Memories of Wagner and Christmas


Merry Christmas

In Wagner’s life Christmas had always played an important role. The two women he loved most, Mathilde and Cosima, both were born around Christmas, on 23 and 24 December, and used to celebrate their birthdays on 25 December together with Christmas. Before Christmas he used to secretly prepare Christmas presents for his lovers.

On 25 December 1830 the first premiere of a piece by Wagner took place; the lost Paukenschlagouverture in B-Flat major, WWV 10. 

On 25 December 1830 the Overture in D minor, WWV 20 was first performed.

Christmas Day 1857: Wagner’s Träume was for Mathilde (the piece itself had already been completed on 5 December; however, Wagner wrote a second version for Christmas, scored for violin and chamber ensemble).

Christmas Day 1868: Wagner prepared a surprise Birthday-Christmas present for pregnant Cosima, “Four White Songs”. He selected four of the “ancient” lieder and arranged them in an exact dramatic sequence: Christmas, the boy, expectation, snow. He revised the songs, prepared a new manuscript and bound the book himself; one song in German and three in French (Cosima’s native tongue). The first song, Der Tannenbaum is a setting of the poem of the same name by Georg Scheurlin (1802 – 1877), published in 1838. This poem has been among the most beautiful German Christmas poems for more than 150 years. It evokes the dialogue of a boy and a fir tree; the tragic fate of the Christ Child is foretold. 

Christmas 1869: Friedrich Nietzsche had been invited to spend Christmas with Richard and Cosima. On Christmas Eve, he helped set up the puppet theatre, and his gift to Cosima was the dedication of his lecture on Homer ("Homer and Classical Philology”). Cosima recorded in her diary: "On Christmas Day, Family lunch; afterward read Parzivalwith Prof. Nietzsche".

Christmas Day 1870: Wagner composed his Siegfried-Idyll (known by the family as Tribschen Idyll) for Cosima. On Christmas Day, after the playing of the “Symphonic Birthday Greeting”, as Cosima called the Siegfried Idyll, by a 15-piece orchestra on the staircase, she recorded “... Richard came into me with the five children (Daniella, Blandine from Cosima’s first marriage, and of course now Siegfried) and put into my hands the score of his "Symphonic Birthday Greeting". I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household.” 

Wagner and Cosima were giving no gifts that Christmas as a tribute to those still experiencing the hardships of war. Nietzsche, who had been invited again, had not been forewarned of this and arrived laden with gifts. For Wagner he had thoughtfully chosen a copy of Dürer’s great engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil, an image that since its creation in 1513 had been taken as a nationalist rallying point, a significant symbol of German faith and German courage in adversity. Wagner accepted it with great pleasure. He saw it as a picture of himself: the composer riding to the rescue of pure German culture, mounted on his “Music of the Future,” Zukunftsmusik, his nation’s true music that, he felt, had been derailed by foreign composers like Offenbach and Meyerbeer. Cosima was also delighted with her Christmas gift from Nietzsche: the manuscript of The Birth of the Tragic Concept, an early draft of the philosopher’s own The Birth of Tragedy. In the evenings, Wagner read passages aloud. Wagner and Cosima praised it as being “of the greatest value and excellence.”

Christmas Day 1871: “Children’s games, family lunch, all happy and merry. I contemplative, as always on my birthday.” The family tradition of giving presents, celebrating, wreaths and songs was joined by Nietzsche, who had also prepared a musical gift for Cosima: Nachklang einer Sylvesternacht for piano, four hands; Cosima sight-read the piece with young Hans Richter. (However, Wagner “could not bear to listen to the entire 15-minute-piece and had to leave the room prematurely in order to refrain from laughing out loud”, as we can read in Curt Paul Janz’ Nietzsche biography.) 

Christmas Day 1872: The morning began, as it has for many years, with “birthday greetings from the children, with wreaths and singing.” In the evening, “A children’s party, at which I show our magic lantern.”

On 25 December 1873 in Bayreuth: “Richard gives me the first act of Götterdämmerung, orchestrated!!!... early in the morning I hear the children in the adjoining room, singing the "Kose- und Rosenlied" (the newly composed Kinder-Katechismus zu Kosel’s (Cosima’s) Geburtstag for solo, children’s choir and orchestra “Cuddles and Roses Song”) so touching, so affecting! Then they come to my bedside, and Siegfried recites the poem to me!” 

Christmas Day 1880: Wagner’s Manuscript copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, written in 1830, was his Christmas present for Cosima.

Shortly before his death, at the last Christmas celebration with Cosima in 1882, he scored a major success in performing his exactly 50-year-old Symphony in C major, WWV 29, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice; he had secretly revised it for this occasion. This was to be his finaconcert. 

(Information from articles by Terence Watson, Sue Prideaux and Andrej Hoteev, and others)

An imagined image of Nietzsche’s 1869 Christmas with the Wagners (collage by G Henle)
An imagined image of Nietzsche’s 1869 Christmas with the Wagners (collage by G Henle)