skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

A Siegfried Idyll

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Richard Wagner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: 2007 National Conducting Institute Sat., Jun. 16, 2007, 6:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Because Wagner worked so long on some of his operas, and experienced delays in getting some of them produced, the overtures and other portions of several of them were introduced in concerts before the premieres of the respective stage works themselves. The Prelude to Die Meistersinger and the concert arrangement of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde are examples of such works (the latter introduced in Vienna by Johann Strauss, the Waltz King, when the Court Opera failed to stage Tristan). The well loved Siegfried Idyll, however, was not taken directly from a stage work, and was introduced in neither the opera house nor the concert hall, but in the intimate surroundings of Wagner's home, "Tribschen," just outside Lucerne, on Christmas Day 1870.

Wagner in fact conceived this work as a Tribschen Idyll, for his family alone, specifically as "a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima from her Richard." The day on which the piece was first performed was not only Christmas but also Cosima's 33rd birthday. Among the 17 musicians assembled on the stairs leading to her bedroom was the illustrious Hans Richter, not as conductor (Wagner himself filled that role) but as performer of the 13 bars assigned to the trumpet. It was not until 1878 that Wagner, pressed for funds, expanded the instrumentation to 35 players, changed the original title to Siegfried Idyll, and made the work available for public performance by selling it to the publisher B. Schott.

While motifs in the Siegfried Idyll relate the work to the eponymous music drama, the dramatic changes in Wagner's personal life during the period in which he completed Die Meistersinger had more to do with the creation of this work in its family context. Early in 1862, after completing the Meistersinger libretto in Paris, Wagner was granted an amnesty by the King of Saxony and allowed to return to Germany for the first time since his banishment for political activity in 1849. At the same time his break with his first wife, Minna, became final, and in November 1863 Wagner and Cosima von Bülow declared their love for each other.

Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt (who referred to her as "ma terrible fille") and the Comtesse d'Agoult, was at that time married to Hans von Bülow, the famous pianist and conductor who had been one of the most ardent champions of Wagner's music. She did not bother to divorce him when she joined Wagner, to whom she bore the first of their three children on April 10, 1865, a daughter they named Isolde. Two months later Bülow conducted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in Munich, and 16 monts later, after his wife bore Wagner's second daughter, Eva, Bülow conducted the premiere of Die Meistersinger (whose heroine, of course, is named Eva). It was not until the birth of Siegfried Wagner in June 1869 that Bülow finally instituted divorce proceedings against Cosima, who married Wagner in August 1870. Minna had died in Dresden four years earlier, and Wagner and his new family (which included Cosima's two daughters by Bülow) had moved into Tribschen, on Lake Lucerne, at about the same time; it is understandable that their domestic life in that lovely setting would prompt the composer to make such a personal gesture as this Idyll, which did take Cosima entirely by surprise when she was awakened by it that Christmas/birthday morning.

The original family title of the piece made reference to "Fidi's Bird-Song and Orange Sunrise" as elements incorporated in the music, "Fidi" being a nickname for the 18-month-old Siegfried and the "orange sunrise" being the effect made by the morning sun striking the orange wallpaper in Cosima's bedroom. The music, warm-hearted and intimate throughout, could not have been better categorized than by the designation Idyll. It begins and ends as a caressing lullaby, with what might be described as a sequence of dream-pictures as its substance. In it are several motifs associated with Siegfried, from the music drama so titled which Wagner had completed at about the time of the boy's birth the previous year.

The principal theme, stated at the outset, was actually created by Wagner as a gift for Cosima before he gave it to Brünnhilde in the opera's final scene. In 1863, the year in which they pledged their love for each other, Wagner noted this theme among the sketches he made for a string quartet he intended as a present for Cosima. In addition to the material borrowed from the opera, note must be made of the old lullaby "Schlafe, Kindchen, schlafe," which, as it happens, is another element Wagner had planned to use in an earlier work which he never got round to writing: before his son was born he entered this tune in his diary for use in a piece for his second daughter, Eva.

Sentimental and musical interrelationships abound in this music, tying together Wagner's creative work, his love for Cosima and their children, and their home itself. No wonder that, according to Cosima's diary, she wept when Wagner found it necessary to sell this intimate family document.