Friday, March 29, 2013

Wagner: Sexist, Womanizer, and Wife-stealer? (Part 2)

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 here;  the first part of this post here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is herethe charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here; the issue of anti-Semitism is 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.

The point of my last post was to make these arguments: First, Wagner, by 20th century standards, wasn’t particularly sexist and was actually quite progressive. Second, by modern standards, as well as those of the 19th century, he wasn’t a womanizer. Finally, by my standards—as I reject the assumption behind the term—he wasn’t a wife-stealer, and it is far more complicated than that in any case. In this post, I want to write a little bit more about those moral complications, giving a little more information about his character in this crucial area of his life.

Wagner liked women, and women liked Wagner. Setting aside for the time being the issue of his first wife, Minna, the company of women brought out the best in him, and he credited women with being his biggest and most sympathetic supporters. This doesn’t mean he couldn’t be an absolute jerk to women, as well as men. As should be clear from my previous brief character post, he was extremely emotional, which had both very strong positives and negatives that flowed from that fact. But in general, most women who knew him said very nice things about him and his conduct towards them, finding him “warm-hearted and kind”1 and “affable,”2 and “a tease and raconteur.”3 Wagner’s default position—when not upset or stressed by something—was clearly good humor, which was widely acknowledged by those who knew him. Even women with whom he was romantically linked, such as Mathilde Wesendonck or Judith Gautier, spoke well of him after their relationships cooled.4 For instance, Mathilde wrote towards the end of her life that “it is to him alone that I owe all that has been the best in my life.”5 

So he clearly wasn’t a complete ogre as he is often depicted.

Now, Wagner did have a very difficult marriage with his first wife, Minna. While I do think he was primarily at fault for the problems in this relationship in his 20s when he was consumed with jealousy, the problem seemed to abate as he got older (and as his passion cooled.) The real problem that doomed the relationship was well-expressed by his friend Malwilda von Meysenberg:
[Minna wanted him to make] concessions to the world which he could not and should not make. From her inability to grasp the essence of genius and its relation to the world, there arose constant friction in their daily life. Nevertheless, Frau Wagner was a good woman, and, in the eyes of the world, decidedly the better and the more unhappy of the two. My sympathies were more for Wagner, however, for whom love should have been the medium of reaching all human hearts. Instead, she made his cup of life more bitter still.6  
She wanted him to give up what she considered the nonsense of the “music of the future” and his endless polemics, and instead write operas more like his early Rienzi that could be staged and from which income could be derived and normality could ensue. But, of course, Wagner would have been a different man had he merely tried to make a living as Minna wanted.

Wagner was not blind to her misery or unsympathetic to it, and often refrained from an action, or did something affirmative, with only her needs in mind. But the gulf between them was far too wide, and his need for sympathetic support far too great, for the relationship to last. After their final separation in 1862, he wrote to Natalie, Minna’s daughter: “She writes in a vein which, by her own lights, is fair and just, nay, almost charitable and friendly. And ultimately she is quite right to see things as she does: it is simply that I see them differently—and therein lies our misfortune”.7

I don’t believe that when a couple is as mismatched as they were that blame is particularly helpful. They never saw eye to eye from his revolutionary period forward. What was he to do in this situation? They could stay together and make each other miserable, which they did for much of it. They could live apart, and remain married for the sake of convention, which is what they did for the rest of it. They could have divorced, but Minna didn’t want that and Wagner was more than willing to honor that wish. He always ably supported her, even during his worst financial crisis (more on that issue in a later blog post on money). To me, he was a stand-up guy given it all.

During the periods when they were separated, it is true that he did have affairs. But to say this is adultery really depends on your point of view. Since he did her the kindness of not divorcing, I personally have no problem with it and find no fault for that.

The relationship Wagner had with Mathilde Wesendonck was the exception. He and Minna were not separated when he fell in love with Mathilde, and Minna just didn’t buy his “but she is my muse and we aren’t having sex” argument. I understand her position, but I also understand Wagner’s. He finally found a woman who did understand, support, encourage, and nurture him—the thing that was his deepest desire all his adult life. She also provided a much-wanted intellectual companion: his letters to Mathilde are some of the most interesting and illuminating letters he ever wrote. Under his spell of enchantment with her, he wrote what I think was the most beautiful and emotional love music of his life: the first act of Die Walküre. And of course, Wagner let those close to him know—much to Minna’s shame and upset—that Mathilde was, via his unfulfilled passion and yearning for her, his muse for Tristan and Isolde.

