Judith Gautier’s memoir, Wagner at Home, offers a charming and revealing perspective on life at Triebschen. Gautier, the daughter of influential French dramatist and journalist Theophile, was invited by Wagner to visit after publishing several complimentary articles on his work. Upon her arrival she was greeted enthusiastically by Wagner and introduced to “Frau von Bulow, who has kindly come with her children to see me.”
This deception did not prevent Gautier from understanding well the domestic arrangements at Triebschen, or from being included as a frequent visitor and intimate friend. She is trusted by Cosima, the children, and even the dogs. Upon her arrival on one instance she is met by one of the kids, who shushes Gautier and escorts her to a secret hiding place where Wagner and the family have retreated in order to hide from unwelcome visitors. We are also given quite memorable descriptions of her approaching the house and hearing the first formative testings of the chords of the Prelude of Act III of Siegfried; of Cosima’s becoming faint during a hike yet consumed with anxiety that Richard not learn of it, explaining that “Wagner, who is indefatigable, always supposes that one has strength to follow him, and would be inconsolable if he were to know that he is mistaken. That is why it is necessary to triumph over weakness and continue the ascent.”
The volume that is in print is poorly laid out by an unnamed publishing house, in translation by Effie Dunreith Massie. The diction is delicious – Gautier observing of Liszt’s companion Countess Muchanoff that “she undoubtedly seeks to retain and to prolong a beauty so celebrated, but she depends still more on the graces of her mind, which time does not affect, upon her intellectual culture and her musical talent.” Meow!
The memoir describes in colorful detail the first performance (in Munich) of Rheingold; the machinations of Ludwig’s courtiers against Wagner; and the reconciliation of Cosima with her father; and casts Gautier as a necessary and central agent in these affairs. Whether in fact she was is a matter of speculation, as is the real nature of her later friendship with Wagner after the premiere of the Ring in 1876 (a period not addressed in this book).
Irrespective of its veracity, this is a completely entertaining read, however poorly republished, and heartily recommended.