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Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth [Hardcover]

Oliver Hilmes
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 April 2010
In this meticulously researched book, Oliver Hilmes paints a fascinating and revealing picture of the extraordinary Cosima Wagner - illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, wife of the conductor Hans von Bulow, then mistress and subsequently wife of Richard Wagner. After Wagner's death in 1883 Cosima played a crucial role in the promulgation and politicization of his works, assuming control of the Bayreuth Festival and transforming it into a shrine to German nationalism. The High Priestess of the Wagnerian cult, Cosima lived on for almost fifty years, crafting the image of Richard Wagner through her organizational ability and ideological tenacity. The first book to make use of the available documentation at Bayreuth, this biography explores the achievements of this remarkable and obsessive woman while illuminating a still-hidden chapter of European cultural history.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (6 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300152159
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300152159
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 630,491 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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`Oliver Hilmes has produced a surprisingly amusing book.'
--Philip Hensher, Daily Telegraph, 1st May 2010

`[Hilmes'] book is a model of scholarship and also compellingly readable... A major achievement.'
--Michael Tanner, BBC Music Magazine, June 2010

`...offers a wonderfully clear-eyed look at the couple's relationship and her fanatical tending of his flame.' --The Sunday Times, 20th June 2010

'...a detailed, fair-minded and fascinating account, not just of a pivotal figure in European musical history, but of an epoch.'
--Robert Carver, The Tablet, 19th June 2010

`...offers a clear and scrupulous insight into how she created and stoked the peculiar mania that infected the Wagner cult.'
--Della Couling, Classical Music, 19th June 2010

About the Author

Oliver Hilmes is the author of a best-selling biography of Alma Mahler. Stewart Spencer is an acclaimed translator and editor (with Barry Millington) of 'Wagner in Performance' (1992).

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suffer the little children. 14 April 2011
Hilmes gives an important and remarkably well-researched account of this endlessly fascinating, if often repellent figure. It is compelling both as a work about a hugely influential cultural figure, and as a graphic account of what seems to me to be a seriously damaged personality. The account of her deeply unhappy childhood and first marriage offers some explanation of the psychological underpinning of Cosima's complex mixture of guilt and masochism, desire for total control, and development and tending of the cult of Bayreuth. One begins the book with enormous sympathy for the way the young Cosima is treated and emotionally neglected by her parents (whom she does not see quite literally, for years) and then repressed by governesses before embarking on a disastrous marriage to Hans von Bulow: I don't think it is too much of a simplification to say that one finishes it seeing the consequences of such a troubling childhood and early life animating her behaviour in Wahnfried. At the risk of being accused of crudity, the pitiable child has become a manipulative and controlling monster by the end of the book.

No deviation from her perception of what is necessary to `our cause' (such self-aggrandising terminology for the ersatz, quasi-religion of Wagnerism litters her letters) is tolerated from family or even dedicated friends and supporters of Wagner's work. Even her children are subjected to a highly developed level of emotional blackmail and psychological manipulation, leading ultimately to the complete anathematisation of the more independently minded Isolde: or to become proxy expiators for the parent's guilt in the case of Daniela.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important insight 15 Jun 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have read most of the recent books about the Wagner clan, but they all leave me with the question: what happened to Isolde? 'The Lady of Bayreuth' answers this question in gruesome detail. The book also suggests that Cosima was the driving force behind Wagner's anti-Semiticism and suggests a reason why. This book is well-researched and with new material to hand. The translation is excellent and easy to read. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who feels that their knowledge of the Wagner clan is not quite complete.
Other books:
Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth

