Wagner was queer. I use queer to mean outside of “heteronormity,” in which what is considered to be normal, natural and proper is heterosexuality, with men being masculine and women being feminine.
I am putting this post in the “abnormal mind” series for two reasons. One is that, more than any other thing in his life until the last forty years (in which his anti-Semitism became the focus), the fact of his queerness was the focus for the vast majority of attacks on him and the basis for asserting he suffered pathological issues. His critics believed abnormal equalled pathology. For me, in contrast, “abnormal” merely means a minority-behavior pattern and has no necessary relationship whatsoever to pathology. Specifically, in Wagner’s case, none of what I write below about Wagner’s queerness is at all pathological in my book, and there is no evidence that his true psychological problems were related to it except, of course, for the added stress that came from people mocking him.
In this post, I draw greatly from the excellent book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, by Laurence Dreyfus. While I have long believed all that Dreyfus writes about, his research has been very helpful to me in pulling this together quickly. Anyone who wants more details should read his book.
The feminine Wagner
Wagner didn’t fit into masculine norms: in the privacy of his own home, he liked to wear, touch, smell and see things—very soft things—that he associated with the feminine, particularly when composing.
As Dreyfus wrote in his book,
“...the composer seems to have experienced a sensuous harmony, erotic arousal, and a creative surge when both wearing and touching women’s satin garments in the privacy of his personal grottos, always enhanced by the pronounced sent of roses.”1
At each of his homes, he developed a sanctuary of femininity for inspiration. I described that lair in the last post. His seamstress Bertha Goldwag adds details, recounting one such room in her reminisces in 1906:
A single room about the size of a closest was decorated with extravagant splendor in keeping with Wagner’s most detailed instructions. The walls were lined with silk, with relievo garlands all the way around. From the ceiling hung a wonderful lamp with a gentle beam. The whole of the floor was covered in heavy and exceptionally soft rugs in which your feet literally sank....No one was allowed to enter this room. Wagner always remained there alone.2
Wagner believed that “love was the eternal feminine itself,”3 and his music was always centered on love. Therefore, he wanted to be in touch with the feminine as he wrote, to be both man and woman at the same time. From all evidence—his autobiography, letters, prose and music—he was personally very comfortable with his feminine side, and considered it a crucial part of his sensitivity and of necessity for this work. That said, he was well aware of societal attitudes about it and that his compositional methods would lead to public scorn, so he did his best to hide his penchants. Normally, that meant others—people close to him who understood his needs—were dispatched to buy his silk and satin, his perfumes, his negligées and silk panties.
Among his couriers was Nietzsche, according to this account from a friend of his:
Nietzsche asked me in the most concerned manner where he might find a good silk shop in Basel. Eventually he admitted he had undertaken to shop for a pair of silk underpants for Wagner, and this important matter filled him with anxiety; for—added the smiling iconoclast—“once you’ve chosen a God, you’ve got to adorn him.4
During the composition of Parsifal, his principal courier—and his muse—was Judith Gautier.
He was sending her his orders for perfume, satin,
bath oils, silk undergarments, et al., via the post. It was a very
flirtatious correspondence, so various biographers have assumed that
they had a sexual affair. However, there is only scant evidence to
make that case, particularly in that the two were rarely in each other’s
presence. And when they were, they were generally under Cosima’s
watchful eye. Judith denied the affair categorically, for what that
is worth. In any case, like Mathilde Wesondonck before her, it really
doesn’t matter whether they did or they didn’t. Wagner clearly
was in love for the final time in his life. Dreyfus writes: “The
erotic side of Wagner’s obsession [with all things feminine]
emerges most clearly when one reads his letters to Judith Gautier, in
which each successive paragraph alternates between the evocation of
soft caresses and an uncompromising list of fabrics and scents
Gautier was to supply.”5
Cosima ultimately found out about the letters and put an end to his
correspondence, but Wagner quickly found another perfume mule—this time a man, to keep Cosima’s ire down.
|Portrait of Judith by John Singer Sargent, 1885|
His precautions to hide his proclivities failed when someone stole and published sixteen letters to his seamstress Bertha Goldwag’s—she swears that she didn’t sell them—in which Wagner meticulously detailed his feminine needs. Those letters opened the floodgates of mockery, and were the central exhibit in judging Wagner pathological for over a century, as I mentioned above and wrote about last post. All I can say is, what judgmental jerks! I mean, I personally don’t “get” why he had those needs, as I don’t share his passions, but I get that they were deeply a part of him. People’s desire to put down, harass and otherwise torment those who are different from them creates much of the ills of this world. I am rather the polar opposite from Wagner, but am in the same queer world: I am a transvestite myself, but a woman who will not wear feminine clothing at all has, in this day and age, become acceptable. Hopefully, the day comes when male transvestites are just as accepted.
