Online opera guide and synopsis to Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Wagner’s ambition was to compose the greatest love music that had ever been heard. To do this, he had to invent a new musical language for “Tristan and Isolde. He lived up to this claim and composed a work that, with its sensual, stirring chromaticism, was to exert a tremendous influence on the classical music world for the next almost 100 years.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ O sink hernieder Nachtgesang (Night song)
♪ Einsam wachend Wachtgesang (Guard song)
♪ So starben wir love duett
♪ Tatest Du’s wirklich? Marke’s grievance
♪ Mild und Leise love death
Richard Wagner, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan und Isolde and Novalis' Hymn to the Night
THE MAIN ROLES
Isolde, fiancée of the Irish prince Morold (soprano) - Brangäne, her servant (mezzo-soprano) - Marke, King of England (bass) - Tristan, nephew of Marke (tenor) - Kurwenal, squire of Tristan (baritone) - Melot, courtier of Marke (baritone)
WARNER CLASSICS, Ludwig Suthaus, Kirsten Flagstad, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Josef Greindl conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir of the Royal Operahouse Convent Garden.
Libretto and the biographical reference
Wagner was inspired to write a love opera by his extramarital relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, who entered his life in 1852. He met the 24-year-old in his exile in Zurich. The story that followed is well known. Her husband Otto became his Zurich patron, and Wagner began a secret relationship with Mathilde, who lived in close proximity (Wagner always claimed in later years that this relationship was purely platonic). In 1854, he wrote to Liszt that “he had never enjoyed the real happiness of love until now, and he now wanted to set up a monument to it.” The plot of “Tristan and Isolde” is symptomatic: Tristan (Wagner) and Isolde (Mathilde) cannot come together on earth because of Isolde’s relationship with King Marke (Otto). The two find refuge in love-death.
He took this plot from Gottfried von Strassburg’s “Tristan und Isolde,” to which Schopenhauer had drawn his attention. He took over the core of the story, drastically simplified it, and focused it almost entirely on the love story. A second important literary basis was Novalis’ “Hymn to the Night,” whose longing for death, together with his reading of Schopenhauer’s work, inspired him to write the spiritual triangle of the second movement: of night, love and death.
In 1857, the libretto was completed and he began composing the first movement in Zurich. He decided to compose the second act in the solitude of Venice and had his Érard grand piano transported across the Alps. He wrote the third act in Switzerland, in the noble Lucerne hotel “Schweizerhof”.
Wagner’s great crisis
Wagner’s relationship with Mathilde was not the sole driving force behind the composition of the work. Wagner, who was constantly plagued by money worries, wanted to generate income with the textbook for the “Ring,” but his publisher had refused to publish it. And since a possible performance of a Ring cycle was in any case a long way off, he decided to let the work rest and began work on “Tristan,” which he hoped would soon generate revenues. But after its completion he had to realize that the German stages considered the work unperformable, this applied to the orchestral music as well as to the design of the two singer roles. This left Wagner with the hope of the Paris Grand Opéra. To promote his music, he conducted some overtures there in symphonic concerts in 1860 (among other of “Tannhäuser” and “Tristan”), which then resulted in the famous “Tannhäuser”-fiasco of 1861 and even more debts. The Tristan continued to remain in the drawer, awaiting its greatest fiasco: the production of the Vienna Court Opera, which decided not to perform the work in 1864 after 77 rehearsals. Wagner thus slid into the most threatening crisis of his life. He had no place to live, was penniless and could not find a home with any of his patrons. He vagabonded through southern Germany for several weeks until the greatest miracle of his life occurred with the appearance of Ludwig II and saved him.
First performance and effect
Ludwig had the power and the means to order a performance. With the help of Hans von Bülow and the gifted singer couple von Caroldsfeld, it was possible to set up a production in Ludwig’s Munich theater. On the day of the planned premiere in May 1865, however, everything went haywire. In the morning, the police appeared at Wagner’s private home to seize his furniture, Cosima (Wagner’s mistress and wife of the conductor von Bülow) rushed to the royal court treasury and managed to raise the necessary money. And then the message reached Wagner that Isolde was indisposed and the performance had to be postponed. Finally, on June 10, the acclaimed premiere took place at the Munich National Theater.
