Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Cosima Wagner

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: Siegried Idyll

The Giving of Gifts It is appropriate that today, on St. Valentine’s Day, we celebrate a piece of music given as a gift of love from a husband to his wife: Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyl, which was given as a birthday gift to his wife Cosima in 1870. Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 140th anniversary of the death of Wagner (1813-1883) in Venice, at the age of 69. As we observed in that post, Venice was, for Wagner, a spiritual and artistic refuge, a place of uncanny physical beauty and – lacking any sort of wheeled transportation – uncanny quiet, a place where Wagner could presumably remove himself from the anxiety, hyperactivity, over-excitability, and depression that dogged his adult live. Presumably. On September 14, 1882, following the premiere run at the Bayreuth Festival (in southern Germany) of what turned out to be Wagner’s last work, Parsifal, Wagner, his family, and his entourage decamped for Venice. There they took over the entire mezzanine floor of one of Venice’s greatest palazzi: the late fifteenth-century Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi on the Grand Canal. On arriving in Venice, Wagner expressed the wish that he would die in Venice, a classic instance of “be careful […]

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Music History Monday: A Man for All Symptoms: The Death of Wagner

We mark the death, on February 13, 1883 – 140 years ago today – of the German composer Richard Wagner, in Venice, at the age of 69.  He had been born in the Saxon city of Leipzig on May 22, 1813. Wagner’s Health Writing in Hektoen International – A Journal of Medical Humanities, George Dunea, MD, states that: “[Richard] Wagner was an extraordinarily highly strung individual.” Do you think, Dr. Dunea?   In fact, he was a pathologically overwrought individual, a certifiable narcissist who required maximum stimulation at all times whether he was awake or asleep.  (Yes, even asleep.  As a young child he kept his many siblings awake at night by shouting and talking while he slept.) Wagner was not born a particularly healthy person, and as an adult, his personal habits and constant excitability exacted a considerable toll on his already compromised constitution.  Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 1903 (Gould, George M.; The Ill-health of Richard Wagner, JAMA 1903; 51: 293 and 368; as articles go, this is an oldie but a goodie!), Dr. George Gould described Wagner as having the collective symptoms of: “[Thomas] DeQuincy [best known for his Confessions of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

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Music History Monday: One Tough Lady

We mark the birth on December 24, 1837 – 181 years ago today – of Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner: the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt; the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow; and then the mistress and wife of Richard Wagner. As Wagner’s wife, she became his protector and his muse. According to Ernest Newman, whose four-volume, 2429 page biography of Wagner remains an essential reference, Cosima was “the greatest figure that ever came within Wagner’s circle”.  As Wagner’s widow, she became the “keeper of the Wagnerian flame”; she rescued and made profitable Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival and protected Wagner’s artistic legacy with a ferocity ordinarily associated with wolverines and spotted hyenas. Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner remains a controversial figure. Her racism and anti-Semitism were even more virulent than Wagner’s, and by the time she died – in 1930 – the close association of Wagner, Hitler and the Nazis was becoming institutionalized. Writing in 1930, Cosima’s first biographer – Richard du Moulin Eckart – asserts that she was “the greatest woman of the century”. According to the critic and librettist Philip Hensher, writing in 2010: “Wagner was a genius, but also a fairly appalling human being. […]

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Music History Monday: A Gift to Music

On Christmas day of 1870 – 147 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s twenty minute-long instrumental tone poem Siegfried Idyll received its premiere under circumstances to be discussed below. Originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 players (flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and bass), Wagner expanded the orchestration to 35 players when the piece was published in 1878. Let us contemplate, for a moment, what must be considered the second-worst date to be born, second only to February 29 (the birthday of Gioachino Rossini and Dinah Shore but also the serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Richard Ramirez; pretty creepy company). That second-worst birthdate is today: December 25. For someone born into a family that observes Christmas, a Christmas birthday is, frankly, a rip off, as Christmas and birthday get rolled into a single celebration, the whole usually lesser than the parts. As for gifts, well, a December 25th birthday is (or so I’ve been told) is a catastrophe. (How many times have these unfortunate celebrants heard the line, “we decided to give you one big present this year”? Sure. Right.) Among the many good people born on December 25 are Clara Barton, […]

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