WUSTL Symphony Orchestra Feb. 24

Love and vindication: Concert will feature music of Wagner and Rachmaninov

Cosima and Richard Wagner. Photo taken May 9, 1872, in Vienna by Fritz Luckhardt. Originally published in The Love Affairs of Great Musicians, Volume 2 by Rupert Hughes, 1904.

On Dec. 25, 1870, Cosima Wagner awoke to the sound of music.

Her husband, the composer Richard Wagner, had risen early and arranged a 15-piece orchestra on the stairs of their house in Tribschen, Switzerland. Under Richard’s baton, the strings began softly but soon gained force. Richard’s friend Hans Richter, himself an illustrious conductor, performed on trumpet.

“It grew ever louder,” Cosima wrote in her diary. “I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music!”

As the final notes faded, Richard entered the bedroom and handed the score to his wife. It was the first performance of the Siegfried Idyll, which Wagner had written to mark Cosima’s 33rd birthday (actually Dec. 24, but which she celebrated on Christmas).

Titled for the couple’s infant son, the Siegfried Idyll would become one of Wagner’s best-loved compositions, moving from that Tribschen staircase to concert halls and opera houses around the world.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, the Washington University Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ward Stare will perform the Siegfried Idyll, along with Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2, in Washington University’s E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall.

Sponsored by the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences, the performance is free and open to the public. The E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall is located in the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Ave., at the intersection with Delmar Boulevard.

For more information, call (314) 935-5566 or email daniels@wustl.edu.

If the Siegfried Idyll was born of joy, Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 was born of despair — specifically, the disastrous reception to his first symphony, which premiered in 1897 and which the composer later called “the most agonizing hour of my life.”

Confidence shattered, Rachmaninov found himself unable to write and descended into a years-long depression. But in 1900, after months of work with Moscow therapist Nikolai Dahl, the composer began composing again. And with great success — the next five years would see the completion of his beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor as well as two operas, a cello sonata and other works.

In 1906, to escape his newfound celebrity, Rachmaninov moved, with his wife and daughter, to Dresden and quietly began work — at last! — on a new symphony.

The result was Symphony No. 2, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1908, under Rachmaninov’s own baton. Lushly romantic and ambitiously scaled, it proved both a popular and critical vindication, firmly establishing the composer’s international reputation.