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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Milton Cross (Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music,
1962) puts it,
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
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?
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,
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.
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.
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.
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)
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”.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
the music began — ruhig bewegt, tranquillo mosso.
is an extract from Cosima’s diary:
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!
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.
let me die,” I exclaimed to him.
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.
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.