‘When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music!’ This is Cosima Liszt Wagner - who died 80 years ago today - writing in her diary about the first birthday she celebrated as Richard Wagner’s wife. Her diaries, written very much to be a record about Wagner rather than herself, are justly famous because they provide so much interesting and intimate detail about his domestic and composing life.
The detailed diary kept by Cosima about her life with Wagner was suppressed for nearly a century, largely by Eva, their youngest daughter, but was finally published in English in two volumes by Collins, London, in 1978 and 1980 (and by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in New York). Volume one of Cosima Wagner Diaries covers the period 1869 to 1877, and volume two 1878-1883. Both are edited and annotated by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack and translated by Geoffrey Skelton. More recently, in 1997, Yale University Press published Cosima Wagner’s Diaries: An Abridgement - a few pages can be read at Amazon.com. Otherwise, several websites have some extracts from the diaries: Francis Barnhart’s website, The Nietzsche Channel, Porges.net and The Guardian.
Skelton, in his introduction, explains how Cosima began keeping a diary to continue a biographical account of Wagner’s life that until then he himself had been writing in the form of autobiographical notes - and this was at the request of King Ludwig II. Once together with Cosima, he claimed she was better able to continue the biography. Occasionally, though, Wagner himself would write in the diary, or comment on Cosima’s entries.
‘Whatever the original intention,’ Skelton says, ‘it is clear from the very first page of her Diaries that Cosima considered them as much more than mere aids to memory for a future biography. Their avowed purpose was to provide a sort of apologia for her children, so that in later years they would be better able to understand her conduct in leaving Hans von Bülow for Richard Wagner, and would at the same time gain a proper appreciation of the man of genius to whom she had dedicated her life. If she frequently loses sight of this maternal intention and to confide in her diary intimate reflections of a purely private kind, she never forgot that the focus of her attention was always Richard. On the only occasion when she left home alone with the children for a few days, she made no entries, since she had nothing to record about him. And the last entry (February 12, 1883) was made on the day before he died.’
Here are a few extracts. The first and last were written on her birthday - the former on her first birthday with Wagner after their marriage the previous August.
25 December 1870
‘About this day, my children, I can tell you nothing - nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing, nothing. I shall just tell you, dryly and plainly, what happened. When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his Symphonic Birthday Greeting. I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; R had set up his orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! The Tribschen Idyll - thus the work is called. - At midday Dr Sulzer arrived, surely the most important of R’s friends! After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly (Countess B was also there, on my invitation); after it the Lohengrin wedding procession, Beethoven’s Septet, and, to end with, once more the work of which I shall never hear enough! - Now at last I understood all R’s working in secret, also dear Richter’s trumpet (he blazed out the Siegfried theme splendidly and had learned the trumpet especially to do it), which had won him many admonishments from me. ‘Now let me die,’ I exclaimed to R ‘It would be easier to die for me than to live for me,’ he replied. - In the evening R reads his Meistersinger to Dr Sulzer, who did not know it; and I take as much delight in it as if it were something completely new. This makes R say, ‘I wanted to read Sulzer Die Ms, and it turned into a dialogue between us two.’
27 June 1871
‘Still rain; but R is working - that is my sunshine! When, visiting him while he is at work, I tell him that, he says; ‘And do you know what makes me feel so irresponsible toward everything? The fact that I have you; none of our evil experiences touches the nerve of things; so I, too, can be single-minded. If I had had you with me in Paris, I should not have let myself in for all those things. The only trouble is, we came together late, I want to enjoy it for a long time yet.’ - Uncharitable feelings over my father’s behaviour. - R has composed Hagen’s aria [Hagen - a character in Götterdämmerung]. He says, ‘While doing it I was thinking of you asleep; I was uncertain whether to let himself express himself in silence or not; then I remembered how you talk in your dreams, and I saw I could let Hagen voice his emotions, which is much better.’ . .’
27 June 1872
‘R reads in the newspaper that there have been uprisings among the workers in Vienna, and again it is the misguided poor people who have been punished and persecuted. ‘The demagogues, the ringleaders, should be trodden underfoot like vermin,’ says R, very indignant that the misguided people are once again the victims. - Visit from the conductor Herbeck. Proposals for Vienna, inquiry whether R would perhaps do Die Walküre there, before Bayreuth - all of it nonsense. - Family lunch, the faces of musicians are discussed, and R says the handsomest was Méhul’s. On my remarking that these French musicians (Grétry, Méhul, etc.) were very gifted: ‘Oh the French are significant, no question of that, what they lack is an ideal, something which, when it comes to the point, doesn’t concern itself at all with form - like Bach for instance, who simply ignored the laws of euphony, which meant everything to the Italians, in favor of independence for his voices.’ - R has done some work, despite the interruption of Herr H. Walk with the children after the rain, renewed pleasure in the park: ‘If one could conjure it up with a wish, one couldn’t make it any lovelier.’ In the evening took up our old Gibbon again and continued with him, remarking as we did so that the English are much better and more original interpreters of Latin ways, their classical form and their settled outlook, than the French.’
27 June 1874
‘Quite a lot of things all at once; furnishing of the hall, which is to be consecrated today; visit from the machinist Brandt, arrival of the singer Scaria (Hagen) and visit from Frau Löper, back from Karlsbad. Herr Scaria sings somem of Hagen’s music straightaway, but since he knows nothing of the text, R reads it to him. Curious the dealings with these implements! -’
27 June 1876
‘Again 2nd act of S, again Herr Unger hoarse! Its impact greatly hindered in consequence. R and I both tired in the evening. Trouble with Herr Kögel (Hagen!), Gura has been chosen for Donner. - Things are said to be looking bad in Turkey.’
25 December 1877
‘Real brilliant sunshine, the first time for two months! R says to me, ‘Your birthday is my Sunday!’ He decides on a walk with the children before lunch, we go into the palace gardens, Siegfried’s new suit, in old Germanic style, gives us much pleasure. A merry meal, R solemnly proposes my health. In the evening the history of the Arabs again, after which R reads the first 3 cantos of the Divina commedia, to our great delight; then I ask him for something from Parsifal, and he plays Gurnemanz’s narration, the entry of Parsifal - divine blessings for my birthday!’