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 new Wagner he was attempting to edit into existence; he did not want it found among his effects.

From the very start of their labors on Mein Leben in July, 1865, Wagner and Cosima had planned to stop when they reached May, 1864, the month the royal summons brought Wagner to Munich. Immediately beyond this point lay the almost incredible complications of their own life together. (Indeed, at the time they sat down to the first dictation session, their illegitimate daughter, Isolde, was three months old.) Wagner had thrown himself into the unpredictable adventure of living with his disciple’s wife and with good reason deferred to the remote future any “official” description of the Munich period. He imposed upon Cosima—almost a quarter of a century his junior—the duty of completing the story of Mein Leben from the spring of 1864 to the day of his death. As the years passed her resources for this undertaking increased. To the synoptic Brown Book, which covered 1846-1867, he added notes for 1868. But more important were the diaries she began on January 1, 1869, a month and a half after she had finally abandoned her husband, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow (and for a time their children), to join Wagner at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne.

For the next fourteen years—they married in 1870—her diaries alone continued the record of his activities; her final entry (made in Venice) describes his conversation on February 12, 1883, the day before he died. But she could never face up to the gap between the end of Mein Leben and the first page of her diaries.1 Like Wagner, she must have found it impossible to concoct a persuasive account of their lies and duplicity during those years. The task Wagner charged her with remained neglected. But she probably came to consider her responsibility to an extent satisfied by her growing confidence in Wagner’s biographer, Carl Friedrich Glasenapp. By 1907 she had no doubt that Glasenapp was faithful to her interests and she granted him free access to the diaries.


Wagner and Cosima had intended the diaries to become part of their son’s inheritance. But as the decades passed and her health, especially her eyesight, weakened, Cosima increasingly put her affairs into the hands of her youngest daughter, Eva (Wagner’s Meistersinger child). As amanuensis, Eva soon became her blind and fragile mother’s voice. Cosima wanted, so Eva insisted, the Brown Book and the diaries to become Eva’s property; she alone was to act as their guardian. By 1908 she got hold of the Brown Book. By the end of 1911 all twenty-one volumes of the diaries, with their black cardboard covers and green ribbons, had left Haus Wahnfried, the seat of the Wagnerian empire in Bayreuth, and were at Eva’s nearby house. Neither her brother, Siegfried, nor her sisters protested.

During the 1920s, Richard Count du Moulin-Eckart, while working on a biography of Cosima, was able to make use of the diaries as Glasenapp had before him. Eva herself prepared extracts eventually published in the Bayreuther Blätter during 1936-1937. Like Glasenapp and Moulin-Eckart, she drew sparingly on Cosima’s lengthy work and, as was long suspected and recently confirmed, all three served up their findings in versions astoundingly unfaithful to the original document. Thus little had been disclosed of its almost one million words when Eva died in 1942; the cache she had appropriated was locked in a Munich bank.

Eva’s will of 1939 stipulated that thirty years after her death the diaries were to become the property of the city of Bayreuth and be placed in its Richard-Wagner-Gedenkstätte if certain conditions were observed, among them that the famous Wagner scholar, Otto Strobel, not be permitted even to glance at the manuscripts. Eva’s ban extended to a year when the aging Strobel would surely be dead. Her unrelenting Wagnerian wrath against him had been aroused in 1934 when, as archivist at Wahnfried, he told the police of the disappearance of Richard Wagner’s correspondence with Cosima. The report had forced Eva to confess that she had removed these letters—yet another gift to her from Mama, she claimed—and then burned many of them soon after the death in 1930 of Cosima, at ninety-two, and then of her brother. She had done so—she swore—in compliance with Siegfried and Cosima’s instructions, a precaution in the tradition of Haus Wahnfried, whose strongbox had from time to time doubled as an incinerator. Indeed, one wonders whether Eva, who mutilated the Brown Book before contributing it to the Bayreuth municipal archives in 1931,2 did not make her own destructive contribution to the diaries. Someone crossed out and made illegible more than a few passages in the final sections. In any case, in order to spite Strobel, the scholar who was then best equipped to edit the diaries, she buried them.

In 1954 a belated effort by the Wagner family to set aside Eva’s restrictions on the diaries failed in court, and further legal wrangling delayed their emergence from the recesses of the Bayerischer Staatsbank two years beyond the expiration of Eva’s embargo in 1972. Not until 1974 did Cosima’s diaries return to Bayreuth to be transcribed and prepared for publication by a team of scholars at the Gedenkstätte.