The impact of the work was tremendous. Although the next performance was not until 9 years later (in Bayreuth), the work had an impact on all subsequent composers, especially Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss , Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Many others such as Debussy, Leoncavallo, Ravel, Stravinsky saw their style openly under the influence of Wagner and the Tristan. The statement that the Tristan is the most influential work in the history of classical music is undisputed in musicology. Even Puccini in his unfinished Turandot before the love duet Turandot – Calaf (at the place where he died) wrote on the score page “e poi Tristano” (and now Tristan).
Music – the “Tristan harmonics”
What, then, is revolutionary about the music? I refer at this point to the information on the annotated passage of the “Overture” below, which gets somewhat to the bottom of Tristan harmony (and the famous “Tristan chord”) with note examples. Summarizing, it can be said that Wagner detached the harmony from the melody and replaced it with chromaticism. However, this was not an end in itself (as later with the composers of atonal music), but a means of expression to represent the unquenched love through endless chromatic developments. For this state of pain there is only one possible redemption: to die, to perish, never to wake up again! In this work, Wagner holds this dissolution of dissonances before the listener for four hours, until it finally resounds in the last chord with the death of Tristan and the silencing of Isolde.
The music – the leitmotifs
Richard Wagner had once described “Tristan and Isolde”” as “a single love scene”. He transcended their love through the death wish and was faced with the task of satisfactorily translating this metaphysical feeling into words, instinctively sensing the impossibility of such an undertaking.This task had to be taken over by the “knowing” orchestra, which had to use leitmotifs to express the impossible, thus in this work the musical semantics of the leitmotifs got an extraordinarily important function. The most important leitmotifs are presented in the annotated passages. The leitmotivs also include the leitmotivic use of solo instruments, which are assigned to individual characters. The cor anglais in particular has a prominent role with the appearance of the shepherd (3rd movement) and Tristan’s farewell (2nd movement). The bass clarinet as the accompanying instrument of King Marke and the solo violins of Brangäne are also to be mentioned under this aspect.
The music – the requirements for the voices
Not only in Wagner’s time was the casting of the two main roles difficult, but throughout the history of reception, the issue has always been at the forefront of productions. While for the role of Isolde the pool of singers was always somewhat better, the casting of a Tristan always meant a sticking point. There seems to have been no ideal Tristan in the history of recordings, the vocal demands on the singer are too extreme. In this (almost) two-person opera, he has to fight for four hours in the difficult high transitional range (Passaggio) against a large orchestra under the pretense of text comprehensibility. Especially the 50 minutes of the third act are endless and it corresponds to a vocal-athletic master performance to go through this role in live performance. The role of Isolde also requires enormous stamina, especially in the second act, where Isolde has to sing non-stop for 75 minutes. In addition, she must be able to credibly shape the transformation of the angry woman of the first act to the lover of the second and the desperate and enraptured one of the third act above the large orchestra with the necessary timbre and colors. Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstadt and Birgit Nilsson were the dominant “highly dramatic” Isoldens in the years 1920-1980. Frida Leider was said to have the most beautiful colors, Flagstadt the most beautiful warmth of voice, and Nilsson the most metallic penetrating power. In the 21st century, Nina Stemme seems to have succeeded so far in the leading interpretation of Isolde.
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE ACT I
Prehistory: Ireland is at war with its subject England. The Irish prince Morold wants to collect the interest in the English Cornwall and is slain by Tristan, the nephew of the English king Marke. Instead of the interest, Tristan sends the head of the slain man to his Irish bride Isolde, thus triggering a war between the two countries, where Tristan gets seriously wounded in the fight. The only person and who can heal him is Morold’s widow Isolde, who is skilled in healing. He has himself taken to the Irish coast under the false name of Tantris (a Tristan anagram), where he is found by Isolde. She recognizes her husband’s murderer from his wound, which fits Morold’s sword exactly. When she tries to kill Tristan, he opens his eyes and Isolde falls in love with him. She nurses him back to health and Tristan swears his love for her. When Tristan returns home, he recommends to his king Marke that he marry Isolde and thus bring peace to the two kingdoms. Marke then sends Tristan to Ireland as a sollicitor. Tristan now takes Isolde to England on a sailing ship, where he renounces all contact with her.
