Lyrics by Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902)
Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme: Wesendonck Lieder (1858)
I. Der Engel
II. Stehe still!
III. Im Treibhaus
There exists in music history perhaps no composer quite as controversial as Richard Wagner. The reality, however, is that Wagner’s impact on music, art and literature is unquestionable. “The Music of the Future” conjures up incredible passions. Many view him as a god while others deplore his antisemitism and contribution to what would become Nazi ideology. It can be difficult to remember that we’re talking about the same person. Yet, it would appear Wagner was as elusive a figure in his own lifetime as he is today. A profound revolutionary, Wagner was exiled from Germany in 1848 following the Dresden uprising and found himself as a refugee in Zürich. In 1852, he would become acquainted and fall under the patronage of Otto Wesendonck, a Swiss banker. The fateful years on the property (in a house that Wagner referred to as Asyl) would lead to some of the most extraordinary works of art. Wagner would find himself wrapped up in a relationship that would have severe influence on the work that would solidify his place among the heroes of 19th century music.
While in Switzerland, Wagner began quite a close relationship with Otto’s wife, Mathilde Wesendonck, though the relationship was likely never consummated. Mathilde was a fan of Wagner’s and even transcribed the libretto of Tristan und Isolde by hand in ink (Abbate and Parker, p. 348.) Clearly, the ties between the two were strong, yet the relationship was certainly taboo as both Richard and Mathilde were married. There is little doubt that this marital/sexual tension is represented in Tristan und Isolde, a work that deals almost exclusively with forbidden, extramarital love. The Wesendonck Lieder exist, at least partially, as a study for Tristan und Isolde. Two of the songs titled “studies” were almost identically included in the opera. “Im Treibhaus” was converted to the dark prelude to Act III and “Träume” was repurposed in part of the Act II love duet, “O sink hernieder.” Both of these demonstrate a profound understanding of musical representation of longingness and tension, something Franz Liszt found admiral in other contemporary Lieder (Deathridge, p. 26.) The avoidance of a clear vocal cadence is something that marks the end of both Tristan und Isolde and the Wesendonck Lieder as “Träume” ends with the accompaniment as the vocal line seems to just fade away into nothingness.
Mathilde’s text is centered around nature and life cycles. Perhaps the most striking idea comes from “Schmerzen” where the narrator claims:
“If only death gives birth to life, If only agony brings bliss: O how I give thanks to Nature For giving me such agony!”
It is this kind of inwardness that developed from the later style of Romantic art but that would come to define the arc of Tristan und Isolde. The renunciation of the mortal world would be something that arose out of Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer, which he first encountered in 1854. Clearly, Mathilde had been influenced by Wagner’s newfound philosophy of renunciation. Yet, as John Deathridge points out, Mathilde’s writing is thoroughly non-Wagnerian (p. 32). Her style is composed and classical like that of Schiller or Goethe, unlike the more alliteratively inclined style of Wagner. Mathilde’s writing does match, however, many of the ideas that persist in Wagner’s later work, namely the concept of renunciation. “Der Engel” begins the cycle with looking up to heaven as the ethereal nature of her poetry begins to take hold.
Indeed, the Wesendonck Lieder are representative of Wagner’s more mature style. It can be argued that the vocal and accompaniment lines are not complete without each other, that the voice becomes a part of the orchestra (there exist both orchestral and piano accompaniment versions of the cycle.) There is also a sense of profound expression found in the accompaniment that demonstrates strong emotions, such as the pulses and seemingly unending scales in “Stehe Still,” a song about the ceaseless passage of time.
Perhaps, more than anything, the Wesendonck Lieder, contextually and as a song cycle, present a multitude of 19th-century tensions. Deathridge comments most notably on the tension between public and private life. Clearly, Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck’s private relationship reached so much of a crisis point that Wagner fled Zürich to Venice in 1859. Yet, several more tensions arise. Musically, the cycle presents a tension between the genres of Opera and Lieder. While the vocal line is for the most part restrained, there are sections that are outright operatic including the climax of “Schmerzen.” Furthermore, the accompaniment is dense and, in some parts, quite complex, pushing the limits of “Hausmusik.” Perhaps the greatest tension that exists in the 19th century is art versus commodity. Both Tristan und Isolde and the Wesendonck Lieder ended up saving Wagner from ever-present financial turmoil. Yet, the cycle was not published until 1862, when Wagner needed cash. Otherwise, it would have remained completely private. Clearly, to Wagner the composition of these songs was a private and intimate act in itself. The cycle also presents the tension between the ephemeral and eternal. According to Wagner’s second wife, Cosima, all of the letters of correspondence between himself and Mathilde were to be burned (Deathridge, p. 33.) This annihilation is prevalent in much of his later work and ideas. Der Ring des Nibelungen literally ends with a fire that destroys the realm of the Gods. Further, Wagner initially had the idea to burn the festival house and score down after the first performance of the Ring. Yet, in the case of the Wesendonck Lieder, the ephemeral nature of Richard and Mathilde’s relationship (whether it was physically intimate or not) became eternalized by the publication of the cycle.
It can be argued that public versus private tension is felt more than ever. The genre of Lieder was originally meant for intimate in-home performances, yet today this cycle is taken on by the likes of operatic superstars such as Nina Stemme in packed concert halls around the world. The Wesendonck Lieder present a key point in the development of Wagner’s philosophy, musical and personal life and represent the tensions that existed in his own relationships and the world around him.
Zack Dickerson, October 2020
Abbate, Carolyn and Roger Parker . A History of Opera . New York : Norton , 2012.
Deathridge, John ‘Public and Private Life: On the Genesis of Tristan und Isolde and the Wesendonck Lieder’, in Arthur Groos, ed., Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 18-35
Zack has also written: