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Monday, November 15, 2010

WAGNER, The Wesendonk Lieder - Introduction

Published score of The Wesendonk Lieder (1857)

[This is the sixth posting on this subject, and I encourage you to look at the preceding five parts, wherein are the music and the lyrics of each of the five Wesendonk Lieder]

My proposition here is that Wagner wrote his Wesendonk Lieder for a set of poems that he was convinced were written about himself by his beloved Mathilde Wesendonk, and that had he not thought they were written about him, he would not have set his music to the words, as it was his theoretical belief that he could only write music for his own words, and not for the words of others. According to Wagner's theory, laid out in several publications that preceded his work on the Ring, words were an expression of Music, and Music was a way of conveying what words could do only inadequately. Hence the words and the music had to emerge from one soul. In the case of the Wesendonk poems, he read Mathilde’s words as his own.

The Wesendonk Lieder are a cycle of songs composed by Wagner in the course of the year 1857 to five poems written by Mathilde Wesendonk. The work is entitled Five Poems for the Female Voice and Piano (Fünf Gedichte für Frauenstimme und Klavier) although they were subsequently scored for the orchestra and are now usually performed with the orchestra. “I have done nothing better than these songs,” Wagner is reputed to have said.

Siegmund und Sieglinde

In a letter to Louis Köhler, of July 24, 1853, Wagner outlines his theory of the relationship between words and music. Since modern verse has developed into what it now is independently of music, while modern melody has become what it now is along “absolute” musical lines that have nothing in common with speech, it is useless to try to “set” already existing poetry into music. Newman explores this theoretical condition in light of the situation existing at the time Wagner wrote the poem of the Ring, which was also the time of Wagner’s letter to Köhler:

“It was this conviction, in itself the product not of abstract theorizing but of his personal creative instinct, that had led him to discard the long lines, the rhymes, the traditional ‘poetic’ apparatus of the Lohengrin text for the drastic concision, and at the same time freedom of line, of the Ring poem. It took the world some time to perceive that it was the musician in Wagner that made him take the novel view he did of poetry: it was the musician in him choosing words and shaping lines and groups of lines and whole scenes to suit a musical melody and a musical design that were none the less determinant within him because as yet they were mainly subconscious. It was with all this at the back of his mind that, while praising Köhler for the clarity of his ideas on the melody-in-speech and speech-in-melody so far as single phrases were concerned, he suggested that the young man should now carry his investigation into the further field of the broader relations of verse-form and musical form. But no one could do this with any profit until Wagner himself had shown how the theoretical problem was to be triumphantly solved in the Ring.” (Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner. Volume Two: 1848-1860, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1937, at 368-69)

This is consistent, therefore, with Wagner’s antipathy towards setting his music to the words of anyone other than himself. Clearly, the Wesendonk Lieder are a very significant exception to his normal practice, as here he was composing music for the words written by Mathilde.

What is the background to this exceptional development?

Mathilde Wesendonk in the 1850's

It has never been questioned that Wagner set the music for the poems because he was in love with Mathilde, and not because of any merit in the poems themselves. When later in life Mathilde sent Wagner a copy of a writing of hers on Frederick the Great, not only did he not respond to her, and had Cosima do so for him, but when he read Cosima’s letter he became rather angry at the generous praise which Cosima had extended to Mathilde. “What language is left us for the highest things” he asked Minna, “if we treat absurdity in this way?” Mathilde never achieved notoriety for her extensive writings. She was, says Newman, very highly regarded among the circle of her family and friends. (Ibid. at 525)

Furthermore, Wagner set music to these poems because, and here I speculate, he saw himself in them. He saw in these poems Mathilde’s love for him. The temptation to set music to them therefore became too great, despite the fact that it would involve him in a theoretical contradiction with his own previous writings and his own art.

In a letter to Liszt of December 1854, Wagner revealed that he had a ‘Tristan and Isolde’ in his mind. “Since I have never enjoyed in life the real happiness of love, I will erect to this most beautiful of all dreams a memorial in which, from beginning to end, this love shall for once drink its fill.” That was also the year that he discovered Schopenhauer’s book, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1819), which would have an enormous effect on him. The celebration of night, death and passionate love as a release from the unremitting struggle for life, which he read in Schopenhauer, was coincidental with the maturing of the Tristan idea in his mind, for as his biographer points out repeatedly, the Schopenhaurian philosophy came to Wagner because he had already found it. As well, by the time Wagner left for London in March, 1855, Mathilde Wesendonk had become his only link to the world.

Wagner in the 1850's

Wagner left London on June 26, 1856 and was back again in Zürich on the 30th. By then he was obsessed with Mathilde. As his biographer points out, “she was by now the only thing that reconciled him to the hard world of actuality." (Newman, op.cit., vol. II, at 494)

The relationship with Mathilde had grown since Wagner first met her in 1852. It spans the period of his composition of Die Walküre and the first two acts of Siegfried. He interrupted the composition of Siegfried in order to first write the poem of Tristan and then score the music. In this period he also composed the music for Mathilde’s cycle of poems.

The Wesendonk home in Zürich

The composition of the Wesendonk song cycle is the culmination of a series of events that begins with the Wagners’ move to the so-called Asyl, in the property of the Wesendonks in Zürich. Wesendonk, a prosperous silk merchant from Zürich, had already become one of Wagner's principal benefactors. The Wesendonks had been away for almost the entire year 1856. When they returned to Zürich, they moved into their new home on the Green Hill above the lake. Adjoining the property was a small house that Otto Wesendonk intended to make available to Wagner. Before he could acquire the real estate, however, the property was purchased by a mental specialist who planned to use the house as an asylum for his mentally disturbed patients. Wesendonk decidedly did not wish to live next to an institution such as this, and offered a premium for the purchase of the property. Once purchased, and renovated, it was ready for the Wagners to move in. The Asyl, as it became known despite its change of fortune, was down the hill from the Wesendonk house with no more than a garden hedge separating them.

