When considering Wagner’s musical output, it is most likely his operas to which one’s mind wanders, as Wagner’s position in music history is usually constructed as that of the most important composer of German opera during the nineteenth century. Wagner’s monumental operas still allure and intoxicate audiences today, and any major opera house would be remiss if Wagner was absent from their season. When Wagner is concerned, the operas of Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal come to mind, operas that were intended to revolutionize music and the theater. Works such as the Ring––a mythic tetralogy of epic proportions consisting of nearly sixteen hours of music––have come to epitomize the Wagnerian idiom, not small, intimate pieces intended to be kept from the public. However, the Siegfried Idyll is a piece of instrumental music that Wagner himself hoped would grace only the ears of his family and closest friends. Thus, the Idyll offers a glimpse into Wagner’s private life, telling a story centered around his children, financial struggles, and above all, romantic relationships.
With similarities to the star-crossed lovers in Tristan und Isolde, the relationship of Wagner and his second wife Cosima (daughter of composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt) began as an arduous and scandalous affair. During the dawn of their relationship, Wagner was still married to his first wife Minna, though the couple had been separated––both emotionally and geographically––for several years, and Cosima was married to the famous conductor Hans von Bülow, an ardent champion of Wagner’s music and the man tasked with conducting the premieres of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger in 1865 and 1868, respectively. Von Bülow was acutely aware of the antics of Wagner and Cosima but, despite public embarrassment, remained a faithful member of the Wagnerian cause during these years. Due to Wagner’s friendship and collaboration with both Liszt (who conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1850) and von Bülow, Wagner had been acquainted with Cosima for several years, and the two exhibited signs of mutual admiration before the start of their not-so-secret love in 1864.