Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883. He composed the music of Tristan und Isolde between October 1857 and July 19, 1859, and completed the autograph score in August 1859; the first performance was given in Munich on June 10, 1865. The first North American performance of the Prelude was given at a Thomas Symphony Soirée in New York’s Irving Hall on February 10, 1866; Theodore Thomas also gave the first North American performance of the Liebestod at New York’s Chickering Hall on January 9, 1872. Henry Hadley led the San Francisco Symphony in the Prelude and Liebestod in December 1913 in a special Wagner concert; Stanisław Skrowaczewski conducted the most recent performances in April 1998. The score calls for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Performance time: about twenty minutes.
The summer of 1857 was difficult for Wagner. Hopes for the production of his Ring-in-progress were all but gone, and negotiations with his publishers were getting nowhere. He had no regular income. He had had no new work staged since the premiere of Lohengrin in 1850. Obviously, the time had come for something more likely to be produced than the four-opera Ring cycle. This he thought he had found in Tristan und Isolde.
Another incentive to the work on Tristan was Wagner’s move to the Zurich estate of his friends Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Mathilde in particular had become an ardent Wagner devotee following a concert performance of the Tannhäuser Overture led by the composer in 1851. Otto was a successful German businessman and partner in a New York silk company. At Mathilde’s urging, Wagner and his wife Minna—whom he had married in 1836—were provided lodging on the Wesendonck estate in a cottage christened “the Asyl” (from the German word meaning “asylum, refuge”), so-called after a reference in Mathilde’s letter of invitation to Minna. Here Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck were drawn intimately to one another. We do not know whether their relationship was physical as well as intellectual and spiritual—Minna assumed the worst, especially after intercepting a letter from Wagner to Mathilde in early April 1858—but there is no question that its intensity is felt in the music written during that time. Wagner separated from Minna and left the Asyl on August 17, 1858, traveling to Venice and taking up residence during the winter of 1858-59 in the Palazzo Giustiniani, where he composed the second act of Tristan. (The third act would be composed in the Hotel Schweizerhof in Lucerne, where Wagner relocated in March 1859.)
Of course, by the time Wagner completed Tristan, he knew that his plan for “a thoroughly practicable work” had given rise to something different. In August 1860, writing to Mathilde Wesendonck, he noted that “upon reading it through again, I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears. . . . I’ve overstepped whatever lies within the powers of execution.” After several failed attempts to stage Tristan, circumstances changed. In 1863, Wagner published a new edition of his Ring poem, calling in the preface for “a German prince” who might come to his aid and to the aid of German opera. The following May his entreaty was answered by the eighteen-year-old Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had ascended the throne in March 1864. Ludwig settled Wagner’s debts, commissioned him to complete the Ring, and made possible the first performance of Tristan.
This music is among the most powerful and emotionally manipulative ever written. Tristan und Isolde is about love repressed and unacknowledged, then helplessly and haplessly expressed—and fulfilled, after emotional torment, only through death. The Prelude is the musical expression of that unacknowledged love, and the opening phrases recur during Wagner’s music drama when the love between Tristan and Isolde comes closest to surfacing and, finally, when Tristan dies. In a way, Tristan und Isolde represents the product of Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck’s spiritual and emotional union, the channeling of Wagner’s creative energies away from the physical consummation of their relationship, given the impossibility of their situation. And the strength of Wagner’s impulses produced music unlike any heard before. Wagner’s use of dissonance in Tristan was, in fact, startlingly new; the emphasis on unresolved dissonance and intense chromaticism, immediately apparent in the opening measures of the Prelude, increases the listener’s sense that the music is somehow unstable and is perfectly suited to the depiction of heightened longing, both physical and spiritual. Wagner’s writing in Tristan has come to represent a turning point in the nineteenth century’s treatment of tonality.
When Tristan is staged, the Prelude dies away, leading after a moment of silence to the unaccompanied sailor’s song that opens the first scene; in the concert hall, it is frequently followed by Isolde’s “Liebestod,” which closes the opera. If the Prelude represents earth-bound passion, the Love-Death is spiritual transfiguration. Here, Isolde literally wills herself out of existence—Tristan, her “death-devoted” lover, having died in her arms just moments earlier. As in the Prelude, the music begins softly and builds, almost in a single breath, to a thunderous climax. And even without the vocal line, the Liebestod makes its point: By the end, music and text, sound and sense, are one.
Marc Mandel is Director of Program Publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Great Recordings of the Century) | George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)
Reading: Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, by Joachim Köhler (Yale University Press) | The Life of Richard Wagner, in four volumes, by Ernest Newman (Cambridge University Press) | The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Millington (Schirmer) | Wagner Handbook, edited by Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski (Harvard University Press)