Synopsis: On Tristan’s ship on the high seas during the crossing from Ireland to Cornwall.
In order to understand Tristan musically, the overture already reveals to us Wagner’s most important thoughts. The overture begins with the use of the cellos, which sound the so-called suffering motif:
Even the first three notes of the suffering motive are characteristics of misfortune: the first leap to the long note is the minor sixth (the classical threatening interval) and the next leap is a minor second (the highest possible dissonance). Already in the third measure, the oboes sound the longing motive, whose beginning coincides with the end of the suffering motive:
At this famous meeting of the two motifs, the legendary “Tristan chord” is heard, a chord with a strange floating dissonance that expresses neither pain nor joy, but a kind of ” indefinite search for resolution”:
But this dissonance is not resolved with the longing motive. And now the revolutionary thing happens, after about 1’30” a painfully sweet sequence erupts from the violins and violas in f, which again urgently tries to resolve itself:
But the resolution does not arise, for with the attainment of the target note another dissonance has appeared, and so on. Throughout the prelude, the music will seek the resolution of this strangely painful and uncertain dissonance and will not find it. It is, to use Wagner’s words, a “longing” whose desire is “insatiable and eternally renewed.” This unquenched longing will accompany the listener throughout the opera! Shortly after this passage, we encounter a related motif with the famous, concise seventh-note leap, which we will encounter again when Tristan and Isolde later look deeply into each other’s eyes, which is why it has been given the name “gaze motif”:
Again and again Wagner builds in chromatic dissonance chains to enhance the effect, as for example after about 2’30”:
We hear the overture in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s interpretation. His 1952 recording is considered the reference recording by most experts. Furtwängler is often called one of the great Wagnerians of the 20th century.
Ouvertüre – Furtwängler
Bernstein’s “Tristan” got a lot of attention because of the excessively slow tempi Bernstein occasionally took to savor the score. Note, for example, the length of the pause Bernstein takes at the fermata after about 40s, hand-stopped 10s!
Ouvertüre – Bernstein
Isolde’s death longing
Synopsis: A sailor sings a nostalgic song about his native Ireland. Princess Isolde is on deck with her servant Brangäne, expressing her frustration at being promised to old King Marke as a pledge of peace. Her love belongs to Tristan, who, to her humiliation, had assumed the role of the bride’s solicitor. Since the departure, he has avoided all contact with her. She instructs her servant Brangäne to seek him out.
After the sailor’s song we hear Isolde, who is tormented by deep black thoughts. When she expresses death wishes, the death motif is heard:
But she has not quite given up hope for Tristan, and she repeats her death motif, merging it with the longing motif at “Herz.”
Frisch weht der Wind – Nilsson
Isolde is frustrated
Synopsis: Brangäne conveys Isolde’s wish to see him to Tristan. But Tristan claims, despite the calm sea, that he is indispensable at the ship’s helm. Kurwenal mocks Brangäne and sings “Herr Morold zog zu Meere her,” a song that mocks Morold’s miserable death. To add salt to the wound, the song is gleefully taken up by the sailors. Isolde could hear Kurwenal’s mocking song and trembles with rage. Her anger swells terribly and Brangäne tries to console her that she will at least become the wife of a king. Isolde now opens her heart to Brangäne and tells the story of Tantris. If she were to marry the king, the man she actually loves would always be within reach, she could not bear that (“Ungeminnt den hehrsten Manne stets mir nah’ zu sehn”). Brangäne then says in an insinuating voice that there is still the love potion. She has received various magic drinks from Isolde’s mother, a healer. She fetches the shrine and takes out the love potion. But Isolde grabs another bottle. Horrified, Brangäne realizes that she is holding the death potion in her hand.
