The Devotion of Isolde Wagner (“née von Bulow”)


An article appearing in the current issue of Wagner Journal addresses a subject about which I had been completely uninformed.  The lead sentence:

Richard Wagner’s eldest daughter, Isolde, had the idea of celebrating his 67th birthday on 22 May 1880 by wrapping the pots of gift rosebushes with paintings representing each year of his life.

What a task!  And how much fun would that be — to come to your birthday breakfast only to be confronted with 67 potted rosebushes, each with a hand-painted depiction of a year in your life!  Why had such a remarkable event entirely escaped my notice?  The second sentence of the article is even more compelling:

This article focuses on a small section of them and places this intriguing tribute to her father in the context of the life of my grandmother as a whole.

“My grandmother”?  A quick glance at the author’s name — Dagny R. Beidler, granddaughter of Franz Philipp Beidler (Isolde’s husband) and daughter of Franz Wilhelm Beidler (erstwhile competitor with the Wagner brothers for the directorship of the post-war Festival).

The author writes with authority and concision of Isolde’s childhood, which took an abrupt and contentious turn upon her marriage to Beidler, whose initially warm reception turned chilly upon his rejecting Cosima’s offer in 1905 of the post of conductor of the Bayreuth chorus.  His accomplishments as a conductor were underestimated by Cosima and his ambitions at Bayreuth could not be reconciled with Cosima’s ambitions for her son Siegfried,  For her part, Isolde’s rebuff of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s affections in favor of Beidler, and Chamberlain’s subsequent marriage to sister Eva and ascent to the pinnacles of Bayreuth influence, added to the pressures against the couple.  Beidler’s conducting passages of Parsifal in Berlin in 1909, prior to the expiration of the copyright, sealed their fate.

Cosima’s refusal in 1913 to share revenues from the royalties, on the ground that Isolde was not Wagner’s daughter, led Isolde and Franz to initiate the abortive legal contest in which they failed to prove her parentage, and Isolde died at the age of 53 in 1919.

But on the morning of 22 May 1880, no one doubted that Isolde was Wagner’s beloved eldest daughter, least of all Isolde herself.  Her remarkable pot-hugging watercolors — the product of substantial labor and devotion — are impressive in their own right, deeply touching in light of what was to follow.  Reproductions are offered in the Journal article of the painting-wrappers for the years 1813, 1822, 1842, 1849 and 1875.  Each shows impressive sophistication of design, color and balance, as well as the incorporation of symbols, codes and indirect references to events in Wagner’s life.  It was a well-read and devoted 17-year old, indeed, who depicted for 1849 the covers of “Artwork of the Future” and “Art and Revolution”; a proscenium labeled “Theaterreform”; a stylized bust of Athena; and a depiction of Jesus of Nazareth with disciples in a rowboat.  While avoiding any direct reference to Wagner’s flight from Saxony that year, the author observes that “In Wagner’s mind Christ was the bearer of social-revolutionary ideas.”  Clever Isolde, perceptive Dagny!

Eye-opening, charming, sad….

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By PeterP

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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