Wagner's Magic Lamp: an ongoing mystery - David Conway

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 11 December 2013 | 11:36:00 am

The following  article is reproduced with the very kind permission of the author Dr David Conway - whose book Jewry in Music we shall feature shortly. This is taken from his website of the same name which contains much we would recommend. To continue reading click the link at the bottom of the article, Onwards to Semper's Early Career

Wagner's Magic Lamp: an ongoing mystery........

Richard Wagner's relationship with the Jews is a tortuous saga, but few of its manifestations are as obscure as the affair of the Dresden lamp.

The outline of the story is embedded in the surviving fragments of a complex correspondence and a few passing entries in the diaries of Cosima Wagner. The earliest element of which we have a trace is a letter from the architect Gottfried Semper to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was at the time a professor at Basel, dated 23rd January 1870. He apologizes for his delay in replying; he wished to send Nietzsche a drawing of the lamp (Ämpel) and had to search for the original. He encloses a half-size sketch which'will of course be at the disposition of the lady of whom you speak'. The vessel (Gefass) was commissioned by the congregation of the Synagogue. Semper cannot recall who made it, but suggests that Nietzsche contacts the head of the Dresden community, or else the jewellers Meyer and Noske, through whom it was acquired, although they did not actually make it themselves

Nietzsche was prompt in forwarding this letter to Cosima Wagner at Triebschen in Lucerne. On 25th January, she records in her diary 'For me a letter from Professor Nietzsche and arrival of a Semper drawing'. On the 27th she writes to Nietzsche:

'You see dear Herr Professor how you truly bring me luck; for I have to my astonished joy the drawing by Semper. I am returning you his letter, as an autograph of S(emper) is always of value. I note also Noske and Meyer, but imagine that this firm must be in Dresden (not in Zurich which for the Dresden Synagogue in those days can hardly have been in its compass (wohl gar nicht existierte) ). Dare I pester you further? I cannot send a letter to Meyer and Noske over my name, or dated from Lucerne, as I would run thereby the risk of my Jewish order appearing in the press. Would you have the great kindness to forward the enclosed letter (which I have had my governess write and sign) and arrange the enquiry in your name, or else forward it and enclose your address? I ask a thousand apologies. I think it would also be right to send Semper a couple of words of thanks for his friendly dispatch of the drawing'.

The next we hear of this matter is in Cosima's diary entries in May. On 24th May, Cosima goes 'to the jeweller, who has been to see Semper; the latter received him at first hostilely, but then gradually gave some explanations'. And on 25th May 'I write to Pusinelli about the hanging lamp'.  Pusinelli had been Wagner's doctor in Dresden and continued to act as factotum in various matters for Wagner and over the years.

Then nothing, unless the unamplified diary entries of May and early June representing concern about delay in correspondence from Pusinelli, and later a response from him, relate to this matter. Finally we read, on September 4th, 'At 4 o'clock the christening takes place. Helferich Siegfried Richard Wagner behaves passably well. Merry gathering afterward. Semper's hanging lamp is inaugurated'.

What does this all mean? We are clearly missing, (at least), a letter from Cosima to Nietzsche, asking him to approach Semper about without revealing her name; at least one letter from Nietzsche to Semper; the letters from Nietzsche to Cosima preceding and following her letter of 27th January, the latter either accepting or demurring the tasks laid on him (Cosima is known to have destroyed all of Nietzsche's letters to her); correspondence between Cosima and Pusinelli; and the various arrangements made between Cosima and the local goldsmith who recreated the object. A careful survey of the above does however reveal that the interpretation of Joachim Koehler, in his book 'Nietzsche and Wagner', that this episode was a prime example of Wagner's capricious desire for valuable knick-knacks, is wide of the mark. Cosima obviously went out of her way to arrange the lamp as a present for Richard.

But all this begs several questions. What was the lamp? Why did Cosima want it for Richard? Why didn't she approach Semper directly? Why was Nietzsche willing to do her dirty work (at least initially)? Why did she write to Pusinelli about it? What is the meaning of inaugurating the lamp at Siegfried Wagner's christening? Where are the lamps - the original and the copy - today?

Onwards to Semper's Early Career

Copyright retained by David Conway. Reproduced by kind permission