Cosima Wagner was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and his longtime mistress, a French-German countess. Raised in Paris by her grandmother, Cosima went on to marry her former piano teacher, the conductor Hans von Bülow. She was unhappy in her marriage, and neither her Catholic faith nor concerns over her two young children were enough to deter her from pursuing her infatuation with Richard Wagner, twenty-four years her senior and also married at the time the two met. They consummated their affair in 1864, and Cosima gave birth in April 1865 to Wagner’s daughter Isolde. The birth coincided with rehearsals for the premiere of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, conducted by none other than von Bülow.
Cosima’s affair with Wagner scandalized Munich society. She spent long periods living in Wagner’s house at Tribschen, overlooking Lake Lucerne, and she bore him a second daughter, Eva, in February 1867. She finally asked von Bülow for a divorce and moved in with Wagner permanently in 1868. She gave birth to her third child by Wagner in June 1869, a boy they called Siegfried in honor of Wagner’s opera-in-progress by that name. The divorce was finalized in July 1870, and Richard and Cosima Wagner were married a month later.
Wagner capped that momentous year with an extraordinary birthday present for his thirty-three-year-old bride. On Christmas morning (she was actually born on the 24th, but she celebrated her birthday a day later), he woke up Cosima with the sounds of a fifteen-piece chamber orchestra piled onto the staircase outside her bedroom. She described the experience in her diary:
When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away Richard came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his Symphonic Birthday Greeting. I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; Richard had set up an orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! The Tribschen Idyll—thus the work is called!
The title Wagner inscribed on the original score was Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard. “Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise” were references to the sights and sounds Wagner remembered from the early morning birth of their son, nicknamed Fidi. The familiar title Siegfried Idyll came later, when the cash-strapped Wagner offered this private memento for publication.
The opening melody of the Siegfried Idyll comes from a sketch Wagner made in 1864, not long after he began his affair with Cosima. The same theme appears in Act III of Siegfried, sung by Brünnhilde to the words, “Eternal I was, eternal I am, eternal in sweet, Yearning bliss, yet eternal for your sake!” The Idyll also incorporates a traditional lullaby, Schlafe, Kindchen, schlaf, which Wagner had transcribed in 1868. Most of the twenty-minute work retains a sweet, dreamy quality; it makes only one powerful surge, with triumphant music fashioned after a leitmotif associated with the title character in Siegfried. (For the premiere, family friend and conductor Hans Richter taught himself to play trumpet for that thirteen-measure passage.) A gentle version of the same Siegfried motive brings this magical Idyll to a hushed conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2012
About This Program
Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, composed as a birthday present for his wife, sets the stage for a hero’s woodland journey that concludes with Franz Josef Haydn’s stately Symphony No. 77 in this Express Concert led by SPCO musicians. Along the way, Jörg Widmann’s string quartet The Hunt offers vivid dark humor in contrast to Mabel Daniels’ lush orchestral tone poem Deep Forest which captures the eerie stillness and beauty of nature.
Our Express Concerts are 60-75 minutes of music without intermission. Learn more at thespco.org/express.