Cosima Wagner: The ideal companion March 03 2023


Cosima Wagner signed cabinet photo

Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt was the second daughter of Marie d'Agoult and Franz Liszt. She was born on December 24, 1837. Her unusual third name was derived from the lake in Italy where he parents had gone to wait for her birth. Cosima lived to reach ninety-two, outliving her second husband, Richard Wagner, by nearly half a century.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A young Cosima Wagner - vintage cabinet photograph by Fritz Luckhardt, Vienna.

She has gone down in history as a symbol of the ideal companion and was known to be one of the most gifted ladies of her time. Cosima spent her entire life establishing an environment in which Wagner could thrive artistically. She took over Bayreuth Festival shortly after he died in 1883, despite all hostility leveled at her due to her gender, French background, and upbringing. She continued to be its Artistic Director until 1908 when her son took over.



Cosima, her sister Blandine, and her brother Daniel were all raised by their paternal grandmother, Anna in Paris. Cosima and Blandine were eventually sent to Madame Bernard’s, an exclusive boarding school while Daniel was prepared for the prestigious Lycée Bonaparte. The three siblings remained very close due to the unusual circumstances of their upbringing.

Liszt and Marie d'Agoult parted ways. In 1844. After their departure, both Marie and Liszt could continue their independent lives. Marie returned to Paris and reestablished herself in society. she wrote essays and books under the pseudonym Daniel Stern and conducted a fashionable literary salon. Meanwhile, Liszt was busy travelling throughout Europe, furthering his career as a virtuoso pianist.

Franz Liszt continued to supervise his children's education and insisted on his sole right to decide the children's future. On learning that, Marie started speaking ill of him. Subsequently, Liszt forbade the children from contacting their mother. He himself stopped coming to Paris to avoid Marie. Cosima took his absence particularly hard. The relations between Liszt and his children were formal and distant. However, he provided for them liberally and ensured that they were well educated.

Cosima and her siblings

Of the sisters, Blandine was evidently the prettier. Cosima had a long nose and a wide mouth and was described as an ugly duckling. However, she inherited her father’s pianistic talent. She was able to easily play Beethoven's music as well as some of her father's compositions, but her favorite piece was the Tannhauser Overture, which she enjoyed playing with Blandine. Although extremely shy, she considered pursuing a musical career but Liszt refused.

[IMAGE] A very young Cosima in the back, with her brother Daniel and sister Bladine

In 1847, Liszt met Princess the estranged wife of a Russian prince, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. By 1848, the two had become lovers, and their relationship lasted for the remainder of Liszt’s life. Carolyne quickly assumed responsibility for the management of every aspect of Liszt’s life, which extended to the upbringing of his daughters.



On October 10, 1853, after eight years of not seeing his children, Liszt eventually returned to Paris. He arrived along with his new mistress, Carolyne, her daughter, Marie, and his German composer friend, Richard Wagner.

During this family gathering, Wagner recited a poem unusually out loud, causing the fifteen years old Cosima to grow fearful of him. This day marked the first meeting between Cosima and Richard Wagner. that evening, Cosima wrote in her journal that “this intelligent man” caught her eye. However, she went unnoticed by the forty-year-old Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner - Cosima von Bulow and Franz Liszt at Wahnfried 1880

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner and Franz Liszt at Wahnfried 1880 

Though they were living in the same city, Marie did not see either of her daughters for five years, until 1850 in a chance meeting at a concert. She returned to their lives, becoming increasingly involved in it. They accompanied her to opera houses, concerts, and museums. She introduced them to her interesting acquaintances and gave them advice on social graces and clothes.

When Liszt had learned that his daughters were seeing their mother again; his response, guided by the princess, was to remove them from their school and place them into the full-time care of Carolyne’s old governess, the strict and intellectual Madame Patersi de Fossombroni. Fossombroni greatly influenced the development of Cosima's personality. She instilled in her a submissive and restrained character.



