skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Richard Wagner
© Peter Laki

The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde was first performed in concert in 1859, before the entire opera was even finished. Wagner joined it together with the Liebestod ("Love Death"), the opera's final scene, and presented the two excerpts in concert in 1863, two years before the stage premiere. At this point, it had been more than a decade since a new Wagner opera had been staged, and during these years, Wagner had worked harder than ever. After Lohengrin (1848), the composer had to flee Germany because of his role in the Dresden uprising of 1849. Settling in Switzerland, Wagner produced his groundbreaking theoretical works on music drama, and began composing the Ring cycle. Twice, he interrupted the composition of the Ring in favor of projets that seemed easier to realize--first for Tristan which, at first, promised to be the "lighter fare" that could be produced quickly and yield some immediate profit while the much greater demands of the Ring could be met. The other interruption was Die Meistersinger.

With the knowledge of what Tristan eventually became, it is amusing to read the following passage in Wagner's autobiography:

A man who rejoiced in the name of Ferreiro introduced himself to me as the Brazilian consul in Leipzig, and told me that the Emperor of Brazil was greatly attracted to my music....The Emperor loved everything German and wanted me very much to come to Rio [de] Janeiro, so that I might conduct my operas in person. As only Italian was sung in that country, it would be necessary to translate my libretto, which the Emperor regarded as a very easy matter, and actually an improvement of the libretto itself....I felt I could easily produce a passionate musical poem that would turn out quite excellent in Italian, and I turned my thoughts once more, with an ever-reviving preference, towards Tristan and Isolde.

In the end, Tristan, influenced by Wagner's reading of Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy and a passionate love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck (whose husband was one of Wagner's benefactors), did not exactly turn out as "lighter fare." It certainly proved much more difficult to perform than Wagner had anticipated. (And, needless to say, the Brazilian plans came to nothing.) For this reason, Wagner turned to concertizing, and the Tristan Prelude, as a representative new work, naturally had pride of place on his programs.

Tristan was based on several medieval romances telling the story of an illicit love between Tristan, King Mark's vassal, and Isolde, engaged to be married to the King. The story could be told in simpler words than it is in the following account by Wagner, but hardly in a way more apt to put us in the mood of the music:

An old, old tale, inexhaustible in its variations, and ever sung anew in all the languages of medieval Europe, tells us of Tristan and Isolde. For this king the trusty vassal had wooed a maid he dared not tell himself he loved, Isolde; as his master's bride she followed him, because, powerless, she had no choice but to follow the suitor. The Goddess of Love, jealous of her downtrodden rights, avenged herself: the love potion destined by the bride's careful mother for the partners in this merely political marriage, in accordance with the customs of the age, the Goddess foists on the youthful pair through a blunder diversely accounted for; fired by its draught, their love leaps suddenly to vivid flame, and they have to acknowledge that they belong only to each other. Henceforth no end to the yearning, longing, rapture, and misery of love: world, power, fame, honor, chivalry, loyalty and friendship, scattered like an insubstantial dream; one thing alone left living: longing, longing unquenchable, desire forever renewing itself, craving and languishing; one sole redemption: death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking!

Here in music's own most unrestricted element, the musician who chose this theme for the introduction to his drama of love could have but one care: how to impose restraint on himself, since exhaustion of the subject is impossible. So just once, in one long-articulated impulse, he let that insatiable longing swell up from the timidest avowal of the most delicate attraction, through anxious sighs, hopes and fears, laments and wishes, raptures and torments, to the mightiest onset and to the most powerful effort to find the breach that will reveal to the infinitely craving heart the path into the sea of love's endless rapture. In vain! Its power spent, the heart sinks back to languish in longing, in longing without attainment, since each attainment brings in its wake only renewed desire, until in final exhaustion the breaking glance catches a glimmer of the attainment of the highest rapture: it is the rapture of dying, of ceasing to be, of the final redemption into that wondrous realm from which we stray the furthest when we strive to enter it by force. Shall we call it Death? Or is it the miraculous world of Night, from which, as the story tells, an ivy and a vine sprang of old in inseparable embrace over the grave of Tristan and Isolde?