Isolde begins the narrative of the “wounded Tristans” with the motif of the wounded Tristan, which is played repeatedly in the orchestra:
When she tells us that she took pity on him, one hears both the longing motif and the motif of the failing Tristan, which together create a poignant effect. But then the thoughts wander back to her humiliation and the rushing anger motif emerges in the low strings:
The anger does not dissipate and she wishes death for both of them under trumpet fanfares, accompanied by the death motif (“Curse, you wicked one! … Death to us both!”). Now Brangäne begins to appease Isolde with “Welcher Wahn” in the most enchanting way. Wagner was very proud of Brangäne’s beautiful transition to the next scene and described it in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck.
Weh, ach wehe dies zu dulden – Nilsson / Ludwig
Synopsis: Suddenly, sailors’ songs are heard, the land is in sight. Kurwenal comes to Isolde to ask her to get ready to go ashore. She, however, tells him that she does not think of leaving the ship and demands to see Tristan. Kurwenal leaves to report the news to Tristan. Isolde now demands that Brangäne, when Isolde will be with Tristan, reach them the death potion. Brangäne is scared to death. Tristan enters and Isolde reminds him of his oath. But Tristan remains reserved and refers to the custom that it is not proper for him to approach the bride as a solicitor. Isolde reminds him that she lost her husband and must avenge him if Tristan remains aloof. Tristan gives her his sword and asks her to stab him. Isolde refuses and asks him to drink atonement with her, and she beckons Brangäne to bring the atonement potion. Tristan snatches the bowl from her and drinks the drink together with Isolde. The two look at each other in anticipation of death. But Brangäne did not have the courage to give them the death drug, but gave them the love potion. So, to their surprise, it is not death that arrives, but fiery ardor of love. When their eyes meet again, they are full of longing and they fall into each other’s arms with the words “Tristan! – Isolde!” and linger in this position. When Marke comes on board, he greets her joyfully, but the two have only glances for each other.
We hear in the magnificent scene of the eruption of love the motifs we already know. The initially restrained rapture gives way to an ardor of love, heightened by the chorus of men greeting the king. The orchestra surges and rages, whipping up the lovers.
We hear this passage from the 1966 Böhm recording. Birgit Nilsson fearlessly enters the reunion duet, her glistening high notes are inimitable.
Tristan! Isolde! Treulosester Holder! Seligste Frau! – Nilsson / Windgassen
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE ACT II
On Marke’s castle
Synopsis: In Isoldes Gemächern in Markes königlichen Burg in Kornwall.
The prelude announces the next scene in terms of content. After a painfully dissonant opening chord, we hear busy eighth-note movements in the violins after a few measures, which soon lead to a new important motive in the flutes that will become the basis of all the love motives to come, the love call motive, here played at a fast tempo:
Gradually the desire becomes more urgent and we hear in the violins and woodwinds the bliss motive, which with its downward urging character is related to the love call motive:
Einleitung – Kleiber
Isolde awaits Tristan’s nightly visit
Synopsis: Marke has gone on a nocturnal hunt with his entourage. Isolde awaits Tristan’s secret visit. Brangäne warns her that the hunting trip is a feint; she distrusts Melot, who is spying for Marke and has ingratiated himself with Tristan as a friend. Isolde has her extinguish the torch, the sign for Tristan to come. Excited, Isolde runs up the stairs and tries to recognize Tristan. When she sees him, she waves a cloth. The two fall into each other’s arms and assure each other of their boundless love.
Wagner composed an ecstatic reunion of the two that can hardly be described. The love motif explodes in the winds and for two minutes the two voices and the entire orchestra glow in red colors without recognizable melodies and without coherent words in an ecstatic frenzy that leads Isolde’s voice twice into high C. The two are in love again. “Heavens above, the world’s rapture! Mine and thine! Eternal, eternal one.” (“Himmelhöchstes Weltentrücken! Mein und Dein! Ewig, ewig ein”).
When the frenzy subsides, “The light! O this light” begins the so-called daily conversation of the two, in which they process the past events. This dialogue lasts a quarter of an hour, and even Wagner thought it was a bit long. While the day is the symbol of the bitter reality of Isolde’s unhappy marriage to Marke, the night is the symbol of the true inner world of the two with their unrestricted love.
