Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning, 25 December 1870, by a small ensemble of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen (today part of Lucerne), Switzerland. Cosima awoke to its opening melody. Conductor Hans Richter played the brief trumpet part in that private performance.
The original title was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard. "Fidi" was the family's nickname for their son Siegfried. It is thought that the birdsong and the sunrise refer to incidents of personal significance to the couple.
Wagner's opera Siegfried, which was premiered in 1876, incorporates music from the Idyll. Wagner adapted the material from an unfinished chamber piece into the Idyll before giving the theme to Brunhilde in the opera's final scene. The work also uses a German lullaby, "Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf (de)", played by solo oboe. Ernest Newman discovered it was linked to the Wagners' older daughter Eva. This and other musical references, whose meaning remained unknown to the outside world for many years, reveal the idyll's levels of personal significance for both Wagner and Cosima.
Wagner originally intended the Siegfried Idyll to remain a private piece. However, due to financial pressures, he decided to sell the score to publisher B. Schott in 1878. In doing so, Wagner expanded the orchestration to make the piece more marketable. The piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra of 13 players: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. The trumpet part is very brief, lasting only 13 measures. The piece is commonly played today by orchestras with more than one player on each string part. Modern performances are much slower than those of earlier years.
- Cosima's actual birthday was 24 December, but she always celebrated it on Christmas Day
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- A Siegfried Idyll: notes about the composition by Richard Freed
- "Oregon Symphony: Prokofiev and Sibelius". Orsymphony.org. Retrieved 2013-10-06.
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- "The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts". Kennedy-center.org. Retrieved 2013-10-06.
- Brown, Jonathan (2012). Great Wagner Conductors – a listener's companion. O'Connor, A.C.T.: Parrot Press, pp. 769–770 (a list of timings from Hans Richter, 14′ 30″, to Hans Knappertsbusch, 20′ 36″) ISBN 978-0-9871556-0-3
- Homepage of the Richard Wagner Museum in Tribschen/Lucerne
- Siegfried-Idyll: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project