Cosima Wagner is often interpreted today as the ‘black sheep’ in the Bayreuth history. Whenever someone wants to criticize Richard Wagner and his works, blame is given also to Cosima as the major source of troubles. But I would say that without Cosima there would be no Festspiele in Bayreuth anymore. She did persevere after Wagner’s death with all her strength (after a phase of deep mourning) to bring his artistically visions into life. She was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the Countess d’Agoult, both strong personalities who dedicated their lives for art in a higher (spiritual) sense. Cosima Wagner did therefore understand Richard Wagner’s artistically intentions fully and felt compelled to assist him. Without her and Franz Liszt Wagner’s life would have been even more difficult. Contrary to many reports she was close to her father till his death and Liszt did not die alone in Bayreuth, no, he did die in her arms. All can be read in an article I did write for the Festspielnachrichten/MS 2008: “Selbstbestimmte Lebenswege”.
This summer the Bayreuth Festival will open with ‘Tannhäuser’. 120 years ago, on July 22 1891, Cosima Wagner did bring the opera for the first time on the stage of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Stage director: Cosima Wagner, Conductor: Felix Mottl, 1894 the production was conducted by Richard Strauss. Here a statement of Cosima Wagner:
“(Tannhäuser) was our task par excellence, since what we were dealing with here was a battle between opera and drama, and since the melodic richness of the work had until now overwhelmed its poetical content to such an extent that our chief priority was a dramatic reworking of the piece in which the music, for all its wealth of melody, would no longer affect the listener simply as music but rather as the expression of particular characters and situations.”
Cosima Wagner, in an unpublished introduction to a review of the Festival of 1891
Siegfried Wagner (assistent to Cosima Wagner in 1891) writes in his memories 1923:
“Unfortunately, it was not only her sworn enemies who threw obstacle upon obstacle, which was already a difficult situation, no, it was also her so-called friends. A certain type of hyper-Wagnerian began to appear and they proved to be even more objectionable than our actual enemies: this were people who spent the whole day with quoting excerpts from my father’s writings.(…) These ‘supporters’ considered my mother as not sufficiently Teutonic. They knew that on her mother’s side she had French blood in her veins, and that she had been brought up in Paris. These were highly disturbing factors, encouraging her enemies to doubt in the Germanness of her outlook!
The most absurd witch-hunt was launched against her on all levels when my mother announced the production of Tannhäuser.(…) An initial source of indignation was the fact that a production of this opera was in planning now for Bayreuth, it was said that this work was immature, still partly an ‘old style’ opera and this with the additional scene written for Paris, the very word caused people to shudder with horror! Not only her enemies but her apparent friends as well joined forces in order to discredit my mother as much as possible in the public. And when the day of the performance finally came, much turmoil began. But, as often the case when malice seems to triumph, the opposite was the result. The Tannhäuser production witnessed in the year 1891 a decisive battle. My mother had won.”
So far Siegfried Wagner. Text source is the program of the Bayreuth Festival 1985. The translations into English from the program were slightly modified by me; the original translation seemed not always convincing.
If we make the effort and read the personal letters of Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt and the many other witnesses, then a very different picture of the personality Cosima Wagner will be revealed. Many statements that are actually not true, but are repeated again and again during the years without verifying, now stand nearly as truth.
A little side note to Cosima’s family tree. Still it is not known to many that Cosima’s grandmother was German, a daughter of the Bethmann banking family in Frankfurt/Main. Marie d’Agoult spent many summer weeks with the family of her mother in Germany and did meet J.W. von Goethe many times during her childhood. All this can be read in her memories.