Wagner (December 25, 1837 -April 1, 1930) was an illegitimate daughter
of the composer, Franz Liszt, but became famous as the second wife of
another composer, Richard Wagner.
She was born at Bellagio, Italy, to Countess Marie d'Agoult, an author
under the pen name Daniel Stern, a long-standing mistress of Liszt.
In 1857, she married Hans von Bülow, an orchestral conductor, who
mistreated her. It was he who introduced her to Wagner, who was many
years her senior and himself already married. They became intimate in
1862, and in 1866, they set up home together at Lucerne, Switzerland.
Cosima already had two children from her first marriage, and her first
child by Wagner, Isolde, was born before she re-married. From 1869 to
Wagner's death in 1883, she kept a diary of their life together, which
was later published.
Marriage of Devotion and Coldness
I speak now of some aspects of the marriage of Cosima Wagner, which
every wife can learn a great deal from. She was the daughter of the
great pianist and one of the most passionate and intense composers,
Franz Liszt, but felt he was cold to her as he toured Europe. She later
wrote, "I had neither mother nor father. R.[Wagner] was everything
to me. He is the only one who has given me love."
When she was 18, Cosima married one of Liszt's students and a friend
of Wagner's, the accomplished conductor and pianist Hans Von Bulow,
with whom she had two children. While visiting Wagner's home with her
new husband, Cosima fell in love with his music. And as the years passed,
and there was increasingly coldness between herself and Hans, she yearned
to be with Wagner, who was 24 years older than she. Ultimately they
were together, and she wrote in her Diary January 1, 1869: "My
love became for me a rebirth, a deliverance, a fading away of all that
was trivial and bad in me, and I swore to seal it through death, through...
complete devotion." [Skelton, ed.] Cosima did want to care for
something big, not be confined by something cold and small in herself.
About his libretto of Die Meistersinger she wrote:
...it is a masterpiece. He has affected a union between lively comedy
and the sublime. Greatness hangs like a sun over the plot, in which
humour is combined with the profoundest emotion, without losing any
of its power. [Du Moulin-Eckart, p. 141]
"Lively comedy and the sublime," "humor and profundity"
correspond to opposites, which I have learned from Aesthetic Realism
are always one when something is truly beautiful--depth and lightness,
meaningfulness and sportiveness.
"All beauty," Eli Siegel stated, "is a making one of
opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after
Listen to this section of Die Meistersinger. Ask if you don't hear both
profundity and lightness, even humour. The violins are very busy--energetically
playing runs, staccato eighth figures, and later trills and turns, which
seem determinedly, good naturedly, to poke fun at the more somber, grand,
and ongoing theme in the lower instruments.
[Play Die Meistersinger -- brief section -- 30 sec.]
As soon as they were together Cosima began to devote herself to having
her husband's life quiet and undisturbed, so that he could write his
music. With her encouragement Wagner completed the Ring series of operas
for which the world is a much richer place and he was grateful to her.
Meanwhile, there was another purpose Cosima Wagner had, to own and manage
what was beautiful in her husband, to have him exclusively to herself.
"All of us," Eli Siegel wrote in Self and World "have
an inclination to love by owning a person, in the depth of our minds."
When Wagner complained, "Life was hard, Life was bitter,"
she became what Mr. Siegel described in me a "spiritual nurse"--buffering
him from everyone, all his friends. In one biography George Marek writes:
Her possessiveness surrounded Wagner. She decided which friends to keep
and which to slough off. Peter Cornelius wrote regretfully to his bride
that Cosima had dug a moat between him and Wagner.... And she did not
like [the pianist] Tausig, and so she issued a "papal bull against
poor Tausig." [p. 74]
She made the terrible mistake many wives have made--thinking she was
being "warm" to her husband by protecting him from what she
thought were the "vulgarities," the criticisms, and demands
of other people. She said once to Nietzsche bitterly: "What I build
up with effort and love, the world tears down again."
Far from making love and marriage stronger, this shutting out of the
world, making it into an enemy is the very thing that causes two people
to distrust, be angry with, even despise each other. In The Right Of
Ellen Reiss writes: "If two people are 'warm' to each other for
the purpose of getting away from the world and of making themselves
superior to the world, they will feel profoundly betrayed by each other."