Cosima Wagner's Diaries: An Abridgement
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cosima Wagner 15 Aug 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the story of the formidable Cosima Wagner. The illigitimate daughter of Lizst, she left her first husband to embark on a public affair with Wagner, with whom she later married and had three children. After her husband's death she ran the Wagner festival and set herself up as an expert on his music. A notorious anti-Semite, she comes across as having a very interesting history but not as a very sympathetic character. However, this is a well written and fascinating insight into her character and motivations.
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3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cosima Wagner Lady of Bayreuth 7 Nov 2010
As other reviewers have said, this is a fascinating and well researched book. It makes you wonder whether Bayreuth would have survived if Wagner had lived. Cosima's approach was in many ways contrary to what he might have done. She was essentially against any change and created a shrine. Wagner hinself was always restless and doing new things - his well known advice was "Kinder, schafft neues". Also while Cosima was extremely effective as a business woman and encouraged the rich and famous, Wagner ideally wanted to create an opera house open to all and despised the rich - in that sense he was ahead of his time in seeking "wider public access". Would he have compromised or would Bayreuth have gone bankrupt? Also, while Wagner was undoubtedly anti-semitic, as sadly were many others of his generation, the real rabid anti-semiticism of Bayreuth was more influenced by Cosima and, even worse, her appalling son-in-law Houston Chamberlain. This book makes that clear, and, sadly that things would only get worse after her death, and that of Siegfried, through the influence of another powerful woman, her duaghter-in-law, Winifred. The book also contaings much interesting and less well known information about Cosima's life before she met Wagner, and about her father, Liszt. I found the book rather turgidly written, and unlike one of the other reviewers, badly translated with many inelegant heavy sentances, interspersed with inappropriate colloquialisms - e.g referring to Siegfried and Winifred as "tying the knot"
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing Biography 14 Jun 2010
By I. Martinez-Ybor - Published on
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What a woman! Daughter of Franz Lizst and Marie d'Agoult (Daniel Stern), Cosima, wife to critic/conductor/pianist Hans von Bülow, later mistress of and eventually wife to Richard Wagner, and, later still, creator of the Bayreuth cult which was to exert critical influence in German cultural and political development through the second World War. This biography, first published in Germany in 2007, serves her well. Mr. Hilmes was blessed by a seamless translation from Stewart Spencer which makes the book read as it had originally been written in flowing, witty and intelligent English. The book is thoroughly annotated and indexed, as well as generously illustrated with period photographs. It claims to make use of all new documentation made available presumably after German reunification and various accommodations within the Wagner family.

Traversing such a life which began at the apex of Romanticism and ended at an interval in 20th century barbarity is a journey that keeps the reader attentive to every stage in the formation of Cosima Wagner. An emotionally neglected child (except for interludes with grandmother Lizst), sternly raised by governesses and boarding schools, intelligent, a very talented musician and pianist in her own right but denied a career by her father, the one lesson Cosima seemed to have derived was that her destiny was to be humble and find fulfillment in serving superior talent. Considering her parentage, it is indeed a strange inheritance.

There is much we know about the von Bulow-Cosima-Wagner-LudwigII soap opera. Mr. Hilmes enriches whatever knowledge I already had with a wealth of detail and much insight. As fresh detail is brought forth, gradually one cannot help but marvel at the competence, the savoir-faire that one sees developing in Cosima through the years in which she was Wagner's secretary while still married to von Bülow, as well as later, after divorce from Bülow and marriage to Wagner ensued. True to form, she devoted herself totally to Richard Wagner and the development of his career, playing a significant part in the founding of the Bayreuth festival, though never seeking the spotlight. She was efficient, resolute and ruthless as well as self-effacing. She carried herself like the aristocrat she wasn't, and demanded that sort of respect from others, putting all others to the service of "Richard Wagner," not only The Master, but the family firm. Let us not forget that Richard Wagner was 24 years Cosima's senior. When they married in 1870, Richard was 57 and Cosima would turn 33.

Yet it does not take much persuasion to conclude that Cosima truly found fulfillment with the death of Richard Wagner. Now she had the ideal which to serve without the frailties of the human being (yes, there had been infedelities by Richard), and absolute control over the means with which to exercise it. That in the process she weilded an iron fist in running family, Festival and heritage she considered it a duty. It was all to serve the ideals of art according to the wishes of the Master. Later, the ideals became those of German national identity as revealed in the writings and operatic works of Richard Wagner. Indeed, with the introduction of Houston Stewart Chamberlain into Wahnfried, we enter a period in which music and aesthetics, arguably the Richard Wagner we admire today, is less of a focus but a portal into a cult, centered in Bayreuth, of what the German nation ought to be. The almost masochistic relationship between the first Parsifal conductor Herrman Levi, a Jew, and Cosima is amply discussed, and importantly so, as anti-semitism, present since the Master was alive, became an almost obsessive part of the cult after his demise. The reactionary, anti-democratic and nationalistic views of the Bayreuth clan became more pronounced after the German defeat in the first world war. The Weimar republic became anathema; at one time Cosima clamored in exasperation that Ludendorff should become dictator. But by this time Cosima's health was in decline. Hapless Fidi (composer/conductor son Siegfried) had started managing the Festival under much maternal guidance and supervision since 1906. Though a practicing homosexual, he later had married the 18-year-old and 28 years younger English orphan, Winifred Williams-Klindsworth. One is tempted to make parallels between Cosima and Winifred, but, personally, their backgrounds are very different, furthermore it is indeed another story. In the event, by 1922, Wahnfried, was already admiring Mussolini, Cosima remarking that he was the sort of man Germany needed.

