The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs: Richard Wagner & His Beloved Canines

By Diana Burgwyn
(Photo Credits: JosefLehmkuhl / Wikimedia Commons)

OperaWire is proud to present “The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs,” a series by Diana Burgwyn, which will focus on the relationship between opera’s most iconic stars and their beloved canines. The creation of this series and all research necessary for each individual piece were conducted solely by Diana. To learn more about the origins of the project, click here

Richard Wagner, the creator of such towering 19th century operas as “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” “Tristan and  Isolde,Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” “Parsifal” and “The Ring of the Nibelung,” had a tumultuous life, with dismal creative failures and glorious successes,  financial crises and times of high living. His personal relationships were messy, his anti-Semitism an ugly stain that cannot be removed.

But in one aspect of life he was unfailingly loyal:  his love of dogs.

As a child Wagner and his sister often rescued puppies from being drowned. This turned into an emotional dependency so great that, as an adult, Wagner simply could not live or work without a dog by his side. Over his lifetime about a dozen canines entered the Wagner household, treated as beloved companions—and even as trusted critics.

The Spectre of Robber

Wagner’s first dog of note was Robber, a handsome, 160-pound Newfoundland owned by the composer’s landlord in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, where Wagner was living with his stage actress wife, Minna Planer. Robber decided to adopt the composer, following him everywhere—even to rehearsals of the orchestra that Wagner conducted, and he stood guard outside the composer’s home when he was away from Riga.  Eventually, the landlord gave the dog to him.

Wagner’s position then brought very little money, and his early operas were not successful. Eventually, having been constantly sued by creditors, he decided to escape Riga with Minna and Robber and head to Paris during the summer of 1839.  This meant crossing the Russo-Prussian frontier where Cossack sentries had been instructed to arrest him.  Departing Latvia in a small carriage that overturned, possibly causing Minna to have a miscarriage, then running on foot down slopes and across trenches in the burning summer heat, the little group crossed the border.  Miraculously, as if sensing the danger, Robber uttered not a sound during the ordeal, though his heavy coat of fur must have made the travel miserable.  Even more dangerous was the almost month-long journey by steamship to London.  Calm seas mutated into horrible storms that caused Minna and Robber to become very ill.

There was, however, one great benefit from the harrowing journey.  A few years later, utilizing the legend of a ship captain doomed to sail the high seas forever without stopping at port, Wagner brought the awesome power of the sea to life in his opera “The Flying Dutchman.”

The Robber saga continued in Paris, where the dog became a celebrity on his own, wandering the streets, making friends, and diving into icy water, dredging up whatever items of clothes he found. Suddenly, however, he went missing. He might have met with an accident or been abducted, or he might have decided to move on, as he had done when he left the merchant in Riga for Wagner.

Whatever the reason, Robber’s story ended bitterly for the composer, as he recounts in his autobiography. About a year after Robber’s disappearance Wagner stepped out of his house on a foggy morning and nearby spotted a dog.  At first he thought he was seeing a ghost, but no, it was Robber. He yelled to the dog, who approached him, then drew back timidly, turned around, and began to run in the opposite direction. Wagner ran after him. Taking on ever-greater speed, while occasionally pausing at street corners to look back at the composer, Robber eventually evaded him.

“That he had fled his old master with the terror of a wild beast filled my heart with a strange bitterness and seemed to me a terrible omen,” Wagner wrote.

He remembered the dog’s miserable life on the seas and the fact that he, Wagner, had on occasion treated him unkindly.  Had that been why Robber ran from him?

Or, perhaps, the whole thing was a hallucination of the composer, who frequently had strange dreams about dogs and, on one foggy day in Paris, mistook another Newfoundland for his missing companion.

Peps the Critic

The Paris stay not having been successful personally or financially, Wagner and Minna left for Dresden, which provided the composer a more stable existence. Here, Peps joined the household. The brown-and-white speckled dog was most likely an English toy spaniel or a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.  He was a sensitive, nervous, stay-at-home companion, subject to howls and sobs if his master was unhappy or angry, and he slept in a basket under Wagner’s bed.

While composing his opera, “Lohengrin,” Wagner began to consider Peps as a critic of sorts. The dog would perch on a special upholstered chair or climb up on other pieces of furniture to observe Wagner play or sing new passages of music. From his reactions, Wagner felt sure that Peps was associating his characters not only with specific musical keys but with particular moods and emotions, and he began to apply this concept in his operas.

Never one to lead a placid life, Wagner, who espoused liberal ideas, became embroiled in the German revolution of 1848, writing several articles critical of the reactionary circles holding power.  Unsurprisingly, they were poorly received by those dignitaries, who exiled him from Germany.  Once again Wagner was on the run with Minna, Peps, and their grey parrot, Papo.

His next stop would be Zürich, Switzerland, where he began to compose his great four-opera masterpiece, “The Ring of the Nibelungs.” There, Peps, his friend of 13 years, suddenly became ill.  Wagner tried desperately to save the dog, even rowing all the way across Lake Lucerne to reach the closest veterinarian for a poison that he intended to administer if Peps’ suffering became too great to bear.  He did not have to resort to that.  As Peps approached death, Wagner stationed himself beside the dog, who expressed, the composer wrote, “a truly heart-rending love to the last.”  When Peps died in his arms, Wagner wept openly and buried the dog in his garden.

