Siegfried Idyll: A Pastoral Expression of Love

With another national lockdown inevitably looming, I found myself casting back to the beginnings of spring, where the breadth of governmental power was yet to crash into our daily lives. The final live performance I saw was The Neruda Ensemble at the end of February. As my brother conducted the concert, the faces of the audience and the musicians were familiar. The programme too was one of familiarity with the ensemble exploring the chamber music of Mozart and Wagner. It is always a warm surprise to hear a piece I played during my chamber cellist days; it becomes a small thrill I delight in as an audience member as I feel I am in on the secret. The other aspect of concert-going that I treasure is seeing a live version of a piece which I choose to blast in my ears daily. For me, this work is Wagner's Siegfried Idyll.[1]

It was five years prior when I first encountered this charming and unusually restrained composition by Wagner. It also happened to be another concert that my brother was conducting maybe he is just as fond of the piece as I am. Intimidation was one feeling I often felt towards the composer's musical output and prolific thoughts. Through a mixture of his self-promotion and the physical grandeur of his work, he occupied an unreachable echelon of musical expertise in my young mind. Alongside this, however, was my utter contempt for his anti-Semitic and racist sentiments a factor which continues to tinge my engagement with his work. (I will reserve a more thorough unpacking of this dynamic and the conflation of music and politics for another time).

Nevertheless, I was transfixed by this chamber work. Richard Wagner no longer was just a self-proclaimed genius; he was simply a man who wrote a piece for the woman he loved. It offered a more accessible route to possibly understand him, a leveller in the relationship between composer and listener. He is a character with whom I vehemently disagree. However, still, he managed to distil a universal essence of love which continues to resonate in a world where his political views are now rightly condemned. Since that first encounter, Siegfried Idyll continues to punctuate my life experiences and provides coherence to otherwise incomprehensible emotional reactions. Withal, this piece was not initially intended for those beyond the private sphere. Before it became the public's Siegfried Idyll, it was a birthday gift for Cosima, Wagner's wife.

On the 25th of December 1870, Cosima was awoken to the sound of captivating melodies and harmonic warmth which coaxed her from a dream-filled slumber.[2] Her diary entry of that day outline how fifteen musicians lined the winding staircase of their home and gave a premiere of the piece, the first of many renditions that would be delivered that day. This whole delightful occasion took place at Wagner's country villa in the district of Tribschen, Switzerland, looking upon Lake Lucerne. Given the sublime haven of their home, it was initially entitled Tribschen Idyll an apt gift to celebrate the day after Cosima's birth. (She was, in fact, born on the 24th of December but chose to celebrate it on the 25th…). As their love affair was tainted with years of scandal, the Idyll acts as a closing gesture to that particularly turbulent chapter of their romance. By doing so, it becomes a sonic reflection of their newly acquired domestic bliss as well as a delicate but fervent declaration of Wagner's love.

A bar by bar analysis of this piece feels antithetical to the poetry which in sues over the seventeen minutes of music. Therefore, all I can and will offer are glazed statements and cliches which orbit the topic of love. Upon listening to the piece yourself, I am sure you will have plenty of familiar tropes to add.

A tentative octave leap in momentary suspension may seem a peculiar way to start a musical musing on what it means to engage in matters of the heart. Yet, as the quartet of strings unfurl, cascading lines tumble out from that suspended note and the exploration begins. With an air of caution, different avenues are sampled, with any sense of motion getting paused until the ensemble finds a route to unite over. This braid of sound feels akin to the timid uncertainty new lovers often experience you know, that neurotic mix of excitement and trepidation which percolates in the mind. Soon, uncertainty subsides and a more assured sense of direction follows for the rest of the piece. Wind soloists join the fold along the way, offering soaring flourishes to the now-familiar melody. The accumulation of all these melodic threads manages to establish a rich blanket of comfort which drapes over the sound. I feel the comfort stems from a sense of security; the knowledge that nothing too abrupt will jolt your ears. It should be made clear, however, that the cosiness of the blanket doesn't translate into a mundane, sonic sludge. It successfully finds the balance between being full of emotional gravitas and conveying a lightness of joy which is available in companionship be it platonic, romantic or familial.

