Wagner & Mathilde

A political exile, Richard Wagner found safety in Zurich, where he also discovered the love and philosophy that inspired his greatest works, as Paul Doolan explains.

'An Alpine Lake', a landscape of 1867 by Karl MillnerDawn was breaking on the morning of December 23rd, 1857, her 29th birthday, when Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902), beautiful wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck (1815-96), awoke in her bedroom in the mansion they had had built on a green hill overlooking Lake Zurich. The sweet and melancholic sound of a chamber orchestra rose 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. There, surrounded by marble busts of Socrates, Demosthenes, Sappho and Augustus and a bronze statue of Hermes, a small group of musicians played music composed in her honour for the occasion. Conducting the ensemble was the composer and organiser of the event, Richard Wagner (1813-83). The intense relationship that had blossomed between the composer and Mathilde is not simply of anecdotal interest; their affair inspired an integral part of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, composed between 1857 and 1859 and regarded by many to be the greatest opera ever written.

Wagner’s wife, Minna (1809-66), was at the birthday celebration too. Wagner had persuaded her to provide sandwiches and coffee. But when Mathilde’s husband, Wagner’s generous financial patron, returned from a trip abroad he became 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 his public gesture of intimacy and the news spread quickly through Zurich’s high society.

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