“Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde

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            Many—perhaps, most--of the respected and honored composers left little of themselves behind to speak for them except their immortal music.  And that’s usually enough.  But no great composer found the time to write, speculate, theorize, philosophize, and generally inflict his ideas expressed through the written word, as did Wagner.  Much was brilliant and influential—and some was simply evil rubbish.  His theories and the model of his own compositions changed the world of nineteenth-century opera in profound ways, brought to fruition in his great tetralogy—the Ring. In those four music dramas of his maturity his use of leitmotifs, myth as a basis for drama, continuous music, the virtual abandonment of set pieces (detached arias, duets, etc.), the absence of the traditional chorus, ballet—all pointed the way to the future.

            Through the 1840s he had begun to enjoy his first major successes with more or less traditional operas:  Rienzi (1842), The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850).  But in the midst of creating a successful career as composer of opera, he led a turbulent personal and risky political life, and was constantly reading voluminously in literary, philosophical, political, and aesthetic works from his large personal library.   He wrote essays, libretti for future works, and letters to everyone. How he found the hours in the day to do all of this is a daunting thought.   The philosopher, Schopenhauer, exerted a great influence upon his thoughts about the importance and meaning of music, and, yet, he was equally enthused in the prospect for a renewed, energetic rôle for a united Germany as a moral, patriotic, and military leader of Europe—in the face of the unsuitable French, of course.   The essays poured forth, including a manifesto for the new kind of opera found later in the Ring; a screed on German virtues as political model; and then the scurrilous attack on Jews in music.  His real life was equally colorful:  escaping across borders in the night with no passports; participation in revolution; abandoning his wife and taking up with another man’s wife; and then proceeding to have a raft of children by the latter, while she was still married.  It amazes one.
            Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, stems from the time that he was living in Zürich, after having fled Dresden with his family following his abortive participation in the political upheavals of 1848.  During the early years of the 1850s, while working on his magnum opus, the Ring tetralogy, two events converged to turn his mind in a distinctly different direction:  his encounter with the theories of the philosopher, Schopenhauer, and meeting the wife of a wealthy patron, Mathilde Wesendonck.  He had already immersed himself in mediæval German Romantic literature in preparation for later projects, but was waylaid by his fascination with the legend of Tristan and Iseult.  Obviously Wagner immediately seized upon the story of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight, Tristan, and the Irish princess, Iseult, as a perfect metaphor and reflection of his own complicated, often amoral, life.  The legend centers around adultery, sensuality, impossible love, psychological intoxication as a thin excuse for sin, release only through death, and a raft of other entangling issues that Freud would have adored.  In other words, a perfect expression of his own worldview and his attempts at its rationalization to himself and others!  Mathilde Wesendonck became the object of his ardor, and major complications between the four principals of the two couples ensued. By 1857 Wagner was spending most of his time working on the opera as a very personal realization of the legend, and—why should we be surprised?—living in a cottage on the grounds of the Wesendoncks.  He completed the opera in 1859, but owing to a myriad of difficulties, it was not given a première until 1865 in Munich.  It is telling that the conductor of the première was Hans von Bülow; by then Wagner had dumped his wife, Minna, lost his infatuation with Mrs. Wesendonck, and was having an affair with von Bülow’s wife, Cosima—Franz Liszt’s daughter, and much later a pal of Adolf Hitler.  Ordinarily, these facts would really be irrelevant, but the nature of the whole affair puts them in another perspective.

            The opera was a succès de scandale.  It was condemned soundly by many luminaries for its salacious subject, and its musical style was unprecedented.  Some choice comments:  “ . . . an act of indecency”, “. . . the worship of animal passion”, and others no less condemnatory.  But, its coherence as drama, its stellar musical quality, and its absolutely groundbreaking melodic and harmonic innovations soon trumped the shock of its narcissistic, sexual, and psychological elements.  If the basic idea of the story is one continuous, unending, powerful delay and frustration of sensual passions, then the music is crafted perfectly for that.  The opera, with its complex chromaticism, its constant delay of cadence and closure, and its soaring, continuous melodic style, is generally held as the locus of the beginning of the end of the Romantic style.  The dissolution of tonality into atonality seems inevitable from Tristan on.  Wagner leads us gradually and inexorably to Schoenberg, and the world of modern music crashes in on the old traditions.  The ambiguity of Wagner’s harmony is famously stated from the very beginning.  The first three measures are the groundshifting “Tristan chord,” with its unusual resolution.  There has been more musicological ink spilt over this first measure than any other in musical history.  But, that’s not important in the concert hall.  Suffice to say that its shifting harmonies and uncertain meaning are admirably suited for the opera, and almost anyone can hear that.  Music resolution delayed is perfect for sensual gratification delayed.

            Wagner, himself, scored and arranged the “Prelude and Liebestod,” crafted from the overture and Isolde’s third act aria, “Mild und leise wie er lächelt” (Softly and gently, how he smiles). He knew that it was good, and its première took place in 1862, three years before the whole opera was first performed.  After the initial portion of the prelude to the opera, the second part, the “Liebestod,” (Love-Death) is extracted from Isolde’s aria at the very end of the opera.   Her lover, Tristan, lies slain, the nature of the fatal love potion is revealed, all lament his passing, and Isolde, consumed with a beatific vision of Tristan alive, rapturously sings of her love, and slips into death as well, in an ending that has few equals in opera.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan