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  • Cosima Wagner

    by Eva Rieger
    Cosima Wagner, Brustbild von unbekanntem Fotograf, o. D.
    Cosima Wagner
    Birth name: Cosima Francesca Gaetana de Flavigny
    Married name: Cosima Francesca von Bülow
    b in Bellassio, Königreich Lombardei [heute: Bellagio, Italien]
    d in Bayreuth, Germany
    Chronicler of Richard Wagner, director of the Bayreuth Festival and opera director


    Cities and countries

    Cosima Wagner, née de Flavigny was the illegitimate daughter of Countess Marie d’Agoult (née de Flavigny) and the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. She grew up in Paris, living with Liszt’s mother. After a period of residence in Weimar, Liszt sent her to Franziska von Bülow, the mother of his student the pianist, composer and conductor Hans von Bülow. Hans and Cosima married and lived in Berlin until the composer Richard Wagner invited them to join him in Munich and assist him in performances of his works. It was in Munich that Cosima von Bülow left her husband, joining Richard Wagner in Tribschen near Lucerne in Switzerland in 1868. They subsequently married and in 1872 they moved with their children to Bayreuth where Richard Wagner was planning his festival theatre. This opened in 1876 and since then has been devoted exclusively to Richard Wagner’s works. Cosima Wagner remained resident in Bayreuth until her death.


    The background and biography of the “Mistress of Bayreuth”, the “Keeper of the Grail” or “Meisterin”, as Cosima Wagner was variously called, were sensational. Her birth was the result of a love affair between the Countess Marie d’Agoult and the famous pianist and composer Franz Liszt. She herself rushed into an ill-considered marriage with the conductor Hans von Bülow in 1857 (“how it came about that we married is something I still don’t know … the wedding happened without any mood, motion or consideration on my part”). She wrote articles for a French newspaper, played the piano (although an excellent pianist, she never performed in public), attended concerts, operas and plays, and was not merely highly gifted artistically, but also very interested in cultural matters. Then the composer Richard Wagner fell in love with Cosima – 24 years his junior – and she reciprocated. The ensuing years were agonizing, as she was still officially von Bülow’s wife and was the mother of his two children (Daniela and Blandine). Whereas Peter Wapnewski claims that “This nun shunned sensuality as the devil would avoid holy water”, Robert Gutman invented the myth of her “highly strung sexuality”. She presumably never rid herself of her feelings of guilt for her betrayal of Hans von Bülow. During this time she gave birth to a daughter, Isolde, and although Wagner was the father she was named von Bülow for reasons of decorum. Cosima had to mediate for Wagner in Munich in his dealings with King Ludwig II (who was financing him), and she essentially ran two households. Wagner was renting a house in Tribschen near Lucerne, where she joined him permanently in 1868 and where their daughter Eva and son Siegfried were born. The latter was only baptized after Cosima had officially divorced in 1870, so that he might bear the name “Wagner”. In that same year, Cosima and Richard married. In 1872 the family moved from Tribschen to Bayreuth, where Wagner founded his festival theatre, built with the help of donations. It was inaugurated in 1876 with the world première of the Ring of the Nibelung. After Richard Wagner’s death in 1883, Cosima took charge of the Festival herself, only handing it over to her son Siegfried in 1906 on account of ill health. Cosima’s great cultural, historical achievement lay in her management of the Festival. As early as 1884 she drew up a five-year festival plan, and began to direct operas there herself in 1886. She displayed unprecedented energies in this task, achieved performances of high quality, and thereby ensured the survival of the Festival as an institution. She became a kind of “model widow” who adopted the ideology of her husband entirely, including his anti-Semitic shortcomings.

    She assumed full control in 1886 with her production of Tristan, even designing the sets, determining the lighting and all other details – though she consistently adhered to the ideas behind the two productions in Munich in 1865 and Berlin in 1876 that Wagner had himself planned. Above and beyond this, she made an intensive study of the scores and applied her own observations of the stage design and the manner of singing and acting. To interpret this as obstinacy, as is stated in her biographies, merely demonstrates that her gender stood in the way of her success from the very start. After the performances of Parsifal in 1888, it was clear that the Festival was both a stable institution and a major force in Germany whose future was no longer in doubt. In 1886, a modern cyclorama system was considered but not introduced. However, in 1898 Cosima decided to collaborate with the set designer Max Brückner to create new sets to replace the “magic garden” in the second act of Parsifal that had so delighted Wagner himself. In 1891, Cosima took on the task of producing Tannhäuser, and tracked down everything that had even the slightest connection with the work. Lohengrin was performed in 1894 and was well-received in the press. These were followed in 1901 by The flying Dutchman, though Cosima by no means took the Munich production of 1864 as her model – for the preparations for that production had not been complete by the time of its performance. Instead, she applied her own interpretative ideas to the production. In 1906, Cosima produced a new version of her Tristan staging. According to Fabian Kern, the sources reveal that she indeed dared to venture into the realm of the Modern. She did not restrict herself merely to copying old productions, but was open to new things.

