One of her birthdays, in the 1960s, my dad left his warm space in their bed for me, and went down to make tea. I curled up next to my mum and soon there were the strains of the Siegfried Idyll, from where he’d moved the gramophone to the foot of the stairs.
Richard Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to his second wife Cosima after the birth of Siegfried, their son. He performed it on Christmas morning 1870, with a small ensemble on the stairs of their villa in Switzerland. Cosima awoke to its opening melody.
When I was eighteen, in my gap year before university, I went to Switzerland for two months as “the English girl” for an Anglo-American. On one of my days off I visited Lucerne, and ended the day at Wagner’s Tribschen villa, now a museum (pictured), and wandered through the rooms inspecting his desk, his smoking-jacket, his manuscripts.
Then over the audio system, those strains of the Siegfried Idyll again. Deep nostalgia for my parents (who were then each navigating difficult decisions about their health, their relationship, and their future) and for childhood. I wrote them an excited letter about Tribschen, although I think I addressed it to my mum.
Our own marriage ceremony was small, at a Registry Office, and thoroughly enjoyable. Even my mum kept saying “What a lovely wedding!” and seemed to realise at last that I needed to go my own way, find my own path, make my bed and sleep in it.
My mum died not long after my partner and I had become parents ourselves, and my dad too, before I was forty. Mourning them has been long and painful, because their relationship was a difficult one, which left its shadows on the four of us siblings (the eldest of whom had died even before my mum).
What they did bequeath to us was their passionate love of music, and of words, and in my father’s case a fierce scientific skepticism, even though he sometimes feared to express it in the face of my mum’s fundamental idealism.
This morning, my partner brought Christmas tea and toast to me in bed ( just like dad would do for mum) and, having heard the story many times, turned on the bedside radio to say, “He’s playing the Siegfied Idyll to Cosima again…”.
And the swell of the music brought me home again to being a child in the parental bed, and to leaving Britain in 1972, in a quest for emotional independence, and to all the times I have encountered that music, in all the places, and shared my parents’ legacy of a love of BBC Radio 3 with my partner.
Thank you, memories. Thank you Richard (1813-1883) and Cosima (1837–1930). Thank you Eric (1910-1990) and Lecky (1917-1983). Thank you, Jim.