Minna und Richard Wagner: Stationen einer Liebe, by Eva Rieger. German Studies Review 28.1 (2005): 195-96.

Eva Rieger: Minna und Richard Wagner: Stationen einer Liebe. Düsseldorf & Zürich: Artemis & Winkler, 2003. 444pp. 28,00 Euro.

Rumors and anecdotes about Richard Wagner – the womanizing, luxury-loving spendthrift, who was almost constantly in debt – were spread already during the composer’s lifetime. Many of the stories – the affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and the perennial prurient interest in whether or not it may have been consummated, the flight from Dresden after the uprising of 1849 and the warrant issued for Wagner’s arrest – have been part of the perma-lore surrounding Wagner, and account, to some degree, for his tabloid-style notoriety. Some of the legends concern Wagner’s first marriage to Minna Planer, the slightly older woman young Wagner had met and impulsively married whilst still an all-but-unknown conductor in Magdeburg and Riga, the woman who never really understood Wagner’s genius and could never be his spiritual partner. This was Wagner’s later account of the marriage and relationship, carefully crafted, repeated ad nauseam. Since Wagner dominated the airwaves, it became the only truth: another part of Wagner lore, and apparently reasonable grounds for some of his otherwise scandalous and unacceptable behavior.

Rieger’s book of course relates this side of the story. But it does a lot more besides. Rieger has carefully and minutely combed through literally hundreds of pages of correspondence – from Richard, from Minna (even though Richard had much of it destroyed), and from close friends. And, although she sometimes allows herself a little liberty in narrating over the gaps, Rieger’s consummate skill is in letting the main characters speak for themselves which she does with admirable fairness. Instead of quoting sentence fragments out of context, Rieger often reproduces entire pages from important letters. The evidence is damning.

The book depicts Wagner’s domestic world with only occasional references to the monumental ideas and works he was concurrently creating. Thus the reader is afforded little opportunity to excuse Wagner because of what he was “giving the world and posterity” (Wagner’s words). Instead, we see a woman from a poverty-stricken family, who made herself financially self-sufficient and was in a well-established career when she met her husband-to-be: a remarkable story for the 19th century. Minna was significantly more successful than her new lover. Wagner pursued her relentlessly, was often consumed by jealousy, constantly afraid of being dumped. He wrote breathtakingly desperate letters which, by current standards, would be considered psychological harassment by a verbally abusive partner. Despite Wagner’s often irresponsible behavior, Minna gave up her career and independence to service his needs and his genius. Despite Wagner’s later accounts to the contrary, Minna recognized and was clearly involved with his art and immense talent.

Richard Wagner has been (often unfairly) subjected to a lot of bad press both in life and after, much of it in the form of gossip. But Eva Rieger has not written another tawdry exposé. In a meticulously researched yet thoroughly engaging and readable book, Rieger has also done much more than give Minna Planer née Wagner her voice back. Rieger’s book is a significant addition to Wagner scholarship, because she shows step by step how Wagner’s version of the truth was formed, how it was promulgated and maintained, and just how far it strayed from fact. There is much that still needs to be done in separating Wagnerian fact from fiction; Rieger’s book shows us one rewarding way of going about the task.

NICHOLAS VAZSONYI, University of South Carolina

Copyright © 2005 by Eva Rieger. All Rights Reserved.