The composer’s relationship with Minna had long been rocky, and Wagner remarked that their dogs kept them together in a marriage that was unfortunately childless.  Both husband and wife had affairs. Wagner fell in love with a married 21-year-old and intended to elope to the Far East with her, while Minna twice ran off with a businessman, returning to her husband both times. Before their marriage she had given birth to a daughter, whom she referred to as her sister and treated miserably, according to Wagner.

Fips’ Misfortune & the Theft of Pohl

The death of Peps further alienated the couple, and the next dog in the household brought additional grief.  A gift from Mathilde Wesendonck, who was the wife of a Wagner patron, the new spaniel was a lively animal that Minna cherished and named Fips.

One day she took Fips for a walk, during which the dog became very ill (perhaps after swallowing poison), bit his devoted mistress, and subsequently died. Comments were made that Wagner suspected Minna of having poisoned Fips because she feared he was having an affair with Wesendonck, but he never wrote a word to that effect.  In any event, Wagner buried the dog beneath a bush in the garden of a friend.

Wagner and Minna then separated but never divorced, and he continued to support her.  The composer moved to Vienna, winning his landlord’s gratitude by looking after his dog, Pohl, a lovable 90-pound Saint Hubert hound, whenever the landlord was away.  But the creditors were after him again, and Wagner took off with Pohl for Germany, evidently having decided that the dog was his.

In Munich, the composer’s life changed significantly.  Ludwig II, the young king of Bavaria, known for the fanciful castles he built in Germany, was a fanatical admirer of Wagner’s work.  Having read the story of what would become “The Ring of the Nibelungs,” Ludwig invited the composer to finish the work in Munich, paid his debts, installed him in a villa, and provided him with a generous stipend.

It was then that Cosima von Bülow, who was the illegitimate daughter of her husband’s friend, the composer Franz Liszt, began an affair with Wagner that resulted in the birth of a child in less than a year. Since King Ludwig and his court were not at all happy with the liaison, Wagner returned to Switzerland. On one occasion, when he had a professional engagement in Paris, he left Pohl, who was not well, in Geneva. There the dog died and was hastily buried.  Wagner’s estranged wife died at roughly the same time but Wagner made no effort to go to her funeral.  Of far greater import was the loss of Pohl, whom he had exhumed, fitted with a collar, placed in a proper grave, and reburied.

Russmuck the Favorite & Marke at the End

Cosima moved with Wagner to Switzerland.  The couple had a total of three illegitimate children before her marriage to von Bülow was annulled; she wed Wagner in 1870.  Cosima always presented her relationship with Wagner as the great love of twin souls never to be parted; in truth, however, Wagner had mistresses and dalliances over the years, just as he had when married to Minna.  Much disliked by the people she treated badly, Cosima was, like her husband, an open anti-Semite, which permanently tarnished the couple’s reputation (Her behavior after Wagner’s death continued to be arrogant and demanding, including an instance when she ordered a certain doctor to operate on her sick dog in the human operating room of the local hospital).

High on the list of Wagner’s favorite dogs was a black Newfoundland named Russmuck – he called him Russ – who came into his life when the composer’s children were young. Russ would remain his beloved companion for nine years.  The dog was always in the house when Wagner was working, watching over him protectively.  He was also devoted to the children, swimming behind them when they went boating. On one such occasion he snatched Wagner’s daughter Eva from the water after she fell from a boat, most likely saving her life.

With the “Ring” nearing completion, Wagner convinced King Ludwig to sponsor the building of a new opera house, which the composer himself designed in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. This became the world center for the performance of Wagner’s operas and the furthering of his ideology. At Wahnfried, the elegant villa provided the Wagners by King Ludwig, Russ held court.

The dog’s sudden death was a huge blow to Wagner, who buried Russ in the garden at Wahnfried next to a vault he had built for his own grave.

“Here Guards and Watches Wagner’s Russ,” reads a small stone slab. The composer surely would have been pleased to know that many years later Russ would be memorialized in black plaster (pictured above), when the unconventional and somewhat scandalous sculptor Ottmar Hörl created about 80 miniature replicas of the dog. These were placed next to park benches leading to the Bayreuth opera house in celebration of the annual Wagner festival.  So popular were they that police had to guard them from being stolen.  When the city ordered the dogs removed, Hörl, quite displeased, began to sell signed replicas.

Of all the other dogs Wagner had at Wahnfried, only one lived long enough to see Wagner almost to the end: that was Marke. The composer’s health was failing, and when the family prepared to go to Venice for the winter, they were required by the King to leave Marke in Bayreuth.  Wagner feared he would not return to see him.

“Be faithful and brave,” he counseled the dog.

In Venice Wagner died of a heart attack at age 69.  Some unproven accounts connect his death with a confrontation he had with Cosima just hours before over his infatuation with a singer who had been a flower maiden in his opera “Parsifal.” His body was sent by gondola and train to his villa in Bayreuth.  At the funeral Marke stood by the coffin howling inconsolably. Refusing to leave the gravesite, he died of grief within days, according to Cosima. Marke was laid to rest a short distance from Wagner and Russ. His epitaph: “Here Rests Wahnfried’s Guardian and Friend, the Good, Beautiful Marke.”

Stories about Richard Wagner’s dogs are many and inconsistent, even in the composer’s own writings.  But together they portray a man who treated canines more kindly than most humans (this despite the fact that he owned an elaborate dog whip, displayed at the Wagner Museum in Trebschen, Switzerland).  A chapter on Wagner’s dogs in the book “The Pawprints of History” by psychologist Stanley Coren, published by The Free Press in 2002, makes for intriguing reading.

© Copyright 2021 Diana Burgwyn


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