Tristan Und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod

Richard Wagner

Prelude and Liebestod stands at the beginning and end of Wagner’s sensual Tristan und Isolde, an opera focusing on desire, illicit love and the fatal, inextricable combination of love and death.

These two excerpts, however, had already been heard in public before the opera’s premier in Munich at the Konigliches Hof und National Theater on June 10, 1865. The Prelude had debuted in Prague in March 1859, and the two were linked in a Parisian concert on January 25, 1860

with the composer conducting.  This orchestral fusion has long been played independently as a concert piece and has stood the test of time, to become one of the most beautiful and acclaimed works in Wagner’s writings.

It is hard to imagine that in this lush, romantic music a revolution was brewing, which happens within the first few measures.  The music begins with quiet tones from the celli and winds building a small chord, but the treatment of the chord and its ambiguity had enormous consequences. So enormous that the opening has been considered a “landmark in the development of western music.” Michael Rose, in The Birth of Opera, wrote that Wagner “began a process that led progressively but inexorably to the birth of atonality, the theories of Schoenberg, and the principals of 12 tone music, whose effects are with us still.” William Berger in Wagner Without Fear wrote, “From literally the first bar of the score, Wagner reinvents the art of music.”

Here is what occurred and what you will immediately hear. The music will slowly fuse, note by note, into a dissonant chord (known as the Tristan chord), which does not “behave” or move into a consonance.  Instead, the music moves by a step upward, into another dissonance with similar behavior. Harmonic expectation was not satisfied, and in this deliberate, tantalizing construction, a revolution in traditional tonal harmonic practice was at hand.  No longer does a composite sound (a chord) have to move in a certain way. It can simply exist as coloration or, in this case, a sound of continuing stress.

Traditionally a dissonance (uncomfortable sound) had been treated as a matter of momentary coloration which then moved (almost directly) to a consonance (a comfortable sound), which relieved and resolved all tension, “distress” and suspense created by the dissonance. In this case, Wagner does not provide the anticipated release. After first presenting a dissonant chord (composed of two tritones), he elects to repeat the structure.  The listener is “left hanging” so to speak. Eduard Hanslick commented, “The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde reminds us of one of the old Italian paintings of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body onto a reel.”  Wagner continues this effect throughout the Prelude, leading to growing intensity, only to be relieved by resolution in the Liebestod.   The cumulative effect was stunning, but not fully understood or acceptable to many who first heard the Prelude. So shocking, in fact, it was reported that several audience members fell into a swoon upon hearing the notes for the first time. Wagner intended instability and danger: the lack of harmonic fulfillment represented the angst and torture of unfilled love between Tristan und Isolde.

On July 5, 1865 the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung noted, “Not to mince words, it [the opera] is the glorification of sensual pleasure, tricked out with every titillating device…the most ideal of the Muses has been made to grind the colors for indecent paintings… Wagner makes sensuality itself the true subject of his drama we think that the stage presentation of the poem Tristan und Isolde amounts to an act of indecency.” On his part, in December 1854, Wagner 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…and it will quickly bring me a good income and keep me afloat for a time.”  Later, with great pride, he commented on the significance of his opera saying, “Tristan is and remains a miracle to me! I find it more and more difficult to understand how I could have done such a thing: when I read through it again, my eyes and ears fell open with amazement… I have far overstepped the limits of what we are capable of achieving in this field.” (L. Wright)

The Prelude (langsam und schmachtend) opens softly and slowly to the special chord. There is a pause, and again, a tone higher, the idea repeats with another pause: more music and another pause… as if the music cannot move forward. Suddenly there is a large chord, and the music unfolds seamlessly into a poignant theme sung by strings with coloration from the horns. From time to time, winds make small commentaries. Gradually the music moves into a surge of passion but submerges once again into its opening reluctance with gentle repetitions of the opening measures of the theme. The static nature of this behavior underscores the impossibility of any hope of happiness. Two pizzicato from the lower strings seal this part with the instructions “attacca”, meaning go ahead immediately.  In Wagner’s music dramas, the action and the music were continuous.

The orchestral Liebestod, an arrangement of Isolde’s Act 3 aria Mild une leise, begins by echoing the softness and tentative nature of the Prelude.  Instructions are to play sehr mässig beginnend. The music begins from the bass clarinette moving slowly in combination with horns supported by shimmering strings declaiming the “longing motif,” which becomes combined with the “transfiguration motif” of love.  After harp arpeggios, the tempo increases (etwas bewegter: moving ahead), and there is increasing activity. The orchestra texture thickens steadily: soaring rhapsodic populate the score with repetitions of the opening idea. Notice herein the beautiful scoring for the harp. Gradually, the music becomes more passionate, accelerating with increasing dynamics until a massive climax of the longing motif and transfiguration motif. The conclusion moves to a thinner texture, moving slowly with resignation to the glimmering final chord. At this time in the opera, Tristan has died and Isolde falls over his body, holding him in her arms as if in a trance as she is transformed into the higher plane of existence into unmitigated bliss in their ultimate unity. Tragically, only by death.  Death is the key to fulfillment. Thus the title Liebestod: love-death. In Wagner’s mind the two were tightly connected. He forecast the ending in Act II, when the lovers sang; “Oh might we then together die… each to each be given in love alone, our heaven.”

Isolde’s final aria re-iterates this conviction. Her words are:

“Breathe my life away in sweet scents?

In the billowing torrent

In the resonating sound

In the universal stream of the World breath.

To drown, to be engulfed, to be unconscious, utmost rapture.”

Holding back the music gains energy and fulfillment through ineffable sweetness and consonant releases. The orchestration becomes larger as the drama moves toward its passionate and infinitely sad conclusion.  At this time in the opera, Tristan has died and Isolde falls over his body, holding him in her arms as she is transformed into the higher plane of existence in heaven.  Timpani strokes underscore the increasing tempo in a steady accelerando moving, as it were, toward a higher plane: an inevitability of their union into the World Soul. Note the repetitions of the Liebestod motif  “death of love,” which is a five-note pattern, as if the music is stuck on one idea, marking the futility and disaster of the love between Tristan and Isolde.  Eventually, the music moves into a major key and resolution of the “special chord,” which recurs many times in the work. Finally, in this musical resolution, there is unmitigated bliss. Sadly, the only means of arriving at this point for the two lovers was through death and transfiguration.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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