Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner; drawing by David Levine

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.

Furthermore, the saccharine view of her marriage to Wagner, and his constant declarations of love, protest too much. An entirely faithful, ever adoring Wagner is simply not realistic and was not true. No one expects to find Cosima reporting on her husband’s infatuation with young Judith Gautier, of course, yet the omission of the whole episode can hardly be called “honest.” Nor would many of us want to have Wagner’s talk in unexpurgated form, since the collected letters, now appearing that way, show that he was scurrilous and especially scatological.

Finally, was Cosima’s motive in writing the idolatrous “Book of ‘R.’ ” simply the instruction of her children, as she said, or were self-immortalizing and the enlightenment of posterity also involved? This is not to accuse her of false image-making; on the contrary, her hour-by-hour view of “R.” inevitably results in a more “human,” if only because more intimate and fuller, portrait of him than any other, besides which a diary is understood to be totally biased. Nevertheless, the value of the book would be greatly increased by the addition of a neutral account of certain events and situations, printed in the margins, like the Annotated Sherlock Holmes. In lieu of this, the Diaries should be read together with two or three of the more recent biographies, a project for a round-the-world cruise.

Marek says that Cosima never criticized Wagner’s work, citing King Mark’s show-stopping speech—in the wrong sense—in Tristan as an instance where intervention on her part might have been beneficial. But Cosima did criticize. Wagner followed her advice not to introduce some important new lines,1 which she thought “rather artificial,” in Brünnhilde’s scene at the end of Götterdämmerung. Cosima prevailed, too, when Wagner wanted to cut some of Hans Sachs’s final scene. Yet on the whole she seems to have held her sometimes keen critical sense in abeyance during Wagner’s lifetime. Afterward, she wrote to Prince Ernst Zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg of a theatrical work of his: “In a play one needs the tangible, the conflict of passions: symbolism cannot be the mainspring.” (A pity the Prince was not Hugo von Hofmannsthal!) And to this same friend she observed of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration: “Its ideas are jejune, its technical mastery sovereign.”

The principal obstacle for a biographer of Cosima is that when Wagner is present the spotlight inevitably follows him. The bulk of Marek’s book, therefore, is simply another life of Wagner, with only a few novel hypotheses. One of these is that Cosima may not have been sexually satisfied by von Bülow, but certainly was by Wagner. Surely something should have been added here on the subject of father and daughter figures, especially since Cosima had been neglected by her parents and dumped in boarding schools, while Wagner was still childless at the age of fifty-one.

Marek also believes that “no overt homosexual components [sic] influenced [King Ludwig’s] love for the composer.” Wagner wasn’t Ludwig’s “type,” Marek says, and he cautions us that the rapturous language of the correspondence was no more than “characteristic of the age.” Another of its characteristics, however, is the taboo surrounding the subject. If the king had the tendency, and if it were understood, would anyone dare attribute it to a royal personage? Obviously Wagner, who had had an overtly homosexual admirer, Karl Ritter, was fully aware of Ludwig’s proclivities. Glasenapp, the composer’s early biographer, tells us that he had an uncanny instinct for uncovering other people’s “weaknesses,” which encourages the suspicion that he exploited Ludwig in this one, too.

Marek’s portrait of Cosima, pre-Wagner, should be read before the Diaries, since it supplies the background necessary for understanding her future behavior.2 We are told, for example, that Cosima was antisemitic before she knew Wagner, but not given the origins of her prejudice—which would be important to know. Such historians as Peter Gay and Gordon Craig have filled almost half of their reviews of the Diaries, Volume II, with discussions of this subject, and Marek estimates that a defamation occurs every four pages.

