The Complete Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015

Tristan und Isolde is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Strassburg.
It was composed between 1857 and 1859, and premiered at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting.
Wagner referred to the work not as an opera, but called it "eine Handlung" (literally a drama, a plot or an action).

Mathilde Wesendonck
Wagner's composition of 'Tristan und Isolde' was, in many ways, inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (particularly Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung'), and also possibly Wagner's affair with Mathilde Wesendonck.
Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertoire, 'Tristan' was notable for Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral color and harmonic suspension.
The opera was enormously influential among Western classical composers, and provided direct inspiration to composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and many others. 
Other composers, such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel formulated their styles in some aspects as a contrast to Wagner's musical legacy.
Many see 'Tristan' as the beginning of the move away from common practice harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of much classical music in the 20th century.
Both Wagner's libretto style and music were also profoundly influential on the Symbolist poets of the late 19th century and early 20th century.


Wagner was forced to abandon his position as conductor of the Dresden Opera in 1849, as there was a warrant posted for his arrest for his participation in the unsuccessful May Revolution.
He left his wife, Minna, in Dresden, and fled to Zürich.
There, in 1852, he met the wealthy silk trader Otto Wesendonck.
Wesendonck became a supporter of Wagner, and bankrolled the composer for several years.
Wesendonck's wife, Mathilde, became enamoured of the composer.
Though Wagner was working on his epic 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', he found himself intrigued by the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

Wolfram von Eschenbach
The re-discovery of medieval Germanic poetry, including Gottfried von Strassburg's version of Tristan, the Nibelungenlied and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, left a large impact on the German Romantic movements during the mid-19th century.
The story of Tristan and Isolde is a quintessential romance of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Several versions of the story exist, the earliest dating to the middle of the 12th century. 
Gottfried's version, part of the "courtly" branch of the legend, had a huge influence on later German literature.
According to his autobiography, 'Mein Leben', Wagner decided to dramatize the Tristan legend after his friend, Karl Ritter, attempted to do so, writing that:
'He had, in fact, made a point of giving prominence to the lighter phases of the romance, whereas it was its all-pervading tragedy that impressed me so deeply that I felt convinced it should stand out in bold relief, regardless of minor details.'
Arthur Schopenhauer
This influence, together with his discovery of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in October 1854, led Wagner to find himself in a "serious mood created by Schopenhauer, which was trying to find ecstatic expression. It was some such mood that inspired the conception of a Tristan und Isolde."
Wagner wrote of his preoccupations with Schopenhauer and Tristan in a letter to Franz Liszt (December 16, 1854):
'Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.'
By the end of 1854, Wagner had sketched out all three acts of an opera on the Tristan theme, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's telling of the story.
While the earliest extant sketches date from December 1856, it was not until August 1857 that Wagner began devoting his attention entirely to the opera, putting aside the composition of 'Siegfried' to do so.
On 20 August he began the prose sketch for the opera, and the libretto (or poem, as Wagner preferred to call it) was completed by September 18.
Wagner, at this time, had moved into a cottage built in the grounds of Wesendonck's villa, where, during his work on 'Tristan und Isolde', he became passionately involved with Mathilde Wesendonck.
Whether or not this relationship was platonic remains uncertain.

