relationship between dreams and musical creativity is a subject for a book, whose sequel might be a compilation of them from his own incredibly prolific dream life.

The Brown Book helps to convict Wagner of a shocking duplicity. A married man, he became the lover (in November 1863) of the twenty-four-years-younger Cosima von Bülow, wife of his friend and apostle, and swore eternal fidelity to her. Wagner then invited Mathilde Maier, a handsome woman also much younger than himself, to share his home on the Starnberger See. One wonders what would have happened if Mathilde, believing his vow—“I’ve never had anyone else in mind to fill your place”—had accepted his invitation of June 25, 1864 to become the “mistress” of this residence, since, only four days later, or June 29, not Mathilde but Cosima arrived, without her spouse. Undaunted, Wagner wrote Mathilde a masterpiece of volte face, whose follow-up letter belongs in an anthology of the Great Deceivers:

…you would now find me in a frame of mind where I would not be able to accept any sacrifice that would be offered…. Your coming now would be a source of totally insupportable torments to my heart…

The composer continued to correspond with Mathilde, and Herr Bergfeld, the editor of The Brown Book, says that in these letters Wagner is “touching and considerate…a reproof to those who like to regard him as a callous egotist”—as if it were not apparent that by underscoring the word “now,” Wagner is keeping the door open in the event that his affair with Cosima does not work out. As some of the newly published material in The Brown Book reveals, despite the attempts of Eva, Cosima’s daughter, to eradicate the relevant passages, Cosima failed to hide her jealousy of Mathilde. Cosima’s Diaries mislead the reader, mentioning the “anniversary of my arrival in Starnberg” in an 1878 entry dated June 21, eight days earlier, while further on, she identifies Starnberg as the place “where it all started,” though as scholars have now established, “it” started seven months before.

Cosima’s Diaries were made available to some biographers during her lifetime, and the contents of the books contain little that was not already known. Perhaps for this reason, the long-delayed publication has received less attention from musicologists than from specialists in modern German history who have regarded them as representative documents of their period (1869-1883). Peter Gay, for one, has established attitudes toward them and their author (see his articles in the TLS, January 28, 1977, and March 24, 1978) that have already been adapted by others, including George Marek in his Cosima Wagner. Mr. Gay’s appraisal of Cosima’s character—“clever and obtuse, learned and ignorant, snobbish and humble”—is generally fair, except for his description of her devotion to Wagner as horrifyingly masochistic. Surely the word does not fit such an obvious labor of love, which, if it were anything else, probably could not have been accomplished at all. To be sure, Cosima was creating an identity for herself and a well-defined place in history, but this does not diminish her achievement: for better or worse, she has left a morning, noon, and night record of the last fourteen years in the life of one of the greatest composers.

Volume II chronicles every aspect of Wagner’s last five years: his work on Parsifal; his health (often noted several times a day); his dreams; his reading and his writing; his theories and his ideas; his tempers, affections, and sensations; his observations on his own music as well as on that of other composers (especially Beetheven and Bach); his comments on political events (above all those in Bismarck’s Germany); and his opinions on a scarcely believable range of subjects. Cosima also records their travels, the visits of friends and relatives (including Liszt, her not-all-that-welcome father), and the routine of life.

Central to the book are the creation and first performance of Parsifal, Cosima has preserved not only “R.“‘s thoughts about the drama, and the inception of musical ideas (themes, intervals, chordal progressions, ideas for the orchestration), but also, discussions about the question of possible profanity in applauding after the “sacramental” ending of Act I. To some extent Wagner’s creative processes can be followed in Cosima’s log-book of the outward manifestations of then, but she never goes far enough, telling us that Wagner showed her a sketch on which he had written the word “bad,” but not revealing in what way, or ways, he found the draft wanting. Similarly, when she writes that “R. comes to the subject of Bach’s fugues, in most of which there is hardly ever a modulation…,” she does not clarify the remark. By ordinary definitions, modulations occur in Bach’s shortest fughettas; but Wagner’s terminology elsewhere in the Diaries suggests that he means an episode of a certain length in a related key. Cosima, as an educated musician, could have resolved such ambiguities.

For this reviewer, the book exasperates more often than it satisfies. Cosima’s main shortcoming as a diarist is her inability to distinguish between what was and what was not worth recording, and her egotism in recording everything is the reader’s first annoyance. Few people can afford to take the time to work their way through the book, yet the valuable and the trivial may be inseparable, an abridged edition an impossibility. (The London Sunday Times asked a friend of this reviewer to select 800 words for serialization!)

The Diaries must also irritate readers who do not like to go from one pronouncement to another with never a question that anything “R.” says could possibly be wrong. Nor does Cosima pursue the reasoning behind “R.“‘s conclusions. If, as he says, “Schumann and Hölderlin are mediocrities,” what are the criteria for mediocre, apart from, in the case of Schumann’s music, the absence of “a single melody” discernible as such to Wagner? When he dismisses a book by Nietzsche that he has not read because of its “pretentious ordinariness,” the composer plainly believes that his artistic and intellectual superiority absolve him from the obligation to justify his judgments. But then, Wagner can be condescending to God. Cosima writes:

I hear R. saying in his dreams, “If He created me, who asked Him to? And if I am made in His image, the question remains whether I am pleased about that?”

Other irritations in the Diaries include Cosima’s habit of quoting “R.“‘s every endearment—“You are the most beautiful of all”; “You are the personification of all inspirations”; “J’aimerais toujours ma Cosima“—and of suppressing her own views in favor of Wagner’s. These cannot have coincided on every question, if only because of the difference between her aristocratic and Wagner’s petit-bourgeois background. For one example, she had some knowledge of painting and Wagner none at all, yet she preserves his most fatuous dicta on this art, writing that “R. finds the Jewish element predominant,” in, of all places, the Sistine Chapel. For another, although her command of English far outstripped his, she nevertheless took down his ridiculous remark that “a German can only regard that language as a dialect.” Here are instances of the need for selectivity.

George Marek’s Cosima Wagner includes a useful critique of the Diaries that points out the discrepancies between her versions and other people’s, as well as confirmations and corrections. Cosima is “honest with herself” in her book, he believes, perhaps on the grounds that only a great fictionalist could have fabricated at such length. Yet even her first entry concerning her relationship with Wagner is patently false: “I have not sought after or brought it about myself: Fate laid it on me.” Yet the truth is that she took matters in her own hands, abandoning a dull husband (and their children) for the most exciting man in the artistic world—all perfectly understandable in straightforward terms, without her blaming Fate.

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