Marek has little to say about the forty-seven years remaining to Cosima after Wagner’s death, and almost nothing concerning her final, twenty-four years of ill health. After a period in seclusion, she realized that her mission was to continue the Festival, and at no time during her directorship, 1886-1906, was she merely a figurehead. Not only did she choose the conductors, among them von Bülow, but she also supervised their performances. And as stage director, she dictated every movement of the singers, even acting out their parts for them. She was present at all rehearsals, ruling on everything and no doubt insisting “This is the way the Meister wanted it!”—to the irritation of all. We learn with surprise that she went so far as to edit the music, inserting dynamic markings, deciding on tempi, reducing the number of strings in one place (in order to increase the audibility of the words), and even deleting a cymbal crash, which was restored by Toscanini, who had memorized the score. She was succeeded by her son Siegfried, a likable but sad figure, who wrote undistinguished music, married (at age forty-six) an English termagant who was to become Hitler’s bosom friend, and died in the same year as Cosima.

Theodore Adorno’s In Search of Wagner suffers from the pressure of political events at the time the book was written, the late 1930s. Another drawback of this belated English version is its excruciating vocabulary (“bourgeoisified,” “technocization,” etc.) and tortuous sentences:

The secondary triads (some of which are tonicized by local modulation), or put simply, the fresh notes of the lower voice are saved up for the consequent which has to make do with the same material as the antecedent….

But why not “put simply” in the first place whatever one wishes to say, except that in this case the “simplifying” adds to the bewilderment?

The book contains many astute observations, nevertheless, especially in connecting Wagner the man to his music. “Wagner’s lack of character…leads deeply into the center of his work,” Adorno argues, giving as an example “the absence of tension in Wagner’s harmony as it descends from the leading note and sinks from the dominant into the tonic.” Further, Wagner’s sentimentality and his appeals for sympathy are “represented by Siegmund, the restless wanderer,” who uses his self-pity to acquire “a woman and a weapon.” And Adorno links the longueurs of the operas with the composer’s “uncontrollable loquacity” about which his first wife complained. The book is also worth reading on such matters as Wagner’s substitution of repetition for development, his inability to make the idea speak through the action—therefore relying on the narrative, and bringing the dramas to standstills—and his conception of the music “entirely from the conductor’s point of view,” which explains why almost all of Lohengrin is “written in regular time.”

L.J. Rather’s Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s “Ring” and the Modern World, a book that should cause a shift in our attitudes toward Wagner, is the most impressive interpretative study of his ideas that this reviewer has ever encountered. That the author is a professor of medicine at Stanford, and has also written The Genesis of Cancer, must be mentioned if only because his discussion of Schopenhauer’s neurophysiological approach to perception in the light of modern experiment is alone worth the price of the volume. In an article that can touch on only a few salient features of several books, it is impossible even to summarize Dr. Rather’s main theses: the relationship between Jewish ethnocentricity and nineteenth-century theories of Nordic supremacy; Wagner’s use of the Oedipus trilogy as a model for the Ring; and Wagner’s discovery of the self-destructive tendency in the unconscious, as well as of the necessity—Freud’s future task—of making the unconscious conscious. Dr. Rather’s range of reference in connection with these subjects is breathtaking; the Torah to Walter Benjamin, the Kabbalists to Otto Rank and Erich Fromm, Solomon ben Isaac to Wittgenstein.

Sorting out received notions, Dr. Rather maintains that the “myth of Jewish racial purity and supremacy,” as set forth by Heine and Disraeli, provided the model for such advocates of the Aryan kind as Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, both of them admirers of the Jewish “race.” (Those of us who have not read Chamberlain’s writings but only about them are surprised to learn from Rather that Dr. Alfred Rosenberg could find almost nothing in them to support Nazi antisemitic propaganda.) As for Gobineau, he simply attributed everything of value to the Aryans, as Disraeli, a decade before him, had done with the Jews. The argument of Gobineau and Chamberlain is that by forbidding proselytism, the Talmud guaranteed “physical descent.”

So, too, Marx’s antisemitism—and he believed that Christendom in his time had become Judaized—is based on his “erroneous identification of the Jewish idea with the spirit of modern capitalism.” As Dr. Rather explains him, Marx meant that “money power…rules Europe, not…’ethnic’ Jews…the power of Rothschild and other Jewish bankers notwithstanding.” Wagner could have said the same, Dr. Rather thinks, and he cites Yehuda Cohen’s argument against the ban on Wagner’s works in Israel, namely that the composer’s “final solution,” assimilation, “completely contradicts” the racist doctrine of the Nazis. (The present reviewer has reservations on the issue of Wagner and Nazism, for example in connection with the Ku Klux Klan element in Parsifal. As Adorno writes, “The glorified blood-brotherhood of Parsifal is the prototype of the sworn confraternities of the secret societies and Führer-adorers….” But this is the subject for another piece.)

