Mathilde Wesendonck (23 December 1828 - 31 August 1902) was a minor German poet, who is best known as the friend and possibly mistress of Richard Wagner, who set five songs to her words, the Wesendonck Lieder. She was born Agnes Mathilde Luckemeyer in Elberfeld in 1828. She married the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck (sometimes seen as von Wesendonk). Otto was a great admirer of Wagner's music, and after he and Mathilde met the composer in Zurich in 1852, he placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. It is not known whether she returned his affections to the same degree, or if the affair -- such as it was - was ever consummated. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on Der Ring des Nibelungen (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde. In 1858, Wagner's wife Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, for Venice. Mathilde Wesendonck died in 1902 in Traunblick am Traunsee. She was portrayed by Valentina Cortese in the 1955 film Magic Fire. Her legacy as lover of Richard Wagner lives on with reference to her in Rhett Miller's song Our Love from the album The Instigator
• Alte und neue Kinderlieder (1890)
• Deutsches Kinderbuch in Wort und Bild (1869)
• Edith oder die Schlacht bei Hastings (1872)
• Friedrich der Große. Dramatische Bilder (1871)
• Gedichte, Volksweisen, Legenden und Sagen (1874)
• Genoveva (1866)
• Gudrun. Schauspiel (1868)
• Naturmythen (1865)
The Wesendonck Lieder is a song-cycle composed by Richard Wagner while he was working on Die Walküre. This, and the Siegfried Idyll, are his only two non-operatic works that are still regularly performed.
The cycle is a setting of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner's patrons. Wagner had become acquainted with Otto Wesendonck in Zürich, where he had fled on his escape from Saxony after the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849. For a time Wagner and his wife Minna lived together in the Asyl (German for Asylum), a small cottage on the Wesendonck estate. It is sometimes claimed that Wagner and Mathilde had a love affair; in any case, the situation and mutual infatuation certainly contributed to the intensity of the first act of Die Walküre which Wagner was working on at the time, and the conceiving of a work based on the Tristan and Isolde stories; there is certainly an influence on Mathilde's poems as well.
The poems themselves are in a wistful, pathos-laden style influenced by Wilhelm Müller, the author of the poems used by Schubert earlier in the century. But the language is more rarefied and intense as the Romantic style had developed. Wagner himself called two of the songs in the cycle "studies" for Tristan und Isolde, using for the first time musical ideas that are later developed in the opera. In Träume can be heard the roots of the love duet in Act 2, while Im Treibhaus (the last of the five to be composed) uses music later developed extensively for the Prelude to Act 3. The chromatic-harmonic style of Tristan pervades all five songs and pulls the cycle together. Wagner initially wrote the songs for female voice and piano alone, but produced a fully orchestrated version of Träume, to be performed by chamber orchestra under Mathilde's window on the occasion of her birthday, 23 December 1857. The cycle as a whole was first performed in public near Mainz on July 30, 1862 under the title Five Songs for a Female Voice. Träume is sometimes sung by a male voice, as for instance in a pre-War HMV recording by Lauritz Melchior.
The orchestration of the whole cycle was completed for large orchestra by Felix Mottl, the Wagner conductor. In 1976, the German composer Hans Werner Henze produced a chamber version for the whole cycle. Each of the players has a separate part, with some very striking wind registration.
Der Engel (The Angel), composed November 1857.
Stehe still! (Stand still!), composed February 1858.
Im Treibhaus - Studie zu Tristan und Isolde (In the Greenhouse), composed May 1858.
Schmerzen (Sorrows), composed December 1857.
Träume - Studie zu Tristan und Isolde (Dreams), composed December 1857.