Wagner, Adams, And Beethoven — Breaking The Mold

Donato Cabrera
Jul 6 · 8 min read

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, the Chamber Concerto of Samuel Carl Adams, and Beethoven’s Symphony №7, fit nicely in the current, cookie-cutter format of Overture-Concerto-Symphony that most orchestras follow, as if there’s been an international summit on the matter. However, what makes each of these pieces so unique and special, and why I’ve programmed them together, is how these composers use molds only in order to smash them.

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll

With Siegfried Idyll, I’m hard-pressed to find another example in all of music quite like it! It was written as a birthday present not only to his wife, Cosima (born on December 24), but it was also written in honor of their son’s birth, Siegfried, and it was premiered on Christmas Day, 1870 — a triple treat! It was played on the stairs of their lovely Swiss villa in the village of Triebschen, now a district of Lucerne.

Performing the Triebschen Idyll, as it was called before it was published, became an annual Christmas Day event for the Wagners and the piece remained a private, family event for quite a few years, being performed in the very spot you see on the video above. It was not until the Wagners were strapped for cash that he sold it to the publisher, Schott, in 1878 for the rest of the world to hear and enjoy.

But what is this piece? Is it an overture? A tone-poem? A symphonic miniature? You could easily call it any one of these things but, for me, it is simply a musical expression of a very joyous and idyllic time between two people who were happy and in love.

Unsurprisingly, Wagner repurposed some of the music from this very private piece into his very public 1876 opera, Siegfried, the third installment of his four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The beginning music of the idyll can be found in Act 3, near the end, when Brünnhilde accepts and embraces her mortal life through her love of Siegfried. She sings:

Ewig war ich,
ewig bin ich,
ewig in süß
sehnender Wonne,
doch ewig zu deinem Heil!
O Siegfried! Herrlicher! Hort der Welt!

etc…..

There are also embedded melodies within Siegfried Idyll that Wagner didn’t compose. The lullaby, Schlaf kindlein, schlaf, was the most popular lullaby at this time.

Five minutes into the idyll you hear this tender lullaby clearly quoted.

Siegfried Idyll runs nearly twenty minutes and is clearly composed in sonata form. In other words, there is an introduction of two contrasting themes, a development section of these two themes, a recapitulation (return) of these same themes, and a final coda that puts it all to rest. However, even this formal structure of composition is used only to tell the story, rather than adhering to any pre-arranged game plan.

In order to make it more marketable, Wagner expanded the piece to 35 musicians. However, I feel that this version doesn’t capture the intimacy and tenderness that is so apparent with the original 13 musicians. This is the version that I’ve always preferred and is what you will hear.

Samuel Carl Adams Chamber Concerto

In choosing the repertoire for this concert, one of my goals was to find repertoire and, perhaps, a soloist that had a real connection to Reno. As luck would have it, I remember hearing that the composer, Samuel Carl Adams, had married a violinist who had grown up in Reno and was a recent addition to the San Francisco Symphony violin section. It became a fait accompli in discovering that Samuel had recently written a chamber concerto for violin and ensemble.

As Adams writes in the program notes for the premiere of his Chamber Concerto in May 2018, he finds the idea of a traditional concerto, “a bit suspect.” He goes on to say, “I am not particularly drawn to lopsided musical hierarchies, and the ‘hero’ narrative found in the standard nineteenth- and twentieth-century romantic warhorses doesn’t seem altogether relevant in the twenty-first century.”

Fair enough. In this statement, we find an artist creating within a structure in which he is consciously working in opposition. Picasso, James Joyce, and Nijinsky quickly come to mind as artists who not only thrived creating in a contrarian manner, but led their respective artforms into entirely new directions.

However, what is revealed to us in his Chamber Concerto for Violin and Ensemble, and perhaps what was revealed to Adams as he composed this piece, are the aesthetic principles of the compositional form of the concerto grosso, from which the concerto was born, and a form of composition that was found from the era of Bach and Handel — the Baroque

What is a concerto grosso? It literally means big concerto. There were two types, the concerto da chiesa (church concerto), which had a form that alternated between slow and fast movements, and a concerto da camera (chamber concerto), which was a collection of movements that often started with a prelude, and which was then followed by movements that were based on popular dance forms. A concerto grosso also meant that there were usually a very small group of maybe three or four instrumentalists, that would play in dialogue with a larger group, often surrounding them. You can clearly see how this works with this fantastic performance of Händel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, №6.

