Friday, March 22, 2013

Wagner: Sexist, Womanizer, and Wife-stealer? (Part 1)

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania herehis problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here, the second part of this article here; the first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.


At the outset, let me just say this is hogwash, relatively speaking. There were, of course, very few men or women who could be termed “feminist” in the 19th century, but Wagner came closer than many, at least in certain areas. I think it fair to say that he had some misanthropic tendencies, but this was largely directed at men. He declared in one letter, for instance, that people were “worthless.”2  But, in a letter written a month later, he amended this slightly and said, “on the whole it is the men whom I find most repugnant, while women are soonest capable of making an agreeable impression upon me.”3 Throughout his life Wagner had and maintained many platonic friendships with women, treated them as equals, sought their opinions, and generally behaved as would a man who respected women as human beings.

As well, he was progressive in his thought. He was part of the “Young Germany” movement of the mid-1800s, which, among many progressive things, advocated raising the political and social  position of women. Concomitant with this was the “free love” movement, which sought to separate marriage and sexual matters from the state: Marriage should be for love only; if there was no love, it wasn’t a marriage. Wagner abhorred the fact that women were treated as the property of men. All these opinions were clearly elucidated via dramatic means in Der Ring des Nibelungen, particularly in Die Walküre.

I am a feminist, and I am drawn to Wagner in part due to that fact, as have been many feminists historically.  For example, read Wagner Nights, which details the history of women’s, particularly feminists’, attraction to Wagner’s music around the time of the suffrage movement in America. Wagner’s music and librettos are so attractive because women are usually very strong and very pro-active, often the prime instigators of the dramas. This is true of Senta in the Flying Dutchman; Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser; Ortrud (though she is evil, unlike most of his female characters) and Elsa in Lohengin; Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and Erda in the Ring cycle; Isolde in Tristan and Isolde; Eva in Meistersinger; and Kundry in Parsifal.

All that said, Wagner had very traditional views of women’s and men’s roles in the world, as virtually everyone did in that century. He considered women more peace-loving and moral, compassionate and closer to nature.  He thought that men were rougher and often disagreeable, but that they were the movers and shakers of the world. This was the natural order. Even many feminists, as well-captured in Wendy Kaminer's book A Fearful Freedom, shared these views then and now.

According to Wagner, “a human being is both man and woman: it is only when the two are united that the real human being exists... But when nowadays we talk of a human being, such heartless blockheads are we that we only think of man.”4  Wagner wanted to become a full human being through the love of a woman.  He greatly desired her nurturing and support—to him, that was the job of a women—while he, the man, was creating his and, united, their life work.

Sure, this view of women and men is sexist, and should be so labeled in this day and age, but to categorize such a view from the 19th century is so ahistorical as to be senseless.  And to pin it on Wagner particularly, a guy very progressive about women in many ways, is particularly unhinged.


This one is absolute bull. Womanizers are guys who only want sex and pretend to care about the women in order to get it. Presumably over the course of their lifetime they have dozens, even hundreds, of casual affairs. This is so far from Wagner’s behavior as to be absurd.

First, he didn’t have many relationships. As explained by Wagner scholar Barry Millington in his Wagner Compendium, “[Wagner's] serious and casual affairs taken together hardly exceed a dozen.”5  But, more importantly, while it is clear from his music that Wagner did love sex, it is also clear from all his letters, his relationships, and his operas that for him love was supreme. For virtually all his relationships he truly cared about the women he was involved with, even the more casual relationships. He had many faults, but he wasn't a cad.

It has been said that men get in a relationship to have sex; women have sex to order to have a relationship. To the extent this is true, Wagner does not fit the profile of a womanizer; he fits the profile of a woman. He believed in love, sought it, despaired that he wouldn’t ever find it (and probably didn’t ever find what he was looking for, his second “happy" marriage to Cosima notwithstanding).

He was a true romantic.


One of the reasons people say he was sexist was because he was a “wife-stealer.” Now, this phrase gets my feminist hackles up. The whole logic of “wife-stealing” is that the woman is a possession of the man, and that the stealer is an interloper who takes away the man’s private property. To me the phrase “wife-stealer" is patently sexist, and an impossibility unless, of course, we are talking literal kidnapping (but the fact that the woman is a “wife” seems irrelevant in the kidnapping scenario). In any case, whatever you think of it, it isn't sexist to have an affair with another man’s wife.

