Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

RICHARD WILHELM WAGNER

BORN: May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: February 13, 1883. Venice, Italy

COMPOSED: 1858-59

WORLD PREMIERE: June 10, 1865, at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich, with Hans von Bülow conducting. The Prelude had already been performed as a concert excerpt, with a specially prepared concert ending, in Paris in early 1860

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1, 1912. Henry Hadley conducted at a Pops concert. MOST RECENT—April 2013. Herbert Blomstedt led

INSTRUMENTATION:  3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY As Wagner’s career progressed, he moved increasingly toward his ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of artistic expression synthesized from disparate artistic disciplines, including music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, and architecture. The operas of Wagner’s maturity are so distinct in this way that they are often referred to not as operas at all, but rather as “music dramas,” in an attempt to underscore the singularity of his aesthetic goals. He had not quite arrived there in Tannhäuser, but he was getting close. His next opera, Lohengrin (premiered in 1850), marked a giant step toward his ideal, and the one after that, Tristan und Isolde (unveiled in 1865), revealed Wagner in his full maturity.

Tristan und Isolde digs deep back into the Middle Ages, which was an ongoing Wagnerian fascination. In this tale, much retold through the ages, Tristan is dispatched from Cornwall to Ireland to fetch Isolde, who is to become the bride of his uncle the king. Tristan and Isolde fall in love and get “carnally involved” during the journey, encouraged by a potion prepared by Isolde’s maid. They are discovered and Tristan is attacked by one of the king’s soldiers. He dies with Isolde at his side, after which she, too, expires in an ecstatic combination of love and grief. The first and last passages of the opera, fused into a single span, have become famous as the Prelude and Liebestod (Love-Death), sometimes with a soprano singing Isolde’s final scene, sometimes in a purely orchestral transcription, as here.

Notwithstanding Wagner’s conception of his operas as organic entities, he was not averse to extracting sections of them to present apart from their dramatic context. He conducted orchestral extracts from his operas as standalone concert works on numerous occasions, as did quite a few other conductors. He allowed Hans von Bülow to lead the Tristan Prelude in Prague in March 1859, more than six years before the opera was ever staged. Bülow devised a concert ending for that occasion, and Wagner so disliked it that he wrote one of his own that December, cobbling on bits from the opera’s second and third acts. In 1863, he created a combination of the Prelude and the end of the opera (stripped of Isolde’s vocal line), for a concert he led in Saint Petersburg. That arrangement is nearly always identified as the Prelude and Liebestod, but Wagner referred to this concert pairing as Liebestod und Verklärung (Love-Death and Transfiguration), the idea being that the Prelude (Wagner’s Liebestod) set the scene for the story of intertwined love and death, and that the Transfiguration was the spiritual resolution of that drama. He provided a succinct encapsulation of the “narrative” of the Love-Death and Transfiguration pairing for a Vienna concert in 1863:

Prelude (Liebestod): Taking on the role of suitor for his uncle, the king, Tristan brings to him Isolde. They love each other. From the most timid complaint of unquenchable longing, from the most delicate quivering, up through the most fearsome outburst confessing a hopeless love, the feeling here traces every phase of this hopeless struggle against inner passion‚ until, sinking back unconscious, that passion seems to be extinguished in death.

Concluding Movement (Transfiguration): And yet, that fate has kept apart in life now lives on, transfigured, in death: the gates to their union are open. Isolde, dying atop Tristan’s body, perceives the blessed fulfillment of her burning desire: eternal union in measureless space, no bounds, no fetters, indivisible!

THE MUSIC Tristan und Isolde marked a bold advance in Wagner’s work, and its musical-dramatic style was quite different from anything that had come before. Wagner had been developing the use of leitmotifs in his earlier operas—melodic cells that signify a character or idea. Here, they blossom into a generalized interweaving of motifs which, though they transmit particular flavors, are for the most part indistinctly linked to individual characters or concepts.

But, above all, it is for its harmony that Tristan und Isolde is universally considered a watershed work. In the opening measures of the Prelude—in fact, in its very first chord, preceded only by unharmonized notes of melody—we hear a curious chord, neither consonant nor strikingly dissonant, that will lend an uncanny sense of ambivalence and yearning throughout the opera’s whole immense span. Wagner’s writing is highly chromatic in this work, testing the limits of traditional tonality through unresolved suspensions and other imaginatively deployed dissonances.

From the moment it appeared, responses to Tristan und Isolde ran the gamut from adoration to loathing. The conservative wing was aghast, with the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick delivering one of his memorable zingers: “The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel.” Even the forward-looking Hector Berlioz, to whom Wagner presented the very first copy of the score of Tristan und Isolde when it was hot off the press in 1860, was thrown for a loop. He offered a sincere, if back-handed, appreciation of the Prelude: “There is no theme other than a kind of chromatic moan, filled with dissonant chords whose long appoggiaturas in place of the true harmonic note further intensify the painfulness.”

Also in Paris, the aging Gioachino Rossini was immersed in Wagner’s score when a friend dropped by. “It is a beautiful work,” he exclaimed. “I never expected to find such grace of expression, such power of invention in the music of the reformer of our old dramatic operas, the scores of Mozart, Gluck, Cimarosa, Weber, Mercadante, Meyerbeer—and my own!” Drawing closer, the visitor felt compelled to point out that his host was holding the score upside-down. Thus alerted, Rossini flipped it over and, glancing at it again, sighed, “Alas, now I can’t make head or tail of it!”

With greater exposure came increased appreciation and understanding, and what were initially viewed as the outrageous harmonic audacities in Tristan und Isolde became subsumed into the standard language of late-nineteenth-century composers. Let us give the last word to Wagner’s chief rival for the affections of those who cherish nineteenth-century opera. One might not have expected Giuseppe Verdi to have much sympathy for this opera, which is so very different from, say, his own La forza del destino and Don Carlos, which were premiered the same decade. Reflecting on Wagner's opera in 1898, the eighty-six-year-old Verdi noted that  “The work that arouses my greatest admiration is Tristan. The giant structure fills me time and time again with astonishment and awe, and I still cannot quite comprehend that it was conceived and written by a human being.”—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(May 2019)