Meanwhile, Liszt ordered one of his and Wagner's most promising students, Hans von Bülow, to give his mother a proper musical education. Bülow was a descendant of a long distinguished family of barons, a teacher at the Stern Conservatory, and pronounced pianist and musician.

Upon meeting Cosima, Hans admired her quiet composure, her elegant manners, her sense of humor, her intelligent way of conversing, and, above all, her skill as a pianist, in which he saw the stamp of her father. He fell in love with her.

Conductor Hans Richter with the 5 Wagner children Eva, Isolde, Siegfried, Daniela and Blandine

Conductor Hans Richter with the 5 Wagner children Eva, Isolde, Siegfried, Daniela and Blandine

Liszt approved the match, and the two married on August 18, 1857, at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Berlin. Cosima and her sister now lived with Bülow and his divorced mother for two years, in Berlin as an attempt from Liszt to keep them away from their mother.



On their honeymoon, Cosima and Hans traveled around Europe and stopped in Zurich to see Wagner. Wagner was still married to Minna Planer. However, his marriage was deteriorating because of his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck.

Cosima in 1865

Cosima resisted Wagner’s efforts to be friends. She was shocked by his mysterious involvement with Mathilde Wesendonck, she laughed at his notion that the world owed him a luxurious living, and his informal manners rubbed against her French aristocratic origins. However, Cosima was bound to be agitated by Wagner, whose works by Der Fliegende Holländer are a tribute to utter love, the kind she dreamed of.


[IMAGE] Cosima Wagner in 1865


The following year, when the Bulows returned to Zurich, Wagner and his wife, Minna, were on the verge of separation. Cosima, unexpectantly, showered Wagner with tenderness. On their last evening in Berlin, she fell at his feet and covered his hands with kisses and tears, leaving him surprised and slightly frightened.



Resigned to the thought that she could not be a great artist, Cosima took great interest in her husband’s musical career. On one occasion, she provided him with a scenario she had written for an opera based on the story of King Arthur’s court magician. However, nothing fruitful came of this project.

She played the role of the perfect housewife perfect hostess, putting up with Bülow’s temper and dark moods, and attracting Berlin's artistic and intellectual elite to their home. However, she admitted to Bülow that she felt desperately lonely in their young marriage, and even had suicidal thoughts. In the meantime, Wagner’s emotional life was in disarray as well. He was still married to his first wife but continued to be involved in several extramarital relationships.

Young Cosima with her father Franz Liszt

In December 1859, Cosima received the news of Daniel’s death of consumption during a visit to their home. Cosima’s first child, a daughter born on 12 October 1860, was named Daniela Senta in her brother’s memory.

In 1863, Cosima gave birth to her second daughter Blandine, named for Cosima's sister, who had also passed away in childbirth.

[IMAGE] Young Cosima with her father Franz Liszt

During these years, Bülow remained committed to Wagner’s music. He had undertaken the preparation of a vocal score for Tristan und Isolde, in 1858 and in 1862, he made a fair copy of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.



The Bülows continued to see Wagner several times at various places. Cosima’s reserve had gradually melted and she and Wagner became very drawn to each other. On November 28, 1863, Wagner visited Berlin. After dinner, while Von Bülow was practicing his concert, Wagner took Cosima out for a long taxi ride through Berlin. It was during this ride that the two declared their feelings for each other and started having an affair.

In 1864, thanks to subsidies paid by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner, and Hans were working on a musical collaboration. Meanwhile, the affair between the composer and the conductor's wife continued. Cosima was haunted by guilt feelings toward Bülow. However, she couldn’t resist her feelings towards Wagner.



Richard Wagner and Cosima in 1872

On April 10, 1865, Cosima bore Wagner’s first child, Isolde, passing her as Bülow's. In 1866 Wagner arrived in Lucerne where he rented a large lakeside house, the Villa Tribschen. He invited the Bülows and their children to stay with him during the summer.

[IMAGE] Richard Wagner and Cosima in 1872

It was during this period that von Bülow became aware of the nature of the relationship his wife and Wagner shared. However, he did not intervene. All three feared that if King Ludwig learned of their domestic triangle, he would withdraw his support from their music project.

