Don’t Hate the Player

Play it again, Liszt


in Archive


“Find Madame Wagner, and you will find yourself,” the man told me. It wasn’t quite the spiritual quest I had been expecting as I sat waiting for the U-Bahn to arrive. One second I was enjoying my book; the next, a man was jabbering excitedly to me in very quick German. I interrupted to ask him to slow down or switch to English, although really, I wasn’t listening so much as looking to see if I could get to the exit fast enough in case he pulled a knife. The man looked perfectly normal, able to dress himself and carrying a bag full of groceries and not, say, a bag full of moldy stuffed animals. But still, the situation was alarming. He picked up in English where he left off in German, repeating “You are she, you are she…unheimlich, you could be twins,” and something about Wagner. Then the train arrived and he jumped on with that final salvo, half message from God and half opening line to an awkwardly plotted fantasy quest, with a commoner unexpectedly finding herself heir to a throne.


  • A Book of Liszts: Variations on the Theme of Franz Liszt by John Spurling. 229 pages. Seagull Books. $21.

  • Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth
    by Oliver Hilmes. 354 pages. Yale University Press. $40.

“Find Madame Wagner, and you will find yourself.”

After many Google image searches for “Wagner mistress,” “Wagner muse,” and “Wagner daughter,” I finally came across a picture of Cosima. In an instant, I knew this was the face the strange man saw in me. She had a haunting familiarity when she faced the camera, as if she had was a long-lost great grandmother. In profile, she became a past life version of myself.

Cosima was Wagner’s wife, the one word I hadn’t tried in the search query. I did not think of myself as someone’s wife — it did not occur to me to consider my double filling that role. I felt an eerie enough draw to her photo, a draw at least as strong as a repulsion I also instantly felt, to look to see if she had a biography. She did. It just happened to be coming out in a few months, and the publisher had galleys available. Did I want one?

The push-pull response I first had to Madame Wagner never really went away. As I read Oliver Hilmes’ Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth, I hated her and I empathized with her. I delighted in the story of her first marriage proposal: As they were ferrying across a deep Swiss lake, a besotted young man declared that he would drown himself then and there if she rejected him. She told him to go right ahead; he had to be fished out of the water by the boat’s crew. Cosima had pluck and smarts, as well as a survivor’s steeliness. She was the only child of three to survive into adulthood. Abandoned by her father, neglected by her mother, physically abused by various caretakers, the young Cosima faced down hideous odds and triumphed.

Well, maybe “triumphed” is the wrong word. It’s wonderful when people are able to overcome poverty, disease, abuse, and illegitimacy to become crowning achievements of their field. With so many Oscar-winning biopics, gushingly written biographies, TV-ready versions of people’s lives and storylines of redemption dominating the memoir sections of bookstores, we expect that adversity always brings out the best in people. We expect the transformation process to be a clean burning fire from whence the phoenix rises anew.

What happened to Cosima is more likely the response to having life’s boot on the back of your neck throughout childhood. She came out a little twisted. She was a nasty anti-Semite. (Indeed, Hilmes believes that much of the anti-Semitism attributed to Wagner actually originated with Cosima.) Seemingly, she married her first husband Hans von Bülow because she and everyone else thought he would be a great man. The defining pianist of his age. When von Bülow disappointed her and the world by never growing his natural talent into genius, she picked up an affair with an undeniable great man, a man already setting the world on fire with his music, Richard Wagner. She even gave birth to Wagner’s daughter while still married to von Bülow, having the gall to name the girl after one of Wagner’s operatic characters. When Cosima finally married Wagner, she was so subservient to him that she only referred to him as Herr Meister. When he died, she refused to let them take his body out of her bed, lying next to him even as they embalmed his corpse.

Cosima was transformed all right. Into Widow Wagner. She turned Wagner’s work into an industry that she ruled over it with an iron grip. She selected the conductors. She ousted Jews from her theater. She refused to accommodate interpretations or editing. She invited Hitler over for tea. She returned slights with an Earth-scorching fury. She remade her religion with her husband as God and she his high priestess. She was kind of nuts.

