As far back as 1854 Wagner wrote to Liszt: 'I have drafted mentally Tristan und Isolde,
the most simple composition, but also the most full-blooded one; with the black flag hoisted at
the end, I shall cover myself in order to die'.
The poem of Tristan, started in Zurich in June 1857, was completed in September. The
composer always confirmed that he had never had any musical inspiration before the dramatic
idea had taken possession of him entirely, and Wagner immediately began work on the score
which he wrote in Venice, and completed in Lucerne (1859).
As is well known text and music are as closely related as the lives of Mathilde
Wesendonck and Richard Wagner were at that time.
The first performance of the work took place in Munich, on June 10, 1865, with Hans
von Bülow conducting the orchestra. Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Malvina Garrigues,
married couple, played the parts of Tristan and Isolde on stage.
The musical drama unfolds in three acts and in the following places:
Act I: At sea, on the deck of Tristan's ship, during the crossing from Ireland to Cornwall.
Act II: In Marke's royal castle in Cornwall.
Act III: In Tristan's manor house in Brittany.
The lovers' odyssey is famous, but Wagner has considerably reshaped the legend in
order to adapt it to the stage. While it is true that he finds his inspiration in Gottfried, he accuses
the cleric of Strasbourg of having taken an interest only in narrative, anecdotal, if not
straightforward digressive episodes.
Act I: Daytime
The drama starts shortly before the ship under Tristan's command reaches the shores of
Cornwall. Tristan is bringing Isolde, King Marke's future wife, to him. Already Isolde's gaze
has crossed his own. When the curtain rises, Isolde, who loves Tristan without admitting it to
herself, is lying on the ship's deck, and is irritated by the words of a song from a sailor in the
rigging: 'Girl from Ireland, fierce, lovely girl...'. She sends Brangäne, her attendant, for Tristan
who does not come. Brangäne to whom Kurwenal sings a provocative song concerning Morold,
informs Isolde of Tristan's refusal. Isolde, considering herself scorned, then recalls the events
preceding the rise of the curtain (the orphan's childhood; the fight with Morold, Princess
Isolde's uncle; the wounding and the healing of Tristan; Isolde's desire for revenge and Tristan's
look that disarmed her...). Now, she sees herself betrayed, for Tristan will hand her over to
Marke._Brangäne brings the case with the philtres from which Isolde chooses a poison which
she destines for Tristan.
Kurwenal, Tristan's squire, announces that land is in sight. He goes for his master while
Brangäne following Isolde's orders, pours the poison into the cup. When Tristan enters, Isolde
accuses him of the death of Morold. Tristan owes her satisfaction! He holds out his sword to
Isolde: 'Here is my sword, strike me, I am prepared to die'; she responds: 'Oh no, it is not death,
it is reconciliation I offer you: let us drink together, here is the drink'. Isolde holds the cup to
Tristan who has understood that she wants to poison him. He drinks without hesitation; Isolde
snatches the cup from him and empties it. Together they wait for death. However, no sooner
have they drunk than they embrace one another tightly. Brangäne and Kurwenal separate
Tristan and Isolde who admit their love for each other; somebody puts a regal coat onto Isolde's
shoulders; Marke has already arrived.
Act II. At night
The moon illuminates the grounds of the castle, which Isolde's apartments overlook. It
is night, a balmy summer's night. The royal hunting-horns sound. Isolde steps out in great
agitation. She goes to extinguish the torch, the light of which is keeping Tristan away, but
Brangäne recommends prudence, suspecting a trap laid by Melot, a Knight at King Marke's
Court, in this nocturnal hunt. Isolde extinguishes the torch. Tristan hurries to her. The lovers fall
into each other's arms, and begin an immense love-duet.
Day breaks. Kurwenal arrives just before the King who, warned by Melot, appears
unexpectedly. Marke is dumbfounded at the sight of the couple who have betrayed him. Tristan
says nothing, but invites Isolde to follow him to Kareol, his castle by the sea. Melot flies into a
rage, draws his sword; the wounded Tristan sinks into Kurwenal's arms. Isolde throws herself
onto Tristan. Marke holds Melot back.