Also, I have a long-held belief that in the affairs of the heart, people are way too judgmental (unless it comes to themselves or people they know intimately). Certainly, at the very least, you should know the full story before making a judgment. In Wagner’s case, people like to reduce him to “wife-stealer” with no context whatsoever. It would take much more space than I will devote in this post to give some sense of the full story, but I will sketch out a few brief facts to give some context. Wagner gets blasted primarily for his alleged adulterous relationships with Jessie Laussot, Cosima Liszt—Franz’s daughter—and to Mathilde Wesondonck, so I will just concentrate on those three, along with his first wife, Minna.

Wagner married  Minna Planer, who was a 27-year-old actress, when he was 23 in 1836. It became clear fairly early that they were mismatched. In their early years, Wagner, always emotional, was even more so, and was, according to Minna's daughter6, often very jealous. While there is no evidence that he was physically abusive, he was clearly a bellower (followed inevitably by being apologetic and sweet, begging Minna to forgive him and making promises that he would be better, which he generally wasn’t, of course).  The fact that Minna did, a year into the marriage, run off with another man for many months didn’t help matters. That said, his jealousy did abate after the early years of marriage and did not appear to be a problem for most of the marriage. However, their real break, beyond Minna’s affair, was over politics: Minna wanted a conventional life and Wagner became a revolutionary, first in politics and then in art. When he fled Dresden to avoid arrest for his participation in May Uprising of 1848, Minna would not follow. Up to this point, 13 years into the marriage, there is no evidence that Wagner—in contrast to Minna—had ever been unfaithful. But at this point of both physical and emotional rupture with his wife, Wagner had a serious affair with a woman name Jessie Laussot, herself trapped in an unhappy marriage, and resolved to permanently leave Minna for Jessie. Due to the intervention of Jessie's parents and husband it didn't happen, though Jessie did end up leaving her husband soon thereafter.

In 1850, recognizing his incompatibility with Minna in virtually all matters, Wagner wrote to her a long letter seeking the end of their relationship.  To quote just one small part:
We who, at the end of 15 years, understand each other less than before & who are condemned by our innermost natures to face each other as total strangers, shall we allow this misunderstanding to continue to rankle until our dying day, causing us both increasing torment?  I know – alas! alas! – that I cannot bring you happiness, living together with you!... If we can retain a memory of those features which we understood & admired in each other, we may continue to love each other even after we are separated.  For the sake of what remains of the love which still exists between us, I say to you: let us remain apart!7
Their break didn’t last, for practical reasons. Minna had ill-health (most seriously, she had congenital heart problems, which led to her death at 56) and was not able to support herself, so Wagner felt obligated to do so and, given his lack of monetary resources, he wasn’t in a position to keep two homes. Plus, he needed someone to run the household while he worked. Thus, ill-matched as they were, they gave it a go—punctuated by several separations—until the strain of their frequent quarreling was too much to endure. For all intents and purposes, a marriage based on love, which is the type Wagner respected and wanted, was over many years before their final separation.

Into this picture Mathilde Wesendonck appeared. She was married to a wealthy industrialist, Otto, and they both supported Wagner's art: Otto as a principal financial benefactor, Mathilde as a sounding-board and his muse. In 1857, Minna and Wagner moved into a small house on their estate. It was during this period that the emotional connection between Mathilde and Wagner grew. Both of them claimed vehemently that the relationship had never become physical. Scholars most intimate with their story tend to think, just as they claim, that while they did have strong feelings for each other, they never consummated the relationship.8 There were two reasons for this. First, neither Wagner nor Mathilde wanted to bite the hand that fed them: Otto. Secondly, using Mathilde as his muse for Tristan and Isolde, he wanted to share the emotions of his character Tristan—who suffered from his unfilled desires for Isolde—by denying himself his own yearning for Mathilde.

Minna didn’t believe Wagner and Mathilde’s denials of intimacy, though Otto did. And, given that Minna was right about his feelings, even if it was a chaste relationship, it still made enormous sense that she would be greatly upset. The upshot is that Wagner moved to Venice, alone, while Minna retreated to her family in Dresden. From this point on in—from 1859 to Minna’s death in 1866—they were mostly separated, with the final break coming in 1862.