In September 1923 Bayreuth's National Socialists organized a German Day and invited a not too well known but rising Austrian politician to lead the speeches: Adolf Hitler. Cosima, though frail due to her repeated Adams-Stokes attacks, watched the brown shirts parade. Hitler visited Wahnfried and spent time with Winifred and Fidi and may have met Cosima. It was the beginning of a family association that would last. Chamberlain, Eva and Daniela Wagner, and Winifred joined the National Socialists in 1926. Cosima and Siegfried did not. In many ways the Bayreuth cult had come to symbolize the ideological bent Germany would follow through the third Reich. At this time, with Wagner royalties having expired and the Wagner riches (they had become millionaires) dwindling, it had also become clear that the future of Bayreuth would lie with Adolf Hitler, a fact Winifred never forgot, but, again, that is another story (well told in: Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth.

Cosima died on 01 April 1930 at age 92; Siegfried survived his mother by 126 days. Within 24 hours of his death, Winifred assumed control of the Bayreuth Festival.

I have always felt that Hitler would have had the career he had without Bayreuth. Yet, from all I have read, I find it easy to believe that this most self-assured, indeed delusional, man, sought some sort of personal validation through his long association with the Wahnfried group, initially not so much with the fading Cosima as with Chamberlain, later with Winifred, and eventually with the young brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang. This again, is beyond the scope of Mr. Hilmes.

I know of no other Cosima biography in English. This one is packed with information and is a pleasure to read. It is not a biography of Richard Wagner, so those looking for a musico-centric volume should search elsewhere. But what the Master came to represent would not have been possible without Cosima, fairly or not. That the glories of his musical works live on is tribute enough to his genius, independently of the ideological currents which for a while and through the strong efforts of Cosima flowed from the Green Hill. This book is strongly recommended not only to music lovers but to anyone interested on the currents which steered historical events in the twentieth century. Oliver Hilmes has written a magnificent biography.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest portrait of a historic figure 1 July 2010
By Sintolt Hegeling - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book gives an objective portrayal of a woman who was very much a product of circumstances and of her generation, yet very much ahead of her time in some ways. Her life was both magic and tragic. A lot of tangential history is provided with regard to the important men in her life - Liszt, von Bulow, and Wagner. The historical events of the day are blended in to show their impact on her life and her personality. In the end, one is left with a sense of ambivalence regarding her "likeability". Like her father, Liszt, and her husband, Wagner, she could be both admired and despised at the same time. She was a rabid anti-Semite, even worse than both of her husbands. Yet without her strong will and influence and ability to work with some of the very people she despised, the Bayreuth festival would have never survived.
The author provides a good narrative, easily readable, and not overly-burdened with trivia. The author had at his disposal letters and documents that were unknown to previous biographers, and therefore is able to paint a more accurate picture of her. One is still left wondering what responsibility, if any, Cosima shares for the linkage of Wagner to Hitler. It is hinted that she may indeed have been introduced to Hitler in the 1920's when he was given a tour of the Wahnfried home by Winifred Wagner, but admits that there are no supporting documents to prove that they ever met. Overall a very interesting read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating life finally revealed in full 7 Oct 2010
By William Fregosi - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Oliver Hilmes (seconded by a skillful translation from Stewart Spencer) begins this invaluable, extremely readable life of Richard Wagner's great helpmate by documenting the defects of all previous biographies. All were hobbled by lack of access to the Bayreuth Archives (including hundreds of letters and other documents that pack the pages here), or were politically managed by forces within the family and/or members of the cult Cosima had so relentlessly constructed around her late husband. The result is a detailed, exhaustive study that never feels cumbersome, being leavened by a sly wit and a keen eye for the illuminating tidbit.

