Today is the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. To celebrate, here’s the closest thing Wagner ever wrote to a birthday tune. The Siegfried Idyll was presented to Wagner’s wife Cosima for her birthday on Christmas Day 1870. She tells the story herself in her diary:
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, dryly 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 [the Wagners’ Lucerne villa] forever! The Tribschen Idyll – thus the work is called. At midday Dr. Sulzer arrived, surely the most important of R.’s friends! After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly (Countess B. was also there, on my invitation); 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 learned 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. — In the evening R. reads his Meistersinger to Dr. Sulzer, who did not know it; and I take as much delight in it as if it were something completely new. This makes R. say, “I wanted to read Sulzer Die Ms, and it turned into a dialogue between us two.” (Cosima Wagner’s Diaries 1869-1877 Vol. 1. Ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977.)
Contained in this little story are several of the many contradictions that make Richard Wagner such a fascinating – and divisive – figure to this day. On the one hand, there is the rather touching romantic gesture at play – the Great Composer’s equivalent of making breakfast in bed for his wife. It must have been a profoundly beautiful moment, as this re-creation demonstrates. There is also the brilliant theatricality of the presentation, and it is always worth remembering that apart from being a revolutionary composer, Wagner was one of the great theatrical minds of the 19th Century.
Then there is the man’s clearly quite monstrous ego. Cosima’s thirty-third birthday was essentially a celebration of her husband’s great genius, consisting of performances of his music and readings of his ‘poem’ for Die Meistersinger. Indeed, Richard seems to have spent most of the day showing off to his friend Dr Jakob Sulzer. And of course, Die Meistersinger is perhaps the most troubling of Wagner’s operas, perceived by scholars such as Barry Millington as an expression of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism.
But above all, at the heart f this story is the glorious, astonishing, and heartfelt music. Written at least in part to celebrate the birth of Richard and Cosima’s son Siegfried, the Idyll is full of sunrises, birdsong, cradle songs, and private little references to the Wagners’ family life. Wagner may have been a titan of a composer, one who transformed the world of music forever, but what makes his music approachable is its sheer humanity. We can bring ourselves to forgive Wagner’s lesser qualities as a human being because his music reminds us that being flawed is part of what makes us human, and that being human is a wonderful thing to aspire to.
So whatever your faults, Mr Wagner – and there were many – you were undeniably a great artist, and this world is a richer place for your having been in it. Happy birthday, and thank you for gifting your music to all of us.
(Incidentally, the Siegfried Idyll above is performed by the great Jewish conductor Bruno Walter in 1935, just months before Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws in Germany. The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, who a few years later would expel all of its Jewish members, five of whom would be murdered in Nazi death camps. Walter himself fled Germany and the newly annexed Austria in 1938. Yet Walter continued to perform Wagner until shortly before his death in 1962. The music – even for a man who experienced the effects of ferocious anti-Semitism first-hand – transcended everything else.)