Rodolfo and Mimì discover their love pretty quickly compared to Richard Wagner’s storied couple, Tristan and Isolde. Their tale takes forever to unfold, especially in operatime – some five hours in fact. Isn’t the dénouement all the sweeter after such a big build up, though? Most lovers would certainly agree, as would Wagner fans.
One of the most famous musical aspects of Tristan und Isolde is the so-called “Tristan chord,” which is heard in the very first seconds of the prelude. These notes create a harmonic equivalent to the agitation and anxiousness of the lovers, never finding harmony (or harmonic resolution) until the end of the opera when the lovers find peace only in death. “Love Night and Transfiguration” is an amalgamation of dramatic music from the opera. How this version came to be is an interesting saga.
“Franz Liszt created a concert hall work [in which he joined the beginning and end of the opera], his so-called ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ – which was never approved by Wagner. Furthermore, the title ‘Liebestod’ was misused by Liszt: that is actually the name which Wagner gave to the prelude, not the end of his opera, which he called ‘Transfiguration’ (Verklärung),” relates John Mauceri, who has edited the version we hear tonight.
“In the 1930s, Leopold Stokowski, then music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, created an orchestral work based on the Love Night from the end of Act Two. It ended as the second act ends, with the shocking entrance of King Mark, Isolde’s husband. (In the opera, the audience must wait another hour or so for the love music to find its conclusion, with Isolde’s Transfiguration (the misnamed ‘Liebestod’).
“When the historic recording of Stokowski’s Wagner synthesis was released (on many 78s!) the public objected to the inconclusive and unfulfilling ending. Stokowski and his Philadelphians went back into the studio and replaced the last two disks with the ending of the opera. Thus an audience can hear the entire arch of Wagner’s love music in one orchestral movement.”
Over the years Stokowski continued to conduct his famous “transcription” and eventually re-recorded it in the 1960s (he gave a performance of it in 1945 at the Hollywood Bowl). John Mauceri has taken Stokowski’s recordings and his various scores and edited a new performing edition, which is receiving its first performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion tonight.
The music begins as the two lovers are about to rendezvous secretly in the dark of night. A “night hunt” (portrayed in the music by offstage brass) was arranged, from which Tristan will slip out. He arrives and draws Isolde to a flowery riverbank for their central love duet, “Nacht der Liebe” (Love Night). The duet foreshadows the approaching tragedy, as they sing of an infinite loving union in death, “O ew’ge Nacht” (Oh, eternal night). Their nearly-consummated passion is represented by a towering orchestral climax, abruptly halted by the intervention of armed interlopers led by Merlot, jealous of Tristan’s love for Isolde, and King Mark, Isolde’s husband. Merlot strikes Tristan with his sword.
As the last scenes unfold, Tristan is wounded, delirious. He slips in and out of consciousness; his music becomes infinitely, ecstatically protracted. As Isolde enters, Tristan dies in her arms. Her “transfiguration” begins, the ultimate consummation, or union, in death, as she sinks onto his body, mystically united with him at last. At this point, Wagner finally resolves “the chord,” signaling ultimate peace and release for the anguished lovers.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He also is a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.