The close proximity of Wagner to the girl that he adored intensified his passion. The entire first act of Die Walküre was written under her spell, wherein the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I, was clearly illuminated by Wagner’s infatuation. There are numerous scribblings on the score itself, artfully disguised for the jealous eyes of Minna, but which have now been deciphered by scholars, that make reference to his infatuation for Mathilde as he wrote crucial passages of the long love duet between the siblings, the long passionate crescendo of the first Act of the opera, where Siegmund betrays his host, Hunding, as Tristan betrayed his Lord, Marke, in Tristan, and as Wagner dreamed of betraying his own benefactor and host, Otto Wesendonk.

There is however no evidence whatsoever of what Mathilde felt for Wagner, despite the record and the extensive correspondence between them. Wagner was an exile, a refugee from the German Courts, dependent on Otto Wesendonk financially. He despaired over his work on the Ring because it was so daunting a project, so unprecedentedly titanic. He lived with an increasingly debilitated Minna, whose heart condition worsened continuously during this period, and whom he could no longer tolerate, at least for most of the time. The circumstances were propitious for a forbidden love, with a beautiful and fascinating young woman, to lift him above his desperate circumstances, or release him from the power of the will.

Mathilde's husband, and Wagner's benefactor, Otto Wesendonk

In these circumstances, Mathilde wrote the poems and showed them to Wagner, and then he wrote music to them, so as to return them to her as a gift, for Christmas in 1857. A small orchestra performed the music outside the Wesendonk home that day, under the jealous eyes of Minna who did not miss one detail of the event, as Newman relates to us.

The jealous Minna Wagner

The denoument of the relationship between Wagner and Mathilde is not really germane here. Suffice it to say that the crisis was precipitated by Minna’s interception of a letter between the lovers, and a gruesome scene, compromising to all parties, followed upon that discovery. Wagner left the Asyl, and traveled promptly to Venice, where he continued to correspond with Mathilde. He began to resume his work on Siegfried, in 1859. The affair with Schopenhauer had ended, or at least subsided, for the moment.

The Wesendonk Lieder, therefore, are inseparable as a work of art from the circumstances that gave them birth. The intoxicating aroma of Schopenhaurian pessimism in the environment of the mid-Victorian ‘Wintergarten’ is inescapable in the hearing of the work. The musical essays that anticipate the creation of Tristan, and of the Ring as well, are invaluable as an historical document. Above all, their ethereal, libidinal, repressed nature and their appropriateness for the culture of the emergent bourgeoisie, - private, sexually repressed, and increasingly confined to the family music-room -, sustain the value of these fascinating Lieder as a great work of music of the nineteenth century with great revelatory power as to the historical context of their conception.


I have been hesitating to write this all down. Feelings of nebulosity, of not being able to go on anything more than my emotions, my vague impressionistic interpretations as I listen to the music. But it seems to me that Wagner’s music evokes the passions that Mathilde was writing about in her poems. I reiterate: He wrote the music for the words, as opposed to his own method, often proclaimed by him, of writing the words for the music. And, indeed, to my knowledge there is no other work of Wagner’s written for words authored by anyone but himself.

What we hear is the hothouse atmosphere of a Victorian infatuation. The Angel, for example, the subject of the first song in the series, is all about Wagner as savior to this delicate lily, this rich, young and beautiful, married, woman. That may not have been what Mathilde intended when she wrote the poem, we shall never know, but that is clearly what Wagner reads into the poem, and the music accuses him. It is a reflection of his emotions when he read the poems, and he read into them himself, and Mathilde’s love for him: his love for Mathilde’s love of himself, which he saw reflected in her poems. Why else would he have written music for her words, when he made it always a point of pride to proclaim to the seven winds, to everyone who cared to know, that he always wrote the words of his librettos in his great operas?

Tristan und Isolde - Liebestod

In the first five parts on this subject of the Wesendonk Lieder, the sections I posted on November 11, I have written my commentary on the poems, and on the music that Wagner wrote for them, so as to attempt to prove my point, to wit, that the Wesdendonk Lieder reflect the hothouse atmosphere of a Victorian infatuation, of Mathilde with Wagner, and of Wagner with himself. I encourage my readers to check out the previous five postings on the Wesendonk Lieder which include the music, the words of the poems, with English translations, and the commentary on what is heard.

Wagner in Paris, in 1860, somewhat the worse for wear, after his platonic affair with Mathilde Wesendonk.


  1. I can't help thinking that Wagner's age may have played a role in this affair as well. Although, he was far from old (in his early 40s). Any thoughts about that? Also, I am stunned by his reaction to receiving later writings from Mathilde. It suggests to me that it is a good thing that this relationship was never consummated because it was so far from being realistic. It was really all about him, and little about her.

  2. Thanks for your comment Mariana. Yes, I think Wagner felt old and, as he wrote to Liszt, that he had never been in love, at least in the form in which he conceived of love, as in Tristan and the Ring and Dutchman, and so on. He also had a previous infatuation with a young woman, Jessie Laussot, a few years earlier. In Meistersinger, Hans Sachs fantasizes of love with the much younger Eva. Wagner had been married to the unappreciative Minna since his early Magdeburg days, and he was exhausted by her. After he married Cosima, there was little communication with Mathilde.