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Wagner in Love – and some potent recordings

Shakespeare drew inspiration from the ‘dark lady of the sonnets’ and Beethoven found solace in his mysterious ‘immortal beloved’, but Richard Wagner was often inspired by relationships closer to home. Fleeting romantic encounters and domestic celebrations stimulated a private, intimate style of art rarely associated with a composer best known for his lofty theatrical visions of transcendent love.

It all began when Richard was a brashly confident eighteen-year-old in Leipzig, infatuated with a Jewish girl named Leah David, daughter of a wealthy Polish family and a friend of his sister Luise. ‘Never before had I encountered a young girl so richly attired and so beautiful’, he wrote. ‘Never before had I been spoken to with such oriental profusion of caressing politeness. Surprised and dazzled, I experienced for the first time the indescribable emotions of first love’. The boy became a regular guest at musical evenings arranged by Leah’s widowed father, and he composed a Polonaise in D for piano, a measure, perhaps, of his fascination with his beloved’s Polish origins. However, the relationship soured when a tactless remark about the pianism of another suitor (Leah’s cousin) led to his undoing. Upset and embarrassed by what escalated into a display of bad manners, the beautiful Leah transferred her affections to her cousin, and the young Wagner was left mortified. Tact was never his strongest suit.

Thirty years later, after an unhappy first marriage to the actress Christine Wilhelmine (Minna) Planer, a more chastened if still impulsive Wagner was living a very different kind of life. Together with his second wife Cosima he had created, from the mid-1860s onwards in Lucerne and then in Bayreuth, the kind of stable family life for which both had longed. Little domestic celebrations became increasingly important in the Wagner household. Every birthday and almost every major holiday was marked by some collective, creative undertaking. The children (two daughters and a son born to Cosima and Richard and two daughters born to Cosima and her former husband, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow) were encouraged to improvise performances, while Richard wrote nonsense verses in their honour, and even the family pets joined in.

The Siegfried (Tribschen) Idyll of December 1870 was the most beautiful of the intimate works to flow from the pen of Richard Wagner during his six happy years in Lucerne. Dedicated ‘to his Cosima from her Richard’ it marked her thirty-third birthday and the birth, eighteen months earlier, of their son. Imbued with intimate references, it also evoked the recently completed ‘second day’ of the Nibelung cycle, Siegfried. Finding himself in desperate straits financially in 1878 in the wake of the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner was obliged to sell the Idyll’s performance rights to the publisher Schott, to the lasting regret of its dedicatee.

In the year of the Siegfried Idyll, Cosima had surprised her husband on his birthday in May by organising, outside their house on the banks of Lake Lucerne, a performance of the Homage March which he had composed in 1865 to honour his benefactor, the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Cosima’s birthday was 24 December but she always celebrated on the 25th. Some non-German commentators have looked askance at this habit of combining Christmas Day with a personal celebration, but traditionally Christmas festivities and gift-giving around the Christmas tree took place on Christmas Eve, and so it was in fact less intrusive to celebrate her birthday the following morning when the focus was on church-going and quiet family pursuits.

For Cosima’s birthday in 1868, Richard had delved into his past, drawing on songs that he described in jest as being ‘from ancient times’. 1868 had been an intense year for him, marked by the triumphant premiere of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Munich, conducted by Bülow. Work on the third Act of Siegfried was about to recommence after an interruption of twelve years, and the composer was in no state of mind to embark on any substantial new undertaking, even one honouring Cosima’s birthday and her newly revealed pregnancy.  So he came up with the idea of revisiting four of his songs from the late 1830s and collecting them under the title of White Songs.  

Tannenbaum (‘Fir Tree’) had been composed in 1838 while he and Minna were living in Riga, then a city of the Russian Empire of Nicholas I. The twenty-five year old Wagner had been engaged as music director in Riga, but despite his initial success in leading the little opera house and its musicians to new heights, he made enemies and, more importantly, unforgiving creditors. Faced with impossible demands for repayments, he and Minna fled in the dead of night, slipped across the heavily guarded Prussian border and headed for the port of Danzig. With its poem by Georg Scheurlin, Tannenbaum is a mystical dialogue between a boy sailing across a lake and a fir tree on the bank. The song’s frightening message is that the tree foresees the boy’s death and its own cutting down to make his coffin. Hardly birthday-greeting material one might think, but its music hints at things to come, particularly the Norns’ scene in Götterdämmerung.

