Charles Petzold

1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”

August 30, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

Beginning in 1848, a wave of revolutions rippled across continental Europe. Spurred in part by long-time industrialization and recent economic crises, middle and lower classes in France, Italy, Germany, and other countries struggled for liberal political reforms, including a free press, voting rights, and democratic parliaments to replace dynastic regimes still claiming to be ordained by God. (Ultimately this "Springtime of the Peoples" largely failed but without first making it clear that the days were numbered for absolute monarchies.)

Germany at the time was a loose confederation of autonomous states, and the revolutionary demands included unification of Germany into a constitutional monarchy governed by a democratically elected assembly. Protests, demonstrations, and uprisings continued for over a year, and one of the last took place in May 1849 in Dresden, part of the kingdom of Saxony. Troops were called in to suppress the demonstrations, and the battle got violent.

On the front lines in the Dresden Uprising was 35-year old composer Richard Wagner — attempting to juggle revolutionary convictions with an official position as Kapellmeister (music director and conductor) for the Royal Saxon Court. The exact nature of Wagner's actual participation in the Dresden Uprising is still hazy, but it is believed he made hand grenades. When the uprising was suppressed after just seven days, Wagner fled to Zurich. He would be exiled from Germany for eleven years.

By the time of the Dresden Uprising, Richard Wagner had already composed six operas. The first three — Die Feen (1833), an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure called Das Liebesverbot (1835) or The Ban on Love, and Rienzi (1840) — are rarely performed today. Much more popular are the three operas from Wagner's so-called middle period: Der Fliegende Holländer or The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1848).

But Wagner was really just getting started. The composer's legacy would be not as a political revolutionary, but as an artistic and musical revolutionary — entirely reconceiving the nature and structure of opera, stretching traditional harmony to a crisis point, and writing some of the most glorious music ever heard. Wagner's achievements continue to reverberate not only in music, but in our culture and particularly in the use of myth to construct compelling drama. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas's Star Wars are inconceivable without the influence of Wagner.

Wagner's biggest creation — the 15-hour tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung (first performed in its entirety in 1876) — began rather inauspiciously soon after Wagner's exile. Perhaps inspired by a previous reading of Jacob Grimm's German Mythology and based mostly on Norse legends, Wagner began writing the libretto for a proposed opera called Siegfried's Death. He eventually realized that events in this opera required more background, so he decided to write a libretto for a preliminary opera, Young Siegfried. Still not happy that earlier events had been dealt with properly, he then conceived two additional operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. (Throughout this blog entry I'll use the original German titles when the translation is obvious — Das Rheingold is The Rhine Gold and Die Walküre is The Valkyrie.)

By the end of 1852, Wagner had completed a complete libretto for The Ring whose four operas eventually became Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung — or The Twlight of the Gods. The saga begins in an age when gods rule the world through authority, force, and tenuous treaties. Following an act of desecration of nature by one of the Nibelung (a race of dwarf smithies), a ring is forged that gives its possessor total power. In attempting to gain control of this ring, Wotan (the head of the gods) puts into motion a series of events that [spoiler alert!] leads to his own downfall. Wotan creates humans who have free will, and who are capable of love. It is this love that proves to be greater than the authoritarian dictates of the gods. In the final scene of Götterdämmerung, Valhalla (the castle of the gods) goes up in flames, leaving the People — with all their flaws and foibles — now running the show. The Modern Age has begun.

If all this sounds like a mythical setting of Wagner's left-wing politics, that's a perfectly legitimate interpretation. But Wagner had also by this time come under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose 1841 book The Essence of Christianity caused a sensation. (The book was translated into English in 1854 by Marian Evans, who published her first novel in 1859 under the pseudonym George Eliot.) German theological and Biblical scholarship had created deep doubts concerning the veracity of the Gospels and, consequently, left Christianity in tatters. Feuerbach set out to discover what could be salvaged. Although the actual personages and narratives of religion may not be true, religion nonetheless reveals profound truths about we humans, because it is we who created the religion to begin with. It is through the creation of God that we are able to express our ideals about virtue and beauty. In The Ring, the gods themselves are loveless and cruel, but the people find redemption in the love that overthrows these gods.

