With Siegfried Idyll, I’m hard-pressed to find another example in all of music quite like it! It was written as a birthday present not only to his wife, Cosima (born on December 24), but it was also written in honor of their son’s birth, Siegfried, and it was premiered on Christmas Day, 1870 — a triple treat! It was played on the stairs of their lovely Swiss villa in the village of Triebschen, now a district of Lucerne.
Performing the Triebschen Idyll, as it was called before it was published, became an annual Christmas Day event for the Wagners and the piece remained a private, family event for quite a few years, being performed in the very spot you see on the video above. It was not until the Wagners were strapped for cash that he sold it to the publisher, Schott, in 1878 for the rest of the world to hear and enjoy.
But what is this piece? Is it an overture? A tone-poem? A symphonic miniature? You could easily call it any one of these things but, for me, it is simply a musical expression of a very joyous and idyllic time between two people who were happy and in love.
Unsurprisingly, Wagner repurposed some of the music from this very private piece into his very public 1876 opera, Siegfried, the third installment of his four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The beginning music of the idyll can be found in Act 3, near the end, when Brünnhilde accepts and embraces her mortal life through her love of Siegfried. She sings:
Ewig war ich,
ewig bin ich,
ewig in süß
doch ewig zu deinem Heil!
O Siegfried! Herrlicher! Hort der Welt!
There are also embedded melodies within Siegfried Idyll that Wagner didn’t compose. The lullaby, Schlaf kindlein, schlaf, was the most popular lullaby at this time.
Five minutes into the idyll you hear this tender lullaby clearly quoted.
Siegfried Idyll runs nearly twenty minutes and is clearly composed in sonata form. In other words, there is an introduction of two contrasting themes, a development section of these two themes, a recapitulation (return) of these same themes, and a final coda that puts it all to rest. However, even this formal structure of composition is used only to tell the story, rather than adhering to any pre-arranged game plan.
In order to make it more marketable, Wagner expanded the piece to 35 musicians. However, I feel that this version doesn’t capture the intimacy and tenderness that is so apparent with the original 13 musicians. This is the version that I’ve always preferred and is what you will hear.