Siegfried Idyll
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Siegfried Idyll

Issue 13 ushers in the series Memorable Moments in Music with Tony Rogers' account of the special birthday and Christmas present Richard Wagner prepared for his wife Cosima — the Siegfried Idyll.

On this extraordinary morning he was a trumpet player

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Christmas Day Première on the Staircase
[ Memorable Moments in Music No. 1 ]
— Tony Rogers


Copyright


In my Gaudeat Auditor article in the Wagner issue (No. 10, November 1998), I alluded to the first performance of the Siegfried Idyll. I have been asked to write some more on that romantic event, and so I have decided to make it the first in our Memorable Moments in Music series.

In 1857 Hans von Bülow married Cosima, one of the three children resulting from the love affair in the 1830s of composer/pianist Franz Liszt and the Countess d’Agoult. Von Bülow was a pianist, composer and conductor who had studied piano with Liszt in 1853 and who was already an intimate friend of Richard Wagner and a devoted advocate of Wagner’s music. Now usually considered the world’s first virtuoso conductor, von Bülow unfortunately was psychologically unstable, and this fact coupled with Cosima’s great intellect and strong-willed attitudes led to an unhappy marriage.

Wagner and Cosima were attracted to each other and became lovers, a fact they took few steps to conceal from either von Bülow or Wagner’s wife, Minna — or the world, for that matter. (Wagner had separated permanently from Minna in 1862; she died four years later.)

In 1865 Cosima bore him a daughter, whom in typically impudent shamelessness they called Isolde. To the extent that he was able, the miserable von Bülow accepted the girl as his own child.

“They will drag us through the mud. Let them do it, so long as I am by his side.” So wrote Cosima in her diary in 1868.

But by then a second daughter had been born (Eva), and public contempt had become so great that the four fled to Switzerland and set up as a family at the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne. Von Bülow is said to have complained, “If it had been anyone else but Wagner, I would have shot him.” Instead, being the honourable Prussian nobleman he was, and — more importantly — the committed devotee of Wagner’s music, he continued to work loyally on behalf of the latter’s operas.

Liszt was also appalled by his daughter’s behaviour, and for years would have no contact with Wagner on a personal basis. Like von Bülow, however, he went on championing his music.

Supported he may have been by musical crusaders like Liszt and von Bülow and financial backers like Mad King Ludwig, but it is no exaggeration to say that it was Cosima’s love for Richard and deep appreciation of his art that turned Wagner’s existence from potential defeat to certain victory.

As Milton Cross (Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music, 1962) puts it,

Emotional stability had finally entered Wagner’s life. In Cosima he had found the woman for whom he had been seeking so restlessly all his life. To the last years of Wagner’s life, they remained devoted to each other, Cosima providing him with the understanding and adulation he needed . . . Wagner could return to composition with a peace of mind he had never known.

Eighteen sixty-nine saw the birth of a son, the day before which Wagner completed the musical outline for Act III of Siegfried. What other name, then, could the son have been given but Siegfried?

The following year, a few months after von Bülow had divorced her, Cosima and Richard were legally married. In a letter he wrote around this time, Wagner said of his life with Cosima,

She has defied every disapprobation and taken upon herself every condemnation. She has borne me a wonderfully beautiful boy, whom I call boldly Siegfried; he is now growing, together with my work; he gives me a new long life, which at last has attained a meaning. Thus we get along without the world, from which we have totally withdrawn.

Wagner’s personal joy was without a doubt now complete, and before long he set about preparing a surprise gift for Cosima’s next birthday, her 33rd. It was to be the performance of a new musical piece, one of his few purely orchestral compositions, written especially to celebrate the birth of their son — the Siegfried Idyll.

For obvious reasons, the music would have an definite relationship to the opera Siegfried and indeed feature several leitmotivs from that work, but for this family occasion the treatment had to be wholly different — tender, poignant and, above all, delicately intimate.

Consequently Wagner composed the Idyll for just thirteen players – two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns and trumpet. With such a chamber ensemble he could achieve the “most exquisitely subtilized colouristic and contrapuntal effects . . . to express the impalpable nuances of his inspiration.” (Robert L. Jacobs, Wagner, 1947)

There is strong evidence that in the Idyll Wagner used drafts he happened to have been working on when he met Cosima in 1864, perhaps as part of a projected string quartet. He also introduced these same themes into Act III of Siegfried. Since they do not occur anywhere else in the Ring, it is believed that he composed the rhapsodic music accompanying the scene of Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde to give full rein to his family happiness, and as a sentimental reminder of the “Cosima quartet sketches”.

Often the Siegfried Idyll is performed with a full complement of strings, instead of the solo string parts Wagner wrote. Both ways of playing it are satisfying to the modern ear, but let us not forget the sound Wagner was planning for Christmas Day 1870. (Cosima had been born 25 December, 1837.)

But first there was the problem of rehearsals to solve, which all had to be carried out in secret. Then Wagner had to determine where to present his musical gift to Cosima. He decided on the staircase to her bedroom, where there was just cramped room enough for himself conducting and the thirteen instrumentalists. His intention, of course, was to perform the piece as she awoke.

One of the instrumentalists was Hans Richter, a young French horn player from Vienna, who had been working for the preceding five years as Wagner’s amanuensis, preparing opera scores for publication. In future years he would enjoy even more renown as a Wagnerian conductor than von Bülow.

It was he in fact who conducted the inaugural Bayreuth performances of the Ring (1876), as well as the first British performances of Die Meistersinger (1882) and Tristan (1884). From 1899 to 1911 he was conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. It was Richter, too, who introduced to the world two of Edward Elgar’s greatest and most popular works, by conducting the first performances of the Enigma Variations (1899) and The Dream of Gerontius (1900).

But on this extraordinary morning he was a trumpet player. According to legend, in order to practise out of earshot of the Villa, Richter had regularly rowed himself out into the middle of Lake Lucerne. The trumpet part is tiny, in so far as Wagner calls for it in a passage of barely 13 bars out of a total of 405. But because he cleverly saves its entrance until bar 295, its brief effect is all the more exhilarating, and therefore, one assumes, worth all that effort to get right.

At last the great day arrived, and the fourteen assembled on the stairs. Below them waited little Isolde and Eva and a few house guests, among them a frequent visitor to the Villa, a certain Friedrich Nietzsche, then in his mid twenties.

Quietly the music began — ruhig bewegt, tranquillo mosso.

Here is an extract from Cosima’s diary:

When I woke up I heard a sound. It grew louder. I could no longer imagine myself in a dream. Music was sounding, and what music!

After the music had died away, Richard came into my bedroom and put into my hands the score of the work he has called The Siegfried Idyll. As a birthday surprise for me he had set up his orchestra outside my room and thus consecrated our joyous home forever. I was in tears, but so was the whole household.

“Now let me die,” I exclaimed to him.

The Siegfried Idyll (Wagner had originally intended calling it Triebschener Idyll, by the way) was never intended by Richard and Cosima to see publication, nor to be heard in public performance; it was an intensely private thing. On the manuscript Richard had even written 16 personal lines of verse to Cosima. It was thus a great blow when financial difficulties in 1877 forced them to sell the work to Schott’s, who published the work the following year, including the dedicatory verse.

Not even this disappointment, however, could detract from the symbolic significance for the Wagners and their friends of this serenade, and for some years after its première on the staircase that same band of musicians would gather at the Villa on Christmas Day to perform again this lovely, unique birthday present — from memory.

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