The Wagner Journal

Chris Walton, Voicing Mathilde: Wagner’s Controlling Muse

Chris Walton, Voicing Mathilde: Wagner’s Controlling Muse

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July 2007, Volume 1, Number 2, 3–18.

Mathilde Wesendonck may be one of the most famous women in the history of Western music, but hers is undeniably a fame by default, resting alone on her role as ‘muse’ of Richard Wagner. Not only did he set five of her poems to music – the ‘Wesendonck Lieder’ are of course one of the high points of German Romantic song – but, according to his own testimony, he also monumentalised his love for her in his music dramas Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde. But here, already, we arrive at the heart of the problem in the reception history of Mathilde Wesendonck: Wagner’s testimony, Wagner’s monument, Wagner’s love, Wagner’s music dramas. Popular musicology rapidly established his relationship with her as a ‘love tragedy’ wherein the pressures of society and its mores forced Tristan/Wagner to lose Isolde/Mathilde (an interpretation that still lives on today). The apparent certainties of the tale can let us forget that almost everything we know about their relationship is through Wagner’s own words, for nearly all Mathilde’s letters to Wagner were destroyed by his second wife, Cosima.

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