Minna - Wagner's First Wife
One evening in September of that year, Wagner read the finished poem of "Tristan" to an audience including his wife, Minna, his current muse, Mathilde, and his future mistress (and later wife), Cosima von Bülow.
By October 1857, Wagner had begun the composition sketch of the first Act.
During November, however, he set five of Mathilde's poems to music known today as the "Wesendonck Lieder".
This was an unusual move by Wagner, who almost never set to music poetic texts other than his own.
Wagner described two of the songs — 'Im Treibhaus' and 'Träume' — as 'Studies for Tristan und Isolde': 'Träume' uses a motif that forms the love duet in Act 2 of 'Tristan', while 'Im Treibhaus' introduces a theme that later became the Prelude to Act 3.
But Wagner resolved to write 'Tristan' only after he had secured a publishing deal with the Leipzig-based firm Breitkopf & Härtel, in January 1858.
From this point on, Wagner finished each act and sent it off for engraving before he started on the next - a remarkable feat given the unprecedented length and complexity of the score.
In April 1858 Wagner's wife Minna intercepted a note from Wagner to Mathilde and, despite Wagner's protests that she was putting a 'vulgar interpretation' on the note, she accused first Wagner and then Mathilde of unfaithfulness.
After enduring much misery, Wagner persuaded Minna, who had a heart condition, to rest at a spa while Otto Wesendonck took Mathilde to Italy.
It was during the absence of the two women that Wagner began the composition sketch of the second Act of 'Tristan'.
However, Minna's return in July 1858 did not clear the air, and on August 17, Wagner was forced to leave both Minna and Mathilde and move to Venice.
Wagner would later describe his last days in Zurich as 'a veritable Hell'.
Minna wrote to Mathilde before departing for Dresden:
'I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.'
Wagner finished the second Act of 'Tristan' during his eight-month exile in Venice, where he lived in the Palazzo Giustinian.
In March 1859, fearing extradition to Saxony, where he was still considered a fugitive, Wagner moved to Lucerne where he composed the last Act, completing it in August 1859.


'Tristan und Isolde' proved to be a difficult opera to stage.
Paris, the centre of the operatic world in the middle of the 19th century, was an obvious choice.
However, after a disastrous staging of 'Tannhäuser' at the Paris Opéra, Wagner offered the work to the Karlsruhe opera in 1861.
When he visited the Vienna Court Opera to rehearse possible singers for this production, the management at Vienna suggested staging the opera there.
Originally, the tenor Alois Ander was employed to sing the part of Tristan, but later proved incapable of learning the role.
Despite over 70 rehearsals between 1862 and 1864, 'Tristan und Isolde' was unable to be staged in Vienna, winning the opera a reputation as un-performable.
It was only after King Ludwig II of Bavaria became a sponsor of Wagner (he granted the composer a generous stipend, and supported Wagner's artistic endeavors in other ways) that enough resources could be found to mount the premiere of Tristan und Isolde.

Cosima von Bülow
Hans von Bülow
Hans von Bülow was chosen to conduct the production at the Nationaltheater in Munich, despite the fact that Wagner was having an affair with his wife, Cosima von Bülow.
Even then, the planned premiere on 15 May 1865 had to be postponed until the Isolde, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, had recovered from hoarseness.
The work finally premiered on 10 June 1865, with Malvina's husband Ludwig partnering her as Tristan.

 Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld (7 December 1825 – 8 February 1904) was a Portuguese operatic soprano who was born in Denmark, and made her career in Germany. She and her husband Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld created the title roles in Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 1865. 

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld
as Tristan and Isolde
After Ludwig's sudden and untimely death, at the age of 29 on 21 July 1865, only six weeks after the premiere, Malvina sank into a deep depression and never sang again. She took up spiritualism, and was influenced by one of her mediumistic pupils to believe she was destined to marry Wagner. This caused her to be deeply jealous of Cosima von Bülow, who was living openly with Wagner at Tribschen, and she tried to create a rift between them.

On 21 July 1865, having sung the role only four times, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died suddenly - prompting speculation that the exertion involved in singing the part of Tristan had killed him.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (July 2, 1836 – July 21, 1865) was a German Heldentenor and the creator of the role of Tristan in Richard Wagner's opera 'Tristan und Isolde'. King Ludwig II of Bavaria heard the tenor as Lohengrin in 1861. This performance is said to have been one of a series that turned the king into an ardent supporter of Wagner and his music. His promising career was curtailed by a serious illness which killed him at the age of 29, after only four performances in the role of Tristan.

(The stress of performing Tristan has also supposedly 'claimed' the lives of conductors Felix Mottl in 1911 and Joseph Keilberth in 1968. Both men died after collapsing while conducting the second Act of the opera.)
Malvina sank into a deep depression over her husband's death, and never sang again, although she lived for another 38 years.
For some years thereafter, the only performers of the roles were another husband-wife team, Heinrich Vogl and Therese Vogl.
The next production of Tristan was in Weimar in 1874.
Wagner himself supervised another production of 'Tristan' in Berlin in March 1876, but the opera was only performed in his own theater at the Bayreuth Festival, after Wagner's death.