In this last act, Tristan, in Kurwenal's care, is resting in the courtyard of his manorhouse
in Brittany, high up above the sea. Kurwenal is expecting the arrival of Isolde whom he
has notified. A shepherd placed on top of the cliff is to play a joyful song on his pipe as soon as
he sees the sail; for the time being, there are only sad melodies. Tristan regains consciousness
and can only think of Isolde. The joyful tune bursts out. Kurwenal hurries to welcome Isolde.
Tristan left alone cannot contain his exaltation: he draws himself up, tears off his bandages, but
collapses in the middle of the stage. Isolde arrives, rushes towards Tristan and hears him
murmur her name to her once before expiring. Fainting, Isolde falls onto Tristan's body. The
shepherd announces the arrival of Marke's ship. Kurwenal organises the defence of Kareol, but
Marke's soldiers, with Melot in front, break through the gateway of Tristan's castle. Kurwenal
kills Melot before falling himself, mortally wounded. Isolde having regained consciousness
frees herself from the arms of Brangäne who tells her that, having been made aware of the
subterfuge, Marke had come in order to forgive and unite the lovers.
Isolde rises and without listening to the King, begins to sing an enraptured melody
while the Love-Death Motive rises gently from the orchestra, slowly growing into passionate
ecstasy before reaching an instrumental paroxysm. It seems to Isolde that Tristan is alive, and
that their souls, united for ever, are rising up into the ether. Isolde's singing gains momentum,
enlarges and she, smiling as if transfigured, mingles her breath into the immense breath of the
Universe. Marke blesses the bodies of Tristan and Isolde.
In its simplicity, this story is like a Greek tragedy since any peripeteia is represented by
the different stages of a passion made visible. It is the task of the two confidants, Brangäne for
Isolde, and Kurwenal for Tristan, to record the impressions of the heroes of the drama, and by
their confidences to help us follow the succession of emotions which lead the story to its
dénouement. The main point of interest of this work is therefore, somewhat in the manner of the
medieval narrators, the expression of feelings experienced by Tristan and Isolde, and the
musical notation of the driving-forces (or motives) which are responsible for the dramatic
development. Thus it is the task of the interpreter to enable us to grasp completely, if not
exclusively, the inner reasons of the drama.
In this tragedy, like in the one of Eden (is not religious revelation identical to the
revelation of love?) it is the woman who defies Heaven, before the souls are finally integrated
into the world-soul, into the essence of the Universe, following, in the composer's words, this
'revelation through sounds of the mystery of our existence'.
'LIEBESTOD' ODER 'VERKLÄRUNG'?
Mild und leise wie er lächelt,
Wie das Auge hold er öffnet,
Seht ihr's, Freunde? Säht ihr's nicht?
Immer lichter wie er leuchtet,
Stern-umstrahlet hoch sich hebt? Seht ihr's nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm mutig schwillt,
Voll und hehr im Busen ihm quillt?
Wie den Lippen, wonnig mild,
Süßer Atem sanft entweht:
Freunde! Seht! Fühlt und seht ihr's nicht?
Höre ich nur diese Weise,
Die so wundervoll und leise,
Wonne klagend, alles sagend,
Mild versöhnend aus ihm tönend,
In mich dringet, auf sich schwinget,
Hold erhallend um mich klinget?
Heller schallend, mich umwallend,
Sind es Wellen sanfter Lüfte?
Sind es Wogen wonniger Düfte?
Wie sie schwellen, mich umrauschen,
Soll ich atmen, soll ich lauschen?
Soll ich schlürfen,untertauchen?
Süß in Düften mich verhauchen?
In dem wogenden Schwall,
In dem tönenden Schall,
In des Welt-Atems wehendem All,
Ertrinken, versinken, unbewußt, höchste Lust!
'LOVE-DEATH' OR 'TRANSFIGURATION'?
How softly and gently he smiles,
How sweetly his eyelids open,
Can you see, my friends? Do you not see it?
How he shines ever brighter,
Raising himself high admidst the stars?
Do you not see it?
How his heart swells with courage,
Gushing full and majestic in his breast?
How in tender bliss sweet breath
Gently wafts from his lips;
Friends! Look! Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear this melody,
So wondrously plaintive, expressing everything,
Gentle tones of reconciliation from him,
Penetrating me, rising high,
Its harmony surrounding me?
Brighter now, undulating around me
Are they the waves of gentle breeze,
Is it a surge of exalting scents?
How they grow, sweep around me,
Shall I breathe, shall I listen?
Shall I drink, submerge?