    Over the space of 23 years, Cosima’s hard work resulted in a total of 220 performances that enabled her to turn Bayreuth into an event of worldwide stature. As Stephan Mösch has convincingly argued, Cosima’s direction teased out the timeless, symbolic aspects of the works, and in the process occasionally went beyond Wagner’s own production instructions. We can hear this in Hans Knappertsbusch’s early recording of The flying Dutchman; he had been an assistant in Bayreuth from 1909 to 1912, and was therefore well acquainted with Cosima Wagner’s ideas. At the end of the duet in the second act, Wagner makes a kind of “cut” in which he has Daland appear, disturbing the couple. Knappertsbusch ignores this, however, instead using the first measures of the allegro vivace as a continuation of the duet. He would surely not have dared to do this without Cosima Wagner’s example. And with her cuts to Rienzi, which she directed in Berlin, Cosima succeeded in turning “the historical, colossal tableau into a timeless symbol”. It was her overall endeavour to maintain Wagner’s staging ideas as much as possible on the one hand, while emphasizing the symbolic, cultic, universal aspects of the action on the other. In 1906, ill health prompted her to pass on the directorship of the Festival to her son Siegfried. Her tireless advocacy of Richard Wagner’s oeuvre led Berlin University to award her an honorary doctorate in 1910. Isolde, her first child by Wagner, began legal proceedings in 1913 in order to ensure the position of her own son Franz Wilhelm Beidler as a possible heir to Bayreuth. But Cosima denied that Wagner was her father, and refused to receive Isolde. Cosima made Siegfried the sole heir to the Wagner dynasty, and was able to do so because Wagner himself had left no will. She also went about collecting all possible documents, letters and other materials on Richard Wagner, though she purged these by committing unwelcome documents to the flames (including her own correspondence with Richard, his correspondence with Mathilde Wesendonck and with his first wife Minna). Her collection formed the basis of the archives in the Villa Wahnfried, most of which were later transferred to the Richard Wagner National Archive through the creation of a foundation. Cosima and her son Siegfried died within several weeks of each other in 1930.


    Cosima’s great cultural achievement lay in drawing up a five-year plan for the Festival as early as 1884 – i.e. just one year after Richard Wagner’s death – and her own staging of operas there from 1886 onwards. She displayed unprecedented energies in her task, achieved performances of high quality and thereby ensured the survival of the Festival as an institution.


    The image of Cosima Wagner is still characterized to an equal degree by hagiography on the one hand and hateful tirades on the other. Thus we find her both placed on a pedestal, idealized and venerated, as in du Moulin-Eckart, in Mollenkovitch-Morold and in the right-wing, conservative adherents of the Bayreuther Blätter and their cohorts; but we also find her stylized as a hard, power-conscious woman possessed of a “masochistic personality disorder”. In other words, she has been pathologized, as for example in Oliver Hilmes’s biography of her (Hilmes 2007, p. 160). Hilmes barely pays attention to Cosima Wagner’s real achievement – the continuation of the Bayreuth Festival. According to him, she afforded her widowhood a “theatrical” intensification (Hilmes 2007, S. 280). Her almost slavish readiness to give herself to Wagner and to follow him is a reflection of her having internalized the role of woman as was accepted at the time. But her desire to maintain Wagner’s heritage was also a source of inspiration to her, for as a talented musician herself she had recognized the extraordinary potential of this artist, who holds a unique position in music history.



    The most important research site is currently the Richard Wagner National Archive in Bayreuth, which holds letters, writings, pictures, autographs and other material from the possession of the Wagner family, along with appropriate documentation. The Bavarian State Library in Munich however, also holds important material, including the Gravina archives and archives from figures in Wagner’s circle. In 1935, Cosima Wagner’s daughter Eva Chamberlain gave her mother’s comprehensive diaries to the city of Bayreuth as a “gift to the Richard Wagner memorial institution”, though with rigorous restrictions pertaining to access. The period of embargo ran out in 1972, and the diaries were published in 1976. They are among the most important sources for Wagner research.

    Need for research

    It would be desirable for future biographical work on Cosima to pay closer attention to her achievements as an opera director. From a gender perspective, there is a lack of a new biography that would link and contextualize Cosima Wagner’s restorative philosophy with her concurrent readiness to abandon societal conventions.

    Only a small portion of her correspondence has been published. Hundreds of unpublished letters are held primarily by the Richard Wagner National Archive in Bayreuth, but are also scattered across numerous other libraries and archives. Whereas, for example, research into Robert and Clara Schumann has made progress with the regular publication of volumes of their letters, research has stagnated in Bayreuth, despite the sources held there. An edition of Cosima’s letters to her friend, the Countess Marie von Schleinitz, for example, would undoubtedly be of interest to research.

    Cosima Wagner’s anti-Semitism finds extreme expression in her private letters, though it remains a matter of debate whether it was intensified by Richard Wagner or whether it was present from her own childhood and youth onwards. It will take a long time for the unhappy polarization of Cosima – veneration on the one hand, contempt on the other – to lead to a less one-sided depiction. The original feminist impulse according to which women are always victims is, however, obsolete, and must make way for further research.


    Virtual International Authority File (VIAF): 39385271
    Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (GND): 118628232
    Library of Congress (LCCN): n50021342


    Eva Rieger, 31 July 2014

    Translation: Chris Walton


    Redaktion: Regina Back (deutsche Fassung) und Meredith Nicollai (English version)
    Zuerst eingegeben am 02.09.2014
    Zuletzt bearbeitet am 25.04.2018

    Empfohlene Zitierweise

    Eva Rieger, Artikel „Cosima Wagner“ (English version, translated by Chris Walton), in: MUGI. Musikvermittlung und Genderforschung: Lexikon und multimediale Präsentationen, hg. von Beatrix Borchard und Nina Noeske, Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, 2003ff. Stand vom 25.4.2018
    URL: http://mugi.hfmt-hamburg.de/artikel/Cosima_Wagner