A Tribute to Richard Wagner:

Concert in Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Richard Wagner

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 21 September, 2013 (Saturday) 8PM

A celebration of the Wagner legend: wives, husbands and muses

Wagner has come to be known as a legendary figure, not just for his ideas, his music or his outspokenness. In fact, the legend was fuelled more often than not by coincidences in which life imitated art and vice versa. By naming his children Isolde, Eva and Siegfried, Wagner was unabashedly equating the love child of his artistic life to that of his personal life. By having Hans von Bulow conducted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, the world was quick to associate the ironic fate of the conductor’s to that of King Mark’s – both were betrayed by their comrade and wife. Last but not least, it was almost too good to be true that everyone caught up in Wagner’s scandalous affairs, the increasingly estranged Wagners, the genteel Wesendoncks and the newly married von Bülows were present at the Asyl, Wagner’s abode in Zurich in April 1857!

Much has been said about Wagner’s promiscuity and turbulent affairs to add to the score of notoriety. Whether these are fiction or truth, one thing remains indisputable, and that is Wagner’s own confession of the importance of feminine inspiration in his life.

Writing to his friend Theodore Uhlig on December 1849, Wagner remarked that “Women, indeed, are the music of life; they absorb everything more openly and unconditionally, in order to embellish it by means of their sympathy.” Similarly, in a letter to Liszt in October 1858, Wagner spoke candidly about the significance of his doomed affair with Mathilde Wesendonck. “The love of a tender woman has made me happy; she dared to throw herself into a sea of suffering so that she might say ‘I love you!’ … We were spared nothing – but as a consequence I am redeemed and she is blessedly happy because she is aware of it.” And just before Wagner’s death from a heart attack in 1883, the composer was working on the unfinished treatise, On the feminine in humanity.

Moral debates aside, the three women in Wagner’s life played indispensable roles at the various stages of the composer’s career. Minna, Wagner’s wife for thirty years, sustained the family’s income when Wagner was shunned by the Parisian circle. Mathilde’s company and poetry unleashed Wagner’s creativity, bearing fruits in Tristan und Isolde and the setting of the five Wesendonck songs. Cosima was an avid champion of Wagner’s causes. She became the bedrock of the household and directed the operations of the Bayreuth Festival House after her husband’s death.

Which brings us full circle to the fateful meeting at the Asyl. Perhaps Wagner, his muses and their stories would never have transcended into legends without the lenience of Oscar Wesendonck and Hans von Bülow?


Four French Songs
Dors mon enfant, WWV 53
Attente, WWV 55
Mignonne, WWV 57
Soupir, WWV 58
Amanda Li, soprano
Wei-En Hsu, piano

Fleeing from debt and hoping to make his break as an opera composer, Minna and Richard Wagner left Riga for France hastily in 1839. Despite high hopes with his opera Das Liebesverbot and the two completed acts of Rienzi, Wagner failed to impress the director of the Opéra, despite his connections with the illustrious Meyerbeer and Scribe. To make ends meet, Wagner turned to composition of French songs and took on miscellaneous engagements, much to his own dismay.

The four songs were published in 1840. The text and music were designed for a broad appeal. The choice of texts ranges from the traditional lullaby of Dors, mon enfant, to the famous poem, Mignonne, by 16th century poet Pierre de Ronsard, and the setting of Victor Hugo’s L’Attente for the literary-minded. The unusal setting of Jean Reboul’s Tout n’est qu’images fugitives (also known as Soupir) brings a sentimental touch to this selection.

French Song
Les Adieux de Marie Stuart, WWV 61
Amanda Li, soprano
Wei-En Hsu, piano

Written in 1800, Schiller’s tragedy Maria Stuart casted a long shadow. Donizetti fashioned two operas, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, in the wake of this new founded interest in English queens. Schumann caught onto the same fascination, yielding to his last song cycle Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Op 135 in 1852.

In between Donizetti and Schumann came Wagner’s Les Adieux de Marie Stuart. Written in 1840, it is a dramatic scena based on Pierre-Jean de Béranger’s eponymous poem. The music is largely through-composed except for the refrain of the first stanza, which is inserted by Wagner to punctuate the fleeting thoughts of banished Queen’s lament.

