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Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’ was a Christmas present for Cosima

Posted in Christmas, Historical articles, Music on Tuesday, 29 November 2011

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This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Siegfried Idyll, picture, image, illustration

Wagner rehearsed his Siegfried Idyll with a group of  musicians on Lake Lucerne by Andrew Howat

The one thing Richard Wagner want ed most in the world was a son. He was delighted when his wife, Cosima, presented him with one, and determined to mark the event and reward her in a very special way. As a composer, he felt that the best gift he could bestow would be a new musical work – one which, he said, would be a song of praise to Cosima and their baby boy, Siegfried.

For the next few weeks in that winter of 1870, he worked in seclusion in his study. Shortly before Christmas his latest masterpiece – a fifteen-minute long lullaby – was completed. He called it the Siegfried Idyll in honour of the baby, and declared that his family’s life would henceforth be as idyllic, or happy, as the title of the orchestral piece.

He did not want Cosima to hear a note of the music before her birthday, which, conveniently enough, was on Christmas Day. However, the idyll, scored for a chamber orchestra, had to be rehearsed. And there was no suitable and out-of-earshot rehearsal room in the Wagner villa – on the shore of Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland.

So Wagner and some fellow musicians decided to practise the composition in secret. They got hold of a rowing-boat and each day rowed to the middle of the lake, where they went over the work until they had it note perfect.

Wagner himself had a thirteen-bar trumpet part, and he recorded that: “I was able to blow my instrument to my soul’s content without any likelihood of being overheard by Cosima. We startled a few fishermen on the lake, and the villagers who passed along the bank certainly thought that we were mad. We were – mad with inspiration!”

The secrecy continued until Christmas morning. Then Wagner and his friends stole up the winding stairs leading to Cosima and the baby’s bedroom. They quietly positioned themselves and, as the composer gave a downbeat, began to play the Idyll, which has since been called Wagner’s smallest but possibly brightest and most deeply-felt compositon.

Cosima was still asleep as the music started, and that evening she wrote in her diary: “As I awoke, my ears caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller. No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming. Music was sounding, and what music!

“As it died away, Richard came into my room . . . and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was the whole house . . . I have spent the whole day as though in a dream. My spirit is still listening to the vanished sounds . . .”

Wagner also found that melody soothed his worries and made-up for the many previous hardships and disappointments of his turbulent life. The son of a police clerk, he was born in Leipzig, Germany, in May, 1813, and was 15 years old before he took any serious interest in music.

He admired the works of Mozart and Beethoven and, inspired by their example, made rapid progress as a composer, chorus-master in an opera house, and director of the municipal theatre at Magdeburg. He fell in love with the company’s leading lady, Minna Planer, and the couple were married in 1836.

Then followed a troubled and unsettled period. Wagner was repeatedly harried by the tradesmen, bankers and merchants who had advanced him money and credit. Despite this, he composed his first two stageable operas, Rienzi, set in ancient Rome, and the much more successful The Flying Dutchman.

While in Dresden, he was accused of being a political revolutionary, and was threatened with imprisonment. Obtaining a false passport, he escaped to Switzerland, where he was given news that he had been banned from his home town because of his ill-fame. Together with Minna, he wandered throughout Central Europe, always, as he put it, a few breathless steps ahead of his many creditors.

For a while he was befriended by the young and unbalanced King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was known as “Mad Ludwig”. The monarch eased Wagner’s chronic financial problems and allowed him to work on his most ambitious and large-scale venture, the four linked operas with the overall title, The Ring of the Nibelung – about a magic gold ring which gives world power to whoever owns it.

But when Minna died in 1866, Wagner broke with Ludwig. He later met, courted and married Cosima. She was the daughter of an equally illustrious composer, Franz Liszt, and with her Wagner belatedly found happiness and tranquility. At the time, he was working on the third opera in the Ring cycle, Siegfried, the name afterwards given to their baby son.

When he came to compose the beautiful and haunting Siegfried Idyll, he used themes taken from the then unfinished opera, especially the poignant love music. The piece includes a “sleep” motive played by the woodwind; Siegfried’s song of wandering, first heard on the horn; some birdsong played by the clarinet and other woodwind; and an apt quotation for the oboe from a German folk-lullaby, Sleep, Baby Sleep.

Wagner, who later settled and then died in Venice, was not to write such perfect and personal music again.

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