On January 25, 1866, Wagner's first wife, who had been separated from him for many years, died of a heart condition, in Dresden. On February 17, 1867, Cosima gave birth to Wagner's second daughter, Eva Marie.



Eventually, in 1868, Cosima left von Bülow with her four daughters and went to live with Wagner in Tribschen, Switzerland. From then on, Cosima's life mission was total service to Wagner and his works. With her sharp mind and boundless energy, Cosima became Richard’s manager and secretary. She took his dictation, prepared his scores, filtered his outside contacts, conducted his business correspondence, and handled the finances.

The Wagners at Wahnfried in 1881, with a friend and a tutor

A month after she officially left Bülow, Cosima began to keep a diary. This diary was partly written in order to justify what she did to Von Bülow but she also wrote down the events of her daily life and documented her husband's creative activity.

[IMAGE] The Wagners at Wahnfried in 1881, with a friend and a tutor

On June 21, 1868, Die Meistersinger was premiered in Munich. It received a triumphant reception, ensuring the further support of King Ludwig. Richard's operas were increasingly performed, but he sought even greater outlets for his music. His dream now was to bring together Europe's finest singers, musicians, and set designers in a permanent theatre in which he could produce his operas.



Cosima´s children around 1873 - Left to right Isolde, Eva, Siegfried, Blandine and Daniela

Cosima gave birth to her first son, Siegfried, in June 1869. Hans could no longer pretend that his marriage could be saved. However, Cosima's Catholicism prevented her from getting divorced. It was only after she converted to Protestantism that she agreed to do it. She and von Bülow officially got divorced on 18 July 1870.

[IMAGE] Cosima's children around 1873 - Left to right Isolde, Eva, Siegfried, Blandine and Daniela

On 25 August 1870, Cosima and Wagner were finally married in Lucerne. In that year, Wagner composed the Siegfried Idylle to commemorate the birth of their son, Siegfried. Wagner and Cosima eventually settled in Bayreuth, a small provincial town midway between Berlin and Munich.



Working with Ludwig II, King of Bavaria -and gaining his financial support-, Cosima helped organize the construction of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth to hold Wagner’s opera festivals. She also played a big role in promoting the festival to the European nobility.

The first Bayreuth Opera Festival was opened in 1876. It was during this first festival that Richard and Cosima learned that Marie d'Agoult had died in Paris. Unfortunately, Cosima was unable to attend her mother’s funeral.

After the first festival in 1876, the couple was financially ruined, and their theater was deeply in debt. The very determined Cosima didn’t give up. She invented her own version of crowdfunding by launching a public subscription to finance Parsifal. The Wagners eventually departed for an extended stay in Venice.

Old Cosima Wagner in Wahnfried 1928

An Old Cosima Wagner in Wahnfried 1928 



Richard Wagner died on February 13, 1883, from a heart attack, in Venice, Italy. The now forty-five years old Cosima was truly shattered by her husband’s death, even though she knew from the state of his health that it could not be far off. She remained with his body for twenty-four hours after his death and even cut some of her hair to deposit it in his coffin.



With the passing of her husband, Cosima took upon herself the management of the Bayreuth Festivals, of which she was Artistic Director until 1908. Her inherent musicality had enabled her to steer the Bayreuth Festival tradition to the high standards that made it a central monument of German culture.

Cosima Wagner funeral procession - Bayreuth 1930

Cosima Wagner funeral procession - Bayreuth 1930

Cosima regarded her husband, Richard Wagner as a genius whose philosophy would not only revolutionize music but change the world. She continued to support his work long after his death. She placed all her family at the service of the Patriarch’s work, managing new productions, creating Wagnerian societies, and battling for exclusive rights. On April 1, 1930, Cosima died peacefully of old age.



- Cosima Wagner Signed Photograph

- Cosima Wagner Photograph Signed 1896

- Richard Wagner Autographs & Memorabilia

- Bayreuth Festival Photographs & Memorabilia



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