Picture the scene: it is Christmas morning, 1870, at the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne, and amidst much secret whispering and movement of chairs and music-stands a small orchestra of thirteen players is quietly arranging itself on the stairs leading up to the bedroom of Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, former wife of the conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow, and mother of Siegfried, the year-old son of Richard Wagner . Richard opens the door to the bedroom, where his wife is nursing the baby, and the gentle strains of a violin begin arguably the most sublime musical gift ever composed.
Christmas Day also happened to be Cosima’s birthday, hence the full title of the work : Triebschen Idyll, with Fidi’s birdsong and orange sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosimo by her Richard; ‘Fidi’ was their pet name for Siegfried. However Wagner’s gift to her was not just to celebrate the two coinciding festive days; the birth of their son had, virtually for the first time in the composer’s life, bestowed on him the happiness and domestic security which he felt he deserved, although even now, engaged upon one of the greatest musical projects in the history of music, the four-opera, fourteen hour Ring Cycle, he was still struggling financially. Cosima’s marriage had finally been dissolved amidst some scandal in August 1870 and her new marriage to Richard solemnised almost at once; her former husband nevertheless was to remain a champion of Wagner’s music despite his wife’s defection.
Amongst the players on that historic morning was Hans Richter (1843-1916), who, it is said, used to row out to the middle of the lake to practise his thirteen bar trumpet part out of Cosima’s earshot. Within a few years he was Wagner’s preferred conductor for the early Ring Cycles at Bayreuth, but he also became a prime exponent not only of the music of Wagner’s bete noir Brahms, but also that of Edward Elgar during his time as principal conductor of the Halle Orchestra from 1899 until 1911. Wagner’s son Siegfried was to become a fiercely protective Director of the Bayreuth Festival for many years.
The music of the Siegfried Idyll is closely related to the love duet between Siegfried and Brunnhilde in the third act of Siegfried, the penultimate opera in the Ring cycle, which Wagner was writing at the time of the birth of his son, although the ‘sleep’ motif introduced by the flute during the first section of the Idyll is also at the core of the final scene of the second opera, Die Walkure; to the beautiful strains of the Magic Fire Music Wotan puts his errant daughter to sleep surrounded by fire, from which she can only be rescued by a true hero, Siegfried. It is thought that the two main themes of the Idyll, the violin theme at the start and the woodwind ensemble which introduces the more urgent middle section, were sketched at the time Wagner met Cosima in 1863. Because of the deeply personal nature of the work Wagner refused to have it published until penury forced his hand. Today it is performed either in the original thirteen-instrument scoring with one player to a part, or using fuller strings without overpowering the small numbers of woodwind (flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon) and brass (two horns, trumpet), as in tonight’s performance.
The work begins quietly and intimately with strings alone but rises soon to lyrical heights, initiated by material related to the ‘sleep motif’ and including several musical sighs of love, punctuated by a triplet figure perhaps representing a fluttering, lovelorn heart. The music dissolves into a semplice (‘simple’) section, the oboe introducing a lullaby, the only theme not from the opera. This leads into the woodwind choir, strings and brass eventually helping to propel the most passionate climax, which dissolves into a heroic horn solo. Gradually the music becomes urgent again leading to a much more strident version of the opening string theme, but now the passion is spent and this absolute masterpiece finally retreats into the intimacy of the opening.