In the early 1850s, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) began reading the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schoepenhauer (admired, incidentally, by Nietzsche). For Schoepenhauer, music occupied a station above all other arts, including poetry, which meant that the text of an opera was relegated to a supporting role.
Wagner started to show symptoms of his exposure to Schoepenhauer by the mid-1850s, and, naturally, the composer’s major operatic project of the decade reflected this influence. Until Tristan und Isolde, no one had imagined the extent to which music alone could embody drama. In one long arc, Wagner lays bare the inner lives of the opera’s title characters, as their love, doomed from its beginning, finds fulfillment in death.
The Prelude and Liebestod (Love-Death) comprise the beginning and ending of the opera. The Prelude opens with the cellos softly playing four notes. The last note fades into an extraordinary chord played by oboes, bassoons, and English horn. This chord, the famous “Tristan chord,” sounds strange because it is an unresolved dissonance, an academic way of saying that it sounds like it's leading to something. But because Wagner, at this point, withholds resolution, the chord is, at this point, a beginning without an end. What follows is a lush orchestral work that charts the psychology of the opera, which itself explores the unexplainable, primal nature of love.
The chord returns during the course of the opera, but it is only resolved during the work’s final, ecstatic closing Liebestod. It is the culmination of the opera’s tragic events, set in motion when Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion. Tristan, though, has claimed Isolde on behalf of his lord, King Marke. When Marke discovers the lovers together, one of the king’s knights stabs Tristan, who returns to his fortress to die. Isolde has just arrived to find Tristan dead when the Liebestod begins. Her worldly surroundings fade away as she contemplates sinking unconscious into supreme bliss and finally consummating her love with Tristan in death. The passage builds to a climax as “waves of refreshing breezes” begin envelop Isolde (at the words “Heller schallend, mich umwallend”) and again as she imagines expiring in “the vast wave of the world’s breath” (“in des Welt-Atems wehendem All”). She sinks down as the winds, over luminous violins, float to a resolution of the chord from the Prelude.
- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also written for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.