Wagner had given up on love. In the letter to his friend Eliza Willie in June of 1863 in which he said of Mathilde that “she is, and remains, my first and only love,” he went on to say that henceforth, “my only desire is now to regain at least some sense of domestic calm.”9

“Domestic calm” was actually code for “I want someone to take care of me.” He really hated being alone and always wanted a sympathetic woman to tend his needs—practical, emotional, intellectual and sexual. He just wasn’t expecting much in the love department any more.

Therefore, he started casting about for a Minna replacement, even considering men for the role (though presumably without the sexual component). He asked at least four women and two men to move in with him to be his companion and caretaker.10 Cosima Von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans Von Bülow, was absolutely primed to take the role. Her marriage to Von Bülow notwithstanding, she had been smitten with Wagner from the day she met him when she was 16 (though given that he was a married man, and 24 years older, she didn’t think he was obtainable). She had married at 21, but quickly realized it was a mistake, so much so that she had tried several times to kill herself—and I think this is odd but I suppose it could have worked—via “attempts to contract various fatal illnesses” beginning in the second year of marriage.11  When Wagner and Minna finally separated, Cosima saw her opportunity and strove to become closer to him. Though they claim that they “sealed their confession to belong together” in November, 1963, I am fairly skeptical that Wagner was in love.12  First, there was the fact of his letter of a mere 6 months before saying that Mathilde was his only real love. But, also, because he was offering the “position” of care-taker/emotional supporter/lover to Mathilde Maier eight months after this alleged confession in June of 1964.13   It was only when Cosima showed up on his doorstep, with two daughters in tow, in July of 1964, that he withdrew his offer to Mathilde.

To call this wife-stealing just doesn’t give a true picture.

And let me just add that in the 19th century, the type of woman that Wagner wanted—a mature, intellectual, educated, and emotional lover of the arts and music—were in short supply and rarely single. Most woman did not get a formal education and married young by necessity and family pressure.  After the failure of his first marriage, the ability to attract a partner who would suit him pretty much necessitated a widow or an unhappily married woman.

I have more to say on this subject, so crucial to his life and art, but have run out of steam for the week.  So part 2 next week.

End Notes

1.To remind you of the charge from The Rough Guide to Opera: "He infamous womanizer, fathering countless illegitimate children. He tyrannized his first wife then stole another man's wife, finding in her an echo of his limitless self-adoration (he habitually referred to himself in the third person)."  My retort: First, where the writers came up with the "fathering countless children" I don't know; there is absolutely nothing in any reputable biography that says such a thing. It's totally fabricated. Second, the "tyrannized" charge implies that he was completely dominant over Minna, and this was not the case at all, except, perhaps, in their early years. They fought bitterly, it is true, but she held her own in their fights. Third, I have read most of his letters, and many biographies, and I have never seen him refer to himself in the third person, so it wasn't habitual, if he ever did it at all. The rest of the charges are handled in the text. 
2. Spencer and Millington, ed., Selected Letters of Richard Wagner,1987, page 263, letter of July 15, 1852
3. Ibid, page 278, letter of December 30,1852
4. as quoted in Shaw, G.B. The Perfect Wagnerite, page 129.
5. Millington, Wagner Compendium page 118. Millington's short article on Wagner's relationship with women is the best short piece available on the subject for the basic facts. For a book on the subject, this one written by German writer Eve Rieger seems like the most promising from reviews that I have read: Richard Wagner's Women 
6. Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, see page 122-124. Minna's daughter, Natalie, was born out of wedlock before she met Richard. She was passed off as Minna's sister, a secret that Wagner always kept; Natalie didn't know this fact until her old age. Wagner supported Natalie throughout his life, as he did Minna.
7. Op.cit. Spencer and Millington, page, letter pages 192-199, quote from 197
8. For instance, Barry Millington and Eve Rieger are of this opinion. People who think they did have a sexual relationship have no proof; it's just an assumption that ignores anything Wagner and Mathilde ever said. All I can say is: read his letters on the subject and it will make you a believer. But, as my partner Leslie always says, "I don't care if you have sex with someone, just don't fall in love." I believe, to Minna, it didn't matter if they had sex or not, what mattered was that he was totally in love with her, something he didn't deny.
9. Op. cit., Spencer and Millington, pages 559-560
10. Ibid, see pages 414 and 588 for those Wagner tried to recruit for this "position. "
11. Ibid, page 621
12. Gregor-Dellin, Wagner, page 326
13. Op. cit. Spencer and Millington, page 588

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