We hear in the following section the reunion in the interpretation of Suthaus and Flagstadt. Flagstadt was already 57 years old and her voice was still in dazzling condition, only the 2 high Cs were no longer perfect and were re-sung in the studio by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Isolde! Geliebte! – Flagstadt / Suthaus
The night song
Synopsis: Tristan leads Isolde to a flower-lined bench under a star-studded sky, and they invoke night and death as symbols of their love.
This so-called “Nachtgesang” begins with the most delicate chords of the muted strings and with an infinite melody in Tristan’s voice, the dreamlike night invocation motif:
Now Wagner did something he always tried to avoid: the simultaneous singing of two voices, which in his opinion was unnatural. In the love duet, he has no other choice than the complete merging of the two lovers into “heilger Dämm’rung hehres Ahnen löscht des Wähnens Graus welterlösend aus”. Moved, Isolde then sings the dreamy melody of “Barg im Busen”:
Afterwards, this night music ends dreamily. Wagner uses part of his motifs for this passage from “Träume” the fifth of his Wesendonck-Lieder (on poems by Mathilde Wesendonck).
You will hear this passage in 3 recordings:
Margaret Price, the Isolde on Kleiber’s recording was a Mozart singer, her voice thus somewhat slimmer than that of a “highly dramatic soprano”. Together with Kollo, she brings an enchanting tender mood to this romantic passage, conducted by Kleiber with a long bow. The rapturous disappearance of the two voices at the end sounds especially beautiful.
O sink hernieder – Kollo / Price
Second, we hear this passage from the 1929 recording with Lauritz Melchior and Frida Leider, conducted by Albert Coates. Leider described it as her best recording. Leider’s voice exudes intense warmth with its warm vibrato.
O sink hernieder – Melchior / Leider
Both Martha Mödl and Ramón Vinay had glorious middle registers (which are essential to Wagner’s music) and make this passage sound particularly glorious.
O sink hernieder – Mödl / Varnay
Brangänes Wachtgesang (guard song)
Synopsis: Brangäne warns the two once again of Marke’s revenge and goes to her tower chamber to watch over them.
Brangäne sings her so-called “Wachtgesang” in dialogue with two solo violins. Her warning (“Habet acht! Bald entweicht die Nacht”) is nocturnally floating and creates with a crescendoa a hypnotic effect.
Einsam wachend – Ludwig
Tristan longs for death
Synopsis: The two have no ear for Brangeine’s warning. Tristan hopes that it will never be day again and declares that the highest perfection of his love is to die.
Introduced by the beautiful love rest motif (which we will hear in different variations), the morning song begins:
The death motif appears with the dying wish:
Lausch Geliebter – Price / Kollo
The love frenzy
Synopsis: Isolde tries to talk him out of the idea. She could not survive his loss. This gives rise to the idea of dying together as lovers.
Accompanied by heavy brass, Tristan speaks of dying together and we hear the love-death motif for the first time:
Isolde takes up the motif with emotion, and the melody leads Isolde’s voice to the high A. From a distance, we hear once again for a brief moment Brangäne’s tender guard song. Afterwards, a short daytime conversation leads to the great duet “O ew’ge Nacht”, the finale and love rush. The voices of Tristan and Isolde rise higher and higher, the ecstasy increases incessantly, twice the orchestra explodes in the orgasmic ecstasy – at the second time we hear Brangäne’s cry and Kurwenal stands with them and calls “Rette Dich Tristan!” and Marke appears in front of the embraced lovers.
So starben wir – Melchior / Flagstadt
Synopsis: Brangäne’s suspicions were correct. Melot triumphantly presents the two lovers to his king. Deeply ashamed and grieved, Marke accuses Tristan of betrayal and wants an explanation from the nephew he loves like a son.
Marke’s lament is heartbreakingly drawn by a bass clarinet. The king and the clarinet alternately sing their plaintive song, somberly accompanied by the low strings. In the second part, the mood lightens, introduced by an English horn, as Marke tells of his wonderful wife, the royal bride. But then the bass clarinet returns and falls into bottomless depths at the end, signifying the boundless shame of the deceived king.
