To Richard Wagner on His 200th Birthday: A Textilian Tale Retold

The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Susan Clermont.

Caricature titled ‘Frou Frou Wagner’ published in Der Floh, on 24 June 1877, showing journalist Daniel Spitzer standing on a cache of letters pricking Wagner, who is in deep deliberation over bolts of silk and satin,
with his poison pen; reproduced in John Grand-Carteret’s Richard Wagner en caricatures, Paris, 1892. From the collections of the Library of Congress Music Division.

Anniversaries commemorating the significant birthdays or deaths of famous composers often provide the curatorial staff here at the Library of Congress with great opportunities to take stock, so to speak, of what riches related to a certain figure might be found among our collections—opportunities, I might add, that rarely disappoint. When two of my colleagues recently reminded me of the impending bicentennial of Wagner’s birth, it was necessary for me to stifle a bark of laughter as my thoughts immediately turned to an eccentric set of epistles that were once safely tucked away in a milliner’s lavender-scented linen closet; now, long after their scandalous emergence from that closet, the letters occupy a space on our shelves filed under the name of Richard Wagner.

Perhaps the only thing better than a full-blown scandal is the constellation of dramatic retellings that they trigger—each iteration building upon the previous until the telling of the tale takes on a life of its own.  Sometimes, transgressions inadvertently become public, like the botched Watergate break-in; or they may gradually unravel like Madoff’s catastrophic Ponzi scheme.  Most often, though, scandals are occasioned by an intentional, provocative, communicative act—such as the leaking of a news story sensationalizing some aspect of a celebrity’s private life.  Such is the case of our famous collection of fourteen autograph letters written between the years 1864 to 1868 by Richard Wagner to his Viennese seamstress and interior designer par excellence, Bertha Goldwag Maretschek.

In 1877, less than a year after the Bayreuth Festspielhaus opened and the first complete performance of the Ring took place, Daniel Spitzer (1835-1893), a famous columnist and satirist with Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, learned of the existence of the titillating Wagner-Goldwag epistolary from an undisclosed source.  Reportedly, the sensational cache outlined in minute detail Wagner’s predilection for wearing luxurious apparel made of silks and satins, rosettes and bows; his orders to milliner “Fräulein Bertha” revealed a penchant for soft, feminine fabrics, trimmings and linings that were selected for his pale pink satin dressing gowns, matching slippers adorned with bouquets of roses, lavishly festooned bed-covers, pink silk underwear, and other accessories too numerous to name—all sensuously enhanced with hints of rose-scented fragrance!

Richard Wagner in heaven: “Thank you for your welcome, dear angels, but without drums and trumpets you’ll never make an impression!” Originally published in Kikeriki (Vienna, 1883); reproduced in John Grand-Carteret’s “Richard Wagner en caricatures, Paris, 1892.
From the collections of the Library of Congress Music Division.

Spitzer, a seasoned scandalmonger with close ties to the circle of followers associated with Johannes Brahms, capitalized on the opportunity to air Wagner’s “dainty laundry,” and convinced his editor to purchase the ill-gotten letters from a local dealer, indiscreetly publishing them on June 16-17 and July 1, 1877) with added commentary for the amusement of his readers.   A humiliated Wagner partially blamed Brahms, who is said to have borrowed and publically read the letters to “hugely delighted friends” at the local coffee house; he even contemplated immigrating to America, and Cosima, “…the day she discovered the press coverage, was too disheartened to dissuade him from considering the idea of another exile” [from Cosima’s diary, quoted by Lawrence Dreyfus in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 143]. Cosima obviously came to terms with his eccentricity, ordering a pink carpet crafted from flamingo breast feathers with a border of peacock plumes for her husband’s 66th birthday. Dreyfus also notes, the pale pink satin fetish remained the “leading motif of Wagner’s intimate attire” as he reportedly died in a dressing gown of his favorite color!

Soon after the 1877 scandal,  Spitzer sold the letters to industrialist Arthur Faber, husband to Brahms’ friend, singer Bertha Porubszky.  (Brahms composed his Wiegenlied (cradle-song), aka his “Lullaby,” for the Fabers’ first born.)  Faber gifted the letters to Brahms, who temporarily loaned them to Joseph Joachim, and upon their return, he set them aside in an envelope intended for his estate. Berliner Dr. Eugene Wolbe sold the epistolary to the Boston antiquary Charles Goodspeed, from whom the Library bought them in 1922.  Today, the Music Division’s fourteen Putzmacherin (milliner) letters display the muted evidence of faded splendor, with small swatches of satins and ribbons folded between the sheets having lost their original luster of magenta, mauve, and applegreen.

Enclosure from Wagner’s letter dated April, 1865 to Miss Bertha:
“Nr. 3 tassel and cord of the same color
a) dressing gown, lined with heavy, beautiful white satin at 6-7 fl.
b) breeches
c) waistcoat
b and c lined with lightweight white satin.
Also: d and e – breeches and waistcoat of the same heavy, white satin as thelining of the dressing gown (at 6-7 fl.) and lined with a paler pink satin at 3 ½ fl.”
From the collections of the Library of Congress Music Division (ML95.W14 Case).

Accounts of the letters and the stir they created continue to flood the literature: there is a 1906 interview with Bertha herself describing the Venusberg-like boudoir she designed for Wagner with silk-lined walls, soft carpets and lavish pink accessories; here she vehemently denies having any knowledge about who might have stolen her well-hidden collection.  Few Wagner monographs fail to retell this textilian tale (along with similar requisitions involving Friedrich Nietzsche, author Judith Gautier, etc.); dozens of studies quote Bertha’s letters in discussions about Wagner’s pathologies—his musical eroticism, moral insanity, and how this manifestation of quintessential decadence was perchance a necessary, even crucial by-product of the gorgeousness and genius of Richard Wagner’s colorful and unmatched musical palette.  Happy 200th birthday!

One Comment

  1. Dee Gallo
    May 22, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Back in the day, those were always one of my favorite items to pull for a show-and-tell!

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