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Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde is about love: love repressed and unacknowledged, then helplessly and haplessly expressed, and fulfilled, after emotional torment, only through death.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner began his prose sketch for Tristan und Isolde on August 28, 1857, completed the poem that September 18, sketched the music between October 1857 and July 1859, and completed the autograph score in August 1859. The opera had its first performance on June 10, 1865, in Munich, with Hans von Bülow conducting. The Prelude alone had already been performed at a concert in Prague on March 12, 1859, under von Bülow. The first performance of the Prelude and Liebestod (“Love-death”), also before the premiere of the complete opera, and without soprano, was conducted by Wagner in Vienna on December 27, 1863.

The Prelude and Liebestod calls for an orchestra of 3 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Total duration is about 18 minutes.

Wagner typically took years bringing the subject matter of his operas to final shape, the most striking example being the chronology of his mammoth, four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen: following his readings of the Norse and Teutonic legends in the early 1840s, he produced his initial prose sketch for a drama based on the Nibelung myth in October 1848; but the final pages of Götterdämmerung, which closes the Ring cycle, were completed only in November 1874. Tristan und Isolde was composed (as was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) during the years following Wagner’s break from his work on the Ring, which occurred in July 1857, after he had reached the end of Siegfried, Act II. By that summer, hopes for the production of his Ring-in-progress were all but gone, and negotiations with his publishers were getting nowhere. There was no regular source of income, he had had no new work staged since the premiere of Lohengrin under Franz Liszt at Weimar in 1850, and so it was obviously time for something more likely to be produced than the Ring. This he thought he had found in the story of Tristan and Isolde. As early as December 1854 he had written to Liszt that “since never in my whole life have I tasted the real happiness of love, I mean to raise a monument to that most beautiful of dreams….I have in my mind a plan for Tristan und Isolde, the simplest but most full-blooded conception….” Now he wrote Liszt of his determination to finish Tristan “at once, on a moderate scale, which will make its performance easier….For so much I may assume that a thoroughly practicable work, such as Tristan is to be, will quickly bring me a good income and keep me afloat for a time.” (Even when this proved not to be the case, Wagner expressed naively similar sentiments as he turned to Die Meistersinger, assuring his publisher Schott that it would be “light, popular, easy to produce.”)

Another incentive to Wagner’s work on Tristan was his move to a cottage on the estate in Zurich of his friends Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Mathilde, in particular, had become an ardent Wagner devotee following a concert performance of the Tannhäuser Overture led by the composer in 1851. Otto was a successful German businessman and partner in a New York silk company. The Wesendoncks settled in Zurich in 1851, and it was at Mathilde’s instigation that Wagner and his wife Minna (whom he had married in 1836) were later provided lodging in a cottage on the Wesendonck estate. Here Wagner and Mathilde were drawn intimately together, and there is no question that the intensity of their relationship is to be felt in the music Wagner composed during that time.

Tristan und Isolde is about love: love repressed and unacknowledged, then helplessly and haplessly expressed, and fulfilled, after emotional torment, only through death. The Prelude is the musical expression of that unacknowledged love, and the opening phrases recur during Wagner’s opera when the love between Tristan and Isolde is unleashed by the dramatic device of the love potion, and, finally, when Tristan dies in Isolde’s arms. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that Tristan und Isolde represents the product of Wagner’s spiritual and emotional union with Mathilde Wesendonck through the channeling of his creative energies into music unlike any that had ever been heard before. In fact, Wagner’s use of dissonance in Tristan was startlingly new; the emphasis on unresolved dissonance and intense chromaticism was perfectly suited to that work’s depiction of heightened longing, and his music came to represent a turning point in the 19th century’s treatment of tonality.

When Tristan is staged, the Prelude dies away, leading after a moment of silence to the unaccompanied sailor’s song that opens the first scene. In the concert hall, however, it is frequently followed (either with or without soprano) by Isolde’s “Liebestod” (“Love-death”), which closes the opera. If the Prelude represents earthbound passion, the “Love-death” is spiritual transfiguration. In fact, Wagner himself referred to what we call the Prelude and Liebestod as, respectively, Liebestod and “Verklärung”—“transfiguration.” In the opera, Isolde literally wills herself out of existence, Tristan, her “death-devoted” lover, having died in her arms a short while earlier. Musically the Liebestod recapitulates and completes the second act’s interrupted “Liebesnacht” (“night of love”), wherein Tristan and Isolde’s tryst was abruptly ended by the sudden arrival of Isolde’s husband King Marke. As in the Prelude, the music begins softly and builds, almost in a single breath, to a thunderous climax. Regardless of whether the Liebestod is performed with or without voice, in the end music and text, sound and sense, are one.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.

The first BSO performance of the Tristan Prelude was led by Georg Henschel on February 17, 1883. The orchestra’s first performance of the combined Prelude and Liebestod (minus soprano) was on January 10, 1885, under Wilhelm Gericke, who also led the BSO’s first performance of the paired Prelude and Liebestod with soprano, featuring Lilli Lehmann, on May 19, 1886.