Notes from Valhalla

Cosima Wagner's Diaries: Volume 1, 1869-1877

edited by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Skelton
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1,248 pp., $24.95
Cosima Wagner
Cosima Wagner; drawing by David Levine


In August of 1835, the twenty-two-year-old Wagner, in search of singers for the Magdeburg opera, found himself stranded without money in Frankfurt and forced to surrender his baggage as security for an unpaid hotel bill. With unassailable confidence in his future fame, he passed the time while awaiting ransom by jotting down notes for his biography in a large red copybook. Some three decades later, when Ludwig of Bavaria, benefactor of the now celebrated composer, requested him to write the story of his life, he freshened his memory by referring to this “Red Book,” in which he had continued at various times to set down his journeys, pursuits, and undertakings. It lay open before him when, in 1865, he began in Munich to dictate Mein Leben to his mistress, Cosima von Bülow, the second of Franz Liszt’s three illegitimate children. As the work went forward, he must have realized that the very existence of the Red Book, a record of his contemporary views of men and events, would expose the many manipulations and suppressions of fact he found necessary to his narrative.

By the time his dictation to Cosima reached the events of Easter 1846—with his stormy political days in Dresden lying just ahead—it had become clear that the potentially compromising Red Book had to vanish. Mein Leben itself was to appear in a private edition meant only for the eyes of King Ludwig and a few intimates; in some indefinite future, Wagner calculated, it could be used as the basis of an “official” biography, and so would provide “useful capital” when other Wagnerian copyrights had run out. Determined to conceal from both friends and posterity not only certain incidents in his past but also many of his earlier opinions, Wagner, in February, 1868, extracted from the Red Book a series of notes to help him remember persons, places, and chronology, entering these in the so-called “Brown Book” diary in which he had made occasional entries since 1865. He then destroyed practically all of the Red Book; only its four lively opening pages survive, probably preserved by him as a memento.

The loss of the Red Book is to be regretted; one would like to know how it treated matters Wagner later misrepresented in conversations, essays, letters, and in Mein Leben. By the 1860s, for example, the protégé of the Bavarian monarch found it politic largely to forget his active part in the Dresden uprising of 1849 (his contemporaries in Dresden had clearer memories). The lover of Cosima now described the often affectionate years with his first wife, Minna, as utterly hateful, his turbulent affairs with Jessie Laussot and Mathilde Wesendonk as of little account (a view of the three women in which he persisted even as he attempted to get hold of and destroy contradictory evidence in his own writing). Doubtless he saw the Red Book as a threat to the…

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