Piano Solo
Polka in G major, WWV 84
Notenbrief fur Mathilde Wesendonck in G major
Ankunft bei den schwarzen Schwänen in A-flat major
, WWV 95
Zuricher Vielliebchen Walzer in E-flat major, WWV 88
Sonate fur das Album von Frau M.W. in A-flat major, WWV85
Nancy Loo, piano

The Arrival of the Black Swans was a miniature written at the time of Wagner’s triumphant return to Paris, to supervise a French translation of Der fliegende Holländer and anticipating the Paris premiere of his opera Tannhäuser. The piece was dedicated to Countess Anna von Poutalés, wife of the Prussian ambassador, who provided Wagner’s accommodation at the Embassy. The composer’s room overlooked the garden where two black swans are kept in the pond. The music was characterized by elegance and simplicity, as well as the singing lines gently echoed between the treble and bass.

Wagner wrote the thirty-four bar waltz for Marie Luckenmeyer, sister of Mathilde, who visited the Wesendoncks in 1854. The composer’s endearing dedication reads ‘for Zürich’s sweetest sweetheart … best of all dancers from Saxony.’

Apart from the miniature pieces, Wagner presented his Sonata in A-flat major to Mathilde Wesendonck in June 1853, claiming this to be his first composition six years since Lohengrin. The single-movement sonata was intended as a personal ‘album leaf’, instead of public performance. The sonata begins in the piano’s expressive lower octaves, it is contrasted by an ethereal second theme soaring at the high register. The music conveys a sincere, heartfelt quality, revealing the more intimate side of the composer.

Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103
Samuel Pang, conductor
Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra

Having weathered the scandals and treacherous situations together, Richard and Cosima were finally free to married in 1870. The Wagner household, now consisting of the newly wedded and five children (two daughters by Hans von Bulow; and three children by Wagner) resided in bliss at the villa Tribschen in Lucerne.

On Christmas day of 1870, Wagner surprised Cosima with a ‘symphonic birthday greeting’ titled ‘The Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s Bird-song and Orange Sunrise’, performed by chamber orchestra on the stairs of the villa. The piece is now commonly known as the Siegfried Idyll, as a result of Wagner’s selling of the work to the publisher Schott in 1878.

As the original title suggested, the music was a personal memento from Wagner to Cosima: ‘Fidi’ was the nickname for baby Siegfried, and the ‘orange sunrise’ referred to the morning sun gleaming on the orange wallpaper in Cosima’s bedroom.

The principal theme of the Idyll was originally Wagner’s gift for Cosima, as the two pledged their love on a carriage ride in 1863. The music also consists of motifs from the music drama Siegfried, which Wagner had completed at about the time of his son’s birth in 1869.

Wesendonck Lieder
Der Engel
Stehe Still!
Im Treibhaus
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Samuel Pang, conductor
Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra

Much has been said about Wagner’s contentious relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, the charming hostess during his refuge in Zurich. Despite all speculations, two things can be certain: Mathilde was the inspiration for Wagner’s possibly best music-drama, Tristan und Isolde; and the composer treated his muse as a creative collaborator in the setting of her poetry into the Wesendonck lieder.

Funf Gedichte von Mathilde Wesendonk was Wagner’s only foray into lieder. These songs were written intermittently between November 1857 and May 1858, and the genesis of the songs was well-documented in the correspondences between Wagner and Mathilde.

While Mathilde’s poems revealed an earthly quality with some cleverly imagined metaphors, the restrained eroticism in Wagner’s music lent extra fine veneer to the texts, and thereby securing these works a permanent place among German lieder literature.

Examples of word-painting and the influence of Schumann and even Liszt are remarkable in Der Engel (Novemeber 30, 1857), Stehe Still! (February 22, 1858) and Schmerzen (December 17, 1857).

Im Treibhaus (May 1, 1858) and Traume (December 4-5, 1857) were titled ‘studies of Tristan’ by the composer. Both foreshadowed the thematic materials included in the definitive version of the opera. The eerie chromaticism in Im Treibhaus, evoking the images of intertwined branches and suffocating atmosphere, would soon find its way to the Act III prelude. The melodic materials in Traume later served as the blueprint of the love duet in Act II.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.