Wagner - the man before the myth
Head of Interactive, Radio 3
There’s no more successful myth-maker in music history than Richard Wagner. But travelling to Switzerland - to Zurich and Lucerne - for Music Matters revealed to me – and hopefully to you – the man behind the music and before the myths of his later years: Wagnerian legacies like his pink silk bloomers and velvet-clad composing costume, the Bayreuth theatre consecrated solely for the performance of Wagner’s music in 1876, and the court of his acolytes and idolators, including first and foremost his wife, Cosima.
But before all that was possible, Wagner spent crucial years in Zurich between 1849 and 1858. And thanks to an extraordinary love-triangle, the freedom he felt in political exile from Germany (he had fled Dresden after the part he played in the revolution there), and the support of rich friends and benefactors, from Franz Liszt to Otto Wesendonck, he was able to conceive and map out the course of the rest of his life. He completed the first two instalments of the Ring cycle, he wrote all of the prose poetry for the rest of it (the climactic operas all the way to the end of The Twilight of the Gods), he started work on the music of Siegfried, the third part of the Ring, he wrote a slew of chauvinistic, idealistic, and racist essays, and dreamt of a new kind of theatre for his operas. And despite his marriage to Minna, he fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, Otto’s wife; that consuming but un-consummated passion was the essential inspiration for the febrile love-death of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s single most revolutionary opera.
When Minna found out about the infatuation in 1858, Wagner was forced to leave Switzerland. When he came back in 1866, it was again because of a woman – his scandalous relationship with Cosima von Bülow, Liszt’s daughter and wife of the conductor, pianist, and Wagner-devotee Hans von Bülow. Their relationship scandalised Munich society and forced them out Germany; bankrolled by King Ludwig II, Wagner lived for 6 years at Tribschen, a magnificent villa amidst the otherwordly beauty of Lake Lucerne. These were some of the happiest years of his life: he finished Siegfried and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - and he continued to cuckold Hans von Bülow with Cosima, fathering three children out of wedlock and finally marrying her in 1870.
Both the magnificently opulent Villa Wesendonck, where Otto put up the Wagner family in a smaller house on the grounds, and the almost unbelievable perfection of Tribschen’s situation, make them ethereally special places, as I was lucky enough to find out. It’s not surprising that the Swiss landscape, and Wagner’s astonishingly ambitious walking tours in the alps, inspired some of the imagery and music of the Ring – rainbow bridges, cities above the clouds, raging tempests, they’re all there if you look for them in Switzerland. Combine that with the intensity of his love affairs – realised and unrealised, legitimate and illegitimate – and you could say that it’s Switzerland, not Germany, that is the true crucible of Wagner’s life’s work. Well: that’s how it felt to me, at least, experiencing both of these villas of Wagner’s musical invention. And their musical stairwells - as you’ll hear in the programme!
- Tom's trip to Zurich on Music Matters at noon on Saturday 18 May.