One of the several Wagnerian whimsies that I have collected on my bookshelf is a 1931 translation by Hannah Waller of a 1912 book by Julius Kapp originally titled Richard Wagner Und Die Frauen: Eine Erotische Biographie (tempered in the American translation to The Women in Wagner’s Life). It’s one of those confident admixtures of myth, devotion, scholarship and popular literature that passed for serious musical study at that time. You recognize the genre: the first sentence of the introduction is “The prime force in creative art is Eros,” and at the end the author summarizes the influence of Mathilde Wesendonk in this way: “As his muse, she possessed the secret power of setting all the strings of his magic harp in vibration and bringing out the highest revelations of his genius.”
(As W.C. Fields either said or should have said, she can vibrate my strings any time!)
The course of Kapp’s study is, in his words, “the procession of women through Wagner’s life.” After a brief and indecisive section on the child Wagner’s relationships with his mother, his stepsister Caecilie, and two friends of his sisters (under the chapter title “Love’s Callow Years”), and some adolescent dalliances involving music lessons given to choristers, we pick up the real start of the “procession” with Minna Planer (chapter title: “Take Me, Wild Man of the Woods!”) and young Wagner’s artistic convulsions over Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. Minna’s early unfaithfulness is described, as well as their growing dysfunction (“Matrimonial Shipwreck”). Then the frustrated flight with Jessie Laussot, his collaboration with his niece Johanna, and the relationship with Mathilde Wesendonk. Domsetic catastrophe, flight, flirtations with many (including Blandine, Liszt’s eldest daughter), various housekeepers and patrons, Mathilde Maier, Friederike Meyer, Henriette von Bissing, and then Cosima.
But of course the procession was not completed. Now came three daughters, the death of Minna, the marriage to Cosima, and (according to Kapp) no mention of Flowermaidens, arguments or recriminations up to his death. (Cosima was still alive when the book was written and for 20 years thereafter.)
What a relief, then to turn to Eva Rieger’s 2011 volume, Richard Wagner’s Women (Chris Walton, trans.). Here is a study, not of the women Wagner clung to in his love life, but of the musical and dramatic substance of the women Wagner created in his art. From Rienzi to Senta, Elizabeth to Elsa and Ortrude, Isolde to Brunnhilde to Sieglinde to Kundry, we have an informed and musically attuned analysis of the characteristics of all of them that shed light on the dramatist’s world-view.
Now and then the author (or the translator) wanders into the sublime and leaves me behind, waving helplessly (“As is well-known, national hegemonic discourses have historically been structured as gender dualities.”). And a strong editor may have added to the already high quality of the analysis (the observation that male roles are orchestrated with brass and female with woodwinds is oft-repeated). But this is a responsible, even gripping study of the topic, from a perspective I had not properly considered. It is broadly accepted, I had thought, that Wagner’s women are fiercely independent, rebellious, un-corsetted, willing to leave family and hearth for passionate, even erotic, self-fulfillment. Rieger doesn’t deny this, but proposes that not a single woman in Wagner identifies herself in her own terms, or acts in her own interest. Rather, each one seeks self-identification though the heroic actions of a man. Her dramatic action is never to achieve in her own right, but rather to support and make possible the achievements of the man whose journey is the core of Wagner’s story.
In this, Wagner’s dramatic women differ not much at all from his biographical women. He didn’t ask what he could give to Minna or Cosima — he asked what they could give to him. A serial monogamist (at best), Wagner unhesitatingly confessed to anyone who would listen (and to many who wouldn’t) that he needed the love of a woman to create his masterpieces, and goddamit where is she. It is no wonder, I suppose, that in those masterpieces women support the heroic achievements of men.
But I challenge just how unconventional this kind of characterization is, or how much sexual obduracy is to be laid at Wagner’s feet. Rieger insists that her study will acknowledge the nature of women in Wagner’s society in order to “help us to avoid using him as a mere object of projection… and enable us to position him in his own historical context.” Yet the book, taken large, fiercely condemns Wagner’s authorship of weak women, reliant on men, and unable to take actions except in furtherance of the hero’s aims.
Does this set Wagner apart from the art of his day? Or in fact from Western culture generally? Does not Atys do what she does out of love for her man? And Gilda? What of that defiant actress Tosca, does she act for her own interests or those of her lover? Elektra awaits Orestes. Lady Macbeth goads her husband rather than acting on her own. Beatrice wants her Benedick and Juliet her Romeo; otherwise their lives don’t make sense to them. Portia dons the role of a man in order to earn the love of her man. Milton captures the accepted pre-Ibsen idea of brave and admirable women:
Two of farr nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honour clad
In naked Majestie seem Lords of all,
And worthie seemd, for in thir looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shon,
Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom plac’t;
Whence true autoritie in men; though both
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seemd;
For contemplation hee and valour formd,
For softness shee and sweet attractive grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
Paradise Lost, Book IV, 287-99
The point is not that men and women have different capacities for heric deeds; rather, it is that Western literature until 1890 portrayed them as such, almost without exception. Indeed, what is the great impact of works like Antigone and, much later, Doll’s House, except that they revealed powerful women as dramatic heroes in their own right, with essential humanity, indignation and human needs that had nothing at all to do with those of men?
One challenges, then, the presumed failing of Wagner because he wrote a play in which Brunnhilde loved Siegfried rather than acting to restore the gold. First, Siegfried loved Brunnhilde back. Second, Brunnhilde did, in fact, restore the gold. And third, Wagner conceived not of a wimpy woman who did as she was expected, but rather a whooping warrior who betrayed her father’s command in response to deep empathy, took an entirely unknown and unknowable departure into a threatening human world, and performed a gesture of love and sacrifice that destroyed the gods. Pretty good for somebody portrayed by a bass clarinet.
Wagner’s women weak? Idle? Simpering? Conforming? Corsetted? Compliant? Servants to their husbands? No no no no no on every count. Senta threw herself off a cliff in front of her father and her fiancé; Isolde sacrificed crown and revenge for uncontrollable physical passion; Eva prepared to shun her father, family and friends in order to forge her own life because Nurnberg threatened to deny it to her; Sieglinde betrayed her husband and copulated with her brother. These are not the portraits of 19th Century women. And if their stories are not the central stories of the plays they appear in, they are nevertheless stories of bravery and human passion that are rarely written in women prior to Wagner.
That Wagner’s women — both in real life and in fiction — devote themselves to the men they love is true. They are, however, whether Cosima or Kundry, very strong women indeed — whether or not they are accompanied by reeds rather than horns.