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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Stairwell to Heaven

A case for the Siegfried Idyll as Wagner's best work.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The house in Tribschen (Lucerne) Switzerland where Richard and Cosima Wagner lived in 1870.
It is now the Richard Wagner Museum and you can visit its official site here.
You won't hear it in an opera house. In fact you very rarely hear it performed in a concert hall. The Siegfried Idyll, Wagner's 1869 work for chamber orchestra written as a birthday/Christmas present for his second wife is neither fish nor flesh. It is an orchestral poem that built from the same leitmotivs as the score of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and it very well might be the best thing that Wagner ever wrote.
Wagner wrote the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima Wagner, née von Bulow. She was the daughter of Franz Liszt and her first husband was Hans von Bulow, a devotee of Wagner's who conducted the premieres of two of his operas. Richard and Cosima started sleeping together behind von Bulow's back in 1863, and had two illegitimate daughters who bore Hans' surname.  When pregnant with their third child, Siegfried, Cosima formally asked Hans for a separation and later, a divorce. The scandal forced Richard and Cosima to leave Munich for Tribschen, Switzerland, where Wagner's patron, King Ludwig II arranged for lodgings in a villa beside Lake Lucerne. This three-story house that is today a Richard Wagner Museum. The divorce was final in 1870, and the Wagners wed.

On Christmas Day, 1870, the music of the piece now known as the Siegfried-Idyll roused Cosima from sleep. It was also her birthday. Wagner had arranged for thirteen members of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich to play in the stairwell of the house. Strings and winds were on the steps with larger instruments (like the cellos and double bass) on the landings. The two horns were placed farther away, as well as the trumpet which had a very short part. At the end of the performance, the composer presented his wife with the score.
Members of the Bern Philharmonic re-create the original performance of the 
Siegfried Idyll in the Wagner-haus, Tribschen where the first performance took place.

The Idyll is (almost) all sweetness, light and love. The main themes in strings, flutes and winds are used in the Ring, appearing exclusively in Brunnhilde's lengthy address to Siegfried in the third act of the opera of the same name. It is the part that starts "Ewig war isch" and sounds quite unlike anything else in the score of the operas up to that point. Two principal themes wind and intertwine just as they do in the opera. Wagnerians (using the system developed by Ernest Newman in  his excellent analysis The Wagner Operas refer to these as the "Peace" motif and the "World Hoard" motif, although it has nothing to do with the Nibelung Hoard from Das Rheingold.

Wagner had stopped work on The Ring in 1857, intending to create more "commercial" products. These turned out to be the highly experimental Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only major comic opera and the longest of his works. As a result, when he sat down to set the third act of Siegfried Wagner writing in a new and more complex musical language than ever before. Some of that can be heard in the Idyll, especially in arrangements for larger orchestra. In fact, the lower voices and harmony parts of this work retell Siegfried's entire musical backstory, from his first mention as an embryo in the third act of Die Walküre to his exuberant boyhood in the first two acts of Siegfried.

In addition to the ever-changing, evolving "Siegfried" motives, (the horn call and the exuberant, rhythmic theme that peppers the score), other characters are represented. Themes for Mime the dwarf (a minor third) Nothung (Siegfried's sword) and Fafner the dragon steal in and out of the score. The musical narrative even looks forward to Götterdämmerung: the appearance of a descending diminished fourth is the theme of Hagen, the villain who will kill Siegfried in that opera.

Wagner had intended for this piece to stay within the family, but in 1878 he decided to have it published. At that point, he rearranged the work for orchestral performance into a version for thirty-five players, but is sometimes played with larger forces. (Chamber orchestras also play the original version for thirteen musicians.) To this day it remains only occasionally performed, but its music is a charming way to first experience Wagner as well as a valuable musical primer for understanding the complexities of The Ring Cycle.
Herbert von Karajan leads the 
Vienna Philharmonic in the Siegfried Idyll. 
Performance © Unitel Video/Universal Music Group.

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