About this work
The extent of Wagner's closeness to Mathilde Wesendonk will probably never be known. The lady, herself, exercised an admirable discretion, both as the matter unfolded and in her later years when, known to have been the muse of Tristan und Isolde, she was tactlessly questioned. Born December 23, 1828, she lived into the twentieth century, dying on August 31, 1902, her secrets intact. The grossly indiscreet Wagner, on the other hand, wished above all to keep the passion of his alliance with Mathilde a secret from his wife Minna and downplayed his infatuation when he dictated Mein Leben, his autobiography, to his second wife Cosima. Mathilde and Otto Wesendonk arrived in Zürich from a stay in New York, where he was partner in a firm of silk importers, in 1851. In February 1852 Wagner wrote to Theodor Uhlig, a violinist and friend from his early Dresden days, "Some new acquaintances have forced themselves upon me; the men are highly indifferent to me, the women less so. A rich young merchant, Wesendonk...settled down at Zürich some time ago and in great luxury. His wife is very pretty and seems to have caught some enthusiasm for me...." Mathilde was 23 when she heard Wagner conduct the overture to Tannhäuser on March 16, 1852, an experience that shook her to the depths -- though in that she was not alone. In exile in Zürich for revolutionary activities in Dresden in 1849, Wagner gathered a following as a conductor, while performances from his works sparked avid interest. Wesendonk was foremost among a number of patrons who supported Wagner in lavish style. Even as his closeness with Mathilde was reaching a fever pitch, breaking the creative deadlock that had gripped him since the completion of Lohengrin in 1848, he wrote to Liszt on January 15, 1854, "The only thing I want is money; that at least one ought to be able to get. Love I abandon, and art!" Playful or pathetic, the dedication of the little polka sent to Mathilde on May 29, 1853 -- "Melted here for the frozen one of yesterday" -- suggests that even on the most supernal plane of Empfindlichkeit, which they, by then, shared, there were dissonant moments. The compact sonata he composed for her in June 1853, in three continuous movements playing something over 10 minutes, despite one stormy passage, is gemütlich rather than passionate, and thinly tailored to an amateur's abilities. Its Norn-derived motto is more telling -- "Do you know what will follow?"