I think one of my favourite moments, which always guarantees to make me beam, is the twelve-bar trumpet interjection in the middle of the piece. The unmistakable sonority blasts through, rhythmically and purposefully, to bring a regal nature to that particular iteration of the theme. The self-assurance of the sound is so wonderfully brazen in contrast to the honeyed timbres of the string section. A melancholic sigh swiftly follows this expression of cheerful hubris, leading the listener back into a more comfortable jurisdiction of self-doubt and insecurity, just as effortlessly as it occurs in our daily lives. It is from this emotional position where Wagner cultivates are a portrait of love which is full of candour. What emerges from an almost feeble sound is an ardent declaration of devotion imbued with pathos. It aptly reflects the vulnerability one can feel in exposing an innermost thought or intention. The augmented triad he uses is almost dazzling in its accuracy in capturing this specific ache.

Siegfried Idyll is full of tender harmonies and beguiling melodic lines. Nevertheless, moments of poignant stasis scattered throughout the piece convey a sincerity of commitment, one in which thought and reflection can flourish opposed to the scurrying zeal which can often characterise the fervour of passion. These moments are either represented with a scale back in instrumental resources, sustained chordal passages or a decrease in the dynamic range, each offering a slice of calm amidst the flurry of expression. It is in these snippets of time where I contemplate all I have felt in less than twenty minutes.

I think it is abundantly clear that I genuinely adore this work. Yet, my gushing account was only made possible because of the precarity of Wagner’s finances. During a time of financial hardship, Cosima’s symphonic birthday greeting underwent the cycle of commodification when it was published in 1877. No longer was it just a statement of their intimacy. It was this factor which made me reflect on how the process of a transaction can map onto the switch between the private and public sphere. Value, inherent or extrinsic, becomes malleable to the external factors which shape and frame its meaning. For Siegfried Idyll, its amorous nature faded to facilitate a commercial success, and Wagner was the sculptor of this change.

By the time the public had access to the Idyll's sonorities, Wagner had already woven some of the melodic material into Siegfried, the third opera in the Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the final scene of the opera, Brünnhilde sings "Ewig war ich" which derives from the opening of Siegfried Idyll. At this point in the opera, she is declaring her adoration for Siegfried, while acknowledging that in doing so will result in the loss of her immortal status — a severely bittersweet trade. Her expression of love and commitment, all be it veiled in the language of loss, ensures the sentiment so crucial in Siegfried Idyll continues. Yet, in the realm of the opera, Wagner also offers new possibilities on how to connote the sounds. As the epic tales of Der Ring des Nibelungen are located in the vast expanse of mythical woodland and mountain ranges, the love story between Brünnhilde and Siegfried takes place with this backdrop of nature. It is this which brought fresh meaning to the chamber work. Rather than focusing on human love which, for me, is represented in the first part of the title ('Siegfried'), the inclusion of these thematic elements in Siegfried made me hone in on the significance of the Idyll.

During my daily allotted walk back in April, the piece was my soundtrack as I clambered through rapeseed fields. As I arrived at the charming vista, I sat, for sometimes hours, and listened. At that specific moment of my pandemic experience, I so craved the closeness of my dearest companions and acutely felt the absence of human connection. Finding this intimacy in nature feels almost paradoxical when one considers vast sprawls of space but somehow, the access to nature suffused a specific void. It soothed my anxiety; it comforted my solitude.

Upon my return to London, it was a necessity to find a similar landscape (all be it in walking distance from my abode). In moments of economic uncertainty and doubts of employability, I found solace in the leafy trails of Hampstead Heath. The chill of the Ladies' pond cleansed my skin while one specific tree provided wonderous back support as I read. Now, as life dances in and out of normality (and is expected to do so for the foreseeable future), finding moments of soothing nature in the winter months may be somewhat of a challenge. However, what I hope I have illustrated is that music can act as a vehicle of transportation, to help soothe the individual and communal tension in our lives.

Serendipitous it may be, but as I entered Manor House tube station, the sounds of Siegfried Idyll filled my ears as I descended into the underground. I often hear classical sonorities in this station but not ones I can so swiftly name. However, the chorus of winds was instantaneously recognisable to my ears. This work, which is a personal signifier of calm and warmth, was resonating in a space notorious for its chaotic, frantic energy and chilly breeze. The sonic relief was sublime. May it offer you the same.

Meg Holch, October 2020

Meg has also written:

Turkey's Refugee Music Scene

References [1] [2] Wagner, C., Gregor-Dellin, M., Mack, D. and Skelton, G., 1978. Cosima Wagner's Diaries. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.



Want to make a difference to the arts during these tough times? You can either donate an amount of your choice or become a patron on Patreon for as little as £2/month!