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Siegfried Idyll (1870)

Richard Wagner Siegfried Idyll (1870)

When Cosima von Bülow, Liszt’s Daughter, left her husband for Wagner in 1865, the lovers settled in the Villa Triebschen by the Lake of Lucerne, and there Cosima gave birth to their son, Siegfried, in June 1869. (She had already borne Wagner two daughters.) The couple married the following year, and for Cosima’s next birthday – actually 24th December but she had always celebrated it on the 25th – Wagner produced a surprise present. Early on Christmas Day 13 musicians assembled on the stairs below Cosima’s bedroom and gave the first performance of the secretly composed Siegfried Idyll. The manuscript was inscribed: ‘Triebschen Idyll, with Fidi’s birdsong and orange sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870’. Fidi was their pet name for Siegfried, and ‘orange sunrise’ referred to sunlight on the orange wallpaper of Cosima’s room the day the baby was born.

The instruments are flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, string quartet and Double bass. All but one of the four main themes are shared with the love music in the last act of the opera Siegfried, on which Wagner was then working, but they originated in an unfinished string quartet of 1864. When the opening string theme – associated with Brünnhilde’s ‘Ewig war ich’ (Always I cared for your good) – has been developed at length, the oboe introduces a theme based on an old lullaby. The confident third tune, ‘Siegfried the world’s treasure’ in the opera, is announced by a clarinet, and the fourth is Siegfried’s horn-call. Those who know The Nibelung’s Ring will also recognize the Woodbird’s song, which leads Siegfried to Brünnhilde. All these ideas are combined with masterly contrapuntal skill and in the closing pages with marvellous delicacy and tenderness.

© Eric Mason.

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