Monday, March 21, 2011

Wagner in Zurich

Dawn was breaking on the morning of her 29th birthday, December 23rd 1857, when the beautiful and artistically gifted Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the multi-millionaire Otto Wesendonck, awoke in her bedroom in the splendid palatial mansion that they had had built on a green hill overlooking Lake Zurich.  The sweet and melancholic sound of a chamber orchestra came from downstairs.  Leaving her bedroom she crossed the gallery, with its collection of Old Masters lining the walls and descended the marble grand staircase, to the vestibule below.  There, watched by marble busts of Socrates, Demothenes, Sappho and Augustus and a bronze Hermes, a small group of musicians played exquisite music, composed in her honour for the occasion.  And there, conducting the ensemble, was the composer and organizer of the event, her lover and musical genius, Richard Wagner. The intense relationship that had blossomed between Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck is not simply of anecdotal interest; their love formed an integral part of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, acknowledged by many to be the greatest opera ever written.
Villa Wesendonck during the time of Wagner

Wagner’s wife, Minna, was at the early morning birthday celebration too.  Wagner had persuaded her to provide the sandwiches and coffee.  But when Mathilde’s husband Otto, who happened to be Wagner’s generous financial patron, returned from a trip abroad he was furious when he heard how, in his absence, Wagner had orchestrated such a scene with his wife and given himself the freedom of the house. Wagner had overstepped the boundary of what was acceptable with this public gesture of intimacy, and the tongues of Zurich’s staid burghers were set to wagging.
Villa Wesendonck today: The Rietberg Museum
Wagner and Otto mended their fences, more or less, and life returned to what constituted normal in Wagner’s world.  He and Minna inhabited a house provided by Otto, next door to the Villa Wesendonck, where Otto and Mathilde lived.  Here, he enjoyed the peace and quiet to compose Tristan und Isolde.
Villa Schoenberg, where Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde
Letters and short notes rifled back and forth between Wagner and Mathilde.  A few months later, in April 1858, this idyllic situation was shattered when his long- suffering wife intercepted one of his letters to Mathilde.  Appalled by its intimacy she claimed (probably wrongly) that it bore witness to an illicit love affair and a scandal ensued. By August the situation had become intolerable. Wagner begged Mathilde to flee with him, but she chose her rich husband rather than her poor composer. Wagner, now estranged from his wife, fled alone to Venice, where he continued to compose Tristan in a palace on the Grand Canal, and continued to correspond with Mathilde.  The following year he returned to Switzerland where he finished Tristan in Lucerne in August, 1859.


  1. Wow. What an incredible post! I had no idea of the history of Wagner and have to admit to taking the genius of the composers for granted. Now I'm quite eager to rush off and listen to Wagner's work in the context if this knowledge.

    Do you live in or near the alps? I was amazed last year when I flew over them. They seemed to go on forever.

  2. Well Emm, If this post gets another Wagner fan - that is great. Many people first get into him via the orchestral preludes to his operas. Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Parsifal are all good entry points. When you move onto the actual singing, the "Wesendonck Lieder", which are the five poems of Mathilde Wesendonck that he set to music, are very beautiful. After that, you'll be ready for the Ring - which is 15-16 hours long!

    There are some lovely hills, or small mountains, right outside my house, with the beautiful Sihlwald as well. The Alps are about a 45 minute drive away.