Of all the buildings in which Richard Wagner lived during his peripatetic career, Tribschen near Lucerne in Switzerland was easily the loveliest. The three-storey villa with its rows of green-shuttered windows stood, and still stands, high on a wooded peninsula with dazzling views across the Vierwaldstätter Lake to distant Alpine peaks. It was more elegant than Wahnfried, the mausoleum-like residence Wagner later planned and built in Bayreuth, more light and airy than the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal in Venice, where he died. Summer was much the best time. The rooms filled with the sweet scent of flowers and cut grass, the family would often picnic on the meadow and, when his work had gone well or (more often) when he just wanted to show off, Wagner did headstands and climbed trees. The elder children played “brigands” for hours in the shrubbery or cooed over the latest addition to the family, Siegfried Helferich Richard Wagner, affectionately known as Fidi.
Trippers were the main pest, sailing across the lake armed with telescopes in the hope of spying Tribschen’s notorious inhabitants.
For Wagner was a former left-wing revolutionary who now seemed to be changing the face of music with the backing of unlikely allies, notably King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was widely regarded as mad. His mistress, Francesca Gaetana Cosima von Bülow, was an illegitimate daughter of Marie d’Agoult, a French countess, and Franz Liszt, whose devilish virtuosity as pianist and lover had long been the talk of Europe. To general astonishment, Liszt had meanwhile become an Abbé after curbing his wilder ways and taking minor Catholic orders, while the countess, despite (or because of) her pedigree, had turned into a writer with strong republican sympathies. Siegfried, born in the early morning of 6 June 1869, was Richard’s and Cosima’s third child, but they had yet to marry. Politics, art, nobility, sex—no wonder voyeurs by the boatload set daily course for Tribschen, or as close to it as they could get.
At least in the circumstances of his birth, Siegfried lived up to his extraordinary parents. Just as he uttered his first cry, according to an entry in Cosima’s voluminous diary, early rays of dawn sunlight flickered out from behind the mountains and bathed the villa’s rooms in orange fire. Caught in this blaze and reflecting it, Cosima’s portrait set in a gold-framed jewel case was “transfigured in celestial splendour.” Oddly enough it was Richard himself, not Cosima, who wrote that particular entry and the scene described might well have been taken from one of his own music dramas. It might also have appeared in one of the more poetic works of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, say his Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra); and by an extraordinary chance Nietzsche, who had enjoyed a “wondrous” first meeting with Wagner in Leipzig a year earlier, was a house guest at Tribschen that night. Disappointingly, it seems that he slept through the whole thing, but the mere fact of his presence in that very place at that very time is enough to set the imagination racing. Wasn’t the Siegfried of Wagner’s massive Ring cycle the prototype blonde, fearless, Teutonic hero, prone to slay dragons and plunge unharmed through fire? And didn’t Nietzsche with his concepts of the “Superman” and the “will to power” help blaze a trail for the Nazis? How easy, therefore, to see all this not so much as a striking coincidence as an omen.
Easy but wrong. It is hard to imagine anyone less like a hero of the Ring or a Nietzschean superman than the gentle, affable, bisexual Siegfried who was born at Tribschen that night. Because Wagner junior lacked his father’s genius, as well as his ruthless egocentricity, he remains far less well known than his life and talent justify. Although busy enough as boss of the Bayreuth festival, he also ran a parallel career as producer and conductor, besides composing nearly a score of operas—works sneered at with depressing regularity, especially by people who have never heard them. Not that the ignorant can be much blamed. The Wagner family itself, who stood guard over Siegfried’s scores after his early death, for the most part did precious little to propagate them in the wake of the Second World War. Even leaving aside the compositions, much remains to be uncovered about Siegfried’s personal and professional life. A couple of biographies of him have appeared in German, but his own memoirs are thin, his letters in part still not disclosed, his true feelings often masked by irony and bonhomie.
