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Wagner Richard and Cosima


The Domestic Life of Richard Wagner

By Arthur Elson

The domestic career of Richard Wagner has formed the subject for endless discussions. His birth, his early studies, his university career, and his start as a professional musician, all took place in Leipsic. There, too, he met the famous opera singer, Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient, whose gifts made such an impression on the young composer. It was the excellence of her acting, as well as her singing, that gave the embryo reformer his first ideas of the intimate union of drama and music that is one phase of his later operatic greatness. Many of his leading rôles were written for her, and as late as 1872 he stated that whenever he conceived a new character he imagined her in the part.

His work as leader took him first to Magdeburg. The failure of his early opera, "Das Liebesverbot," put an end to this enterprise, and soon afterward he appeared as concert leader in Koenigsberg. There he met and married his first wife, Wilhelmina (or Minna) Planer. Their natures were different in many respects. While he displayed many of the vagaries of genius, she was patient and practical, and, if not wholly understanding the highest side of his nature, she gave up her own career to help him through his days of poverty and struggle.

The first venture of the wedded pair was at Riga, where Wagner was engaged for a term to conduct in a new theatre. After this, they took ship for Paris, and the stormy passage gave Wagner many a suggestion for his "Flying Dutchman." It was in the French capital that Minna's domestic qualities were given their most severe trial, for the composer found little or no chance to produce his own works, and was forced to gain a precarious living by the commonest musical drudgery. Probably her constant care and economy were all that turned the scale in favour of success. At length the Dresden authorities became interested in some of the earlier operas, and Wagner was liberated from his dependent position.

The stay in Dresden being cut short by the political troubles of 1848 and 1849, Wagner found a home in Zurich, where his wife soon joined him. There he wrote or sketched the grand works that came to full fruition in his later life. After years of exile, he came back to Germany, where his pursuit of fortune was still in vain, and might have ended in suicide but for the sudden patronage of his royal admirer, the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. It was at this time that the differences in character began to cause domestic infelicity in the Wagnerian household. Finally the pair separated, and, although he did not leave Minna in want, yet she was compelled to pass the last few years of her life in seclusion and loneliness, while he basked in the favour of royalty, and found the high position that had so long been denied him. It is usually claimed by Wagner's most rabid partisans that she was unable to hold her place in the new surroundings, and that his genius needed a helpmate more in sympathy with his high ideals. Admitting the truth of these assertions, the fair-minded critic must accept them as an explanation, at least, of his conjugal ingratitude, but Minna's faithful performance of duty in the early days will not allow them to stand as a valid excuse.

Wagner's second marriage with Cosima, daughter of Liszt and divorced wife of Von Bülow, resulted happily. The devotion of the new helpmate to the Wagnerian cause has survived the master's death by many years, and is still witnessed by the musical world. The domestic bliss of their married life is well shown in the beautiful Siegfried Idyll, which Wagner composed as a surprise for his wife on their son's birthday.