Friday, 10 August 2018


Richard and Cosima Wagner share an embrace
The Haus Wahnfried museum at Bayreuth has received a priceless acquisition – that of an engraved baton once owned by its esteemed former resident, Richard Wagner.

The long-lost relic was famously used by the 19th century Romantic icon to direct an intimate group of musicians, who had gathered at the foot of the staircase at the Wagner family villa in Lucerne on Christmas morning 1870, to perform a tender orchestral tribute from husband to wife on the anniversary of Mrs. Wagner's birth.[1] The music: the tender symphonic poem we know today as the Siegfried Idyll.

Originally titled “Tribschen-Idyll, with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise,” the famous piece would later become known as “Siegfried Idyll,” after a cash strapped Wagner, frequently surmounted by debts, was forced to sell the score to the German publishing firm B. Schot in November 1877, much to the chagrin of wife Cosima - to whom the piece was dedicated - who reportedly “wept” at the very thought of making public such a private ode to herself and her family. Taking to her diary, she expressed her sorrows: 

“The secret treasure is to become public property – may the pleasure others take in it match the sacrifice I am making!"

One quickly gets an idea of just how personal this piece was to Cosima by examining it’s original name: “Fidi” was the name coined by the couple to address their young son; the “orange sunrise” may have been indicative of the morning son illuminating the family home, known as “Tribschen,”
and the delicate German lullaby, “Schlaf, Kindlein, Schlaf” (“Sleep, baby, Sleep,”) which the couple frequently sang to their daughter, Eva, also makes an appearance in the piece, represented by an oboe.

The Tribschen Idyll was performed twice that Christmas morning: the first performance, at dawn, which roused Cosima from her sleep, followed by a later encore after the family sat for breakfast.

The Mrs. recorded a play by play of the impromptu birthday surprise in her diary later that day:

“As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.”

The performance itself, organized in occulto with 17 members of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich (each musician hand-selected by Richard), included close family friend, the conductor Hans Richter in attendance, who had taken it upon himself to learn basic fingerings on the trumpet for the occasion, moving Cosima to include a reference to the musician in her famous diary:

“Now at last I understood all R’s working in secret, also dear [Hans] Richter’s trumpet (he blazed out the Siegfried theme splendidly and had learnt the trumpet especially to do it), which had won him many admonishments from me. "Now let me die," I exclaimed to R. "It would be easier to die for me than to live for me," he replied.”

Such tales of romance continue to surround the Siegfried Idyll, even today.

Late last month, it was announced the baton, used by Wagner that fateful morning in 1870, had surfaced in the safe deposit box of a woman living in Nebraska, USA.

That woman is Hannah Jo Smith, a member of the faculty of music at Doane University in Crete.

Smith revealed that it was she who was in possession of the long lost prized relic, and announced to the press of her decision to return the artifact to the Richard Wagner Museum (Haus Wahnfried) at Bayreuth during the 2018 Bayreuther Festspiele, a celebration of the operas of Wagner held annually in the Bavarian city. 

Close up of engraving commemorating the date of the first performance of the
Tribschen (Siegfried) Idyll | Photo by Genevieve Randall, NET

During a brief educational tour, Smith recounted how she came to be in possession of the baton, beginning with it’s remarkable finding by an American soldier, Bob Pearson, who happened upon the treasure whilst rummaging though the rubble of the heavily damaged Haus Wahnfried (which served as the Wagner’s former home.)

Much of the residence at Bayreuth suffered catastrophic damage following allied bombing by USAF forces during the Second World War, including the living area, guestroom and the rear of the residence. It was among these shattered remains - which destroyed many Wagner furnishings, including the maestro’s writing desk – that the baton, still in one piece, and bearing the engraving “DEN 25. DECEMBER 1870.” was espied by Pearson.