By 1853, Wagner had finished all the texts for The Ring and was now ready to compose the music. Although he had written the libretti in reverse order, he began composition with the first opera, Das Rheingold.

When Wagner began the composition of The Ring, operas were mostly popular entertainments with often cheesy stories and music divided into bite-size set pieces — recitative, aria, duet, dance, chorus — punctuated with pauses for audience applause. Wagner instead wanted to create serious music dramas, where everything — music, libretto (which Wagner preferred to call the "poem"), scenary, costumes, lighting — became subservient to the drama depicted on stage. Of course, the idea of music being merely a subservient part of opera is absurd, and it only makes sense in Wagner's case because his music is so powerful and effective.

Rather than dividing an opera's story into song-like fragments, Wagner instead wrote long stretches of music with continuous melodic development and almost no repetition. The only time for applause in a Wagner opera is after the conclusion of an act, which is usually more than an hour (and sometimes more than two hours) after it began. The acts of Wagner's later operas are still some of the longer continuous pieces of music in Western music.

To hold the 15 hours of music in The Ring together, Wagner developed a system of motifs — phrase-like elements of music that symbolize various people, objects, and concepts, and which continually evolve, combine, and metamorphose over the course of the four operas.

But at the same time Wagner was revolutionizing opera composition in The Ring, he was also creating a stagework that is impossible to stage. The first opera begins at the bottom of the Rhine where Rhine-maidens swim around guarding their gold. Gods, giants, and dwarfs walk the stage, and an on-stage thunderstorm creates a rainbow that the characters use as a bridge. The Valkyries of the second opera are women who ride flying horses, Wotan's wife appears in a chariot drawn by two rams, and Brunnhilde is put to sleep at the top of a mountain surrounded by fire. In the third opera, Siegfried must forge a sword on stage and then use it to battle a dragon, and in the final opera the realm of the gods succumbs in a massive conflagration.

By 1857, Wagner had finished the music for the first two operas of The Ring, but neither opera had yet been staged, and it was not certain they ever would. After finishing about 2/3rds of the third Ring opera, Siegfried, he suspended work on the entire project. Wagner knew he had to write something more "practical," an opera that could be performed in an "ordinary theater" (Zuckerman, pg. 12) with far fewer characters than The Ring, easy sets, and no special effects. After getting the idea to compose an opera based on the ancient story of Tristan and Isolde, he couldn't get it out of his head.

Wagner wrote the text and the music for Tristan und Isolde in just over two years (which for Wagner constitutes a state of "white heat") and he completed the opera in August 1859 — 150 years ago this month.

Just prior to beginning Tristan and Isolde, Wagner had started reading the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, who quickly became Wagner's most significant philosophical influence. Schopenhauer's ideas reveal themselves throughout the opera. To Schopenhauer, man was in a perpetual state of unhappiness because of the difference between the phenomenal world that could be perceived, and the noumenal reality that cannot be perceived. All cravings and desires are directed towards the phenomenal world but they can never be fulfilled. Man can only achieve some kind of balance and peace through a negation of the will, and a letting-go of desire.

Of course, to speak of a "negation of the will" with respect to Wagner seems ridiculous. This is a man who had the biggest ego in all Europe, who trapped friends and acquaintainces in long readings of his dramas, and who believed that his every thought — even vile anti-Semitic rants — was worthy of publication. (One thing Wagner definitely proved was that it's not necessary to be a nice person to write great music.) How Wagner actually put Schopenhauer to practice in his personal life remains a mystery, but he certainly explored the implications in his work. When it became evident to both Schopenhauer and Wagner that the philosophy had a strong relationship to Buddhism, Wagner even planned writing an opera on Buddhist themes with reincarnated characters.