Cosima Wagner
Cosima Wagner, Wagner's widow, oversaw the first Bayreuth production of 'Tristan' in 1886, a production that was widely acclaimed.
The first production outside of Germany was given at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1882; Tristan was performed by Hermann Winkelmann, who later that year sang the title role of Parsifal at Bayreuth.
It was conducted by Hans Richter, who also conducted the first Covent Garden production two years later.
Winkelmann was also the first Vienna Tristan, in 1883.
The first American performance was held at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1886, conducted by Anton Seidl.
Perhaps the most celebrated was Herbert von Karajan's live 1952 performance from Bayreuth, with Martha Mödl and Ramón Vinay in the title roles.

'Tristan' and Late Romantic Music

The score of 'Tristan und Isolde' has often been cited as a landmark in the development of Modern Western music.
Throughout 'Tristan', Wagner uses a remarkable range of orchestral color, harmony, and polyphony, doing so with a freedom rarely found in his earlier operas.
The very first chord in the piece, the 'Tristan chord', is of great significance in the move away from traditional tonal harmony as it resolves to another dissonant chord.
The opera is noted for its numerous expansions of harmonic practice; for instance, one significant innovation is the frequent use of two consecutive chords containing tritones (diminished fifth or augmented fourth), neither of which is a diminished seventh chord. 
'Tristan und Isolde' is also notable for its use of harmonic 'suspension' - a device used by composers to create musical tension by exposing the listener to a series of prolonged unfinished cadences, thereby inspiring a desire, and expectation, on the part of the listener, for musical resolution.
While suspension is a common compositional device (in use since before the Renaissance), Wagner was one of the first composers to employ harmonic suspension over the course of an entire work.
The cadences first introduced in the Prelude are not resolved until the finale of Act 3, and, on a number of occasions throughout the opera, Wagner primes the audience for a musical climax with a series of chords building in tension, only to deliberately defer the anticipated resolution.
One particular example of this technique occurs at the end of the love duet in Act 2 ("Wie sie fassen, wie sie lassen..."), where Tristan and Isolde gradually build up to a musical climax, only to have the expected resolution destroyed by the startling dissonant interruption of Kurwenal ("Rette Dich, Tristan !").
The deferred resolutions are frequently interpreted as symbolizing both physical sexual release and spiritual release via suicide.
The long-awaited completion of this cadence series arrives only in the final Liebestod ('Love-Death'), during which the musical resolution (at "In des Welt-Atems wehendem All") coincides with the moment of Isolde's death.
The tonality of Tristan was to prove immensely influential in western Classical music. 
Significantly, Debussy was highly influenced by Wagner, and was particularly fond of 'Tristan'.
Frequent references to "Tristan" tonality mark Debussy's early compositions.