I loved Cosima. I was appalled by her. I had arguments with her in my head. And yes, I horribly identified with her, with some of those thoughts you are ashamed even to think, let alone ever express on paper. I saw in her need to reject any talent of her own — and some say she had a truly brilliant affinity for the piano, maybe inherited from her father, maybe drilled in by those abusive nuns she was left with — and use her energy exclusively to facilitate her lover’s genius a parallel to a dark tendency of mine that I have to fight over and over when I fall in love. It’s not that I found myself when I found Madame Wagner. But I found a recognizable shard, one razor-sharp and nasty, a part I would have rather disowned, and I tried to find a little sympathy for it through Cosima.

At this time, almost two years ago, I knew very little about Cosima’s father Liszt, except for a summer I spent listening to Études d’exécution transcendante over and over again as I watched the swallows swooping outside my Irish window. I didn’t know anything about Liszt, nor Wagner, and I did not owe anything yet to their creative spirits, not even a feeling of pure ache, deep within my chest, as their music curved around a perfect moment in time. But I have known that ache with others, with Stravinsky and Chopin, with writers of all variety. I know how just a second of it can light you up and make you loyal to the person who gifted you that feeling against all usurpers or critics. Alliances are formed in those brief moments. I didn’t know at the time that I was going to take Cosima’s side. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I took it all the same. Cosima didn’t create anything beautiful that would drag me to her side, but we sure looked like kin, she and I.

I wasn’t the only one taking sides. Biographers take sides. Of course they do. So do readers, fans, and people identifying just a bit too much with a dead person. No one hates Thomas Edison so much as someone who has fallen a bit for Nikola Tesla. No one hates Lady Byron like someone to whom Childe Harold has spoken. In the way that we get angry for anyone who wronged our new lover long ago in his childhood, we get territorial about the musicians, writers, inventors, and great men and women of our world. We excuse their inexcusable behavior on behalf of the goodness they brought into the world, and we want to hurt those who hurt them.

This year was Liszt’s 200th birthday. We got a lot of books about Liszt this year as a result. I tried to read a couple of them, but found it odd to find Cosima, at least the Cosima I knew, so absent from them. I opened John Spurling’s A Book of Liszts, a collection of essays, fictional doodles, and fantastical recreations of moments from Liszt’s life, and read the dedication: “for AMY, a kinder daughter than Cosima Liszt.” Spurling had chosen a side. I immediately took the opposite stance.

It’s true, Cosima was not a very nice daughter. She took revenge for all those times Liszt never showed up when he said he would; for all the crazy, abusive nursemaids and governesses he hired; for the times he didn’t claim her as his own. Perhaps that is why she married von Bülow, Liszt’s own student. Von Bülow was the man who had the potential to overthrow his teacher; it’s just too bad he ended up a subservient little mouse, weak and sickly. That Cosima then managed to snag the one composer of the time greater than her father, the man who would redefine the national German myth and create works of tremendous power and beauty, must have been a psychic victory for Cosima. That she had to humiliate her father and her disappointing husband through the scandal of her divorce from von Bülow would have been an unexpected delight.

Cosima succeeded in getting her father and ex-husband to bow down before Wagner. Liszt, so absent and disinterested during her childhood, was now conducting her husband’s music. She wasn’t satisfied with humiliating her husband simply by introducing her daughter to the world as Isolde. He had to conduct the music of the man who cuckolded him, and he did. Wagner’s genius was her own, and his power was also her power, because she created the perfect environment into which the products of his creativity could be birthed. Cosima turned her heart into a black hole from a young age, the density building and building through every beating and every lie, with nothing to fill the abscess except her father’s absence. And when Liszt yanked Cosima away from her mother because of a petty feud, only to dump her with his own mother in a foreign country and then leave again, it’s like her self collapsed in on itself, creating a destructive pull.

