On Christmas morning 1870 a group of musicians gathered on the stairs inside the Wagners’ Swiss villa at Tribschen to begin the first performance of this tender musical offering, which, as intended, stirred Cosima Wagner – Liszt’s daughter and now Wagner’s wife – from sleep. Cosima later wrote into her diary:
As I awoke, my ears caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller. No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming. Music was sounding, and what music! As it died away, Richard came into my room... and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was the whole house... I have spent the whole day as though in a dream. My spirit is still listening to the vanished sounds...
Siegfried Idyll is an intimate gesture of romance and devotion: a celebration of both the couple’s rst son and of their long-awaited marriage – an event that marked the beginning of a period of peace and security for the couple after a long and complicated courtship. While infused with personal references to shared memories, the emotions invoked by the work are universal. Hence although Siegfried Idyll was intended purely as a gift for his wife, and not for public release, when Wagner was later forced to sell the work due to nancial pressures it quickly became one of the composer’s most widely performed works.
On listening to Siegfried Idyll, one can imagine Wagner as a tender, sensitive, loving and committed husband. And in relationship with Cosima, his second wife, he was reportedly all these things. Yet the composer also had a darker side, with his ardent German nationalism translating into outspoken anti-semitism. Wagner was not to know that fty years after his death, the sentiments expressed most bluntly in his essay Judaism in Music, together with the raw power of his music, would lead his work being embraced by the German Nazi Party as a symbol of the purity and glory of the German race. It is for this reason that there has long been an informal ban on the performance of Wagner’s music in Israel. But in the year 2000, Israel’s Rishon Lezion orchestra, conducted by Holocaust survivor Mendi Rodan, broke the taboo with a performance of Siegfried Idyll. In justifying the Orchestra’s decision, the Director General said of the Nazis: “They should not be allowed to own him forever”.
Although performances of Wagner are still highly controversial in Israel, the choice of Siegfried Idyll – which through its intimate and personal context presents a window onto the shared experience of love – was certainly a wise rst step toward reclaiming the music from the man.