The other songs in the 1868 grouping have French texts, so appropriate for Cosima, daughter of Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult and Franz Liszt, who had been born and raised in France. Dors, mon enfant (‘Sleep, my child’) with its repeated, typically French grace-note ornament, bears more than passing resemblance to the Spinning Chorus of The Flying Dutchman, composed in Paris early in 1840. Rocking cradles, spinning wheels and cyclical repetition all create hypnotic and soothing effects appropriate to their contexts. The third song, Attente (‘Waiting’) after a text by Victor Hugo, is an impassioned evocation of a lover’s impatience, and the fourth, Mignonne is the most seductive of all. Using a text by the sixteenth century French poet Pierre de Ronsard (after whom the popular rose was named), Mignonne is about a suitor’s attempts to persuade his sweetheart to make the most of her youthful beauty before it passes, a victim of time just like the fragile rose itself.

The revised, 1868 versions of the four songs were given modified tempi, some variations in piano pitches (notably in Dors, mon enfant), the use of chords instead of rests in Mignonne for rhythmic variety, and some changes in dynamics.

Falling into quite a different category are the famous songs we know as the Wesendonck Lieder, settings of five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck from late 1857 and early 1858, composed at the time of Tristan und Isolde. Der Engel describes the compassion of Angels who risk earthly forces to carry spirits up to heaven. Stehe still is a plea to time to stop its ceaseless circles in favour of the emptiness of pure being. Im Treibhaus (‘In the Greenhouse’) is the most Schopenhauerian text of the cycle with its emphases on the nothingness of apparent reality, its music clearly associated the Prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde. In Schmerzen (‘Sorrows’) the poet reflects upon the paradoxes of life and death, and like Im Treibhaus, the exquisite Träume (‘Dreams’) is a study for Tristan, this time the second Act with its longing for the dissolution of being. These songs are justly celebrated but they exist on a loftier plane than the ‘White Songs’ and have more in common with his stage works. Perhaps, more than anything else, they define the nature of Wagner’s relationship with his soulmate Mathilde, wife of his Zürich patron, a relationship that Minna could not understand but which Otto Wesendonck, it seems, did.

A 2017 recording ‘Declarations of Love’ offers ‘complete piano works and piano songs for Mathilde and Cosima’. In addition to the White Songs reworked and compiled in 1868 (this is a ‘world premiere recording’) and the Wesendonck Lieder, it provides performances of  the Wesendonck Sonata for piano 1853; Schlaflos – a Piano letter for Mathilde Wesendonck 1856, and Schmachtend (‘Languishing’) – Piano Elegy for Cosima 1859/81. The pianist is Andrej Hoteev and the soprano Maria Bulgakova. Both are Russian artists living in Germany. The Hänssler CD is a co-production with Deutschlandradio Kultur which broadcast and streamed the recording and an interview with Andrej Hoteev, following the live broadcast of the Bayreuth Siegfried. It was via this broadcast that the writer was able to listen to this fine recording.

Hoteev is clearly passionate about these works and about Wagner’s music generally, and provided an extended note for the first published score of the Four White Songs by Doblinger in Vienna in 2016, reproduced in the recording booklet. His remarks about the late, great Sviatoslav Richter’s passion for Wagner and deep knowledge of not only the piano works but the entire Wagnerian operatic repertoire, is something of a revelation. It was Richter who had introduced Hoteev to Wagner’s piano works in St Petersburg in 1985. The piano in this recording is a warm and expressive partner for the vocal line and an eloquent voice in its own right. Maria Bulgakova’s rich, velvety soprano preserves the songs’ sense of intimacy and brings a slightly dreamy quality to works which are, in the main, reflective rather than assertive. This makes for very easy listening. Her performance of Tannenbaum stands out for its sense of melancholy and foreboding, while Mignonne provides a wry but smoothly delivered conclusion to the White Songs.  I have to say that my personal preference in respect of Mignonne is for Thomas Hampson’s achingly beautiful delivery (aided by Geoffrey Parsons) of the sensuously loaded text, as the poet tries to convince his beloved not to squander her charms but rather bestow them on him before it is too late and her bloom fades. This quality of almost desperate persuasion was absent from Bulgakova’s lovely but rather reserved rendering. 

There has been a reawakening in recent times to the riches of Wagner’s piano and solo vocal works, long overshadowed by the musical dramas that were, undoubtedly, the principal focus of his creative endeavours. Nevertheless, these more intimate pieces reveal much about the breadth of his genius and the nature of his personal relationships. They are often windows on his compositional processes despite the fact that he was never regarded as a serious exponent of the piano repertoire during his lifetime, or afterwards. The fact is that they need to be considered in a wider context, not simply as isolated pieces for the keyboard (something that his father-in-law and champion Franz Liszt recognized) but as expressive vehicles for thoughts and ideas. This latest recorded contribution is well worth collecting by anyone with an interest in one of the most original and influential chapters in our cultural history.

PETER BASSETT     Published in Limelight Magazine, April 2017.

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