Disintegrate into sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
In the resounding sound,
In the omnipresence of the world's breath
To be drowned, to be lost, unconscious, highest bliss!
The first performance of the opera Tristan und Isolde took place in Munich in 1865, but
the 'Vorspiel and finale' of the third act were already known, due to frequent concert performances,
before that date. Wagner spoke of 'Liebestod' in order to designate the 'Vorspiel' and of
'Verklärung' (transfiguration) with respect to the finale. However, Liszt's piano transcription of
the finale under the designation of Liebestod, spread more rapidly than the opera itself. The
name of 'Liebestod' generally carried the day and asserted itself against the very definition of
Richard Wagner who was trying to explain to Mathilde Wesendonck the nature of the
mysterious kingdom to which his two protagonists aspire. He wonders: 'Shall we call it death or
is it the enchanted domain of the night from which according to the legend grew an ivy and a
vine closely intertwined', thus linking up, as it were, with Beroul's 'estroited embrachiez'.
A number of singers, from coloratura to contralto, have tried, on the stage as well as on
record, the test of the 'Verklärung', in a way sealing with their personalities this grandiose
finishing climax of an exceptional work which closes on a chord perfect in every sense of the
term. Cylinders, 78s, LPs, compact discs, digital cassettes or audio-visual recordings preserve
jealously - if not pitilessly - the stages of a crossing threatened by rocks at every instant. Oddly
enough, the buoys are well known.
1) Immer lichter wie er leuchtet
Almost all of the soprano range is represented here, from the low E flat to the high A
flat, covering the whole of the medium and the high medium. This range is the most difficult in
terms of absolute legato singing (not to mention the false problem of the 'break' in the voice), in
which one can see the place of the voice, the colour, the possible thickening or thinning of the
tone and therefore the ability to respect the one colour of emission which is wanted.
The problem with the A flat is that there must be radiance, which explains the attempts
at vocal effects of forte on that note, leading to a strained high medium, the light voices
shouting themselves hoarse, the others turning it into a 'fog-horn'. All of Wagner, so to speak,
would be set too low... 'Dulce la voiz e bas li tons' indicates Thomas.
2) Sanft entweht
This pianissimo must be held on the high G, and prolonged in continuous legato on the
accented low octave. Wagner demands a pianissimo at the end of the breath where the voice
normally loses colour; in addition, the notation goes up and down.
3) Höre ich nur diese Weise
The actual 'Verklärung' begins here, the voice taking on a new dimension, more
ethereal, wider, more sumptuous, rising in a crescendo until lost in infinity.
4) Wonne klagend
The gruppetti, these groups of notes turning around a central note, must float on the breath and
be held with suppleness (the whole problem of Bellinian bel canto summed up). The same
remark goes for the orchestra.
Wagner's admiration for Bellini is well known: appointed Chief conductor at the German Stadt-
Theater (founded in Riga in 1782, and now Vagnera Zale) R. Wagner produced Norma (Dec.
11, 1837) on his own initiative, Amalia Planer, his wife's sister, singing the title-rôle.
5) Um mich klinget
This is what some - sotto voce - insist on calling the 'break 'in the voice, the so-called F
of the soprani. The interpretation is altogether obvious, hence the very great intensity needed
for the E sharp which must be held five beats. The E natural is in most cases 'clipped' or nonexistent,
due to shortness of breath.
6) In dem wogenden Schwall, in dem tönenden Schall, in des Welt-Atems wehendem All
The tone has to be maintained in the relatively low medium because of the E, the
movement is around this note which is held longer and longer until exhaustion sets in. All kinds
of voices have taken their chances at the risk of sinking.
The mezzo takes pleasure in this heavy tessitura, and carries the G sharp as much as
The place turns out to be too deep for the lyrical soprano who leaves the line, and tends
towards the high register.
The frail skiff of the light soprano scuds across in a startling staccato before
disappearing on arrival at the low B.
Extremely rare are the voices that manage to remain, against winds and tides, on course
for the Happy Isles.
7) Höchste Lust
The word which is no longer flesh merges into the dynamism of the universe;
separation, if it exists at all, is only marked by the double-bar following the chord at the very
end of the score (the consonant 't' of 'Lust' must be clearly audible).
'Isolt chante molt dulcement
La voiz acorde a l'estrument,
Les mains sunt beles...
Dulce la voiz e bas li tons'