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015
 Act 1

Stage Set for Act I - Alfred Roller
Isolde, promised to King Marke in marriage, and her handmaid, Brangäne, are quartered aboard Tristan's ship being transported to the king's lands in Cornwall.
The opera opens with the voice of a young sailor singing of a "wild Irish maid", ("Westwärts schweift der Blick") which Isolde construes to be a mocking reference to herself.
In a furious outburst, she wishes the seas to rise up and sink the ship, killing herself and all on board ("Erwache mir wieder, kühne Gewalt").
Her scorn and rage are directed particularly at Tristan, the knight responsible for taking her to Marke, and Isolde sends Brangäne to command Tristan to appear before her ("Befehlen liess' dem Eigenholde").
Tristan, however, refuses Brangäne's request, claiming that his place is at the helm.
His henchman, Kurwenal, answers more brusquely, saying that Isolde is in no position to command Tristan and reminds Brangäne that Isolde's previous fiancé, Morold, was killed by Tristan ("Herr Morold zog zu Meere her").
Brangäne returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde, in what is termed the "narrative and curse", sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, she happened upon a stranger who called himself Tantris.
Tantris was found mortally wounded in a barge ("von einem Kahn, der klein und arm"), Isolde used her healing powers to restore him to health.
She discovered during Tantris' recovery, however, that he was actually Tristan, the murderer of her fiancé. Isolde attempted to kill the man with his own sword as he lay helpless before her.
However, Tristan looked not at the sword that would kill him or the hand that wielded the sword, but into her eyes ("Er sah' mir in die Augen").
His action pierced her heart and she was unable to slay him.
Tristan was allowed to leave with the promise never to come back, but he later returned with the intention of marrying Isolde to his uncle, King Marke. Isolde, furious at Tristan's betrayal, insists that he drink atonement to her, and from her medicine-chest produces a vial to make the drink.
Brangäne is shocked to see that it is a lethal poison.
Kurwenal appears in the women's quarters ("Auf auf! Ihr Frauen !") and announces that the voyage is coming to an end.
Isolde warns Kurwenal that she will not appear before the King if Tristan does not come before her as she had previously ordered and drink atonement to her.
When Tristan arrives, Isolde reproaches him about his conduct and tells him that he owes her his life and how his actions have undermined her honour, since she blessed Morold's weapons before battle and therefore she swore revenge.
Tristan first offers his sword but Isolde refuses, they must drink atonement.
Brangäne brings in the potion that will seal their pardon, Tristan knows that it may kill him, since he knows Isolde's magic powers ("Wohl kenn' ich Irland's Königin").
The journey is almost at its end, Tristan drinks and Isolde takes half the potion for herself.
The potion seems to work, but it does not bring death but relentless love ("Tristan !" "Isolde !").
Kurwenal, who announces the imminent arrival on board of King Marke, interrupts their rapture.
Isolde asks Brangäne which potion she prepared and Brangäne replies, as the sailors hail the arrival of King Marke, that it was not poison, but rather a love potion.

Act 2

King Marke leads a hunting party out into the night, leaving Isolde and Brangäne alone in the castle, who both stand beside a burning brazier.
Isolde, listening to the hunting horns, believes several times that the hunting party is far enough away to warrant the extinguishing of the brazier - the prearranged signal for Tristan to join her ("Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold").
Brangäne warns Isolde that Melot, one of King Marke's knights, has seen the amorous looks exchanged between Tristan and Isolde and suspects their passion ("Ein Einz'ger war's, ich achtet' es wohl").
Isolde, however, believes Melot to be Tristan's most loyal friend, and, in a frenzy of desire, extinguishes the flames.
Brangäne retires to the ramparts to keep watch as Tristan arrives.

'O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe'
© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015
The lovers, at last alone and freed from the constraints of courtly life, express their passion for each other.
Tristan decries the realm of daylight which is false, unreal, and keeps them apart.
It is only in night, he claims, that they can truly be together and only in the long night of death can they be eternally united ("O sink' hernieder, Nacht der Liebe" - this is the famous 'love-duet').

During their long tryst, Brangäne calls a warning several times that the night is ending ("Einsam wachend in der Nacht"), but her cries fall upon deaf ears.
The day breaks in on the lovers as Melot leads King Marke and his men to find Tristan and Isolde in each other's arms.
Marke is heart-broken, not only because of his nephew's betrayal but also because Melot chose to betray his friend Tristan to Marke and because of Isolde's betrayal as well ("Mir - dies? Dies, Tristan - mir ?").
When questioned, Tristan says he cannot answer to the King the reason of his betrayal since he would not understand, he turns to Isolde, who agrees to follow him again into the realm of night.
Tristan announces that Melot has fallen in love with Isolde too.
Melot and Tristan fight, but, at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and allows Melot to severely wound him.

