Wagner’s (Siegfried) Idyll, or when tone poems are a delicacy

Today, in preparation to this week’s Houston Symphony concerts, I intend to discuss Siegfried Idyll, Wagner’s delicate and peaceful birthday gift to his wife Cosima. Originally called simply Idyll, this rather short and intimate tone poem is a rarity by reason of its one-of-a-kind limited use of forces. With only 13 players, its instrumentation stands in sharp contrast with almost every other piece written by the gargantuan-proportions lover such as Richard “everything should be epic” Wagner. We can of course find the characteristic Wagner sound, but in a more tender form and condensed length. Wagner did eventually use some ideas and themes from the chamber piece in the opera Siegfried, the third installment of the Tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.


Idyll History

The first performance took place on the staircase in the Wagner’s villa in Lucerne, on the morning of Christmas Day 1870 (Cosima’s birthday was Christmas Eve). Cosima was sleeping, and she woke up to the beautiful opening melody, with Wagner conducting the small group of musicians he had invited from Zürich. We know from her diary that in her opinion it was a lovely birthday present!

The working title of the piece was “Tribschen-Idyll, with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise”. This title immediately suggest that the work and the theme had deep personal meaning for the couple. Fidi is the pet name for Siegfried, Wagner’s younger son, and Tribschen is the name of the villa in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Wagner was living in self-imposed exile with his family. Wagner wrote to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, his personal friend and supporter, about the location: “Wherever I turn outside my house I am in the midst of a magic world: I know of no more beautiful place on earth, none homelier than this.”

Wagner's Tribschen Villa, where the Siegfried Idyll was composed and premieredWagner didn’t publish the work until 8 years later, when he was in a dire financial situation. In order to accommodate the acoustics of concert halls across Europe, the composer increased the number of players and even instruments, changed the title to Siegfried Idyll, and sold the score to a publishing house.

The Music

About 20 minutes long, Wagner wrote his Idyll for a small orchestra of 13 different instruments, probably the maximum amount of musicians he could fit on the landing of his staircase:1 flute, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 1 trumpet, 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello, and 1 double bass. Despite these limited instrumental forces, Wagner still manages to create utterly beautiful shades of tone by using clever combinations. The single instruments give the piece bold but kind colors, capturing the feelings of affection which inspired it.

Wagner used some of the melodies from the Idyll for the end of his opera Siegfried. He was struggling a bit with writing the third act, and this material fitted well. Hear are some themes from the Idyll which made it into the opera, and the corresponding bits in the opera:

Siegfried's IdyllOpera Siegfried
Correlations & Themes
Theme 1
Theme 2
Theme 3
Theme 4


If you’re interested in more of the history of the piece, please visit the website of the Tribschen Villa, today a Wagner museum.

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Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, or when tone poems are a delicacy

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