The man who coined the term transvestites—and first addressed fetishism—was the pioneering German sex researcher and very early gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld. In his 1910 book Die Transvestiten, he includes a whole chapter on Wagner, entitled “Explanation of Richard Wagner’s Letters to a Milliner.” Unlike most everyone else until modern day, he wasn’t judgmental, but wrote:
Wagner’s particular inclination justifies assuming that there is a feminine characteristic in his psyche.... [But this inclination] in no way deserves mockery and scorn...[but instead] gives evidence of the unusually rich and subtle complexity of [Wagner’s] inner life, the continued study of which would be a difficult as well as rewarding task.6
There is no doubt that his music was extraordinarily sensual. As Thomas Mann wrote, “who could
fail to notice the rustle of satin in Wagner’s work?”7 Barry Millington, in his new book The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, after surveying the evidence of his feminine preoccupation puts it this way:
In the final analysis, then, Wagner’s fetish for silks and satins, his obsessive desire to be surrounded by soft material and sweet fragrances, is not an embarrassment to be swept under one of his deep-piled Smynra rugs. On the contrary, these tendencies provide a key to the music, which would not be what it is had the composer been a model of ascetic Calvinist rigor. It is entirely appropriate that such a man would leave this world in a pink satin dressing gown.8
The man-loving Wagner
He was not homosexual; from all evidence, he only had sex with women. However, Wagner was bi-emotional. That is, he fell in love with both men and women and had, essentially, romantic, though sexless, affairs with both men and, sometimes, women (as I believe was the case with both Judith Gautier and Mathilde Wesondonck).
Even when not “in love,” he was a strikingly emotional guy. For instance, his good friend and supporter, Franz Liszt, wrote an account of Wagner's histrionics at their reunion after a 4-year gap in 1854:
Wagner was waiting for me at the post-house. We nearly chocked each other in embraces. Sometimes he has a sort of eaglet’s cry in his voice. He wept and laughed and stormed with joy for at least a quarter of hour at seeing me again.9
Assuming he wasn't in love with Liszt, can you imagine how he acted around a man—or woman—whom he was in love with?? (Truly, Wagner was very much like an puppy, both in good and bad ways.)
Regarding homosexuality, Wagner was very liberal-minded for his time, though he felt it was an immature form of sexual attraction, with sexual love between man and woman reigning supreme. That said, he had several gay friends over the years. Towards the end of his life, he was very good friends with the Russian painter, Parsifal stage designer, and aristocrat Paul von Jourkowky and his lover, an Italian of lower-class origins named Pepino, who were frequent visitors to the house. Cosima reports Wagner as saying about their relationship: “It is something for which I have understanding, but no inclination.”10
Though he wasn’t interested sexually, Wagner was able to conceptualize, and rationalize, his romantic friendships with men via the Greek same-sex love ideal. He wrote in the Artwork of the Future a peaen to same-sex love:
The higher element of same-sex love excluded the aspect of selfish pleasure [my emphasis]. Nevertheless it not only included a purely spiritual bond of friendship, but [one] which blossomed from and crowned the sensuous friendship. This sprang directly from delight in the ...sensuous bodily beauty of the beloved man; yet this delight was no mere sexual yearning, but a thorough abnegation of self into the unconditional sympathy with the with the lover’s joy in himself involuntarily expressed by the joyous bearing prompted by his beauty.
He goes on for some time about this topic but basically he concludes: same-sex love is awesome if you take out the sex. As with the Greek ideal, it is about an older man as teacher and younger man as inspiration. Wagner says of this collaboration, “the most beautiful and noble love would blossom forth.”
In most cases, the younger man was more smitten than Wagner, though there is a good case to be made that in Ludwig and Nietzche’s case, the passion was mutual. In any case, Dreyfus argues in his book, “the biographical evidence shows with some consistency that Wagner encouraged, even groomed, each Romantic Friend to understand and fulfill his assigned role as the adoring, self-sacrificing younger lover.”11 Nietzche’s celebrated break-up with Wagner can best be understood as the philosopher casting off this role of underling to be able to spread his own wings; Wagner was heartbroken. The story of their remarkable friendship has been told many places, but a good place to start is the 60-page appendix “Wagner and Nietzsche” in Bryan Magee’s Tristan Chord.
Just to get a flavor of his romantic friendships, I will quote from just one of his many très romantiques letters to his benefactor, King Ludwig II:
Dearest, dearest, magnificent Friend!...
Dear, Dear heavenly Friend! How you brighten my poor harassed existence. I feel so deeply, deeply satisfied and elevated through your love, through my — through our love! No words can express what this wonderful relationship between us means. Might I die—on the evening of my Tristan, with a last glance up to your eyes, with a last grasp of your hand!
Affectioned, blessed, divine Friend!
How deep, how deep is the bottom of our Love!
Suffering, but blissful–
Some have argued that Wagner, needing Ludwig’s money, was just trying to string him along. However, Wagner wrote many letters to friends also extolling Ludwig and his love for him. For instance, to his good friend—and confidant—Eliza Wille, he wrote many letters of this type. Here is an excerpt from just one:
At last a love relationship which doesn’t lead to suffering and torments! This is how it is when I see this magnificent youth before me.... He stays mostly in a little castle in my proximity; in 10 minutes the carriage takes me to him. Our conversations are ravishing. I always fly to him as a lover.13
Yes, there came a time when the “in love” period faded for both of them and conflicts set in. But, that he had an emotional affair—romantic love—with Ludwig, and several other men, there can be no doubt.