The problem with getting a clear view of Siegfried’s parents is rather the opposite. The near-limitless sea of material by and about the couple is one in which even expert navigators can lose their bearings for good. Cosima’s diary alone, belatedly published in full in 1976, runs to nearly a million words. She was also a compulsive correspondent, albeit no match for Richard, who fired off so many letters, more than ten thousand at the last count, that experts are still toiling to collect and classify them all. Overall, Wagner’s writings on just about everything under the sun (and including the texts of his music dramas) fill sixteen fat tomes. Nor is it just a matter of sheer quantity. Cosima’s diary reveals much to fascinate and infuriate, but it is wrong to take it, as many tend to do, as a verbatim record. Wagner’s near-thousand-page autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) is in part a compulsive read, but it is about as frank and reliable as you would expect, given that the text was written for a rich patron, King Ludwig, and dictated to Cosima. His essays, tracts and stories can be thought-provoking like Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution), practical like Über das Dirigieren (On Conducting)—even funny like Eine Pilgerfahrt zu Beethoven (A Pilgrimage to Beethoven). They are usually trenchant, sometimes violent. But often it seems that Wagner takes up his pen not because he knows at the outset what he wants to say but because he wants to find out what he really thinks. To put it mildly, he does not always succeed. In any case he changed some of his key views over the years, in part radically. There is nothing odd about that of course, but he rarely acknowledged the fact publicly and probably did not always admit it to himself.
None of that would matter if Wagner had been a mediocre composer. It is doubtful whether much of his prose would be read nowadays for intrinsic merit. But because Wagner’s music is, at its best, of rarely matched power and beauty, his writings have become by association an irresistible lucky dip into which just about anyone—be it sage or crank, pacifist or warmonger, vegetarian or meat-eater, semite or anti-semite—has been able to plunge a fist and pull out a prize. Zealots can find plenty of goodies there alone to back up their view of “The Master” as a near-deity whose intellectual abilities matched his musical genius. Those who hold this opinion enjoy flanking support, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Cosima and her devoted circle to doctor the record after Wagner’s death and declare his life unimpeachable. Similar obfuscation, albeit less blatant, has gone on intermittently ever since. On the other hand Wagner’s many foes can easily assemble more than enough “evidence” from his literary meanderings and chequered career to demonise him, even to make him seem personally responsible for Hitler. Innumerable books and articles have been launched from both implacable camps. Behind many of them you can hardly miss the sound of axes being ground.
The six years Wagner spent at Tribschen (1866-72), when so many strands of his life came together, offer plenty of ammunition to fans and foes alike. It was, on the face of it, a period of almost unmatched joy and productivity. During it Wagner completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) and recommenced work on the Ring after a twelve-year break. Cosima joined him for good in 1868 and, after her divorce from von Bülow, who seemed almost relieved to lose her to someone he too felt was the “better man,” the pair finally married in Lucerne in 1870. “What a lucky old donkey I am,” Wagner burst out one evening at Tribschen—and up to a point, that is just what he was. Literally worshipped by a woman twenty-four years younger, surrounded by his adored children and favourite animals—including two dogs and two peacocks called Wotan and Fricka—he seemed to have come as close as he ever did to finding a real home. He did later own Wahnfried, whereas Tribschen was merely rented; but since the bill for the latter was footed by the sorely tried but still not wholly estranged King Ludwig, that particular distinction did not matter much to Wagner. And there were peaks of domestic bliss at Tribschen that seem never quite to have been scaled later.
One of these was the famous birth of the Siegfried Idyll, which combines so many of those qualities such as charm, lightness and intimacy that the rest of Wagner’s music is widely but wrongly said to lack. Even those who can resist the Idyll itself can hardly deny the romance of its origin; how Wagner secretly composed the piece in 1870 as a birthday present for Cosima; how she failed to guess what was in the offing despite surreptitious rehearsals in and around the villa; how she awoke on Christmas morning (she was born on 24 December but celebrated on the twenty-fifth) to the strains of the premiere given by fifteen musicians crammed onto the staircase leading to her bedroom. Cosima wept. She often did that anyway, especially when listening to Wagner, but then whose eyes would have stayed dry on such a day? “Now let me die,” she sighed to him after the work had been repeated twice more, albeit in less cramped conditions. “It would be easier to die for me than to live for me,” Wagner replied—an observation very likely true.
