Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Flying Dutchman (

Feb 13, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


Behind a great man-Franz Liszt- was his daughter Cosima, who was also behind another great man, Richard Wagner, as his wife. This triumvirate was united by music and by lives so melodramatic they could have sprung from a Wagnerian opera.

        Franz Liszt, arguably the world’s greatest pianist and the 19th century’s nearest approach to a contemporary superstar, embarked on an affair with the married mother of two, Countess Marie D’Agoult, and in the wake of the scandal they fled Paris. In a hotel in Lake Como, Italy, on December 24th, 1837, Marie gave birth to Francesca Gaetana Cosmia, the middle of their three children.. The couple split on an acrimonious note and the Countess returned to France. She was a person non-gratis to her aristocratic family as long as she kept her illegitimate offspring, and for the sake of preserving  their social standing, her daughters Blandine and Cosima and her son Daniel moved in with Franz’ mother.

Although she attempted to visit her estranged children, the vindictive Franz exercised veto power and  forbid her from doing so. In reproach Marie accused him of ‘stealing the fruits of a mother’s womb.’ When mother and daughters finally reunited after five years, Liszt retaliated by removing the girls from their nurturing environment of their grandmother’s house to the draconian lair of Madame Patersi whose rod of iron rules were a form of child abuse. Whenever her charges were reduced to tears-which were frequent-the nurse Ratched of governesses responded, “Tears are just water.” The result was that early on in her life, Cosima’s milk of human kindness dried up and except for Richard Wagner down the road, her heart was impregnable.       

         Nine years later Liszt returned to Paris and despite having been an absentee father Cosima had endless admiration for his musical genius. He was accompanied by the world’s most politically incorrect composer, who was destined to be the fifteen-year-old Cosima’s soul-mate.- They would eventually be bound by their mutual love of music and hatred of the Jews. At that time, Richard Wagner took little notice of Liszt’s younger daughter, whose only bid to beauty was luxuriant blond hair. A few years later, when Madame Patersi succumbed to the infirmities of age, Liszt took Blandine and Cosima to Berlin to live with the family of his pupil, Hans von Bulow, ardent apostle of Wagner. This time, the piano bench served as a match-maker for the teen-aged Cosima, who married Hans in St. Hedwig’s Church in 1857. Although not in love, she sensed he would become a musical Colossus; when he disappointed, it shattered her dream to wed a man as brilliant as her father. Despite despair at a marriage which left her emotionally adrift, she gave birth to Daniela and Blandina, named after her deceased siblings.

       Cosima’s life had begun as the result of a love triangle and another love triangle sidelined her destiny. On a trip to Zurich with Hans some years after they married, she became reacquainted with Richard Wagner, and experienced what she referred to as her coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, in which twin souls found one another. Unable to quench the symphony of their passion, the twenty-five-year old Cosima fell hopelessly for the fifty-year-old composer, despite their respective spouses and his current mistress. Wagner later recounted, “She fell at my feet and covered my hands with tears and kisses…I pondered the mystery, without being able to solve it.” It was not that much of a mystery- Hans had seduced the teenage Cosima to the strains of a Wagner composition. But the ardor at that point was one-sided. Ten days after Cosima’s impassioned gesture, Wagner wrote a lecherous note to a very different lady, the daughter of a Viennese pork butcher,  “I hope your pink drawers are ready.”

          But Cosima was not deterred by this apparent lack of interest. Since Cosima’s husband was an impassioned Wagnerite a social relationship was easily arranged. In 1892, Richard and Hans shared conducting duties-as well as Hans’ wife for the first time. A year later, Wagner and Cosima took a lengthy carriage ride together. Cosima recounted in her copious diaries, “We gazed mutely into each other’s eyes. A fierce desire to acknowledge the truth seized us…with tears and sobs we sealed the pledge that we belonged to each other alone. It came as a relief to both of us.”

To the music-mad Cosima, Richard was the incarnation of the romantic figure in his opera Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman.) Its tale centered on a sea captain doomed to sail on his ghostly vessel until the end of time, the only redemption a woman faithful unto death. His salvation came from Senta who freed him from Satan’s curse.  Cosima was convinced she was her musical lover’s Senta.

    Sitting amidst the splendor of Neuschwanstein Castle, (later used to house Nazi plunder and the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle,) the teenaged Ludwig II, “the mad king of Bavaria,” was an obsessive fan of Wagner, in the true sense of fanatic. He lined his idol’s coffers and gave him a Munich villa of baronial splendor. In 1866, with the passing of Richard’s wife Minna, withwhom he had an on and off relationship, he  desired a new spouse and his thoughts harkened to Cosima who shared his musical persuasion and fed his voracious narcissism. He was also desperate for a muse and felt she was his intended, though he probably loved her more for her slavish devotion than for her charms: she was of angular build and had inherited Liszt’s nose, which suited her father more than it did her.

His first step in his plan was he arranged for the von Bulows to relocate to Munich with Hans as his conductor and Cosima as his lover. All of Europe seemed to know what was going on- except for Hans. Nine months later, Cosima gave birth to third daughter, Isolde; although her surname was von Bulow she was Wagner’s daughter. If Hans remained oblivious to the fact that his wife spent more time in her lover’s bedroom than his own, the baby’s name should have provided a hint: it was from the heroine of a Wagner opera.

