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Cosima, Liszt’s daughter, married the conductor and virtuoso pianist, Hans von Bülow, in 1857, but then fell in love with Richard Wagner in 1864. She left her husband in 1866, having already borne Wagner’s first daughter, Isolde, in 1865. Eva followed in 1868, and then came the longed-for son, Siegfried, in 1869. Cosima’s divorce was finalized in July 1870, and she married Wagner the next month. Siegfried Idyll (which uses themes from the opera Siegfried, as well as many private musical allusions) was Wagner’s thank you offering, both for her love and for the gift of a son.
The circumstances of the first performance couldn’t have been more romantic. Wagner had secretly rehearsed thirteen musicians from nearby Lucerne. They assembled quietly that Christmas morning on the staircase of the Wagner’s home, Tribschen, on the shore of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.
Cosima awoke to the sounds of music. Her diary entry for that day reads: ‘As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was all the rest of the household.’
Obviously, Richard and Cosima were as deeply in love as it is possible to be. This very private composition was the tender expression of that love.
Siegfried Idyll is now often played in a version for orchestra rather than for the chamber ensemble that had originally assembled on Tribschen’s staircase. If anything, the richer tone of the larger string forces enhances the work’s radiant beauty.
from notes by David Gardner © 2000