Although Schopenhauer's philosophy provides many of the ideas of Tristan und Isolde, the narrative elements came largely from the retelling of the legend in the early 13th century by Gottfried von Strassburg, who Wagner read in a modern German translation. Wagner stripped away extraneous details from the story (eliminating a second Isolde character, for example), and began his opera near the end of the tale.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde balances several conflicting concepts: The story is straight-forward without hidden codes or symbols, yet it lends itself to perpetual discussion and opinions. The opera is brainy but penetrating on a raw emotional level; musically daring in its use of chromaticism, yet ultimately reaffirming of traditional harmony.

The Prelude of the opera begins with three notes on the cellos and then a chord that announces to the world that a new era of harmony is dawning. The chord defies conventional harmonic analysis, and it has come to be known simply as the Tristan Chord. The chord unwinds, and then recombines, and motifs develop that we will hear throughout the opera, but in this Prelude — and much of the remainder of the opera — harmonic resolution will be elusive. We are instead set adrift in a turbulent uncertain dream-world.

Act I takes place on a ship, and Isolde is furious. She is royalty — a princess of Ireland — yet she is being abducted against her will and taken to Cornwall to marry King Marke. The man carrying out this insolent and humiliating plot is King Marke's nephew, the knight named Tristan.

This is not the first time Tristan and Isolde have crossed paths. They have a history, which Isolde now reveals to her maid, Brangäne. It was Tristan who killed her fiancé Morold in Cornwall and then sent his head back to Ireland, and it was also Tristan who, wounded in the battle, came to Isolde in disguise to take advantage of her healing arts. But Isolde was not fooled: By matching up the nick in Tristan's sword with the fragment in Morold's skull, she knew exactly who this man was, and she prepared to kill him as he lay wounded.

And now this Tristan is paying back Isolde's healing love by carrying her back to Cornwall to be King Marke's bride. She demands atonement from him by drinking with her, and she prepares poison for them both. They drink, and believing themselves to be on the verge of death, uncontrollably confess their love for each other. (Brangäne then reveals that she substituted a love potion for the poison, but it's often been noted that it's really the prospect of death that unleashes the passion — not any magical potion.)

The love-drunk duet between Tristan and Isolde is intense yet short-lived, for the ship is docking, King Marke is approaching, and neither Tristan nor Isolde barely know where they are or what's going on. "Cornwall hail!" the men on the ship sing as the curtain falls.

If Tristan and Isolde's love duet in Act I was unsatisfying short, Act II more than makes up for it. The setting is a garden outside Isolde's room in the early evening. Many of the men, including King Marke but not Tristan, have gone out hunting, and we can hear the hunting horns progressively getting fainter and fainter in the distance. Isolde is awaiting Tristan's arrival, and the music becomes more and more excited as he gets closer. When Tristan enters, the words of the duet tumble over each other in a chaotic and chromatic frenzy of passion. It slowly subsides in intensity, but evolves into a peculiar and potentially confusing discussion about day and night. Traditionally, the Enlightenment (as the word itself suggests) valued day and light as symbolizing knowledge. Yet, Tristan and Isolde seem to abhore the daylight and wish to retreat into the dark of night, and not only because it's the traditional time of love-making. This is a retreat into the undifferentiated void that is the nuomenal realm of Schopenhauer.

Soon, Tristan begins singing what sounds at first like a lullaby:

But the music builds in a gorgeous seductive swirl, and soon waves of climbing and descending motifs seem to suggest impossible yearning, and then melt into what is clearly (although some will deny it) the most sexually explicit music ever written. Just on the verge of musical climax, a scream from Brangäne interrupts the proceedings: The hunters have returned, and Tristan and Isolde have been discovered. King Marke is very disappointed with Tristan, and in a brief scuffle, Tristan allows himself to be seriously wounded.

