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
Circling Back seems to reflect the moment of its creation, as well as the hope that things are getting better. It feels like waking up. It feels like remembering something significant. It feels wistful but determined. The expression “circling back” conjures images of a flight and the sense that we had been driven from our course but are now returning to the path we had charted, to the hopes and ideas we had to defer. Thank you to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Cassie Pilgrim and Sarah Lewis for bringing this piece to life. I’m incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to circle back to music-making with you.
Viet Cuong ©2021
A work of tremendous immediate appeal, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings could equally well be heard on deeper listening as an artistic credo of sorts. Composed simultaneously with the 1812 Overture, the Serenade, by contrast to the bombast of 1812, represents an intent focus on craft as a vehicle for personal expression.
The private anguish Tchaikovsky wrestled with throughout his life has been well documented, centering primarily on his sexuality and social relationships. Add to these his cultural orientation as a less palpable, but no less pointedly felt, source of angst. Tchaikovsky was Russian, and held a fervent love for his homeland. He likewise grew up with a deep affinity with French culture: his mother, with whom he was close, was an amateur pianist and singer of French descent; one anecdote relates how, as a child, Tchaikovsky would kiss Russia on a map of Europe, then spit on the rest of the continent—but with his hand covering France.
The Russian-Western dichotomy would become more pronounced in his artistic maturity. Among the Russian composers of his generation, Tchaikovsky was the most firmly rooted in the Western Classical tradition, thus aesthetically distanced from his self-trained compatriots known as the Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov), who strived to create a distinctly Russian school of music. He was, in other words, not as Russian as the Russians; nor did he quite fit among the German Romantics (Brahms, et al.).
In the Serenade for Strings, Tchaikovsky seems to work out his cultural identity before our very ears. The Serenade demonstrates Western technique styled after Mozart—Tchaikovsky’s musical idol—and Beethoven. It is, surmises musicologist Roland John Wiley, “as closely knit a motivic work as Tchaikovsky ever wrote.” The opening Pezzo in forma di Sonatina— an overt homage to Mozart in both form and character—begins with a descending melodic figure that unifies much of the work. The ascending scales that follow become the theme of the fetching second movement Walzer, and reappear in the introductory measures of the poignant Élégie.
The Serenade’s rollicking Finale is based on what Tchaikovsky identifies as a Tema Russo, yet derives from the motif that opens the Mozartian Pezzo in forma di Sonatina. Lest there be any doubt, the Russian theme slows to a verbatim reprise of the previous melody before the Serenade’s climactic end. Wiley interprets the Serenade as “an essay in Western/Russian rapprochement which favors Russian at the end.” It is also, more importantly, a sheer triumphant work. Tchaikovsky’s catharsis is our gain.
Patrick Castillo ©2015