But why such extreme animosity at the very beginning of Spurling’s book? There are perhaps two reasons. Spurling opens A Book of Liszts by deifying the composer. There is a secret society, he tells us, called the Society of Holy Plurality. The Society believes God has taken human form over and over again throughout time. Jesus, obviously. But also Shakespeare. Maybe Raphael. Definitely Liszt. His music, so transcendent. His soul, so pure and giving. His charity work, his nurturing of other composers, so godlike. Even his slutty tendencies just prove that God’s attitude on pleasure and sexuality is not as unforgiving as religion has suggested. When you turn a man into a God, you forgive all of his trespasses. They somehow become further proof of his divinity instead of examples of his humanity. Liszt the father does not come up for discussion: Gods are not supposed to tend to their children, at least not directly. That is what mothers are for. Throughout Spurling’s book, Cosima is at her worst a destroyer of worlds. At Spurling’s most generous, she is just another unfortunate casualty of the creative process.

There is also the small matter of Liszt’s death to attend to, which might explain why Liszt’s devotees hate Cosima. As Oliver Hilmes puts it in his biography of Cosima, “the death of her father came at a bad time for her.” She was already the cold Widow Wagner at this point, her husband’s death preceding her father’s by three years. She was still serving him, however, with the Bayreuth festival. There, Wagner and his wife had built an opera house that exclusively performed his operas; during the 1886 festival, Liszt fell ill with pneumonia. Despite spending all of her time making sure the festival was up to her and her husband’s high standards, Cosima put herself in charge of her father’s illness. Liszt’s teeth were problematic and he could not chew, and she sent over steaks and cutlets for dinner. When he moaned in pain, she shut the door that separated their rooms so she could sleep in peace. When it was clear he needed constant care and attention to soothe his pain, she dismissed his nurse. He died, in no small amount of pain.

It’s difficult for me to write out Cosima’s crimes without immediately coming to her defense. She had a miserable first marriage, in which her husband and his mother had shut in a room to deal with the birth of her second child. She had been shackled to a weak and histrionic man. She later found love only to lose it while she was still quite young. She had lost the brother and sister she loved. Her father had… But maybe now it is time to stop identifying with her. Maybe I can fight on her side without branding her name on my chest. It’s a sparsely populated side. Even on the back cover of the Hilmes biography that convinced me I had a connection to dear Cosima, there reads a wicked blurb by Joachim Köhler: “final proof of the intrinsic connection between Wagner and Hitler. The link is Cosima.” I can understand how someone could have suffered and then, failing to find any goodness in the world or in herself, starts to crave the ability to lay waste. Identifies with or decides to support a man who would lay waste on an unprecedented level. Looks at her father suffering a prolonged death and is able to think only of her own pain. After her father finally died, she sat in a nearby chair and slept soundly for hours.

The woman photographed on the back of Cosima Wagner could be me. Different hair, a dress that covers every inch of her body from chin to toe, but it might as well be me. She is sitting in front of Wagner, in profile, holding his hand and gazing at her husband who stands before her. The link between them is the firm clasp of their hands. He looks down in calm love, she looks up in a shy worship. I am she.

And yet, not. I’ve spent most of my life trying not to calcify into hate or revenge against an unfeeling world. Lately I’ve been listening to Études d’exécution transcendante again, finally able to do so without immediately thinking of Cosima’s childhood, or feeling I have betrayed her somehow. It sounds loudly through my apartment. It’s easy to see why someone would want posthumous revenge on the person who harmed the creator of this music. Only one man was on Cosima’s side in life. In death, at the very least, she has me, trying to see her as something other than Liszt’s ungrateful daughter. I did not find myself by finding Madame Wagner, but I did find a shadowy twin. And it will be a long time before I recover from the cryptic mission I found myself on one cold day in a Berlin subway station. • 29 November 2011