In Act III, Tristan's servant Kurwenal has brought Tristan back to his home in Brittany. They are awaiting the arrival of Isolde, whose healing powers will help cure him of his wounds. A shepherd plays a plaintive melody on a pipe (and it is now that we realize that each of the three acts of the opera began with "natural" music — in Act I a sailor's song, in Act II the hunting horns, and now the shepherd). We learn much about Tristan's early life, and we know he seeks not life but death, and when Isolde does arrive, he tears off his bandages and dies. To the same yearning sexual music of the second acts, Isolde bids her farewell, often referred to as the Liebestod (love death) but which Wagner called the Verklärung (transfiguration).

The libretto calls for Isolde to sink over Tristan's body, but for at least the last half century, some directors have chosen something quite different: Isolde remains standing, either with her arms outstretched in triumph, or down by her side in defiance. What's interesting is that this option doesn't seem wrong. So much of Tristan und Isolde seems to exist not as literal action but as mental states of the two characters, and while the opera is customarily treated as a tragedy, it doesn't feel like a tragedy. We know that Tristan and Isolde are not going to meet together in heaven, but we know that the only possible place for them is in the undifferentiated void of unbeing. In a sense, Tristan und Isolde is a religous work — as profound and as beautiful as Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but for a post-religious world.

Although Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde in 1859, it had to wait until 1865 to be premiered. Earlier attempts at staging Tristan und Isolde were abandoned due to the strains the opera puts on its two leads, and the difficulty that singers had in learning the extremely chromatic score. (Wagner's attempt to create an easily performable opera entirely failed.) The opera sounds richly melodic to us now, but for early singers it made little musical sense and was effectively unperformable.

Wagner's opera career might have entirely collapsed around this time were it not for the patronage of young Ludwig II, who became King of Bavaria in 1864 at the age of 18. It was only with Ludwig II's help that Tristan und Isolde was performed, after which Wagner wrote Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1865), and then returned to complete The Ring, which was first performed in its entirety in 1876 at an opera house in Bayreuth built specifically for these operas. Wagner wrote one other opera, Parsifal (1882), after which he felt he had no more to say in the form. He died in 1883 at the age of 69.

Like Beethoven's 9th Symphony (1824) or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913), Tristan und Isolde is one of those rare works that break free of old constraints and demonstrate the potential of a whole new vocabulary of music. Most directly influenced by Wagner were Bruckner and Mahler, and later Richard Strauss. Debussy was forever wrestling with the ghost of Wagner. He parodied the Tristan Chord in "Golliwog's Cakewalk" and while composing his only real opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, deliberately tried to avoid sounding like Wagner. While Debussy was largely successful in making his opera sound not much like Wagner, it is impossible to imagine without Wagner's influence.

Perhaps the furthest reaching compositional influence of Wagner was through Arnold Schoenberg. You can certainly hear Wagner in Schoenberg's early string sextet of smouldering eroticism, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Like Wagner, Schoenberg attempted to stretch harmony to its breaking point, but then pursued a very non-Wagnerian solution. In the 1920s, Schoenberg completely re-axiomatized music with an atonal theory of harmony based on equal use of all 12 tones of the octave — a theory that affected almost every composer for the rest of the century.

Tristan und Isolde is still considered one of the most difficult operas to stage successfully — largely due to its lack of action and static sets — and it still presents enormous challenges for the two lead singers. The harmonic challenges that the opera presented 150 years ago have now been almost entirely absorbed, but that doesn't negate the power of its emotional punch, and surely not the sheer beauty of its music. Nothing else comes close.


Chage, Eric, The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Deathridge, John, and Carl Dahlhaus, The New Grove Wagner, W. W. Norton & Co, 1984.

Magee, Bryan, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Henry Holt & Co., 2000. Published in the UK under the title Wagner and Philosophy. Highly recommended.

Porter, Andrew, trans., Tristan und Isolde, English National Opera Guide, 1981.

Scruton, Roger, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tanner, Michael, Wagner, Princeton University Press, 1995.

Zuckerman, Elliott, The First Hundred Years of Wagner's Tristan, Columbia University Press, 1964.

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)