This is what happened--Cosima not only agreed with, but egged on and
instilled suspicions of other people. She writes in her Diary March
I tell him I believe that, if his friends knew how he was living and
what satisfied him, instead of being pleased they would be angry and
would despise me. He thinks that is not so, and that...we would find
them sympathetic. I find that hard to believe....How quiet it is here!
When have two beings ever before lived for and in each other, so cut
off from the world?
I have learned that this feeling that one is hurt, the desire to justify
it is the most dangerous thing in the self--and from what I have read,
I believe Cosima Wagner carried this attitude much further than her
husband, causing her to nourish a false, viciously prejudiced attitude
to Jewish people, and encourage it in him. In the Germany of Wagner's
time, the last part of the 19th century that form of racism, anti-semitism,
was prevalent. In an Aesthetic Realism class [7-9-91] Ellen Reiss said
Everyone would like to see himself or herself as a hurt child....As
soon as you feel hurt, your ego gets free rein: you feel you've got
the right to trample any fact...and be unfair to anyone. The relation
of being hurt and fascism exists. Hitler capitalized on Germany being
I want to say here that Wagner's reckless scorn for people he saw as
different from him--though it is thought his father was Jewish--was
the worst thing about him, and it is criticized by every note, every
measure of the music he himself wrote, which respects how different
sounds, different melodies meet and need each other, and came from a
completely different source in him. Earlier in his life Wagner had been
against the aristocracy and for the people in the Revolution of 1848.
Yet, now his wife, called him her "beloved" as he read to
her passages from his essay titled "Judaism in Music," which
was demeaning and, I think, arose from Wagner's competition with the
Jewish artists of the time--Mendelssohn and the great poet Heinrich
Heine. This horrible "warmth" based on an attitude of contempt
for people--caused this husband and wife to despise each other. As the
years went on a friend wrote: Wagner "lashed out more and more
often at Cosima with 'uncontrollable fits of rage.'" She cried
a great deal. And, it is reported, that three months before Wagner died,
he jumped out of bed and shouted furiously at her "You think you
are virtue incarnate."
Meanwhile, even after Wagner's death, Cosima took the offensive, adding
her influence and voice to the hate and contempt growing in Germany
and embodied in Adolph Hitler. While her life was different from wives
today, it is absolutely crucial to see the hideous results of being
warm to brutal injustice and cold to what is true and kind. Whenever
two people use closeness to despise, mock, denigrate other people or
things--however "ordinary" it may seem--there will be hell
born Dec. 25, 1837,
Bellagio, Lombardy, Austrian Empire [now in Italy]
died April 1, 1930, Bayreuth, Ger.
née Liszt, also called (1857–68) Cosima von Bülow
wife of the composer Richard Wagner and director of the Bayreuth Festivals
from his death in 1883 to 1908.
Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of the composer-pianist Franz Liszt
and the countess Marie d'Agoult, who also bore Liszt two other children.
Liszt later legitimatized their births; he also provided generously
for their education and, in the case of his daughters, their dowries.
With her sister, Blandine, Cosima was educated in Paris by the governess
of her father's mistress, Princess Wittgenstein, and then at the house
of the mother of Hans von Bülow in Berlin. In 1857 she married
Hans von Bülow, one of the outstanding conductors of his time and
a favourite pupil of Liszt; but, though she encouraged him in his work
and remained devoted to him throughout her life, their marriage proved
unsatisfactory. She bore him two daughters; the two daughters subsequently
born to Cosima—Isolde (1865) and Eva (1867)—were Richard
Wagner's children. In 1868, Cosima with her four daughters left von
Bülow and went to live with Wagner in Triebschen; they were finally
married in 1870. In that year, too, Wagner composed the Siegfried Idylle
to commemorate the birth of their son, Siegfried (1869–1930).
With the passing of Wagner (1883), she took upon herself the management
of the Bayreuth Festivals, of which she was art director until 1908,
when her son took over. To this self-imposed task she applied her characteristic
energies and her continued devotion to Wagner's works. She was the moving
force behind the festival plays in both commercial and social matters,
influencing the selection of repertory, artists, and style of presentation.
She died in Bayreuth in total blindness.