COSIMA WAGNER by George R. Marek


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The publication of Cosima's vast Diaries (1978, 1980) has inevitably rekindled Wagner scholarship--so, while others are busily revising Richard, veteran Marek has done a remarkably concise job (relying on Ernest Newman, using the Diaries very selectively and casually) of revamping Cosima's own story. And an irresistibly outrageous story it is--even if Marek, in eschewing all Wagner idolatry, perhaps tells it with a bit too much disdain and glib sarcasm. One of the three illegitimate children of Franz Liszt and French Countess Marie d'Agoult (whom he soon jilted), Cosima grew up as a pawn in her parents' inter-city battles; with no fixed home or steady source of love, she developed an ""armor of self-reliance."" Thus, her need for somewhere to belong led to a marriage-of-propinquity with her father's acolyte--super-competent musician Hans yon Bulow, a tragic figure whose failure as a composer led him to grovel at the feet of the great. . . first Liszt, then Richard Wagner. And so the yon Bulows spent weekends and such with stormy Wagner. Cosima's initial distrust turned to hero-worship; passion bloomed; Hans looked the other way, continuing to labor over Wagner's music, even after the birth of two children who were really Wagner's. And the situation reached its most grotesque extreme when Cosima began living with Wagner but engaged in flagrant deceits (with Hans' tacit consent) to keep this immoral arrangement a secret from Wagner's patron King Ludwig. Marek is clearly revolted by the Cosima/Richard schemes, clearly hostile as he goes on to record the firming-up of the new, soon-legalized Wagner household: the arrogance, the anti-Semitism, the purple passion, the delusions of grandeur, the Bayreuth mania, Cosima's ""Red Queen"" instincts (which continued for decades after R.'s death). But he also admits the genuineness of their love, Cosima's help in Richard's late compositions, and the general mixture of ""awful and magnificent "" in their epic yet tawdry and pathetic folie à deux. All in all, it's hardly definitive, and sometimes too cutely sneering--but it's a lively, irreverent treatment of an endlessly fascinating saga.

Pub Date: March 11th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row