The opera was profoundly influential amongst Western classical composers and provided inspiration to composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Many see Tristan as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality towards, ultimately, the atonal movement in the 20th century.
Wagner's composition of Tristan und Isolde was inspired by his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, Tristan was notable for Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension.
The re-discovery of medieval Germanic poetry, including Gottfried von Strassburg's version of Tristan, the Nibelunglied 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.This impact, 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 16th 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. It was not until August 1857, however, 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, became passionately involved with Mathilde Wesendonck. Whether or not this relationship was platonic remains uncertain. 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." In April of 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 17th, 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. 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 in Vienna. 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 unperformable.
It was only after Wagner's adoption by Ludwig II of Bavaria that enough resources could be found to mount the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. Hans von Bülow was chosen to conduct the production at the Munich Opera, despite the fact that Wagner was having an affair with his wife, Cosima von Bülow. Even then, the planned premiere on May 15th 1865 had to be postponed because Isolde, Malvina Schnorr, had gone hoarse. It was only on June 10th 1865 that the work finally premiered. Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld sang the role of Tristan and Malvina, his wife, sang Isolde. Three weeks after the fourth performance, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died suddenly -- prompting speculation that the exertion involved in singing the part of Tristan had killed him. The stress of performing Tristan has also 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.
The score of Tristan und Isolde has often been cited as a landmark in the development of Western music. Wagner uses throughout Tristan a remarkable range of orchestral colour, harmony and polyphony and does 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:
One significant harmonic innovation is the consecutive use of two chords that feature a diminished (not perfect) fifth from the root bass note, the so called "devil interval in music" that was proclaimed illegal by the church fathers of Gregorian Chant.
Tristan und Isolde is also notable for its use of harmonic suspension -- a device used by a composer 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 (perhaps sexual) climax, only to have the expected resolution destroyed by the dissonant interruption of Kurwenal ("Rette Dich, Tristan!"). The long-awaited completion of this cadence series arrives only in the final Liebestod, 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. Giacomo Puccini, in the sketches of the final duet in Turandot (which he never completed), made a strange personal note: "then Tristan". Wagner's use of musical colour also influenced the development of film music. Bernard Herrmann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Vertigo, is heavily reminiscent of the Liebestod, most evident concerning the resurrection scene. The opening of Tristan und Isolde was added to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Surrealist film Un chien andalou. Not all composers, however, reacted favourably: Claude Debussy's piano piece "Golliwog's Cakewalk" mockingly quotes the gloomy "Tristan Chord" in the middle of a lighthearted piece.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, June 10, 1865|
(Conductor: Hans von Bülow)
|Tristan||tenor||Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld|
|Isolde||soprano||Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld|
|Brangäne, Isolde's maid||mezzo-soprano||Anna Possart-Deinet|
|Kurwenal, Tristan's servant||baritone||Anton Mitterwurzer|
|Mark, King of Cornwall||bass||Ludwig Zottmayer|
|Melot, a courtier, Tristan's friend||tenor||Karl Samuel Heinrich|
|A Shepherd||tenor||Karl Simons|
|A Steersman||baritone||Peter Hartmann|
|A Young Sailor||tenor|
|Sailors, knights, and esquires|
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,” 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 all on board. In what is termed the "narrative and curse" 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. 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.
Brangäne returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, a stranger called Tantris was brought to her. Tantris was found mortally wounded in a boat, and 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 fiance. Isolde attempted to kill the man with his own sword as he lay helpless before her but, Tristan had looked not at the sword that would kill him, but into her eyes. His action pierced her heart and she was unable to slay him. Tristan was allowed to leave, but 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 and announces that Tristan has agreed to see Isolde after all. When Tristan arrives, Isolde tells him that she now knows that he was Tantris, and that he owes her his life. Tristan agrees to drink the potion, now prepared by Brangäne, even though he knows it may kill him. As he drinks, Isolde tears the remainder of the potion from him and drinks it herself. At this moment, each believing that their lives are about to end, the two declare their love for each other. 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 a poisonous drink, but rather a love-potion.
