Richard Tognetti and the Orchestra performing Beethoven

A guide to Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll

Our brief introduction to Richard Wagner's exquisite tone poem, Siegfried Idyll, composed in 1870.

Richard Wagner’s (1813–1883) exquisite tone poem Siegfried Idyll was composed in 1870 as a birthday present to his wife, Cosima, following the birth of their son Siegfried one year earlier. Cosima was the second child of Franz Liszt, who was one of Wagner’s closest friends, and the newly married couple had recently moved into a villa in Tribschen on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Before going to sleep on Christmas Eve, at the end of her birthday, Cosima wrote in her diary that “…I have given nothing to Richard and had nothing from him.” She did not know that Richard had been working on her present for several weeks.

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Cosima described the work’s premiere on Christmas morning: “When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, Richard 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.” Wagner had assembled a small orchestra of 15 musicians on the steps of their living room to give the intimate premiere. Among them was eminent conductor Hans Richter, who learnt the trumpet part especially, and even sailed out to the centre of Lake Lucerne to quietly practise without ruining the surprise.

The original title, “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi Birdsong and Orange Sunrise”, alludes to their newborn son’s nickname “Fidi”. The “orange sunrise” references “the beautiful fiery glow” of the play of light on the wallpaper on the day of Siegfried’s birth. Most of the musical themes in Siegfried Idyll are related to pastoral passages in his opera Siegfried, which he was working on at the time, and enthusiasts will recognise the familiar horn-calls, birdsongs and pastoral evocations. Wagner is best known for his grand operas, but he described Siegfried Idyll as a “quiet joy that now takes the form of music” and it forever remained a favourite among his works.

Australian Chamber Orchestra will perform Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in Mahler's Song of the Earth, directed by Richard Tognetti, and touring to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, 12-26 May. Click here for tickets.