Wagner was partly out to match (or rather surpass, since he despised mere equality) the birthday treat Cosima had secretly concocted for him seven months earlier. Overnight she had decorated Tribschen’s stairwell with hundreds of roses and in the early morning a forty-five-piece military band filed into the garden at her behest to play the Huldigungsmarsch (March of Homage), a far from idyllic piece Wagner had composed six years before for King Ludwig. But of course there was more behind the Idyll than a ritual move in an elevated game of tit-for-tat. Joy at the birth of his son, love for Cosima, a sense of peace in so ideal a place—all flowed into the piece and were reflected in the title Wagner gave it: “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Bird-song and Orange Sunrise presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870.”
It was not only the Wagners who found the Tribschen experience magical. Judith Gautier, a visiting French beauty whom Wagner seduced (or at least tried to) years later, told Cosima that “Now, at last, I comprehend that happiness of paradise so extolled by believers, the seeing of God face to face.” The mistress of the house, Judith somewhat superfluously noted, “thought quite as I did.” Likewise Elisabeth Nietzsche, Friedrich’s sister who later devoted much of her life to falsifying his writings, recalls an enchanted walk by the lake under the full moon. Wagner wearing his famous velvet biretta and black cloak, Cosima in a pink cashmere gown, eloquently held forth with Nietzsche on the greatness of the Greeks, the promise of the Germans and the tragedy of human life until—bit by bit—they fell into a wistful silence. For the youthful philosopher, thirty-one years Wagner’s junior, Tribschen initially brought the revelation of joy (his unrequited love for Cosima notwithstanding) in a tortured, lonely life. Decades later and close to madness, he recalled his twenty-three visits—let’s say pilgrimages—to the spot, and confided that “at no price would I have my life deprived of those days at Tribschen—days of confidence, of sublime flashes of insight and of profound moments. I know not what Wagner may have been for others; but no cloud ever obscured our sky.”
The first part of that statement is no doubt true, the last is nonsense. Even during that much-prized Tribschen era, Nietzsche’s slowly growing differences with Wagner brought down on him Cosima’s censure: as she put it in her diary, he was mistakenly “trying to resist the overwhelming effect” of the Master’s personality. Later, feeling used, betrayed and humiliated, Nietzsche launched attacks on Wagner that for bitterness and ferocity, not to mention stylistic skill, remain unsurpassed to this day despite huge and ever-growing competition. Yet he could refer to a cloudless sky in the above passage from Ecce Homo, written in 1888 but only published twenty years later. One explanation might be that his madness had set in rather earlier than generally thought. More likely, at this particular moment he simply blended out painful memories to ensure that happy ones stayed untainted. Selective recollection is certainly, to quote Nietzsche again, Menschlich, Allzumenschliches (Human, All-Too-Human). But whether such distortion is unconscious, as it may well have been in Nietzsche’s case, or deliberate, it bedevils the Wagner saga often, all-too-often. And, of course, it works both ways.
Just how idyllic really was the Tribschen era? It was certainly a period when Richard and Cosima took their deception of King Ludwig, long blissfully unaware of their adultery, to new depths, with a barrage of lies and obsequiousness breathtaking even by Wagner’s abject standards. It was also just at this time that Wagner chose to reissue Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), an antisemitic tract he had published under a pseudonym two decades before. Now he worded it still more viciously (Cosima recorded her “great delight in its terseness and pithiness”) and issued it under his own name. Similarly repulsive was Eine Kapitulation (A Capitulation), a jingoistic farce seemingly glorying in French humiliation in the war against Prussia, which he gleefully produced in late 1870, more or less simultaneously with the Siegfried Idyll. Wagner later argued that the piece was really meant to show that artistically the Germans were even more puerile than the French, and indeed his contempt for his own countrymen, Wagner fans excluded, at times seemed boundless. But whatever Wagner’s real intentions with Eine Kapitulation, there is no mistaking the joy with which he and particularly Cosima followed the progress of the Prussian onslaught. “Nine battles within a month, and all victorious,” she exulted in her diary in September 1870. “What a christening present for Fidi.” In this and most other things, Cosima, with her French mother and Hungarian father, felt more intensely and chauvinistically German than most Germans. Hers was an example that other non-German members of the Wagner clan were disastrously to follow.
