Magazine article The Spectator

What Richard Wagner Required of His Viennese Dress Designer

Magazine article The Spectator

What Richard Wagner Required of His Viennese Dress Designer

Article excerpt

President Bush and the Chinese dictator dressed un in fancy silk tunics to do business this week. And why not? Wearing a different outfit tends to make the mind more flexible. Churchill liked to don his quasi-nautical uniform as an Elder Brother of Trinity House to impress foreign potentates. De Gaulle was mystified; still more by Churchill's explanation of its significance (Je suis le frere aine de la Saint Triniti). Old Nikita Khrushchev, I recall, liked dressing up and once suggested that all participants at a summit should adopt the style of clowns in a circus, an image that delighted my friend Vicky, the cartoonist.

Various people think they perform their functions better when dressed up: archbishops, for instance, traffic wardens, royals. The more august French authors, the kind who belong to the Academie, put on a skullcap before picking up their pen, even though it is now a word-processor. I know one English writer who likes to put on a magic jacket, like a conjuror, before he gets on with his play/novel. And was there not a prolific author, specialising in romantic novels (among other genres), who had to dress up as a flapper before tackling his current tale, while retaining his foul pipe and Osbert Lancaster moustache? Deep waters here eh. Watson?

The man genius, I should say - who formed the closest connection between art and costume was Richard Wagner. He had, he told his father-in-law, Liszt, `an uncommonly tender and delicate sensuality which must be flattered if I am to accomplish the cruelly difficult task of creating in my mind a non-existent world'. One reason he involved his sponsors in such ruinous expenditure was that he decorated his habitations in silks and satins of astonishing luxury, which he commissioned in elaborate detail from the top Viennese dress designer, Bertha Goldwag. His letter to Fraulein Goldwag of 1 February 1867 includes sketches and a mesmerising description of the housecoats he wanted her to make for him so that he could finish the Ring. One was in pink satin ('I need 12 yards'), `quilted with eiderdown and sewn in squares'. It was to be `lined with a lightweight white satin', and the width of the coat at the bottom had to be `six lengths, i.e. very wide' so that he could swish it about. He wanted 'a puffed ruche all the way round' and `the trimming or flounce must be particularly opulent and beautifully worked ... a foot in width [with] three or four beautiful bows' near the waist. The sleeves were to have `puffed trimmings, opulent' and there had to be 'a wide sash, ten feet long. This fantastic garment he wanted duplicated in blue, and he enclosed samples of the exact colours he required. The whole was completed, once put on, by profuse spraying of costly scents and unguents, in the rooms as well as on the person, so that faint whiffs of his prodigality are still to be detected in his apartments - in the Palazzo Vendramini in Venice for example.

This attention to detail in the composition of a costume is akin to his orchestration, where he often doubles up the instruments but writes a separate line for each to produce the exact sound he wants. Thus he uses eight horns, each independently scored, to produce the sound of the Rhine at the opening of Rheingold. When the gods first view the new Valhalla, Wagner uses a group of 13 brass instruments, including a bass trumpet, two tenor and two brass tubas, a contrabass tuba and a contrabass trombone, each carefully scored to produce, in combination, the precise sonority to invest the theatrical scenery with the sound he required to set the imagination aflame. …

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