Wagner probably never contemplated that Cosima would dominate the artistic management of Bayreuth. Nonetheless, by 1886, the time of the third festival after his death, she had complete and unchallenged control and had begun to shape productions in her own way. Not until 1906 did failing health weaken her Valkyrie-like grip on the scepter and force her to relinquish command to her son. When Siegfried took over as head of the eighteenth Bayreuth festival in 1908, he was thirty-nine.

During Cosima’s reign her myth had grown, nourished by herself and by her adoring flunkies, Hans von Wolzogen, editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, and Eva’s husband, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the English-born racist ideologue whose ideas were taken up by Hitler. They helped to create the imperial Cosima: forceful, humorless, unconditionally dedicated to her mission as the absent god’s semi-divine representative on earth. She wore widow’s weeds, bore herself like a monarch, and clothed her hesitations and errors in a show of omniscience learned from a master. Her court declared her infallible, and one musician sadly reflected that if she had ordered the Bayreuth conductor Mottl to conduct common time in three, he would have hailed her inspired genius. This is the Cosima posterity knows best: the oracle enthroned by her sycophants, seated on her tripod over the “mystic abyss,” inhaling fumes from the steam machinery, and speaking strange, sibylline messages.

The diaries, however, close with the dawn of this final phase of her career. They reveal the Cosima who antedated the high priestess, an anxious, agitated, self-lacerating mistress, wife, and mother. The first entry is an impassioned plea to her children to attempt one day to comprehend the overwhelming experience of her life: her intimacy with the “being who swiftly led me to realize that…I had never lived,” the “only friend, the guardian spirit and savior of my soul, the revealer of all that is noble and true…” Cosima took pleasure in this kind of overwrought writing, though she ridiculed Ludwig of Bavaria for indulging in the same style. She recorded her resentment of Ludwig’s trusting patronage in the same kind of grotesque, hyperbolical prose that Wagner himself reserved for his own letters to Ludwig. One “cannot lay it on too thickly,” Wagner commented, especially when he assured the royal patron that he owed his inspiration to him. His real muse, Wagner tirelessly assured Cosima—and as she tirelessly recorded in her diaries—was Cosima. She flared with jealousy at the very thought of Ludwig congratulating himself on his part in Wagner’s creations. One of the diaries’ painful disclosures is the depth of the contempt in which both she and Wagner held the man who maintained them in luxury. They mocked him as a “Lohengrin greeted with acclamation, then having second thoughts about the duel.”


The first volume of the diaries resolves few questions about Wagner’s life, and provides no major biographic revelations. For the most part it contains a luxuriant accumulation of detail about things long known. As is often the case with personal journals, the reader must make his way through a mass of trivia: the illnesses of the children and the dogs, housekeeping problems, visits, insignificant table talk, and the incessant accounts of how the self-abasing Cosima sank down and wept while pondering Wagner’s greatness and her own shortcomings. Still, several important leitmotifs impose some order on the elephantine composition: the villainy of the French; the perennial wickedness and degeneracy of the Jews; the treachery of the Roman Church, especially of the Jesuits; and—above all—the tormenting idea that these enemies of truth and beauty were always plotting to strike down Wagner, the apotheosis of the German character, the redeemer of all that made German art matchless, indeed holy.

Yet, as one wades through the endless domestic crises and the fanatical prejudices of the diaries, one becomes aware that a large and in some ways powerful drama of love and ambition is taking place: one might call it the Birth of Bayreuth out of the Adultery of Cosima. It is impossible not to be fascinated by the clever opportunism of this couple, their pompous, unashamed posing, their enormous talent for self-deception, monstrous egotism, and, at times, naked treachery. What is more interesting, the reader finds that their generally disreputable behavior is accompanied by other qualities; they were occasionally capable of genuine feeling for others, particularly for Hans von Bülow and Wagner’s young Jewish follower Karl Tausig, and had their own moments of intense love and despair. Both had strange dreams, dutifully recorded in the diaries, betraying deep vulnerability, guilt, fear, and torment. And it must be said for Cosima that her writing brightens during the moments when, amid the ever more shabby circus of his personal life, Wagner brings forth his masterpieces, plays them for her, and she records that he has sketched the Norns’ music or completed the orchestration of Siegfried or refined his plan for the funeral procession in Götterdämmerung.

The diaries are full of direct quotations from Wagner’s conversations, and a good part of Cosima’s observations also paraphrase his undigested speculations as he ranted about a wide range of subjects of which he was largely ignorant. Facts never hindered the march of his pronouncements, for he never doubted that he had the ultimate answers to all questions concerning politics, morals, religion, the sciences, the fine arts, and, of course, poetry, drama, and music.