Adams chooses, obviously, the chamber concerto format, but with a twist. As he writes, “The result is a contemporary take on old ideas, a concerto that attempts to translate baroque formal devices into psychological archetypes, finding their meaning in the twenty-first century.” While Adams keeps the violin as a ‘solo’ voice, it is used more as a spark or, as he puts it, a “waking voice” and the ensemble is its “collective unconscious.”

For example, the first movement, which is a prelude, doesn’t begin with the typical grand orchestral introduction that we are accustomed to, but with the solo violin gently and quietly playing the open strings of the instrument. The rest of the ensemble slowly joins in, following the lead of and responding to the solo voice which creates a tapestry of sound that is, indeed, like layers of emotion and feeling, rather than the typical call and response that a concerto employs.

Like Siegfried Idyll, the Chamber Concerto is first and foremost an exploration of expression, deconstructing musical terms to their essence in order to communicate feeling and emotion, rather than form and function.

Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony №7

One of the main sources of inspiration for how this program came together is this partial quote from Richard Wagner, calling Beethoven’s Symphony №7, “the Apotheosis of the Dance.” Indeed, this quote is a prime example of someone using an entirely different artform — dance — to describe the impression and meaning of a piece of music. To read Wagner’s quote in its entirety is even more powerful.

“All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.”

Why was dance the analogy that Wagner chose to use? The answer is: rhythm. The entire symphony, from the first note to the last, focuses on rhythm. He enlivens and energizes these rhythms with simple yet unforgettable harmonies. He provides further excitement by surprising us with his typically extreme dynamics. But what is typically the most important arrow in a composer’s quiver, melody (think Tchaikovsky or Dvorak), is practically non-existent.

The first movement begins with a stately and noble introduction. There is no melody at all, just very powerful chords, bursting with energy, followed by solo instruments quietly outlining those chords, which is called an arpeggio. The next element Beethoven introduces to these chords and arpeggios are simple scales heading upward, first played as softly as possible, then as loudly as possible.

What then follows is something that could certainly be called the beginnings of a melody, but Beethoven doesn’t do anything with it except repeat it four times like a broken record. The scales return, then the simple repeating melody, which quickly disintegrates into, finally, the lively Vivace, or fast section, of the movement.

The rest of the first movement uses similar tactics, with the faster, propulsive dance rhythm keeping us completely engaged. It’s a gigue, which was a popular dance from the Baroque era and still very known to the audiences of Beethoven’s day.

When listening to the first movement in its entirety, knowing that it’s the rhythm that Beethoven uses to keep our attention, it’s even more remarkable.

The second movement, the Allegretto, is an even more remarkable achievement. From the moment it was premiered, everyone recognized it was a masterpiece. In fact, at the premiere, this movement had to be played twice! In days long gone, when it was acceptable to just play singular movements from various symphonies, this second movement was often played on its own.

It begins with what many have facetiously called the most famously melody written on just one note. You don’t even need to read music to realize that there isn’t much happening.

How does Beethoven make this “the crown of modern instrumental music,” as one music critic of an early performance called it, so thoroughly beguiling and timeless? Through a persistent rhythm that never stops, this is called an ostinato by the way, simple harmonies, and surprising dynamics.

The third movement, the Scherzo, is marked Presto which means very fast. It is, in fact, the fastest scherzo that Beethoven wrote in all of his symphonies and it just flies by! For this movement and the last, he uses various forms of the contradance, which was an unrefined but very popular dance style.

The middle section of this scherzo, marked Assai meno presto (rather less fast), is a very special moment and sounds to me like time stands still. The two contrasting sections of this movement are, nevertheless, incredibly complimentary and fit hand-in-glove with one another.

The last movement, marked Allegro con brio (fast, with life), has been described more than once as Bacchanalian. Once again, no melodies to speak of, but just wonderfully electric rhythms, repeated scales, and stark dynamic contrasts. It’s just simply a frenzied dance from start to finish!

In hearing these three pieces together, it is my hope that you will not only appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of each composer, writing in three different styles from three distinct time periods, but because they share the same desire to communicate their truth at all cost, breaking free of convention, if necessary.

Donato Cabrera

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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