Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Richard Wagner

BORN: May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: February 13, 1883. Venice, Italy

COMPOSED: Late November and December 1870, drawing on material composed earlier

WORLD PREMIERE: December 25, 1870, with the composer conducting, on the staircase of the Wagner home at Tribschen, just outside Lucerne, Switzerland

US PREMIERE: February 28, 1878. Theodore Thomas led his orchestra in Steinway Hall, New York.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— January 1913. Henry Hadley led. MOST RECENT—June 2003. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY Toward the end of 1832, the dashing twenty-one-year-old pianist Franz Liszt, a darling of Parisian salon society, was introduced to the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who five and a half years earlier had entered into an unhappy marriage with a French cavalry officer. They entered into a sometimes turbulent relationship. They kept things under wraps for a couple of years, but in 1835 it became apparent that the Countess would be giving birth.

She and Liszt had three children, in 1835, 1837, and 1839. The middle one, daughter Cosima, would leave the deepest mark on history during her life of ninety-two years. In 1857, Cosima wed the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a keyboard protégé of her father’s who would conduct the premieres of Richard Wagner’s operas Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Die Meistersinger (1868). In July 1863, about six years into her marriage (which had produced two children), Cosima entered into a liaison with Wagner, whose marriage was on the rocks. Nine months later arrived the first of their three babies, daughter Isolde. Their second, daughter Eva, was born in 1867, and their third, son Siegfried, in June 1869, shortly after Wagner resumed work on a score he had set aside for years, the opera Siegfried. In every case, Wagner’s children were named after leading operatic characters in the operas that occupied him at the time. Siegfried Wagner who would grow up to become an accomplished conductor who for many years was the director of the Bayreuth Festival. Being the son of his father, it was not surprising that he should compose, as well. He did compose, but not as well, as his seventeen operas demonstrate.

The year after Siegfried was born, Cosima finally had her marriage to the long-suffering Bülow dissolved and on August 25, 1870, she married Wagner. Cosima’s birthday was December 24 but she preferred to celebrate it on the 25th, no matter the competition. Wagner had the thoughtful idea to celebrate her first birthday as his wife by presenting her with a new composition, and for the month preceding the event he busied himself writing a Symphonic Birthday Greeting, as the score was titled when he placed it in her hands following its first performance. That performance took place on the morning of December 25, 1870, with fifteen musicians from the Zurich Theatre Orchestra arranged on the staircase leading up to the bedrooms at the Wagner villa in Tribschen, on the outskirts of Lucerne. The piece became a cherished family document, celebrating not only Cosima’s thirty-third birthday but also, retroactively, the Wagners’s marriage and the births of both Siegfried the son and Siegfried the opera, which was by then receiving its final touches.

Cosima kept a diary in which she chronicled her life with “R.” (Richard) as a report to be passed on to her children. Herewith her entry for Sunday, December 25, 1870:

About this day, my children, I can tell you nothing—nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing. I shall just tell you, dryly and plainly, what happened. When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever 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! The Tribschen Idyll—thus the work is called.—At midday Dr. Sulzer arrived, surely the most important of R.’s friends! After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly (Countess B. was also there, on my invitation); after it the Lohengrin wedding procession, Beethoven’s Septet, and, to end with, once more the work of which I shall never hear enough!—Now at last I understand all R.’s working in secret, also dear Richter’s trumpet (he blazed out the Siegfried theme so splendidly and had learned the trumpet especially to do it), which had won him many admonishments from me. “Now let me die,” I exclaimed to R. “It would be easier to die for me than to live for me,” he replied.—In the evening R. reads his Meistersinger to Dr. Sulzer, who did not know it; and I take as much delight in it as if it were something completely new. This makes R. say, “I wanted to read Sulzer Die Ms, and it turned into a dialogue between us two.”

The work’s familial connotations were so sacred to the Wagners that they hoped to keep the piece to themselves, but in 1877 pecuniary concerns forced Wagner to release it for publication. It appeared the following February under the title Siegfried Idyll.

THE MUSIC Most of the musical themes in the Siegfried Idyll relate to pastoral passages in the third act of the opera Siegfried, although at least one of its melodies—at the opening of the Siegfried Idyll—had been set down earlier for a non-Siegfried project. The exception is a newly composed subject heard about three and a half minutes in, where winds intone repeated triplets and strings answer with languorous sighs. Apart from that, music lovers familiar with Siegfried will encounter horn-calls, bird-songs, and bucolic contours that sound familiar. Wagner nonetheless works out his thematic material far differently than he does in the opera. Here he casts it in a three-part plan, arguably a sonata form though an untraditional one: an exposition based on a principal theme, a development (contrasting in meter, tempo, and key) where the second theme makes its first appearance and eventually interlocks with the principal theme of the exposition, a recapitulation that generally balances the exposition, and finally a coda where the principal themes again coincide. Using fifteen players certainly yields an intimate, chamber-like sound, but that number only reflected how many musicians would fit on the Tribschen staircase. When he led a private performance in Mannheim in 1871, Wagner requested considerably larger string sections (the total forces numbered thirty-six), and in 1874 Cosima reported in her diary that R. was planning to scale the piece up for a large orchestra—an intention he never carried out. —James M. Keller

  LISTEN AGAIN: Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)