Wagner's Muse - Judith Gautier

The relationship between the French writer Judith Gautier and the German composer Richard Wagner.

Silk and Satin

Wagner could not bear to have any coarse material against his skin, perhaps as the result of a medical condition, and for many years dressed in silk or satin underwear. During his later years, including the period during which he was working on the score of Parsifal, Wagner's working environment too was draped in silks and satins, in his favourite colours, and soaked in perfume. It was in these surroundings of extravagant sensuousness that the music of Parsifal, a work that celebrates renunciation and chastity, was brought into the world.

Caricature by Grötz: Frou-Frou Wagner
Above: Frou-Frou Wagner, caricature by Grötz, Der Floh, Vienna, 24 June 1887.

The music of Parsifal was to be at the furthest remove possible from that of the Ring, he told Cosima: the music was to have the softness and shimmer of silk, like cloud-layers that keep separating and combining again. Wagner's surviving letters include several in which he give instructions for the purchase of fabrics and perfumes. Care had to be taken that these letters did not fall into the wrong hands, since their publication would be an embarrassment. During the composition of Parsifal, many of these errands were performed by Judith Gautier.

Drawing of Judith Gautier by J.S.Sargent
Above: Judith Gautier drawn by J.S.Sargent. Windsor Castle, Royal Library. © 1990 H.M. Queen Elizabeth II.

Judith Gautier

If Mathilde Wesendonk was the muse who inspired Wagner to create Tristan und Isolde, then the muse of Parsifal, it has been said, was the young and beautiful Judith Gautier. She was an enthusiastic Wagnerian and attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. During this festival, there was, apparently, an emotional incident in her lodgings, when Wagner broke down and, sobbing, was comforted by Judith. There followed a passionate flame (at least on Wagner's side) that, although possibly the relationship was never consummated, was to continue to burn until it was extinguished by Cosima in February 1878.

open quotesChère, I am sad! There is another reception this evening, but I shall not be going to it! I reread a few pages of my life which I once dictated to Cosima! She sacrifices herself to her father's habits, - alas! Could it have been for the last time that I held you in my arms this morning? No! - I shall see you again - I want to see you! because I love you! - Adieu - Be good to me! close quotes

Note from Richard Wagner to Judith Gautier, written after her departure for Paris, dated 2 September 1876. Lettres à Judith Gautier 57.

In order to keep the correspondence secret, not least from Cosima, it was arranged that letters and packages for Wagner should be sent by Judith to the barber Schnappauf in Bayreuth.

Judith Gautier as painted in 1885 by J.S.Sargent
Above: Judith Gautier painted in 1885 by J.S.Sargent. © 1990 Detroit Institute of Arts.

open quotes Something else! I want a very beautiful and exceptional cover - for my chaise-longue - which I shall call "Judith"! - Listen! try and find one of those silk fabrics called "Lampas" or - whatever? Yellow satin background - the palest possible - with a floral pattern - roses; not too large a design, it is not intended for curtains; it is used, rather, for small pieces of furniture. If there is nothing in yellow, then very light blue. [Footnote: same white background, which will be easier to find.] I shall need six metres! - All this for mornings well spent on Parsifal. This is an Arabian name. The old troubadours no longer understood what it meant. "Parsi fal" means: "parsi"- think of the fire-loving Parsees - "pure"; "fal" means "mad" in a higher sense, in other words a man without erudition, but one of genius ... close quotes

Letter from Richard Wagner to Judith Gautier, 22 November 1877. Lettres à Judith Gautier 65-7.

Judith Gautier at la Fourberie by J.S.Sargent
Above: Mlle. Judith Gautier à la Fourberie, 1883-85, J.S.Sargent. © Musée Jean Faure, Aix-les-Bains, France.

open quotesBut now to more serious matters: first of all, the two chests which have not arrived. Well! They will arrive, and I shall immerse myself in your generous soul. Cancel the pink satin entirely: there would be too much of it, and it would be good for nothing. Can I expect the two remnants that I mentioned in my last letter? - The brocade can be reserved: I'm inclined to order 30 metres, but perhaps the colours can be changed to flatter my taste even better; in other words: the fawn striped material would be silver-grey, and the blue my pink, very pale and delicate... For the rest do not think ill of me! I am old enough to indulge in childish pursuits! - I have three years of Parsifal ahead of me, and nothing must tear me away from the peaceful tranquillity of creative seclusion... close quotes

Letter from Richard Wagner to Judith Gautier, 18 December 1877. Lettres à Judith Gautier 78-80.

open quotesThe little bottle of rose-water was completely ruined by cold water; and in my clumsiness I dropped the larger bottle as I was trying to arrange it with the alcohol: it broke, and its contents went all over the carpet; what really surprised me was how little effect the smell had, since I would have expected it to give me 1000 headaches! - Send me some more of it. - And don't forget the Rimmel Bengali rose-powders. - But- above all - be so kind as to let me know immediately and in a word if you have found the lilac satin (Ophelia!) since my decision to buy it depends upon your answer. Dearly beloved! I have finished the 1st act; you shall have a sample of it as soon as I have dealt with a whole host of other matters which I have neglected of late ... Cosima continues as ever before filled with feelings of admiration and gratitude towards you on account of the Japanese dress and all the other things you have chosen for her. Would to God that our traditional quarrels on the subject of poor Parsifal might be over and done with! Believe me, they are not worth the effort... close quotes

Richard Wagner to Judith Gautier, 6 February 1878. Lettres à Judith Gautier 94-6.

Attached to a page of Cosima Wagner's Diary for 1877 is a watercolour drawing with the caption: Japanese négligé given to me by Richard, Christmas 1877. This entry follows:

open quotesAll this has led to a long correspondence between him and Judith, during which it had unfortunately become clear that even the best of French people cannot overcome certain limitations! For instance, Judith cannot believe that it is impossible to translate Parsifal into French! But of course they do not know the other thing! close quotes

Cosima Wagner's Diary entry for 24 December 1877.

It seems that, during January of the following year, Cosima caught Richard burning some of the long correspondence between him and Judith and the affair was brought to an end.

A Gust of Wind by J.S.Sargent
Above: A Gust of Wind by J.S.Sargent, 1886-7, Private Collection.

open quotesDear soul, I have asked Cosima to take charge of these errands from now on, or rather to make the final arrangements with regard to the various errands with which I have been troubling you for so long. I believe, at the same time, that I do well to entrust these last remaining problems to her (as a woman), since there is no longer any surprise in store! - As for the rest, I am so overwhelmed with work at the moment - work which is not in the least agreeable - that I cannot find time any longer to continue working on Parsifal. - Take pity on me! It will soon be over, and I shall rediscover those wonderful moments when I can enjoy talking to you about myself! - But do not worry about me: the things that annoy me will soon be over and done with! - Be considerate towards Cosima: write to her properly and at length. I shall be told everything. Do not stop loving me! You will see me often [?], and, after all, we shall see each other again some day! Yours, R. close quotes

Letter from Richard Wagner to Judith Gautier, 15 February 1878. Lettres à Judith Gautier 96-7.

Online book: Judith Gautier's translation of the 'Parsifal' libretto (Paris, 1914) at openlibrary.org

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