King Marke leads a hunting party out into the night, leaving the castle empty save for Isolde and Brangäne, who 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. 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. 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.
The lovers, at last alone and freed from the constraints of courtly life, declare 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. During their long tryst, Brangäne calls a warning several times that the night is ending, 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 adopted son Tristan's betrayal but also because Marke, too, has come to love Isolde. The Act II love duet is regarded by some as the most rapturous in all of western music.
Tristan turns to Isolde, who agrees to follow him again into the realm of night. Melot and Tristan fight, but, at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and Melot mortally wounds him.
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 (written for the tarogato but usually played on the cor anglais). Tristan awakes and mourns his fate -- to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning. Tristan's mourning 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 that was played at the deaths of his father and mother. He rails once again against his desires and against the fateful love-potion 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. 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 and, in an attempt to avenge Tristan, furiously attacks Melot. Both Melot and Kurwenal, however, are killed in the fight. Marke and Brangäne finally reach Tristan and Isolde. Marke, grieving over the body of his “truest friend,” explains that he learned of the love-potion from Brangäne and has come not to part the lovers, but to unite them. Isolde appears to wake at this, but instead, in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the “Liebestod”, "love death"), dies of grief.score calls for:
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” (The World as Will and Representation), and the similarities between the two men's world-views became clear.
Man, according to Schopenhauer, is driven by continued, unachievable 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 of the world (which is false) is Phenomenon, while the unknowable reality is Noumenon: concepts originally ideas 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 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 opera, Parsifal. In fact Wagner even considered having the character of Parsifal meet Tristan during his sufferings in Act 3, but later rejected the idea.
Although Tristan und Isolde is performed in major opera houses around the world presently, critical opinion of the opera was initially unfavourable. The July 5th, 1865 edition of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported: "Not to mince words, it is the glorification of sensual pleasure, tricked out with every titillating device, it is unremitting materialism, according to which human beings have no higher destiny than, after living the life of turtle doves, ‘to vanish in sweet odors, like a breath'. In the service of this end, music has been enslaved to the word; the most ideal of the Muses has been made to grind the colours for indecent paintings... (Wagner) makes sensuality itself the true subject of his drama.... We think that the stage presentation of the poem Tristan und Isolde amounts to an act of indecency. Wagner does not show us the life of heroes of Nordic sagas which would edify and strengthen the spirit of his German audiences. What he does present is the ruination of the life of heroes through sensuality."
Eduard Hanslick's reaction in 1868 to the Prelude to Tristan was that it "remind[ed] [him] of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel" (likely Erasmus of Formiae). The first performance in London's Drury Lane Theatre drew the following response from The Era in 1882: "We cannot refrain from making a protest against the worship of animal passion which is so striking a feature in the late works of Wagner. We grant there is nothing so repulsive in Tristan as in Die Walküre, but the system is the same. The passion is unholy in itself and its representation is impure, and for those reasons we rejoice in believing that such works will not become popular. If they did we are certain their tendency would be mischievous, and there is, therefore, some cause for congratulation in the fact that Wagner's music, in spite of all its wondrous skill and power, repels a greater number than it fascinates."
Mark Twain, on a visit to Germany, heard Tristan at Bayreuth and commented: "I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad.
With the passage of time, Tristan became more favourably regarded. In an interview shortly before his death, Giuseppe Verdi said that he "stood in wonder and terror" before Wagner's Tristan. In The Perfect Wagnerite, writer and satirist George Bernard Shaw writes that Tristan was "an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers" and described it as "a poem of destruction and death". Richard Strauss, initially dismissive of Tristan, claimed that Wagner's music "would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of [its] hideous dischords." Later, however, Strauss became part of the Bayreuth coterie and writing to Cosima Wagner in 1892 declared: "I have conducted my first Tristan. It was the most wonderful day of my life." He later wrote that "Tristan und Isolde marked the end of all romanticism. Here the yearning of the entire 19th century is gathered in one focal point."
