Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
b. May 22, 1813 / Leipzig, Germany
d. February 13, 1883 / Venice, Italy
Imagine, if you will, waking up to the sounds of music, gently wafting into your bedroom. The country house you call home is decorated for both birthday and Christmas celebrations. Without your knowledge, fifteen musicians have silently arranged themselves on the grand staircase. The sounds that slowly emerge, floating on the morning air like a love letter in music, are meant only for you!
That was how Richard Wagner honoured his second wife, Cosima for her 33rd birthday. As she recalled in her diary, “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, Richard 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…”
Cosima had already been married to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. But over the course of several years her admiration for and relationship with Wagner deepened, so much so that three of her five children had been fathered by Wagner. With the granting of a divorce in 1870, they were able to marry in a Protestant Church in Switzerland, and set up their life together in Villa Tribschen, near Lucerne.
The score’s full title - "Tribschen Idyll, with Fidi's Bird-song and Orange Sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870" – contains a couple of other personal details. “Fidi” was the nickname of their recently born son, Siegfried, while “orange sunrise” refers to the striped wallpaper in Cosima’s bedroom, where she first heard this dawn serenade. It was never intended for public performance, but it has since become one of Wagner’s best known and frequently performed works – no doubt both for its beauty and its uncharacteristic brevity!
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
b. June 11, 1864 / Munich, Germany
d. September 8, 1949 / Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Wagner and Richard Strauss were born more than a generation apart, but they are linked by the power and sway that they exerted over the presentation of musical drama over the course of some 100+ years.
Richard Strauss grew up in a very musical household. His father, Franz, was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich, and as such Richard heard his first Wagner operas – Lohegrin and Tannhäuser - at the age of ten. Despite his Franz’s very conservative views and hostility to Wagner’s music, Richard Strauss was attentive to Wagner’s innovations, without being an acolyte. It was in the years following Wagner’s death in 1883 that his widow Cosima and the pro-Wagner camp, earmarked Richard Strauss as the heir apparent to Wagner’s musical crown.
Strauss had parallel careers as a conductor and composer. Outside of his work for the operatic stage, he became known for his many orchestral tone poems – usually an extended, single-movement piece that evokes a scene, storyline, or heroic struggle. Strauss reached back into medieval German folklore in one of his most popular musical tales: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.
Till is something of a trickster figure – a court jester, class clown, and crusader against social hypocrisy. His surname, Eulenspiegel, refers to the wise old owl holding a mirror that forces people to see how their behaviour reveals who they truly are. Till thumbs his nose at just about every level of society, from Milkmaid to Priest or King – and ultimately swings from the gallows for it. Many hours have been spent parsing out a “storyline” from the musical cues that Strauss provided. At the work’s 1895 premiere in Cologne, the composer advised listeners “…all that is necessary to the understanding of the work is to indicate the two Eulenspiegel themes which are run right through the work in all manner of disguises, moods and situations until the catastrophe, when Till is strung up after sentence has been passed on him. Apart from that let the gay Cologners guess what the rogue has done to them by way of musical tricks.”
Following the “once upon a time” opening, listen for the cackling laughter of Till Eulenspiegel, first in the horn, and later from the clarinet. Was Strauss playing a musical joke on his colleagues, or perhaps thumbing his nose at the excesses of Wagner and his followers? That is a discussion for another day.
Notes: Matthew Baird