When babies Eva and Siegfried followed, there remained no doubt of paternity-and no dearth of scandal. Nevertheless, Hans kept on working with his rival, either in adulation of Richard or perhaps fear of the controlling Cosima. He stated, “If it had been anybody but Wagner, I would have shot him.” In 1870, despite her Catholicism and her father’s disapproval, she petitioned for a divorce. Von Bulow reluctantly threw in the towel, which finally severed his bond with Wagner and instead he became a devotee of Johannes Brahms.

Cosima said of her beloved, “My single prayer one day to die with Richard in the selfsame hour. My greatest pride to have rejected everything in order to live with him.” The couple was married on August 25th, 1870, (King Ludwig’s birthday,) in the Protestant Church in Lucerne. Cosima wrote in her diary, “At 8 o’clock we were married. May I be worthy of bearing R’s name! My prayers were concentrated on two points: R’s well-being-that I may always promote it.” She explained to her children that because of his work their father would be permanently on tour and that was why she was marrying “Uncle Richard.”Another thing they were made to understand, as were their two step-sisters- their lives were to be subordinated to their brother, nicknamed Fidi. In later years, when Isolde threatened to expose Siegfried as a predatory homosexual, (and to the Wagners homosexuality was just below the hierarchy of horrible under Jews,) Cosima retaliated by pronouncing the name ‘Isolde’ verboten. In true Medea fashion she stated, “Just think, it is as if my feelings in this regard have died.” She hardened herself against her child’s anguish: tears  were, after all, just water.

     Cosima moved into the Munich mansion, (which always contained a dog,) along with her five children. Wagner, (whom she called Herr Meister,) set himself up in the role of Cosima’s mentor. One of his pronouncements: Jewish blood is more corrosive than Latin blood, Another: the highest creation is the dog.

Cosima was born to be the spouse of a megalomaniac. The new Mrs. Wagner set about becoming the handmaiden to greatness, going so far as to preserve her husband’s eyebrow clippings-and who knows what else. She harnessed her force of nature personality as a conduit for Richard as well. In desire to please, she even converted to the Protestant faith for him, though he remained the core of her idolatry.

            Barring the gift of the Taj Mahal which Shah Majal erected at the dying request of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who passed away delivering his fourteenth baby, few women received as wondrous a present as Cosima did on her 33rd birthday. When she awoke it was to the strains of fifteen musicians at the foot of her  grand stairway: the ethereally beautiful “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” which became renowned as the Siegfried Idyll. She confided to her diary the rapture of the immortal moment-far more magical than the birth of her own babies.

      Despite the fact Richard was engaged in composing the most controversial, sexually explicit, and lengthy of operas, and Cosima was presiding over a mansion which included a megalomaniac husband, five children and dogs, they still found time to create the Bayreuth Festival, dedicated to the music of Wagner and German purity. The composer designed the world famous Festspielhaus on a wooded Bavarian hillside outside the city of Bayreuth. The foundation stone was laid in driving rain on May 22, Wagner’s fifty-ninth birthday. At that moment Richard said to Cosima, “Each stone is red with my blood and yours.”  The moment was the apex of Cosima’s life, though it would have been significantly clouded had she known Richard still had more arrows in Cupid’s quiver. During the opening of the Festival he embarked on an affair with Judith Gautier-Mendes, daughter of a French poet.

         The Wagners loved dogs but when they fought they did so like cats. In 1883, while in Venice, to the accompanied of a violent storm on the Grand Canal, a row broke out between husband and wife over twenty-three-year old soprano Carrie Pringle; despite his age Richard was unable to keep his baton in his pants. Indeed, this row may have precipitated his fatal heart-attack. Cheated from losing her dream of expiring at her Richard’s side, Cosima made her husband a parting gift-cutting off her abundant hair and placing it in a velvet coffin-cushion on which his head rested. When his body was interred, (his beloved dog Russ was later buried at the feet of his master,) Cosima plunged into the open grave, where she lay upon the glass-topped coffin till Fidi led his anguished mother to Wahnfried, the Wagner villa.

      Post Richard, Cosima never wrote another word in her million-word diary-without her Richard she ceased to exist. Weeks after the funeral, the vestal widow was still willing herself to die when she had her epiphany: she could serve her beloved by keeping the flame of Bayreuth burning bright. She dedicated the rest of her years to her mission, ensuring everything remain as it had been under ‘dear Richard.’ It was because of Cosima and Bayreuth that a half a century after his death Wagner became the court composer of the Third Reich. The strains of Wagner were played during the Nazis book-burning ceremonies and when concentration camp prisoners walked to their deaths. Hitler briefly took time off from marching his 6,000 strong army of Brownshirts up the Bayreuth Hill to nip into Wahfried.  He shared a close relationship with Siegfried’s wife Winifred, and their children called him Uncle Wolf.

       Cosima passed away in 1930 at age ninety-two where her urn was buried at the head of her husband’s grave in the garden at Wahnfried. After forty-seven years of separation, Senta was finally reunited with her Flying Dutchman.