Thursday, December 4, 2014

Wagner's Christmas Present: Siegfried Idyll

Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

listen to Siegfried Idyll:

Wagner's Christmas Present: Siegfried Idyll
by Greg Larson

           I leaned out the dormer window on the top floor of the historic waterfront Hotel des Alpes in Lucerne, Switzerland, to view a panoramic sweep of the landscape. The radiant morning sun was a gift, creating sparkles and reflections from the placid surface of Lake Lucerne. The city was coming to life, and the lofty Alps created a hazy backdrop to the Chapel Bridge and the Reuss River directly below. It was a grand view to wake up to on our 2014 overnight trip to Lucerne. 
Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne, Switzerland
          Gretta tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a tourist map. “Where would you like to go this morning? We have enough time to do some more exploring before we have to board our boat.”

          I perused the pictorial map — the type with color drawings of the points of interest positioned on hand-drawn streets — and noticed a small museum in a historical structure, located near the shore of Lake Lucerne, just outside of the downtown. Then I viewed the index: Number 38 . . . Richard Wagner Museum. I turned to Gretta, “There’s a Wagner Museum along the shore. At least we can’t get lost. It would be a nice walk, and it doesn’t look too far.”

          Gretta flipped some pages in her Rick Steves travel book. “It says it’s only a ten minute walk. Let’s go.”

          We paced briskly over the river bridge, past the train station, and the boat landings. During the ten minute walk we passed a park, a tour bus parking lot, and a maritime museum, then noticed we were in the middle of some type of campus. College students were sketching each other along with the plants and the wild grass on the campus grounds. There were no signs directing us to the museum, and it seemed we were lost, but we exited the campus and kept following the sidewalks to stay close to the lakeshore while attempting to keep a rapid hiking pace. After another ten minutes we came to the end of the sidewalk path at a local boat dock. A path beyond was not visible. Gretta noticed a man near the docks and asked him, “Entschuldigen Sie.  Wissen Sie wie wir zum Richard Wagner Museum kommen?”

          He replied while pointing up an adjacent road, “Ja.  Gehen Sie diese Straße entlang.  Nach 100 Metern werden Sie ein kleines Schild für das Museum sehen.  Biegen Sie links auf den Pfad der zum Museum führt.  Es ist eine Strecke von nur fünf Minuten.”

          “Danke schön.”


          Gretta turned to me, “He says we’re close. We’re supposed to go up that road to the opening in the woods. There will be a small sign and a path to the museum. It’s about five minutes from that point.”

          Following his directions, we entered the dense woods which eventually opened up near the end of a peninsula, with the tidy-looking Richard Wagner Museum directly in front of us.

Richard Wagner Museum - Tribschen
“This looks like a historical house . . . a residence.” We slowed our pace and walked up to some points-of-interest plaques.

          Then something clicked as I looked at the surroundings. “Hey, is this where Wagner gave the Christmas present to his wife?” I looked at Gretta with amazement. “Remember the story the symphony conductor told us at the concert last December?”

           The associate conductor for the Kansas City Symphony, Aram Demirjian, had shared with the audience a poignant Christmas story regarding Wagner and his wife, Cosima, when they lived in Switzerland, in a house named Tribschen. Wagner rented the house in 1866 for a year, and he and Cosima were happy there, so they stayed for six years. While they lived in Tribschen, Wagner wrote a simple piece of music, a symphonic poem, titled Siegfried Idyll, named for their youngest son, born in 1869.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

          Richard Wagner (1813-1883), a complex man with a big ego, was known for saying, “I believe in God and Beethoven.”  His music is noted for its fullness and grandiosity, but Siegfried Idyll is different from the typical Wagner fare. It is subdued and sensual, with a peaceful nature. His intent was for the opening of the piece to represent a sunrise on Lake Lucerne. The grandiosity attempts to break out now and then, but Wagner quickly tamps down the fullness to create a deep feeling of peacefulness.

          The music was written for thirteen instruments, something suited for a chamber orchestra. It was also written as a private gift to Cosima — a gift that was presented as a surprise birthday present on Christmas day.  Wagner completed the music in early December and then had a chamber orchestra practice the piece. He convinced the musicians to come to his house before sunrise on Christmas and secreted them onto the main staircase. As the morning arrived, while Cosima was still in bed, the orchestra began to play Siegfried Idyll.

          Cosima wrote in her diary, “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.”

The staircase at Tribschen

           On the June morning in 2014, Gretta and I entered the museum, and before us lay the staircase. It looked much smaller than I had imagined, but I could picture the orchestra strategically placed upon the steps and the landings. Inside the museum, we found parts of the original music score displayed inside a glass-topped case. Other pieces of interest were Wagner’s cape and beret, as well as historical photos of some of theatrical sets and divas from Wagner’s operas.

          We climbed the staircase and peered out the big windows to view the Alps and Lake Lucerne. I could picture a quiet, crisp morning with the sunrise highlighting the surrounding peaks. For a moment I heard the violins in my mind, softly swelling at the beginning of Siegfried Idyll, and imagined a blanket of snow outside, with Cosima in the bedroom awakening beneath her blankets on Christmas morning to the music on the staircase.

          The Christmas of 1870 was a happy moment in Wagner’s eccentric life. His move to Tribschen was to escape creditors in Germany. Wagner was favored as a composer by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who became his benefactor and paid Wagner’s debts, but eventually Ludwig’s political and personal problems prevented him from continuing the patronage.

          After their time in the house on Lake Lucerne, Wagner’s debts rose again. Much to Cosima’s dismay, he wrote a second score of Siegfried Idyll for a larger orchestra, and sold it to be played at public performances.

          Although there was much strife and stress in Wagner’s life, for a moment on the peaceful Christmas morning of 1870, all seemed right with the world when strains of Siegfried Idyll wafted up the staircase.
Richard Wagner Museum - Tribschen