Tristan and Isolde: a very queer opera
Wagner showed support for love that strayed beyond normal societal bounds, including same-sex love, in more than one opera. I’ve always thought that Die Walküre—in which Woton (read Wagner) made it clear that true love between siblings was morally better than any marriage without love— was particularly supportive in a rather over-the-top way. This was appreciated early on, as Wagner enjoyed a robust gay following then and now.
Dreyfus investigated the history of reaction to Wagner’s homoerotic themes and found that most of the writing was critical to damning. However, with the beginnings of the early gay rights movement, that begin to change. According to Dreyfus,“[t]he first writer to reject a defamatory approach to Wagner’s homoerotics was the German author Hanns Fuchs, whose book Richard Wagner and Homosexuality appeared in Berlin in 1903.”14 Dreyfus relates, “Fuchs scours Wagner’s opera librettos and poems for traces of intense Freundeslibe (romantic friendship) and has a fairly easy time of it. He finds “spiritual homosexuality” all across Wagner’s oeuvre, beginning with Die Feen, but it is particularly concentrated in Tristan and Parsifal.”15
I am going to ignore Parsifal because, really, all the characters in it are very...odd. Sure, many of the guys could be seen as non-heterosexual—Klingsor and Parsifal, particularly—but they hardly seem like they they are having feelings of romantic love for men. But Tristan and Isolde: now that is one queer opera! Yes, the opera centers, it is true, on the fateful True Love romance between Tristan and Isolde. But, simultaneously, it is also, as Fuchs puts it, a “consecration of romantic friendship” as well. Beyond the central protagonists, all the characters seem to be in love with someone of the same sex. Brangange and Kurnewal, servants to Isolde and Tristan, are a matched pair, each in love with those they serve. Both the music and lyrics tell us this, reinforced through the stage instructions that Wagner left. For instance, here is Brangage trying to calm Isolde with sweet endearments:
O Süsse! Traute! [My sweetheart! Beloved!]
Teure! Holde! [Dearest! Beautiful one!]
Goldne Herrin! [Golden mistress!]
Lieb' Isolde! [Dear Isolde!]
Teure! Holde! [Dearest! Beautiful one!]
Goldne Herrin! [Golden mistress!]
Lieb' Isolde! [Dear Isolde!]
Wagner’s stage instructions: first Brangagne “flings herself upon Isolde with impetuous affection,” and then “gradually draws her to the couch.”16 The music is of utter desperation.
In The Artwork of the Future, Wagner had written of same-sex male love that the bond between the men “knit the fellowships of love into battalions of war and military order that prescribed death-defying tacts to rescue the threatened lover or to exact vengeance if he fell in battle.”17 In Tristan, Wagner put that idea in the opera. Kurnewal exacts vengeance on the traitor Melot, sacrificing himself to be with Tristan. To music of sad love and longing he sings: “Tristan! Beloved! Scold me not, so the faithful one may follow you!” Thus, there are two love-deaths in the opera, Tristan and Isolde’s and Tristan and Kurnewal’s.
And then there is King Marke, who sings the—to me—extraordinarily touching 13-minute soliloquy to Tristan about his tremendous hurt that his beloved—Tristan—would betray him. Isolde is basically irrelevant in this. That is absolutely not the way it normally works in traditional opera, where the woman’s betrayal would be the focus. But Wagner clearly wanted to highlight Romantic Friendships between same-sex people; he did it beautifully and movingly, might I add.
Then there is the betrayer and former friend, Melot. There are a whole lot of clues that he, too, was in love with Tristan. Melot becomes jealous when Tristan becomes enraptured with Isolde. Thus, it is the old “if I can’t have you, nobody can.” When he dies on Kurnewal’s sword, his last words—of course—are to Tristan: “Weh mir, Tristan,” (Woe is me, Tristan.)
Six major characters: four in love with someone of the same sex, two dead, two in mourning. All of the four suffered from unrequited love. As for Tristan and Isolde, they never consummate their union but suffer greatly through yearning for the other. Only in death do they actually become one. There you have Wagner’s view of the path to true love!
2 Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, 149
3 Millington and Spencer, ed., Selected Letters of Wagner, 307; in letter to August Röckel in January, 1854
4 Dreyfus, 135
5 Dreyfus 147
6 as quoted in Dreyfus, 150
7 Thomas Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner, 137, within the wonderful essay “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner”
8 Millington, the conclusion of his chapter 15 “In the Pink.” I read it on-line so I do not have a page reference, but the whole chapter is available to searching Google Books.
9 as quoted in Newman, Life of Richard Wagner, Vol. 2, 384
10 Cosima Wagner Diaries, vol 2, 631, February 25, 1881
11 Dreyfus, 214
12 as quoted in Dreyfus, 199
13 Selected Letters, 602-603
14 Dreyfus, 188
15 Dreyfus, 204
16 as quoted in Dreyfus, 205
17 as quoted in Dreyfus, 207