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.