The diaries are rich in denunciations of Jewish musicians (Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Joachim, Hiller, Offenbach, Goldmark, and Anton Rubinstein) and those, like Schumann, whom Wagner considered to be Judaized by contaminating Semitic influences. They are relatively poor in sober or valuable comments on music, especially about opera. Yet among them are observations of strong interest, especially the passage in which Wagner acknowledges that his theories about opera are contradictory and untenable. Publicly Wagner insisted that his works carried out the bizarre dialectic of musical and dramatic art he called for in the polemical tracts he wrote in Switzerland, and particularly in Opera und Drama (1851). He continued to claim that notwithstanding the powerful floods of music engulfing much of his so-called poetry, the word, with its superior power, functioned as the dominating, regulating element of his music dramas. To Cosima, however, he confided a different view of Opera und Drama:

I know what Nietzsche didn’t like in it—it is the same thing…which set Schopenhauer against me: what I said about words. At the same time I didn’t dare say that it was music which produced drama, although inside myself I knew it.3

How many vats of ink might have been saved had he found the courage to make these thoughts public.

The diaries are also revealing about Wagner’s difficulties in putting his musical ideas on paper. He struggled to recall his first concept of a work which, as he claimed, often appeared to him in complete form.

With me, composing is a curious affair; while thinking it up, I have it all in my mind, endless, but then comes the job of writing it down, and the mere physical actions get in the way. It becomes “How did it go?” instead of “How is it?”; not “How is it to be?” but “How was it?” and then having to search about until one finds it again.

Wagner is consistent in being slippery. He professed to despise Verdi but was evidently pleased when the Italian showed interest in his work: “Report from Italy, Verdi at a performance of Lohengrin, applauded by the public on that account, but he stayed at the back of his box so as not to distract from the solemnity of the performance.” Describing to Cosima “that awful time when Mathilde Wesendonk became jealous of my wife,” Wagner says, “I suggested to her that I should leave my wife and she her husband, and we would get married….” He adds, “with a laugh”: “…basically and in my subconscious mind I was not serious.”

Indeed, he never wearied of insisting to her that only she had shown him true devotion, and both seem to have been unflagging in playing their parts of loving, all-knowing sage and self-demeaning, grateful disciple whose fealty to his genius would make her immortal. Their determination to sustain an atmosphere of bathos and fustian is evident throughout the diaries. Yet Cosima had her clearheaded moments:

“You and I will live on in human memory,” he exclaims to me. “Certainly you,” I exclaim with a laugh.

A translator of Cosima’s German faces problems at every turn. As the daughter of Franz Liszt and the Countess d’Agoult she had been raised in Paris by excellent tutors. Her native language was an aristocratic French. Though she learned to converse fluently in German and, as Wagner said, knew the language “the way beggars know their pockets,” he nevertheless continued to complain about her “incorrigible datives and accusatives.” He wanted her wholly to master German and put aside French. He even deplored her speaking it to her father and in her sleep. But correct German grammar, spelling, and punctuation remained quite beyond her. These imperfections—especially when combined with her frequent attempts to imitate Wagner’s convoluted manner—at times yield a German defying rigorous translation.

Mr. Skelton has met this challenge. Though here and there his choice of word, phrase, idiom, and, especially, tone of speech might be questioned, he has produced an excellent translation. He has refused to smooth over the lack of precision, repetitions, and infelicities inevitable in any hastily written, unrevised daily journal. At the same time, he has wisely resisted the temptation to render Cosima’s flatly incorrect or very awkward passages into an English equivalent. He artfully succeeds in producing agreeable prose that nonetheless suggests the spirit of her strange style.

Cosima’s diaries unfold while great changes were taking place in Europe, including the Vatican Council on Infallibility, the Franco-Prussian War, and Bismarck’s expansion of the Reich, events she saw through the weird perspective of fanatical anticlericalism, Francophobia, and anti-Semitism. When Moulin-Eckart described her diaries as “one of the most important pronouncements” [Kundgebungen] of the era, the full and terrible truth of his estimate was still to be reckoned, for there are few of her prejudices that did not later become virulent features of Nazi culture; and it is certainly arguable that German history would not have been the same without the cult of militant Wagnerism we see taking shape in these diaries. It was important that this extraordinary document, already available in an admirable German edition by Piper Verlag of Munich, be brought to English-speaking readers. Mr. Skelton and his publishers are to be congratulated for the care they have brought to this task.

This Issue

November 9, 1978