Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner

Siegfried Wagner
Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930)

We mark the birth of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner on June 6, 1869 – 163 years ago today – in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Like the sons of so many great men groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, he could never hope to measure up to or escape from his father’s shadow.


We contemplate, for a moment, this thing called a “cliché.”

Strictly defined, a cliché is:

“an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”

Granted. But clichés didn’t become the tiresome, oft-repeated, over-used devices that – by definition – they are without carrying within them a kernel of truth. Admittedly, some clichés express stereotypes that may (or may not) be true, but the vast majority of them are analogies that do indeed express truisms.  In fact, when it comes to expressing a truism succinctly, nothing succeeds more quickly that a cliché.

For example:

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

(Parenthetically, some folks would tell us that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an idiom.  But they’d be wrong.  An idiom is figurative: a phrase that cannot be literally understood; for example, “getting cold feet” or “I smell a rat.”  However, overuse an idiom and it becomes a cliché.)

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Long before we understood the science of genetic inheritance, we understood the existence of the commonalities between parents and their children: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual commonalities.  “The apple” – an offspring – “doesn’t fall far the tree”: the parents.

Here’s another cliché:

“Like father, like son”; or “like mother, like daughter.”

Mothers and daughters; fathers and sons.  On one hand, as teenagers, we spend no small percentage of our time rejecting our parents as we seek to define ourselves as independent, self-aware, pre-adults.  But heaven help us, we can no more escape our parents’ influence than we can our own shadows. 

Now, speaking of fathers and sons.

In the “olden days” – before the mid-nineteenth century, give-or-take – it was a given that lower, working, and middle-class sons, particularly first sons, would follow into their fathers’ trades, for which they were groomed from the earliest age.  Farmers begat farmers; blacksmiths begat blacksmiths; merchants begat merchants, and so forth.

Despite this patrilinear profession track, sheer talent often demanded that a gifted child receive a musical education.  This was the case for George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), whose father was an eminent barber-surgeon (one wonders in which profession he was the most eminent).  It was the case for Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), whose father was a wheelwright; for Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), whose fathers were schoolteachers; for Robert Schumann, whose father was a bookseller and writer; and for Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904), whose father was a butcher (young Dvořák himself served as a butcher’s apprentice until the age of 13).…

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