There are stories told here that beggar the imagination, stories that confirm Nike Wagner (Richard's great-granddaughter) in her famous statement that to be born a Wagner was like being raised "in the German branch of the House of Atrius". Hilmes' description of Cosima's demeanor and actions during the 24 hours immediately following Wagner's death is in itself worth the price of the book.

Hilmes examines at length the connection between the Festival and the growing German Nationalist movement that led directly to the alliance of the Festival, Cosima's daughter-in-law Winifred, and Adolph Hitler. For those who claim "Wagner was a Nazi" or, when called on that, "Well, Wagner WOULD have been a Nazi", Hilmes traces the real origin and development of the unheilig Bayreuth-Wagner axis and its name was Cosima Liszt von Bulow Wagner.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cosima Wagner is a key to understanding Wagner. 23 Sep 2011
By Ultrarunner - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Cosima and her brother and sister were the result of the union between Liszt and Marie d' Agoult. They were not really wanted and ended up with Liszt's mother Anna.They went to a school they enjoyed. Eventually, when Marie and Lizst parted and he lived with Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein who was a devout Catholic, she encouraged Lizst to take the children away from Anna. For she had allowed the children to visit their mother Marie, whom he considered a bad influence on them. They ended up by being educated by two governesses,sisters,one of whom educated Caroline. Cosima took on board the values of the Ancien regime through these elderly governesses. These views were swept away by the political and social upheavals since 1830.She was brought up to despise the values of this different world in France, and to have contempt for bourgeois values. She and the other two children were brainwashed with a narrowminded form of rightwing Catholic views. Cosima dealt with the world psychologically, because of the many emotion wounds that she suffered, by walking in the footsteps of Christ as it were. She developed pleasure from suffering,and a willingness for self -sacrifice and rigid self control on the other hand, mixed with pride.

Von Bulow married Cosima out of respect for Lizst. He was unstable and a through going anti-semite. She married him to get away from her awful situation. She was throughly brainwashed. Thus, when she met Wagner, she idolized him and was ready to sacrfice herself for him. He could not believe his luck. He was at this stage 24 years older then her." A lucky old dog" he said about himself. She saw a man who was a greater composer then her father. Wagners friends said she tried to drive a wedge between them and him. Also, he became very intolerant towards Jews as a a whole under her influence. Though he still had individual Jewish friends. The diatribe he had written on Jews 18 years before was a dig at Meyerbeer, who he thought was a lesser composer then him. She turned him into a cult, which he went along with. I think he was frightened that she would leave him.

However, when Wagner died without leaving a will, after a period of time, she simply took over the festival and created the myth that Siegfried was the heir. Wagner himself thought that no one could take over from him and that also meant Cosima. He felt he had made a mistake in creating the Bayreuth theatre. He also wanted to encourage new works by other German composers. Her diary is full of dislike of the Jews. Houston Chamberlain became the house anti-Jewish philosopher who was revered by the Kaiser. I think he wanted a relationship with Cosima. However, he ended up by marrying Eva, after ditching his wife of 30 years. Siegfried took over the festival in 1906. Cosima made sure no one challenged his position. She even isolated her daughter Isolde,because she married Beidler, a Swiss conductor who had a son. Once Beidler became a threat to Siegfried, she virtually destroyed her daughter. When Winifried married Siegfried at 18,he was 46. They had four children, Wieland, Friedelind,Wolfgang and Verena. Cosima died aged 92 in 1930, and a few months later so did Siegfried. Written by Oliver Hilmes and translated by Wagnerian Stewart Spencer.A very easy read and not at all boring.I could not put it down.
If you are interested in knowing more about this family, read Winifried Wagner by Brigitte Hamann, the Wagner clan by J. Carr, also The Wagners by Nike Wagner.
5.0 out of 5 stars I learned a lot 22 Nov 2013
By Olivia L.L. Bergier - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Why I liked the book. It was extremely interesting.I knew a lot about Wagner but nothing about his wife who was a bad character , just like her husband.Liszt also was a poor typevwith a tremendous ego. Nevertheless, their music is suberb, especially Wagner's.
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