“Why do human beings anticipate an end of the world,” Kant asked, “and just why a terrible end?” Wagner, who denounced the misuse of science and denounced European rearmament, pondered the same question: was some blind destructive force in human beings determined to bring on a final Götter-dämmerung for the whole human race? And, by way of Schopenhauer, Wagner’s conclusion anticipates Freud’s (in Civilization and its Discontents), that the “life force is really a force of death.” When Wagner, the Feuerbachian optimist, conceived the Ring, Erda, in Das Rheingold, warns Wotan of the destruction of the gods unless the Ring (the gold) is returned to nature, at the bottom of the Rhine. But this implies that if the Ring were returned, the gods could save themselves. Later, under the influence of Schopenhauer, Wagner’s earth-mother prophesies inevitable doom for the gods and all creation, period.

The most interesting of Dr. Rather’s inquiries, however, is the one that has been lying directly under our noses: the relationship between the Ring and Wagner’s analysis of the Oedipus legend in Sophocles’ trilogy. In 1851, five years before the birth of Freud, Wagner wrote that the Oedipus myth is “always true” and “inexhaustible for all times.” Oedipus, not knowing his father, Laius, kills him without discovering his identity, and Siegfried kills Wotan the same way. Other parallels are found in the incestuous unions of Oedipus and Jocasta and Siegmund and Sieglinde; and between Antigone and Siegfried and Antigone and Brünnhilde as the children of unlawful marriages. Wagner’s analysis of the Greek myth centers on the generation of Antigone and her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, who kill each other, after which Creon becomes king and decrees that the body of Polynices cannot be buried. Antigone defies Creon and is buried alive; then Creon’s son, who loves her, commits suicide.

For Wagner, this act of Creon’s son is that of the symbolic self-destruction of the state, a destruction caused by a free human being, in the name of true morality, opposing the corrupt morality of government. The state has become the monster that must be destroyed and replaced by a just society. Antigone-Brünnhilde is Wagner’s goddess of revolution, the one who destroys and redeems. Wagner adds that even if the Thebans had known of Laius’s disregard of Pythia’s prediction (that he would be killed by his son), they would have accepted the situation for the sake of peace and order. Thus true morality has been impeded by “corrupted custom” and natural human morality usurped by the conventional morality of the state.

Robert Hartford’s anthology of descriptions of the Bayreuth Festival, 1876-1914, is an entertaining book that should appeal to anyone who has ever been there or plans to go. The texts—letters, critical notices—also provide good reasons to stay away, Hartford writes, for “those who have no wish to set foot within a hundred miles of the place.” The accounts of the first festival are the most enjoyable. Among them, Edvard Grieg’s should be singled out for its charm and still-valid criticism:

Wagner’s special ability to describe scenes such as occur in Rheingold causes the spectator to be carried away by the effects and to forget the lack of drama in them.

But the sense of presence and excitement is best conveyed in Tchaikovsky’s report of the arrival of the emperor at the Bayreuth railroad station, August 12, 1876, the day before the festival began:

First some brilliant uniforms passed by, then the musicians of the Wagner Theater…. Next followed the interesting figure of the “Abbé” Liszt, with the fine characteristic head I have so often admired in pictures; and lastly, in a sumptuous carriage, the serene old man, Richard Wagner, with his aquiline nose and the delicately ironic smile…. A noisy “Hurrah” resounded from thousands of throats as the train entered the station. The old emperor stepped into the carriage awaiting him and drove to the Palace. Wagner, who followed in his wake, was greeted by the crowds with as much enthusiasm as the Emperor. What pride, what overflowing emotions must have filled at this moment the heart of that little old man who, by his energetic will and great talent, has defied all obstacles to the final realization of his artistic ideals….

This Issue

April 16, 1981