Behind Every Great Man . . .
Cosima Wagner, Part 1
Part 1 of 3
Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt was born on Christmas Eve, 1837. Her father was Franz Liszt, the first romantic superstar of music. In addition to being genetic sire to Cosima and her siblings, Liszt was the spiritual father of every celebrated piano virtuoso to follow, and also in a sense, the rock stars of the late 20th century. A critical difference however, was that in contrast to the ’70s silliness that chokes every scene in Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, the real Liszt genuinely was the most talented pianist of his era, a great composer in his own right, and the founder of the Hungarian national school in classical music.
Cosima’s mother was the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, who had become Liszt’s lover in 1833. Marie had married the Comte d’Agoult in 1827 and already had two daughters, but in a pattern I shall treat further, Cosima’s mother left the Comte in 1835 to live and travel with Liszt for five years. Cosima was the second of her three children with Franz Liszt, but they never married, though Marie became divorced, also in 1835. Cosima and her brother and sister were illegitimate.
Marie d’Agoult was an accomplished woman in her own right; she had met Liszt while taking piano lessons with him, and in their life together, she knew many of the great artists of the day. She went on to write several successful novels, memoirs and a history of the French revolution of 1848. Growing up though, Cosima and her siblings were appropriately shielded from their parents’ flamboyant lifestyle, and were mostly raised in the quiet household of Liszt’s mother Anna. There was however, considerable friction between her parents over the children, as they parted company in 1839, and Liszt wished to minimize their contact with their mother.
Cosima Liszt was fifteen when she first met Richard Wagner during her father’s first visit to his daughter in eight years. Wagner was 40 and was a guest of her father’s, along with Hector Berlioz. She was in school in Paris at that point.
Four years later, she married Hans von Bülow, who was then 27 and himself a disciple of Liszt and particularly of Wagner. Von Bülow seems to have been an amazingly phlegmatic, almost sardonic man; Cosima’s relationship to his artistic hero Wagner grew rather steadily from platonic beginnings during von Bülow’s very honeymoon with her, to a ‘declaration of love’ in 1863 when Cosima was twenty-five and Wagner was fifty. However, there is little evidence that von Bülow ever let the affair, the subsequent divorce and Cosima’s eventual marriage to Wagner, poison his artistic relationship with the older man. Indeed, this very practicality may have been the problem in regard to the intensely passionate Cosima; the marriage was said to be loveless, though they did have two daughters together.
Franz Liszt was considered the most handsome man of his era by many women. He gave rise to the spectacle of mass female concert hysteria that endures to this day. Cosima was definitely not celebrated for her looks the way her father was for his, but she was a highly accomplished, musical, polished young woman, and fifty-year-old men do not attract polished young married women away from their successful young husbands without a tremendous amount of charisma. In Wagner’s case there was much more: charisma emanating from greatness.
What Cosima saw in Wagner was a greatness similar in kind to what Frieda Weekley, born Frieda von Richthofen, saw in David Herbert Lawrence 50 years later, causing her to leave her husband and children to spend the rest of Lawrence’s life with him. With the Wagners, however, there was not only the issue of existing marriages and children to overcome, there was the age difference. Both Frieda Lawrence and Cosima Wagner believed strongly and abidingly in their husbands from the moment they first loved them, and spent the rest of their lives successfully furthering their artistic talents and then building their legacies after their death. However, at six years Lawrence’s senior, and without any subsequent children with him, it is easy to see Frieda’s role as a synthesis of lover, wife, and mother to Lawrence, similar to the way Hemingway looked for a mothering factor in three of his four wives, especially his first wife Hadley, who was eight years his senior.
In contrast, when a woman takes a lover twice her age, it is clear that in part she is skipping, not one but two whole generations, in comparison to this picture we get from the wives of men like Lawrence and Hemingway. Far from looking for a mothering role to her man, she is looking to have a daughter role to him; she is looking for a father figure. And given the absenteeism of Liszt during much of Cosima’s childhood, it is not hard to construct a psychological background for her in this desire.
Of course, the great danger is that she will not grow beyond this role of daughterly lover, will remain a spoiled daughter and never a supportive wife to him, will not successfully mother his children, will not mother him, where that is desirable. That Cosima Wagner fulfilled all four of these exclusively, vitally, magnificently female roles in Wagner’s life — lover, childbearer, nurturer and wife — and all with tremendous success, is itself sufficient testimony to her greatness as a woman.
Indeed, Wagner’s first marriage, to actress Minna Planer, was opposite in every way to his marriage to Cosima. He married her at 23, when she was 27, much the way Hemingway would marry at almost the same age, 90 years later. But far from helping to mother him, further his career, and bear him children, the actress remained in the self-centered, childlike, celebrity world that envelopes Hollywood today, a world where the serious duties of adult life are never undertaken. And it must be said that her composer husband was no better behaved, nor more responsible, those many years.
All of these artistic people — Liszt, Wagner, Marie d’Agoult, Minna Planer — stormed and loved and had affairs. The distinction is that sometimes this is dedicated to a destructive principle, without genetic or cultural legacy. This was the path Wagner was on with Minna Planer, and it is the one that dominates celebrity today. But sometimes it is dedicated to a creative principle, which leads to little Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried, and on to the construction of Bayreuth. This was the path Wagner walked with Cosima.
Generally speaking, there are only two kinds of men who can sweep a highly prized, much younger woman off her feet. One is intensely, physically masculine: a warrior and leader of men. Obviously, that was not Richard Wagner. The other is the artist, and particularly the poet in the ancient, classical sense, the songwriter. But it is one thing to sweep the young woman off her feet; to spend the rest of your lives continually building something ever artistically greater, as the Wagners did, is a tremendous achievement.
When Cosima and Wagner declared their love to each other in 1863, the span of his life was already almost three-quarters done, as it would turn out. And he was childless, married to a barren, self-centered woman. His whole adult life had been a bitter struggle over politics, fame, money, and love. Only three of his mature operas had been completed and performed, and, incredibly, it had been over 13 years since his last operatic premiere. None of his seven famous music dramas, his great contribution to art, had ever been performed, and only three had been finished, despite the fact that all seven had been started. In short, his life, and most importantly his artistic vision and organization, lay in shambles.
Yet when Wagner died, only 19 years, after joining his life to that of this remarkable young woman’s and only 13 years after their actual marriage, he was the father of three children, he had founded a family artistic dynasty, he was acknowledged as the founder and greatest exponent of an entire new form of musical drama, one of the great musicians and artistic innovators of all time, and, once and again some future day, one of the greatest artistic theorists of all time. It is quite impossible that Cosima had anything but a completely transformative role in all this.
Cosima’s role is generally acknowledged to the extent that she was “a good businesswoman.” No doubt she was, but this incredible turnaround could not have happened on that basis alone. Cosima was exactly what Wagner needed in every way. Such events are no doubt far rarer than our naïve age believes, but Cosima is an eternal tribute to the quintessentially modern idea that you really can change your life at any stage, provided you make the right decisions. And we are often told the most important decision of all is to marry the right person.