Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

Program note

…it is here that music, as possibly never before, enacts and describes the psychology at the basis of his drama. With this, and the large scale use of unresolved dissonance, music itself would never be quite the same again…

PROGRAM NOTE
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: PRELUDE AND LIEBESTOD [LOVE-DEATH]

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is arguably the Romantic opera par excellence. With its setting in the Celtic dreamtime of Arthurian legend, use of magic potions and the central theme of fatally unrequited love, Tristan has it all.

Wagner interrupted work on Siegfried, the third opera in his massive Ring cycle to compose Tristan between 1856 and 1859, and it was first performed in Munich in 1865. In some respects it seems that Wagner needed time out from the scale and complexity of the Ring dramas; Tristan, with its much simpler plot, enabled Wagner to refine his musical and dramatic means of depicting the psychology of his characters. It was also at about this time that Wagner became deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophy was an amalgam of certain Buddhist teachings with a very German pessimism. Put simply, Schopenhauer argued that the liberation of the soul came about through the renunciation of the will to live. This was a perfect fit with Wagner’s long-held obsession with redemption through renunciation (his heroines are forever throwing themselves off cliffs or into funeral pyres to save the men they love). In Tristan and Isolde death is not only the goal of life, it is the ultimate consummation of erotic passion.

The Tristan story is an ancient Celtic legend, but Wagner based his version on that of Gottfried von Strassburg who wrote at the beginning of the 13th century. Tristan is accompanying Isolde from Ireland to her wedding to King Mark in Cornwall. They have some history: Tristan had killed Isolde’s former betrothed in battle, but had found himself in her care when he himself was wounded. Now seeking revenge, Isolde orders her servant to prepare a death-potion, but the well-meaning servant substitutes a love potion which both Tristan and Isolde drink. Act II of the opera is effectively a long love duet, though the lovers are discovered by King Mark at a crucial moment. Tristan is wounded and is carried off to his castle on the Breton coast where he dies in Isolde’s arms. She then sings the famous Liebestod and dies in ecstatic expectation of their reunion beyond the grave. 

While the drama is very simple, Wagner’s music is revolutionary in the way in which it depicts unrequited love. In essence, the music of the whole opera avoids any conventional resolution of dissonance until the very end. The Prelude opens with three unaccompanied notes which land on the so-called ‘Tristan chord’, a dissonant chord which in traditional harmonic ‘syntax’ can lead anywhere: here it is followed by a second, marginally less dissonant chord. Throughout the Prelude this use of unresolved dissonance, and sequences which promise a climax but never quite fulfil it, gives the music its sense of mounting erotic tension.

The Liebestod uses music heard in the Act II duet. Here Wagner uses common (mainly major) chords, but the music moves restlessly from one key to another, again avoiding any sense of repose. In the duet the expected climax was foiled by the arrival of King Mark, represented by a hideous forte discord. Here, however, as Isolde sings her transfigured vision of Tristan, and ‘drowns, sinks unconscious’ in ‘supreme bliss’, the music finally discovers a radiant and serene B major.

Wagner described the work as ‘more thoroughly musical than anything I have done up until now’ and it is here that music, as possibly never before, enacts and describes the psychology at the basis of his drama. With this, and the large scale use of unresolved dissonance, music itself would never be quite the same again.

© Gordon Kerry, 2004

Reprinted by permission of Symphony Services Australia

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