Wednesday, June 21, 2006

There goes the bride. And a couple of mistresses, too.

The martial-sounding fanfare flagging off ‘The Wedding March’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, aka Felix Mendelssohn (3 February 1809 - 4 November 1847), always made me wonder about the state of his marriage. But the Wikipedia article assures me that all was well with it. “Mendelssohn's personal life was conventional. His marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud in March of 1837 was very happy and the couple had five children,” is how the free encyclopedia describes the situation. On the other hand, the marriage of Richard (‘Here comes the bride’) Wagner with the actress Christine Wilhelmine ('Minna') Planer on 24 November 1836 was troubled right from the start. A few weeks after they moved to Riga, then in Russia, where Wagner became music director of the local opera, Minna ran off with an army officer who then abandoned her, penniless. Wagner took Minna back, though. Despite all the turbulence, the marriage lasted three decades until Minna’s death in 1866. ‘Here comes the bride’ is from the ‘Bridal Chorus’ of his sixth opera, Lohengrin (1848). It is sung in the opera when the bride (Elsa) and the groom (Lohengrin) – whose tumultous marriage collapses 20 minutes after the chorus – go to the bridal chamber. Wagner’s marriage was still very much in place when he wrote the ‘Bridal Chorus’. The Wagners were always on the run dodging their creditors. One of his operas, The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) (1843) was inspired by their flight from Riga to London on a stormy sea. In 1858, during their stay in Zurich, Richard had a passionate affair with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck who was his fan. It came to an end when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. Soon after his wife’s death, though, Wagner sowed his wild oats, if you pardon the cliché, with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of his most ardent supporters, and the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult. The wench was 24 years younger than Wagner, mind you. Although Liszt was Wagner’s friend, he disapproved of the liaison. In April 1865, to Cosima was born Isolde, Wagner's illegitimate daughter. Munich was scandalized by these goings-on. The members of King Ludwig’s court, who were suspicious and jealous of his influence on the King, under whose patronage Wagner was then living, were furious with him. In December 1865, Ludwig reluctantly had to banish the composer from Munich. It seemed the King even flirted with the idea of abdicating and following his hero into exile. Wagner dissuaded him swiftly. On 25 August 1870, he married Cosima after which he wrote Siegfried Idyll. On 25 December morning, it was performed on the staircase of their villa as Cosima’s birthday present. Their marriage lasted till the end of his life (13 February 1883). In addition to Isolde, the couple had another daughter (Eva) and a son (Siegfried). Moral of the story: Never judge a composer's work by the state of his conjugal bliss. End of story.

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