At On Christmas Day 1870, the sounds of Wagner Siegfried’s Idyll floated down the stairs of a villa in Switzerland. This beautiful piece – which arguably became the composer’s most beloved orchestral work – was a gift from Wagner, written and rehearsed in secret, for Cosima, his second wife.
The premiere could have been a private and personal event, but Wagner made sure it was memorable, recruiting 15 (it probably is) instrumentalists from the prestigious Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, including famous conductor Hans Richter. on the trumpet. “The music was echoing, and what music! Cosima remembers the day. “After his disappearance, R… gave me the score for his“ Symphonic Birthday Wishes ”.
Yes, birthday greeting. Because although it was a festive occasion, the music actually marked Cosima’s birthday, which fell on December 24 but still celebrated Christmas Day. The couple also had a special reason to mark 1870, as after a complicated relationship of six years and three children together, they were finally married on August 25 at the Protestant Church in Lucerne.
For them, it was a respectable seal of approval on a scandalous relationship. Cosima and Richard first met in 1853, when she was a teenager, and he came to visit her father, the composer. Franz Liszt. In the 1860s, they fell in love. Wagner was still married to Minna Planer – although her extramarital affair effectively ended that relationship – while Cosima had married conductor Hans von Bülow. Great champion of Wagner’s music, it is ironically thanks to Von Bülow that Wagner and Cosima began to spend time together. In November 1863, “with tears and sobs, writes Wagner, we sealed our confession to belong only to the other”. They got into an affair.
In 1865, King Ludwig II of Bavaria became Wagner’s patron. At the composer’s suggestion, Von Bülow was hired as “royal pianist” while Cosima ostensibly became Wagner’s secretary. They all moved to Munich. By then, the penny had fallen for Von Bülow, his suspicions being cemented rather belatedly by the birth of Isolde, Cosima’s first child. with Wagner, in April 1865.
Yet Von Bülow conducted the premiere of Tristan and Isolde this June, and legally accepted Isolde like his. Public denials – including a royal decree – of Wagner and Cosima’s relationship followed, but privately it continued. Eva was born in 1867, Siegfried in 1868. At the time, Wagner had been forced into exile in Switzerland and moved into Tribschen, the villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne. Cosima joined him definitively in 1868 and requested a divorce which was pronounced on July 18, 1870.
Which brings us back to Siegfried’s Idyll. In its original form, this one-movement piece of about 20 minutes was for five woodwinds, three brass and a string quintet. Wagner was inspired by the last act of his opera Siegfried for part of the musical material, and also worked in personal references, including the German lullaby “Sleep, baby, sleep”. And while Wagner had planned his tender and warm Idyll to Cosima’s ears alone, in 1878 he found himself short of money. He extended the orchestration to 35 parts and sold it to publisher B Schott.
As well as being one of the greatest German composers of all time, we have named Wagner one of the best opera composers of all time and one of the greatest composers of all time.
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