Wagner’s conduct can be, and often is, cast in a more favourable light. It is at least arguable that King Ludwig mainly had his own naivety to blame for trusting his “heavenly friend” for so long, and for continuing to back him (much to posterity’s benefit) even when it was clear the trust was misplaced. Besides, it is widely claimed that geniuses have a higher calling that justifies any amount of subterfuge—or at least makes those who draw attention to it seem petty if not contemptible. Above all great love is said to set its own rules or, as Cosima more eloquently wrote, it “works on us like a Plutonian eruption, it bursts through everything, throws all strata into confusion, raises mountains, and there it is—utmost transformation and utmost law.” Even those who consider themselves less than “perfect Wagnerites” usually praise Cosima for striking courage and self-sacrifice, risking everything the world of convention had to offer to go to the man she adored. By so doing, she gave him vital stability, a family and fostered his creativity. “Richard is working,” she joyfully noted time after time in her diary. Wasn’t this relationship at least pretty close to a love that, as Wagner put it, emerges “only once in five thousand years?”
Yes and no. By mid-1864, when Wagner and Cosima are first known to have slept together (“consummated their union” as it is often more delicately put), and four years before they finally settled in at Tribschen, he had already composed the bulk of his work, including more than half the Ring, part of Die Meistersinger and the whole of Tristan und Isolde. It is tempting to speculate that the tension produced by Wagner’s long and unhappy first marriage to Minna Planer, and by his relatively brief infatuation for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a rich German businessman in Zurich, may have spurred him to creativity at least as much as life with Cosima ever did. Tempting—but hardly fruitful. At least Cosima’s omnipresence did not stop him completing his unfinished works and composing the whole of Parsifal, often claimed to be his finest piece. Besides, the love that happens “only once in five thousand years” was itself far from tension-free.
Take that flowery account of Siegfried’s birth in Cosima’s diary. Isn’t it strange that Wagner should have written it there? He did have a lovely diary of his own in brown leather decorated with malachite stones, given him by Cosima years before. One explanation could be that Wagner felt so totally at one with her on that splendid June morning that her thoughts and feelings—and hence her diary—became his own, as it were. No doubt he also wanted to spare her the effort of writing so soon after giving birth. That seems plausible, except that Wagner had written another long entry in Cosima’s diary a few days before, without at first telling her what he was up to, and it was anything but considerate. Instead he bitterly complained because Cosima, still married to von Bülow and apparently embarrassed with her elder children in the house, refused to move into an apartment on the ground floor with a bedroom next to his. Such treatment, Wagner charged as he returned the volume to his pregnant mistress, tormented him “like the fear of death.” Cosima was not just remorseful. As the very next entry (in her own hand) makes clear, she felt that barely seven months after moving in with Wagner she had been given the “coup de grâce.”
This was no isolated storm. Like a spoiled brat, Wagner could never bear to be away from the centre of attention, sometimes emitting a piercing scream simply to shut up guests who had the effrontery to chat among themselves. But when Cosima was distracted for an hour or two, say minding the children or doing embroidery, his tantrums could become especially vindictive. Even before the Tribschen era, he particularly resented Cosima’s continuing contacts with her father—that same Franz Liszt who had proved such a staunch friend to Wagner when he was down and nearly out, as he so often was. And later in Bayreuth a “distracting” letter from Liszt sparked such a bitter outburst from Wagner that Cosima in distress abandoned her beloved diary for twelve days. How could she put up with such treatment? The truth is she enjoyed it. “I am glad of my suffering,” she wrote, “and fold my hands in grateful prayer.”
The Tribschen idyll with its peaks of physical joy and its “sublime flashes of insight” was no sham. That birthday music for Cosima unforgettably sums up the best of it. But as so often with Wagner, it was also a time shot through with peculiarly intense envy, prejudice and cruelty. Both extremes belong to the true picture of a life that, to cite Charles de Gaulle’s forbidding words between the two world wars about Germany, was like “a sublime but glaucous sea where the fisherman’s net hauls up monsters and treasures.” No wonder Wagner’s descendants staggered under the weight of so glorious but poisoned a legacy.