He also made very clear, too, that another passion was equally responsible for that seminal work: the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was “the greatest single influence in Wagner’s life” according to virtually all his biographers.8  His passion for Mathilde and Schopenhauer commingled—in his life, in his letters, in his dreams, in his music—to create Tristan and Isolde. The world would have been a poorer place without these great loves. I feel bad for Minna, truly, but I am more than happy that Mathilde, and Schopenhauer, entered his life as they did.

Wagner’s greatest wish—here articulated in his 1850 “break-up” letter to Minna, but repeated often throughout his letters and evident in his art as well—was to find “unconditional love, the love with which we love the other person as he is and love him, moreover, for the man he is.”9  Now on some level, you might think that is badly stated in that “we” is plural, but “he” is singular. But given that he wanted to become fully human through uniting with a woman—become “we” that is—and that the two together would love him, well that is Wagner! This great love was supposed to be in service to him and his work, that is quite clear.

Enter Cosima.

As I have already said, I don’t think Wagner was madly in love with Cosima as he was with Mathilde, but he was around 50 at the time and was primarily looking for a homemaker as well as an intellectual and emotional companion at that point in his life. So, in this, she was an able and fulfilling partner. Cosima, on the other hand, was madly in love with Wagner. She knew what he wanted in a partner, believed she was fated for that role, and offered to be all that he ever wanted and dreamed of in a woman. Wagner had witnessed that her marriage to Hans von Bülow was a disaster and, in fact, physically abusive (Wagner had seen Hans strike Cosima, and she told him that this wasn’t a unique incident).10  While Wagner and von Bülow were friends, the friendship was basically professional: von Bülow was an enthusiastic supporter of Wagner’s music and it was his claim to fame to be the conductor for it. What was Wagner to do? Deny his life-long desire for such a woman in deference to his friendship with the man (as he had done with Mathilde in deference to Otto Wesendonck)? Perhaps that would have been the honorable thing to do, but with the result of leaving Cosima and himself even more desolate and depressed than they both already were. Ultimately, as I think he should have and most people similarly situated would have, he chose love over honor.

Turning now to the sanctimonious critics who damn him for this act of “wife-stealing.” Perhaps they have the good fortune of a happy marriage, so it is easy to be self-righteous, not having gone through the hell of a bad marriage.  Or, perhaps the person who damns him for this has kept vows to an ill-matched partner for moral reasons, and feels superior for that denial. Well, bully for him (or, much less frequently, her). My bet, though, is that a whole lot of those critics are just pure and simple hypocrites.

As for me, I have been in a similar situation and I did exactly what Wagner did. This is but one reason why I sure as hell won’t cast a stone in his direction.

End Notes

1 Spencer, ed. Wagner Remembered, page 155
2 Ibid., pages 151, 226
3 Ibid., page 155
4 I haven’t mentioned Gautier before but Wagner was enamored of her towards the end of his life. He carried on a secret correspondence with her, which led many to assume that they were having a physical affair. But, as with Wesendonck, that is based on assumption and not proven fact. The reason for the secret correspondence will be taken up in a later post entitled: “Wagner was queer.” Stay tuned.
5 Ibid., page 105 
6 Ibid., page 121
7 Spencer and Millington, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, page 561 
8 Magee, The Tristan Chord, see pages 133-40 for a summary of Schopenhauer's role in Wagner's life, music and philosophy. 
9 Op. cit. Spencer and Millington, page 192
10 Gregor-Dellin, Wagner, page 358 


  1. Cosima spent a lot of effort trying to keep R on an even keel. She sometimes censored his mail and removed articles from newspapers.

    "I find nothing more terrible than when I have to speak a discouraging word to him; between him and the world no understanding is possible, it is just a battle in which he must either conquer or be defeated."

    September 20, 1871

  2. Whatever else one may think about Cosima and her diaries:

    "Carlyle's words on how little one really knows about great men and in what a shadowy guise they appear to posterity make me think of these diaries, in which I want to convey the essence of R to my children with all possible clarity, and in consequence try to set down every word he speaks, even about myself, forgetting all modesty, so that the picture is kept intact for them - yet I feel the attempt is failing: how can I convey the sound of his voice, the intonations, his movements, and the expression in his eyes?"

    March 21, 1873