Act 3

Stage Set - Act III - Alfred Roller
Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany.
A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake.
Kurwenal replies that only Isolde's arrival can save Tristan, and the shepherd offers to keep watch and claims that he will pipe a joyful tune to mark the arrival of any ship. 
Tristan awakes ("Die alte Weise - was weckt sie mich ?") and laments his fate — to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning ("Wo ich erwacht' weilt ich nicht").
Tristan's sorrow ends when Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way.
Tristan, overjoyed, asks if her ship is in sight, but only a sorrowful tune from the shepherd's pipe is heard.
Tristan relapses and recalls that the shepherd's mournful tune is the same as was played when he was told of the deaths of his father and mother ("Muss ich dich so versteh'n, du alte, ernst Weise").
He rails once again against his desires and against the fateful love-potion ("verflucht sei, furchtbarer Trank !") until, exhausted, he collapses in delirium.
After his collapse, the shepherd is heard piping the arrival of Isolde's ship, and, as Kurwenal rushes to meet her, Tristan tears the bandages from his wounds in his excitement ("Hahei! Mein Blut, lustig nun fliesse !").
As Isolde arrives at his side, Tristan dies with her name on his lips.
Isolde collapses beside her deceased lover just as the appearance of another ship is announced.
Kurwenal spies Melot, Marke and Brangäne arriving ("Tod und Hölle! Alles zur Hand !"), he believes they have come to kill Tristan and, in an attempt to avenge him, furiously attacks Melot.
Marke tries to stop the fight to no avail.
Both Melot and Kurwenal are killed in the fight.
Marke and Brangäne finally reach Tristan and Isolde.
Marke, grieving over the body of his "truest friend" ("Tot denn alles !"), explains that Brangäne revealed the secret of the love-potion and has come not to part the lovers, but to unite them ("Warum Isolde, warum mir das ?").

Isolde appears to wake at this and in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the 'Liebestod', 'love death'), dies ("Mild und leise wie er lächelt").

Schopenhauer and Tristan und Isolde

Arthur Schopenhauer
Georg Herwegh
Wagner's friend Georg Herwegh introduced him in late 1854 to the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
The composer was immediately struck by the philosophical ideas to be found in 'Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung', and the similarities between the two men's world-views became clear.
Man, according to Schopenhauer, is driven by continued, un-achievable desires, and the gulf between our desires and the possibility of achieving them leads to misery while the world is a representation of an unknowable reality.
Our 'representation' (vorstellung) of the world is Phenomenon, while the unknowable reality is Noumenon: concepts originally posited by Kant. 
Schopenhauer's influence on 'Tristan und Isolde' is most evident in the second and third acts.
The second act, in which the lovers meet, and the third act, during which Tristan longs for release from the passions that torment him, have often proved puzzling to opera-goers unfamiliar with Schopenhauer's work.
Wagner uses the metaphor of day and night in the second act to designate the realms inhabited by 'Tristan and Isolde'.
The world of 'Day' is one in which the lovers are bound by the dictates of King Marke's court and in which the lovers must smother their mutual love and pretend as if they do not care for each other: it is a realm of falsehood and unreality.
Under the dictates of the realm of 'Day', Tristan was forced to remove Isolde from Ireland and to marry her to his Uncle Marke - actions against Tristan's secret desires.
The realm of 'Night', in contrast, is the representation of intrinsic reality, in which the lovers can be together and their desires can be openly expressed and reach fulfillment: it is the realm of oneness, truth and reality and can only be achieved fully upon the deaths of the lovers.
The realm of 'Night', therefore, becomes also the realm of death: the only world in which Tristan and Isolde can be as one forever, and it is this realm that Tristan speaks of at the end of Act Two ("Dem Land das Tristan meint, der Sonne Licht nicht scheint").
In Act Three, Tristan rages against the daylight and frequently cries out for release from his desires (Sehnen).
In this way, Wagner implicitly equates the realm of 'Day' with Schopenhauer's concept of Phenomenon and the realm of 'Night' with Schopenhauer's concept of Noumenon.
While none of this is explicitly stated in the libretto, Tristan's comments on 'Day' and 'Night' in Acts 2 and 3, as well as musical allusions to 'Tristan' in 'The Mastersingers of Nürnberg' and 'Parsifal' make it very clear that this was, in fact, Wagner's intention.
The world-view of Schopenhauer dictates that the only way for man to achieve inner peace is to renounce his desires: a theme that Wagner explored fully in his last and greatest opera, 'Parsifal'.

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015

with the stage set designed by Alfred Roller
for the 1902 production - under Gustav Mahler - at the Wien Hofoper

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