Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Cosima Wagner

Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

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Music History Monday: One Tough Lady

We mark the birth on December 24, 1837 – 181 years ago today – of Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner: the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt; the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow; and then the mistress and wife of Richard Wagner. As Wagner’s wife, she became his protector and his muse. According to Ernest Newman, whose four-volume, 2429 page biography of Wagner remains an essential reference, Cosima was “the greatest figure that ever came within Wagner’s circle”.  As Wagner’s widow, she became the “keeper of the Wagnerian flame”; she rescued and made profitable Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival and protected Wagner’s artistic legacy with a ferocity ordinarily associated with wolverines and spotted hyenas. Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner remains a controversial figure. Her racism and anti-Semitism were even more virulent than Wagner’s, and by the time she died – in 1930 – the close association of Wagner, Hitler and the Nazis was becoming institutionalized. Writing in 1930, Cosima’s first biographer – Richard du Moulin Eckart – asserts that she was “the greatest woman of the century”. According to the critic and librettist Philip Hensher, writing in 2010: “Wagner was a genius, but also a fairly appalling human being. […]

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Music History Monday: A Gift to Music

On Christmas day of 1870 – 147 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s twenty minute-long instrumental tone poem Siegfried Idyll received its premiere under circumstances to be discussed below. Originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 players (flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and bass), Wagner expanded the orchestration to 35 players when the piece was published in 1878. Let us contemplate, for a moment, what must be considered the second-worst date to be born, second only to February 29 (the birthday of Gioachino Rossini and Dinah Shore but also the serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Richard Ramirez; pretty creepy company). That second-worst birthdate is today: December 25. For someone born into a family that observes Christmas, a Christmas birthday is, frankly, a rip off, as Christmas and birthday get rolled into a single celebration, the whole usually lesser than the parts. As for gifts, well, a December 25th birthday is (or so I’ve been told) is a catastrophe. (How many times have these unfortunate celebrants heard the line, “we decided to give you one big present this year”? Sure. Right.) Among the many good people born on December 25 are Clara Barton, […]

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