The Late Romantics
Richard Wagner (1813-1881)
Siegfried Idyll
  • Wagner composed this as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima
  • No other work by Wagner comes close to a symphony
  • The themes are drawn primarily from Act III of the opera Siegfried
  • The Idyll is eighteen minutes of tenderness, calm, and delicacy

    If you want to press some "hot buttons," bring up the subject of Richard Wagner among music lovers.  As opera composer, philosopher, dramatist, political theorist, and colorful romantic figure, he left a powerful imprint on the Europe in which he lived.  Modern Western culture remains touched in profound ways by the Wagnerian legacy, and Wagner has inspired more impassioned writing and rhetoric than any other composer.  Few react neutrally to Wagner.  His proponents defend and celebrate him with passion and inexhaustible energy.  Anti-Wagnerites attack his prejudices and other flaws with equal ferocity.

    Amid the brouhaha and controversy, one aspect sometimes gets overlooked:  Wagner as lover and husband.  The Siegfried Idyll is the fruit of the composer's love for his second wife, Cosima.  A tender and intimate offering, this work reveals a gentleness in Wagner's personality that one rarely glimpses in his operas.

    Wagner first met Cosima -- the elder of Franz Liszt's two illegitimate daughters by the Countess Marie d'Agoult -- when Cosima was a teenager.  Their acquaintance developed into a warm friendship after 1857, when she married the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, a champion of Wagner's music and one of Wagner's most devoted disciples.  Cosima's and von Bülow's union was not a great success. Wagner had his own unhappy marriage to Minna Planer; her death in 1866 released him from that bond. Two years earlier, in 1864, he and Cosima had become lovers.  When their liaison became public, it precipitated one of the greatest scandals of the nineteenth century in artistic circles.  By the late 1860s, Wagner had fathered two daughters with Cosima, and by November 1868 the pair were living together openly.  Cosima bore Wagner a son, Siegfried, in June 1869.

    Not surprisingly, Hans von Bülow had by then undertaken divorce proceedings.  Cosima and Wagner received confirmation on 18 July, 1870 that the divorce was final.  They were married in Lucerne, Switzerland on 25 August, legitimizing their affair and their children.  For Cosima's first birthday following their marriage, Wagner surprised his bride with an instrumental serenade, performed by a 13-piece orchestra in their home at Villa Tribschen, on Lake Lucerne.  That piece, the Siegfried Idyll, has become Wagner's most popular instrumental composition.  Certainly, it is the most personal.

    Surrogate symphony
    The Idyll is the closest Wagner came to writing a symphony.  More than an occasional piece, it is far superior in quality to his other non-operatic orchestral works.  Most of its themes are appropriated from the third act of Siegfried, which is the third of the four operas in the tetralogy known as the Ring cycle.  Wagner had completed work on the opera in 1869.  The title also alludes to Cosima and Wagner's infant son.  An inscription on the autograph manuscript is headed:

    Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870.

    Fidi was the couple's nickname for the baby; "orange sunrise" was an allusion to the wallpaper outside their bedrooms in the Tribschen home.

    It is apparent that this work was very special to them both.  Cosima referred to it as a "secret treasure" in her diary.  She relinquished the manuscript for publication only with great reluctance, when pressing financial obligations compelled the couple to do so in 1877.

    About the music
    An extended movement of about 18 minutes' duration, the Siegfried Idyll is lullaby, love-song, and modified sonata form rolled into one.  The modesty of Wagner's orchestral forces add to the intimacy of the music, yet there is sufficient color among the instruments to achieve pleasing variety with a muted palette.  The Idyll works as chamber music in its original scoring for thirteen instruments and is often performed that way; however, Wagner conducted it with full orchestra on numerous occasions, and is deservedly popular in the larger version we hear at these performances.

    Wagner scored the Idyll for a reduced orchestra of flute, oboe, two clarinets in A, bassoon, two horns, trumpet and strings.

    Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
    Suite from Der Bürger als Edelmann [Le Bourgeois gentilhomme], Op.60
    • Strauss drew this Suite from incidental music for Molière’s 17th-century satire
    • His extensive experience writing symphonic poems made him a masterful composer for orchestra.
    • The Suite is filled with piquant references to the earlier era in which the drama is set.
    • Audience members who like Der Rosenkavalier will be captivated by these saucy movements
    • Listen for the prominent role for orchestral piano - it is devilishly hard!

    Like much of Richard Strauss’s instrumental music, the Suite from Der Bürger als Edelmann — better known in its original French title as Le bourgeois gentilhomme -- has its origins in opera. While working on the libretto for the opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Strauss’s librettist and collaborator Hugo von Hoffmannsthal became captivated by the idea of incorporating a play into an opera. He chose Molière’s seventeenth-century classic comedy, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, for adaptation as an intermezzo within the opera. In the first version, Hoffmannsthal freely adapted Molière’s play into three acts with incidental music by Strauss.

    Strauss had his doubts about the project from the beginning. His skepticism triggered considerable tension between him and Hoffmannsthal. The composer’s theatrical instincts proved to be correct, and the Ariadne-cum-Molière merger was unsuccessful at its Stuttgart premiere in 1912. The project was shelved for almost six years. A Berlin revival in 1918 presented the play with Strauss’s incidental music, separate from the opera. For that second version, Strauss composed some new numbers, to no avail. Again, the production failed.

    One year later, Strauss extracted the nine movements he considered most effective in the Bourgeois gentilhomme score, publishing them as the Suite in 1920. In that version, which we hear this weekend, the music became a twentieth-century classic. Like Strauss’s beloved suite drawn from his opera Der Rosenkavalier, the suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme straddles the old and the new with irresistible charm. In the delicacy of his chamber scoring, Strauss pays homage to Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), some of whose original seventeenth-century music Strauss reworked from the Baroque French master’s comédie-ballet based on the Molière play. (The Courante and the Finale to Act I are both based on Lully.)

    Partially because of its roots in the music and drama of an earlier era, the music of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is unabashedly tonal and melodic. The lilting rhythms of courtly dance music and Strauss’s mocking, incisive humor is among his most effective ploys. As always, he orchestrates brilliantly, using the coloristic effects available in his select ensemble to achieve humor, sentiment, pomp, or grace.

    One of the distinguishing features of the Suite is the presence of the piano as a member of the ensemble. Strauss uses the keyboard as a continuo instrument in the same way that the harpsichord would be used in an opera buffa, or as Lully might have employed it in a comédie-ballet. But the different sonority of the modern piano draws attention to it, giving the piano more of a concertato  or obbligato role. The smaller orchestra enhances clarity of texture, underscoring the conscious references to Baroque or rococo style. In Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Strauss’s idiom is Mozartian rather than Wagnerian.

    The Suite is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion, harp and strings.

    © Laurie Shulman, 2020