A message from Josh:
The joys of serendipity. The other day, listening to the car radio while driving to my college campus to teach, I heard a piece by Richard Wagner that I have loved for a long time: “A Siegfried Idyll.” I’d like to share some thoughts about it with you.
Wagner has been a controversial personality from the beginning. There is his megalomaniacal Aryanism and his anti-semitism to deal with, for starters. He was at the center of a major scandal that caused great pain to two families and alienated him from his champion Franz Liszt.
And yet he could also write this serenely beautiful statement of peace and love, contradicting the cliche that his music is only aggressively loud and bombastic.
The origins of the Idyll lie in the deep emotion Wagner felt for his wife, Cosima. He gave it to her as a surprise Christmas Day/birthday gift in 1870. It was first played on the staircase of their home, Villa Tribschen, on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Imagine Wagner standing at the top of the staircase, conducting a 15 member chamber ensemble consisting of flute, oboe, two clarinets, trumpet, two horns, bassoon, two first and second violins, viola, cello, and double bass!
Barely four years earlier, Cosima, then still legally married to the celebrated conductor/pianist Hans Von Bulow, had scandalously left her husband for Wagner. Within four years she had borne Wagner two daughters and then in 1869 a son whom they named Siegfried. (Siegfried is of course also the name Wagner gave to the third opera in his Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which premiered on August 16, 1876 as part of the historic world premiere of the complete Ring–a major public event.)
However, “A Siegfried Idyll” was not actually the original name of this piece. The story is more complicated.
Wagner and Cosima had begun a secret affair around 1864. Both found the great love of their life in each other. For the rest of their lives Cosima was Wagner’s muse and fierce protector. This music that he wrote for her reflects the strength of their bond, which lasted until their deaths.
Thus he named this gift to her “The Tribschener Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting from Richard to Cosima.” Tribschener for their beloved home, Villa Trebschen…Fidi, the nickname of their little son Siegfried.
In the beginning it was, as Edward Downs says, “a private and personal document, never intended for the ears of the outside world.” In fact, it was only “grim financial pressure” that ultimately persuaded them to publish it, substituting the present, familiar title for the personal, intimate one Wagner originally gave it.
What you should listen for in the music, performed by a chamber ensemble drawn from members of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir George Solti:
There are four essential melodies or themes.
- The principal one is a calm melody first heard in the strings. Recent scholarship has revealed that this melody was actually part of a never-completed string quartet “valentine” that Wagner had intended as a gift to Cosima when they first became involved around 1864.
- What follows is a caressing oboe melody quoting an old German cradle song, “Sleep, Little Child, Sleep,” something jotted down in Wagner’s diary before his son Siegfried was born. There is the striking similarity between this melody and the opening principal one; they can been seen as virtual mirror images of each other.
- The third melody heard also originated as part of the “valentine” string quartet. It is better known to Wagnerites as the introduction to the climactic love duet of Brunnhilde and Siegfried, where she sings “O Siegfried, thou glorious hope of the world.”
- Finally, there is the music of the forest bird that tells Siegfried of Brunnhilde, who lies asleep on a high rock surrounded by magic fire where she awaits a fearless hero to set her free. It’s evident that the opera Siegfried and the “Siegfried Idyll” share important common elements.
- After a return of the lullaby, “A Siegfried Idyll,” aglow with the poetry of sleep, leaves us in a state of sublime peace.
This is a beautiful example of transcendence achieved through love, as you can see from the pictures that accompany the music.
Questions arise. Can we separate the composer’s backstory from the finished creation?