In the Footsteps of Richard Wagner: Zürich (Part II)

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In my previous article about Richard Wagner's nine-year stay in Zürich, Switzerland, I devoted most of my words to the places he frequented, the music he wrote and the performances he gave. I felt that an entire article would be required to describe his relationship with his most important financial backer, Otto Wesendonck (1815-1896) and Otto’s young, beautiful and soulful wife, Mathilde (1828-1902), who became Wagner’s most important muse in this period and, perhaps, in his whole life.

Otto Wesendonck was German and, like Wagner, professed opposition to monarchy and royalty. Unlike Wagner, Wesendonck was able in finance and had considerable monetary resources. He was from Wuppertal, lived in Dusseldorf from 1848 to 1850 and then moved to New York, where he expanded his successful silk business. He returned to Europe in 1851, choosing Zürich, where Wagner had already lived for two years.

Otto and his young wife Mathilde came to know Richard and Minna Wagner at the Hotel Baur au Lac, still one of the most exclusive in town. The Wesendoncks lived in the hotel from 1852 to 1857 while their villa was being built just outside of Zürich (and now well within the city limits).

Part of what solidified the bond between the two couples was that, in 1852, Otto gave Wagner a large loan and continued to show unstinting generosity to him for years to come. We know that, by 1853, Wagner had developed powerful romantic feelings for Mathilde and that she had similarly passionate sentiments toward him. There is some question as to whether this intense love between Wagner and Mathilde ever became sexual. The popular interpretation is that it was not consummated because so much of the music Wagner created while under the spell of this attraction is about the impossibility of two lovers achieving coital congress.

It is interesting that Wagner composed the extraordinarily erotic first act of Die Walküre in 1854 in one of his Zürich apartments during his infatuation with Mathilde. The story is of two people—Siegmund and Sieglinde—who meet and whose sexual attraction is so intense that they do indeed have wild passionate sex, even if they happen to be brother and sister!

In the summer of 1857, Otto generously offered the Wagners an Asyl, a country house, on the Grüner Hügel (the Green Hill) close by the Wesendoncks’s villa. The rent was negligible but, even at that, Wagner did not faithfully pay it. To Wagner, this house was not an asylum, as English speakers might imagine, but a haven where he would live and work for 16 months. Sadly, the building no longer exists, and another structure stands in its place.

Otto, even when he endured financial reversals, nonetheless kept providing financial support to Wagner, who was profligate in his expenditures. This frustrated Otto and was regarded negatively by people in Zürich. Elmar Weingarten, who heads the Zürich Festival, explained to me how grating Wagner’s behavior was to the Swiss. “Unlike the Germans,” he said, “the Swiss don’t spend money they don’t have. The Germans spend, which is good for the arts but not for the financial future." This observation may strike many readers as strange given that our received wisdom about most Germans is that they are not big spenders. Wagner, conversely, was a world-class spender—of other people’s money.

In September of 1857, a remarkable evening took place at the Wesendonck villa. There were the Wesendoncks, the Wagners and, on their honeymoon, the conductor Hans von Bülow and his 19-year-old bride Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt. Therefore, at the table that night were Wagner’s wife, the woman who was his muse (and whose husband was his patron) and a conductor who would be one of his closest collaborators and the woman (Cosima) by whom he would father two children while she was still married to her first husband.

His powerful feelings for Mathilde, which she returned in kind, were the inspiration for the libretto of Tristan und Isolde, which he had written in two months. Each night, Wagner read what he had written to Mathilde. He read the entire libretto to all present at that famous September dinner. Soon after, Wagner stopped composing Siegfried and, on October 1, 1857, began writing the music of Tristan und Isolde. The opera had its first performance in Munich on June 10, 1865. By that time, Richard Wagner and Cosima Liszt von Bülow were a couple and parents of an infant daughter named Isolde. None other than Hans von Bülow, still married to Cosima, conducted the premiere.

While working on the opera, Wagner also set five poems by Mathilde to music that are, in their way, also sketches for Tristan und Isolde. The five songs commonly referred to as the “Wesendonck Lieder” are known in German as Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five Poems for a Female Voice). The songs are performed, in almost every case, by a woman, and are seen as representing a particularly feminine sensibility.

Here are the texts, which you should read as you listen to performances of the songs.

The music to the songs will bring to mind motives from the Ring and, especially, Tristan und Isolde, on which he was at work. The songs most connected to Tristan und Isolde are the third, “Im Treibhaus,” and the fifth, "Träume."

Among the most renowned interpreters of the songs were Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell and, currently, Nina Stemme. I also very much like how Régine Crespin sang them and I encourage you to locate her complete performance of them. Watch a very fine version by Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter who, I believe, captures not only the emotions of the songs but brings a profound womanliness to them:

They were recently recorded by tenor Jonas Kaufmann who, in a video makes a persuasive case for a man singing them too. In addition to carefully studying the text even before going to the music (as any serious recitalist must do), Kaufmann said he felt that Wagner identified with the emotions in the words, especially in the song “Im Treibhaus,” in which the composer found expression of his homesickness for Germany even while living in a rather comfortable way with the Wesendoncks. Listen to Kaufmann sing all five songs.

At seven in the morning on December 23, 1857, Wagner placed musicians he had hired (with Otto’s money, of course) on the staircase of the villa. They played “Träume” (Dreams) to gently awaken Mathilde on her 29th birthday. Minna served bread, butter and coffee. Otto was in New York, trying to reverse serious setbacks in his business there. When he learned of Wagner’s extravagant and effusive gesture, he was quite angry.

To put things right, Wagner organized another staircase concert on March 21, 1858 that featured 10 movements from six Beethoven symphonies. He used an ivory baton designed by architect Gottfried Semper (most famous for the gorgeous opera house in Dresden). Mathilde paid for the baton, which was part of the collection at Bayreuth until it disappeared during World War II.

Tension on the Green Hill became unbearable as Wagner became ever more overt in his feelings for Mathilde, causing a rupture in the relationship between the families. Wagner was obliged to leave the Asyl. He sent Minna to a spa in Brestenburg and, on August 17, 1858, he went to Venice for a while, though he would return to Switzerland—specifically, to Lucerne—and began another crucial phase in his creative and personal life (with Cosima) that will be the subject of a forthcoming article in this series.

Remarkably, Wagner maintained his relationships with Otto, who continued to provide funds, and Mathilde, who was a devoted correspondent with the itinerant composer. The Wesendoncks sold their Zürich villa and property on the Green Hill in 1871 and moved to the new, united republic of Germany. Since 1952, the villa has been the Rietberg Museum, an important collection of art from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. But, on a long sunny afternoon on that hill, one can still hear the faint echoes of love music written during Richard Wagner’s life-changing sojourn in Zürich.