According to a passage in Cosima’s famous diary, the engraving was her doing: she noted that she had the baton sent off to be engraved as a token of remembrance for the touching performance – it would return to her some six weeks later.[2]

Perhaps unaware of the priceless relic’s value, Pearson would later trade the baton for the letters of the English novelist Aldous Huxley. That man, a family friend, gave the baton to Smith, who locked it away in a safe deposit box in Lincoln.

Such has been the 148-year journey of the Tribschen baton. Smith, now 62, her father, and Pearson since passed, made the decision to “divest” after consulting with her family.

The Tribschen-Idyll baton comes full circle, returning from whence it came, to
the Haus Wahnfried at Bayreuth. Pictured here before its return home
Photo by Genevieve Randall, NET

Alongside Anita Breckbill, Music Librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Smith held a conference on the 27th of July at the International Association of Music Libraries in Leipzig, the city of Wagner’s birth. Then, in an especially poignant ceremony at Bayreuth on the last day of the month, the long lost baton came home to rest from whence it came – sat atop a cushion of plush red velvet, the small, wooden ‘instrument’ was welcomed home by maestro Christian Thielemann, who conducted - with the prized relic - none other than the Siegfried Idyll.

The baton is now part of the curated collection of Wagner artifacts at Haus Wahnfried.

And to that, I say, welcome home. 

*Update - 27 November, 2018: This article has been minorly amended to correct the following errors:
  • The American soldier Pearson (who discovered the baton) was incorrectly identified as "Ben" - this has been changed to "Bob." 
  • The baton was in fact returned to Wahnfried by Smith for its permanent collection (not simply on loan.)
  • Maestro Thielemann in fact conducted with the actual baton itself at Wahnfriel Saal. This has been changed from the use of his own baton.
Thank you to Anita Breckbill for the clarifications.

Listen below to maestro Christian Thielemann conduct Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin in a tender performance of the famous Siegfried Idyll:

Did You Know?

  • The Richard Wagner Museum and former family home, the “Haus Wahnfried,” was so named by the composer himself. “Wahnfried” is what is known as a German compound word: one which takes two individual words and combines them together to create a new word. In this instance: “Wahn,” which stands for "madness," or "delusion," is paired with “Fried,” which means “peace,” or “freedom.”

    An engraving above the entryway greets visitors to Haus Wahnfried – it was coined by Wagner, and translates roughly to “Here, where my troubled thoughts found rest / is this place “Wahnfried" named at my behest."
  • Receiving Wagner’s baton is just one of many historical milestones of which maestro Thielemann has bared witness. In 2013, the celebrated German conductor became the first in his field to conduct Wagner’s early operas at Bayreuth, Rienzi, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, all of which had previously been banned by Cosima following Wagner’s death – a result of Wagner having expressed his distaste for the works.

[1] Cosima was born on December 24, 1837, but chose to celebrate her birthday on the 25th, to coincide with Christmas.
[2]"Thursday, February 2, 1871...Arrival of the engraved baton from the Idyll" - Cosima Wagner; Cosima Wagner's Diaries Volume I 1869-1877, pp. 331, Harcourt Press

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  1. So glad you found this wonderful story of the Wagner baton. And I was happy and grateful to be part of the baton's return. A few things to correct the record: Note spelling of the name Hannah Jo Smith, and the soldier Bob or Robert (not Ben) Pearson. The baton was actually returned by Hannah Jo, not just loaned. And, for the cherry on top, Christian Thielemann actually conducted the performance of Siegfried Idyll in the Wahnfried Saal using the Idyll baton itself at a reception on July 31, 2018. So fun! As is the story, which you've so nicely presented here. --Anita Breckbill

    1. Hello Ms. Breckbill,

      Thank you for your kind comment and for your helpful clarifications.

      How exciting! I had not read that maestro Thielemann performed with the actual relic at the reception at Wahnfried - it truly makes this story come full circle! I can't even begin to imagine how it must have felt to be there in person.

      As a self confessed "Wagnerite," I cannot thank you and Ms. Smith enough for your contribution to the museum, and toward the enduring legacy of Wagner.

      Kind regards,