Kurt Moll’s soft and colorful voice make Marke’s performance a truly moving event monologue:
Tatest Du’s wirklich? – Moll
Tristan’s death wish
Synopsis: Tristan has no explanation. He does not speak to Marke either, but asks Isolde to follow him to death and kisses her forehead. Enraged, Melot draws his weapon, Tristan throws himself into Melot’s sword and sinks down severely wounded.
A lone cor anglais plays the suffering motif with the Tristan chord of the winds. It is Tristan’s farewell, announcing his death. Isolde promises to follow him. Accompanied by feverish chords, Tristan throws himself on Melot’s sword.
O König, das kann ich Dir nicht sagen – Gould
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE ACT III
Synopsis: Tristan liegt unter einer großen Linde auf einem Ruhebett. Der tödlich verwundete wurde von Kurwenal in Tristans altes Schloss in der Bretagne gebracht, wo Tristan einst aufwuchs. Kurwenal weiß, dass nur Isoldes Heilkünste ihn retten können und hat nach ihr rufen lassen.
Gloom and heaviness lie like dark shadows over the prelude to the third act, which expresses Tristan’s infinite loneliness.
Vorspiel und Hirtenreigen – Furtwängler
Synopsis: A shepherd comes to Kurwenal, who is watching at Tristan’s bedside. The shepherd watches the sea, but no ship is in sight that could bring help. Tristan wakes up and is confused. Kurwenal tries to cheer him up. Slowly Tristan wakes up and as his thoughts turn to Isolde in a feverish delirium, Tristan becomes agitated.
Kurwenal becomes pathetic, but Tristan brings back the morbid mood. For a long time he lingers in a twilight state, but thoughts of Isolde return, the music rears up and Tristan sings himself into a fire. Soon he sinks back again, exhausted.
Hei nun! Wie du kamst! – Wächter / Windgassen
Synopsis: When Kurwenal tells him that he has sent for Isolde, ecstasy returns to Tristan and already he feverishly believes he sees a ship.
Tristan is electrified, his jubilant singing scales ever greater heights
Noch losch das Licht nicht aus / Windgassen
Synopsis:Tristan fantasizes that the ship is coming. A shawm sounds and they see the ship. At first they fear that it will crash on the rocks, but it makes it safely to the harbor.
Bist Du nun tot? – Windgassen
Synopsis: Tristan awaits Isolde impatiently. His ecstasy increases. When he sees her, he rises from the bed and runs to meet her.
The melody of “Barg im Busen” accompanies Tristan’s impatience, pulsating syncopatedly in the bass of the orchestra. Accompanied by various motifs, Tristan’s excitement grows. When he is in Isolde’s arms, the longing motif reaches its climax.
Oh diese Sonne! – Suthaus / Flagstadt
Synopsis:As Isolde holds him in her arms, she realizes that he will die shortly, she hopes to spend one more hour with him. But Tristan dies after their first embrace. Shaken, she collapses unconscious over the corpse.
Ha! Ich bin’s süssester Freund! – Stemme
The love death
Synopsis: The helmsman comes in and reports that Marke has pursued them. The king had learned everything from Brangäne and has come to forgive. But Kurwenal mistakenly expects his revenge and closes the gate. Soon Brangäne calls, but Kurwenal does not want to let her in. Melot stands in front of the gate and breaks it open. Kurwenal gets into a fight with him and kills him, after which he executes himself. Soon Marke is at the door, enters and goes to Tristan’s bedside, shaken. Marke sees Isolde, who is no longer responsive. Raptured, she has entered Tristan’s realm and her soul is leaving the world.
The so-called “Liebestod” is actually not a death, but as Wagner called the scene, a “transfiguration,” or as Isolde puts it, “Drowning – sinking – unconsciously highest pleasure!” («Ertrinken – versinken – unbewusst höchste Lust!»)
The opera fades away with the resolution of tension after four hours with the two famous B-flat major final chords.
Nina Stemme is the Isolde of our time. Listen to her grandiose transfiguration. Her voice has the penetrating power and warmth that makes the listener blissful.
Mild und Leise – Stemme
Ludwig Suthaus, Kirsten Flagstad, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Josef Greindl conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Operahouse Convent Garden.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to TRISTAN UND ISOLDE by Richard Wagner