Cosima Wagner and Antonie Petersen January 29 2021
The history of a friendship between Hamburg and Bayreuth
So far, little or nothing was known about the close links between Richard and
Cosima Wagner and the northern German city state of Hamburg. Author Claudia Graciela Petersen has recently opened her family archive in order to publish two abundantly illustrated books telling us the story of her great-great-grandfather Carl Friedrich Petersen, Mayor of Hamburg (1876-1892) - one of the most important political personalities of the time - and his family, mainly his unmarried daughter Antonie “Toni” Petersen, who played a predominant role in Hamburg’s cultural life in the second half of the 19th century.
Father and daughter Petersen met the Wagner couple on the composer’s second stay in Hamburg in January 1873 – the first having occurred in 1844, (shortly after the 1842 Great Fire that devastated the complete center of the old Hanseatic city) when he came in order to supervise the rehearsals and the premiere of Rienzi at the Stadttheater, the Opera and Theatre House – this time accompanied by his then 34-year-old wife Cosima.
By the time, Toni’s widowed father was already a senator and as such held the position of the ‘Polizeiherr’, the mighty ‘Home Secretary’ of the town. Petersen’s close links with the Stadttheater and the family’s friendship with many famous artists of the time let him naturally be involved in the festivities organized in honour of the Bayreuth Master’s visit and Toni, a passionate music and theatre lover, was at her father’s side.
Wagner and Cosima who were on an important promotion tour for the ‘Causa Bayreuth’ had to find not only financial support for the festival. They also wanted to present Wagner’s still unknown Tetralogy to the public. The mutual sympathy between Cosima and Toni was a spontaneous one and after this visit to Hamburg, an intense correspondence started immediately between the two women. Soon Cosima offered Toni an aunt/niece relationship, Cosima being the ‘venerable aunt’ (dixit Cosima) and Toni, only two years her junior, her ‘dearest niece’.
The daughter of the ‘Doge’/Die Tochter des ‘Dogen’
In the center of Toni’s biography we find the story of her friendship with Cosima, her visits to Bayreuth, where the Festspielhaus and Wahnfried were still under construction, and her enthusiastic support of the Ring project. A turning point of her life was Hans von Bülow´s installation in Hamburg.
The great pianist, outstanding conductor and unhappy first husband of Cosima, then 56 and already ailing, had come to Hamburg in 1886 with his second wife, 31-year-old Marie Schanzer, in order to conduct seasonal concerts and and operas. Toni, then 46, who already knew Marie since the latter appeared in various theatre parts in Hamburg in 1881, became Marie’s intimate friend and confidant. This close relationship did not remain without consequences on Toni’s relationship with Bayreuth.
On the other side, Bülow’s own friendship with Johannes Brahms helped establishing closer links of the latter with the Mayor’s family, a link that culminated in the attribution of the Honorary Citizenship of the Hamburg composer who in 1863 had left his home town in order to settle in Vienna, in bitterness, after having been denied the direction of the Philharmonic Society.
Thus, Toni is certainly the only woman having known so intimately the Wagner family on one side and Cosima’s first husband and his second wife on the other. Despite her admiration of Hans von Bülow and Brahms, her love for Wagner’s music and her visits to the Bayreuth Festival continued. Her last voyage to Bayreuth dates from one month before her death in 1909.
“To the ‘Dearest Niece’/An die ‘Theuerste Nichte‘
The second book contains 70 original letters Cosima wrote to Toni as from
1873 up to their last meeting in Hamburg in 1904, though decreasing in frequency and quantity after Wagner’s death. As Toni’s letters have not been found in the Wagner archives, there are extensive comments allowing a thorough understanding of the contents and plenty of footnotes that give insight into the many events and persons mentioned. The correspondence gives direct insights into the life at Wahnfried and the preparations of/rehearsals for the Festival premiere. The letters reveal Cosima’s intellectual interests, contain discussions on many lectures on political and religious subjects, history and literature, show her care for the children, her friendship with women like Malwida von Meysenbug and Marie Muchanoff, her relationship with her mother on occasion of Marie d’Agoults death in 1876 and comments on most of the (future Wagner-) singers and conductors of the time. They are letters ‘from woman to woman’, letters that reveal a highly cultured, authentic, warm-hearted though polite Cosima in the most fascinating period of her live with Wagner: the making of the Bayreuth Festival and the first representations of the Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal.
From Claudia Graciela Petersen:
- Die Tochter des ‘Dogen‘. Das Leben und Wirken der Hamburger Bürgermeistertochter Antonie Petersen, Leipzig 2018
- An die ‚Theuerste Nichte‘. Cosima Wagner im Spiegel ihrer Korrespondenz mit der Hamburger Bürgermeistertochter Antonie Petersen, Leipzig 2020.
Both books are abundantly illustrated with original photographs, concert programs, excerpts from the Petersen family guest book, most of them never published before and stemming mostly from the Petersen private archive. Published by the Leipziger Universitätsverlag.
The books can be ordered on Amazon