Between the letter opener she received in 2002 and the steam iron in 2008, Phil News editor Tiana Lyes has the market cornered in underwhelming gifts from paramours. Perhaps they could have learned a thing or two from Richard Wagner.
Think Wagner, think luxurious melodies, extreme drama, opulent leitmotifs – and great, grand romance. It’s no wonder then, that his own love life was dramatic. Wagner was a well-documented cad, often infatuated with married women and prone to grandiose gestures of love.
Scene: It’s early on Christmas morning 1870, and Wagner’s second wife Cosima, is still asleep. A small orchestra has been assembled at the bottom of the stairs at Wagner’s house, Tribschen. This particular morning is also Cosima’s 33rd birthday (she was born on Christmas Eve but always celebrated it on Christmas day). Wagner raises his baton and the opening strains of music soar into the bedroom and rouse Cosima from her sleep. According to her diary entry for that day, she is suitably blown away by the gesture:
“When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R. came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his “Symphonic Birthday Greeting.” I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; R. had set up his orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever!”
Tribschen was the villa Wagner bought on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, and was also the birthplace of their first son, Siegfried, though the music he had composed for Cosima that Christmas morning was not yet known as the Siegfried Idyll. The original manuscript read: ‘Tribschen 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 ‘Fidi’s birdsong’ was a nod to the bird that began to sing early in the morning Siegfried was born, as the sun rose in the sky and lit the walls in an orange glow. Wagner’s composition was undoubtedly an expression of love, and of gratitude for a son and a male heir, and Cosima was fiercely protective of her gift. For many years she pleaded with Wagner not to sell it, but eventually his mounting debts came to collect, and it was sold to publishers in 1877.
So far, so terribly romantic. We could leave it there and all agree that Wagner’s gift to his beloved wife Cosima was achingly lovely and deeply personal, especially when this was a composer who was on an almost exclusive diet of opera – Siegfried Idyll would be one of only a few non-operatic works he wrote in maturity. It turns out, however, that this isn’t Wagner’s first time wheeling out a musical birthday surprise for a love interest.
Twelve years earlier when Cosima was only an acquaintance to Wagner – and a newlywed to his good friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow – Wagner orchestrated one of his Wesendonck Lieder. The lied was one of a set of five songs set to poems written by his (widely-suspected) paramour, Mathilde Wesendonck. He selected Träume (Dreams) and orchestrated it for solo violin and small ensemble, and arranged it to be played as a surprise birthday gift on the morning of Mathilde’s birthday – December 23rd – at her home. (Conveniently this performance also coincided with Mathilde’s husband being away on a business trip.) Wagner’s then-wife Minna was even roped in to assist with the event. And what an event it was – the talk of the town! Cosima von Bülow would even write to her friend about how Wagner had composed a serenade for Mathilde.
A cynic (particularly one who has received several disappointing Christmas gifts in her time) might wonder then, with the birthdays of Mathilde and Cosima occurring so close together, perhaps Siegfried Idyll was written to help erase the memory of Wagner’s gift to Mathilde, and give Cosima her own birthday treasure.
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra will be performing Wagner's Siegfried Idyll at the following concerts:
Bayleys Great Classics: Love Letters
7:30pm, Thursday 22 February Auckland Town Hall
APO on the Shore: Bellincampi & Mendelssohn
7:30pm, Friday 23 February Auckland Town Hall
This article originally appeared in our 2018 Summer Phil News publication.