How Richard Wagner, not the first name you associate with matters jolly and festive, made a present of a musical masterpiece. Mike Ashman tells the story
Many and varied are the events and personalities united by the words 'composer', 'Christmas', 'lover' and 'secret'. The list of births and deaths on the 25th is relatively modest: on it are Orlando Gibbons and Michael Kelly (of Mozart-associated fame) first seeing the light of day, and one Bach (WFE), the witty composer/pianist/lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky (who, near the end of his life, played a rock concert with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) and the far lesser-known Swiss composer Bernard Stavenhagen (he wrote an epic Romantic piano concerto) breathing their last. Works premiered on the first day of Christmas naturally include any amount of dedicated choral music – from Bach and Schütz oratorios, via Britten’s many contributions, to the strong roster of modern carols commissioned yearly by King’s College, Cambridge (like Judith Weir’s powerful Illuminare Jerusalem). There was even in Australia a radio opera, John Antill’s The First Christmas.
Park Christmas to one side for a moment and join 'composers' (and their work) with 'lovers' or partners 'secret' or not so secret. An extremely lengthy list of secular muses would run from, at least, Gesualdo to contemporaries it might be indiscreet to mention. Just for starters there’s Mozart’s several singers, da Ponte and the very young lady who, um, brought him his chocolate to keep his libretto-writing going through the night, Beethoven’s imaginary or actual beloved(s), Brahms’s feelings for Clara Schumann, Britten and Pears – relationships which all helped to inspire music (or words).
At the 'secret' end of the spectrum come three 20th-century opera composers and one librettist who, if we accept the wisdom of more contemporary research, were 'respectable married men' given, or driven, to encoding secret feelings and acknowledgements of their mistresses’ inspiration within their work. They were Puccini and at least three ladies (with marked effect on the heroines and perhaps the actions of Fanciulla, the Trittico and Turandot), Janáček and Kamilla Stösslová (a similar case for his last group of operas), Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (their relationship hymned, in the Lyric Suite, in purely musical terms), and Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Countess Ottonie Degenfeld (his 'real-life' Marschallin).
There is another significant, even notorious, composer who drew emotional and intellectual support from several muse/lovers. Richard Wagner’s private life was deemed colourful enough for Hollywood treatment – in the 1930s with Leopold Stokowski slated for the lead (he eloped with Garbo instead), then in the 1950s, with Alan Badel. The result, Magic Fire, with music 'arranged' (and how!) by Korngold, is a camp masterpiece of improvised melodramatic compression which should be issued on DVD with haste.
But, perhaps not surprisingly for the composer who sought to re-establish the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (many art forms under one roof) in his music, it was one true event that perfectly combined the idea of a composer presenting his long-term secret mistress, and now wife, with a present of music that even, pace Berg and Co, had secret musical references knitted into it.
Let Cosima Wagner do the talking, from her long hidden-away diaries: 'Sunday, December 25, 1870. About this day, my children, I can tell you nothing – nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing, nothing. I shall just tell you, drily and plainly, what happened. 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, 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 for ever! The Tribschen Idyll – thus the work is called.
'After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly; 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 understood all R’s working in secret, also dear [Hans] Richter’s trumpet (he blazed out the Siegfried theme splendidly and had learnt 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.'
The work now universally known as the Siegfried Idyll (not Wagner’s own title) was thus premiered on Christmas Day, 1870, in the villa called Tribschen just outside Lucerne overlooking the Vierwaldstattersee (Four Cantons’ Lake). Wagner conducted an ad hoc ensemble of (according to reliable research) just 15 players: 14 were members of the relatively nearby Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, while the second viola and trumpet were doubled by Hans Richter, Wagner’s latest chief musical assistant and copyist, soon to be the designated conductor of the Ring premiere. Cosima’s bedroom was on the first floor of the villa and the musicians appear to have been stationed on the first two flights of the open-plan staircase, Wagner presumably at the top. The scene is recreated in the latest, and longest, film biography of the composer, Tony Palmer’s Wagner.
A later entry in Cosima’s diary relates how the piece contained explicit (but private) references to the consummation of Wagner and Cosima’s affair at Lake Starnberg and to their son Siegfried’s birth at Tribschen. 'R said how curious it seemed to him: all he had set out to do was to work the theme which had come to him in Starnberg (when we were living together), and which he had promised me as a quartet, into a morning serenade, and then he had unconsciously woven our whole life into it – Fidi’s birth, my recuperation, Fidi’s bird, etc.'
On the day of Fidi’s (ie, Siegfried’s) birth, according to Wagner/Cosima in prose that is almost literally purple, 'he was surprised by an incredibly beautiful, fiery glow which started to blaze with a richness of colour never before seen, first on the orange wallpaper beside the bedroom door; it was then reflected in the blue jewel box containing my portrait, so that this, covered by glass and set in a narrow gold frame, was transfigured in celestial splendour. The sun had just risen above the Rigi (mountain)…' The bird song in the Idyll, a kind of tribute to/continuation of the Forest Murmurs episode from Act 2 of Siegfried, refers to the family’s identification of a little bird that began to sing early in the morning at the first sign of the sun. Wagner believed that 'it was Siegfried’s bird, which had announced his arrival and now came to inquire after him.'
Despite Cosima’s reluctance to part with her birthday gift, 'Tribschen Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870' (the title of the work on the manuscript) was eventually sold and published. It’s interesting that, despite subsequent claims for the 'authenticity' of the original chamber version, Wagner always imagined the piece for larger ensemble, calling, just a year after the premiere, for a string strength of 8/8/4/4/3, as opposed to the Tribschen performance’s 2/2/2/1/1. Before the Wagners parted with their Christmas secret lovers’ composition, there were repeat 'at home' performances for Cosima’s birthday in 1873 and 1874.
Wagner later described their Tribschen years to Cosima as 'our poetic period, the dawn of our life; now we are in the full glare of the midday sun, my dear wife, and climbing the mountain.'