The conductor Bruno Walter heard his first Tristan und Isolde in 1889 as a student: "So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically... Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss... A new epoch had begun: Wagner was my god, and I wanted to become his prophet." Arnold Schoenberg referred to Wagner's technique of shifting chords in Tristan as "phenomena of incredible adaptability and nonindependence roaming, homeless, among the spheres of keys; spies reconnoitering weaknesses; to exploit them in order to create confusion, deserters for whom surrender of their own personality is an end in itself”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Wagner's staunchest allies in his younger years, wrote that, for him, “Tristan and Isolde is the real opus metaphysicum of all art. . . insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death. . . it is overpowering in its simple grandeur”. In a letter to his friend Erwin Rohde in October 1868, Nietzsche described his reaction to Tristan's Prelude: “I simply cannot bring myself to remain critically aloof from this music; every nerve in me is atwitch, and it has been a long time since I had such a lasting sense of ecstasy as with this overture”. Even after his break with Wagner, Nietzsche continued to consider Tristan a masterpiece: “Even now I am still in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as Tristan — I have sought in vain, in every art.”
Tristan und Isolde has a long recorded history. In the years before World War II, Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were considered to be the prime interpreters of the lead roles, and mono recordings exist of this pair in a number of live performances under the famed batons of conductors such as Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Artur Bodanzky and Erich Leinsdorf. Flagstad recorded the part commercially only near the end of her career in 1952, under Wilhelm Furtwängler for EMI, producing a set which is considered a classic recording. Following the war, the performances at Bayreuth with Martha Mödl and Ramon Vinay under Herbert von Karajan (1952) were highly regarded, and these performances are now available as a live recording. In the 1960s, the soprano Birgit Nilsson was considered the major Isolde interpreter, and she was often partnered with the Tristan of Wolfgang Windgassen. Their performance at Bayreuth in 1966 under the baton of Karl Böhm was captured by Deutsche Grammophon -- a performance often hailed as one of the best Tristan recordings. Some collectors prefer the pairing of Nilsson with the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, available in “unofficial” recordings from performances in Vienna or Orange.
Karajan did not record the opera officially until 1971. It was during that recording that Karajan's selection of a lighter soprano voice (Helga Dernesch) as Isolde, paired with an extremely intense Vickers and the unusual balance between orchestra (the Berlin Philharmonic) and singers favoured by Karajan sparked a controversy. In the 1990s, the Berlin Philharmonic recorded the opera with conductor Daniel Barenboim and featured Waltraud Meier's as an intense Isolde and Siegfried Jerusalem as Tristan. Earlier recorded sets by conductors such as Carlos Kleiber, Reginald Goodall and Leonard Bernstein were mostly considered to be important for the interpretation of the conductor, rather than that of the lead performers. The set by Kleiber is notable as Isolde was sung by the famous Mozartian soprano Margaret Price, who never sang the role of Isolde on stage. The same is true for Plácido Domingo, who sang the role of Tristan to critical acclaim in the 2005 EMI release under the baton of Antonio Pappano despite never having sung the role on stage.
There are several DVD productions of the opera including Götz Friedrich's production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin featuring the seasoned Wagnerians René Kollo and Dame Gwyneth Jones in the title roles. Deutsche Grammophon released a DVD of a Metropolitan Opera performance featuring Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, conducted by James Levine, in a production staged by Jurgen Rose.
There are many recordings of the opera. The following list of CD releases is selective: for a more exhaustive list, see Discography of ''Tristan und Isolde
The Prelude and Liebestod is a concert version of the overture and Isolde's Act 3 aria, "Mild und leise". The arrangement was by Wagner himself, and it was first performed in 1862, several years before the premiere of the complete opera in 1865. The Liebestod can be performed either in a purely orchestral version, or with a soprano singing Isolde's vision of Tristan resurrected. Confusingly, Wagner himself preferred to call the Prelude the "Liebestod" while Isolde's final aria he called the "Verklarung" (Transfiguration).
Franz Liszt made a number of piano transcriptions of the opera, including the Liebestod.