After the Dresden Uprising in 1849, Wagner and his wife Minna fled to Zürich, eventually finding asylum on the estate of his patron Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde. Gradually, Wagner and Mathilde, a poet and author, entered into a passionate love affair. Both marriages were in trouble; proximity and opportunity contributed to an intimate, intense relationship.
Interception of a letter by the ailing Minna from Wagner to Mathilde resulted in an immediate separation (Wagner to Venice and Minna to Dresden) which lasted ten years. Part of this letter read: ““I must tell you [Mathilde] with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.” In later letters, compiled in the Burrell Collection of Wagner’s Letters, Minna referred to her as “that filthy woman” and “that hussy” even though Wagner denied “any affair.” Wagner and Minna struggled along, never divorcing (although he suggested this to her in June 1862) and he supported her for the rest of her life. She died in 1866 in Dresden, and the composer did not attend her funeral. He was too busy in Geneva with Cosima von Bulow…. they would marry in 1870.
During her years as paramour, Mathilde wrote five poems which the composer set to music in 1857, and these are known as the Wesendonck Lieder. It has been reported that Wagner stated “I have done nothing better than these songs.” For many years, the composer had yearned for true love, and in a letter to Liszt in December of 1854 he wrote: “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.” It is clear that Wagner identified himself in the poems, finding in these and in her the perfect love which had eluded him throughout his lifetime. In Newman’s Biography of Wagner, he wrote that “she was now the only thing that reconciled him to the hard world of actuality.” Mathilde had, at least for a time, become essential and overpowering.
© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017