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About this Piece

In the 1850s Wagner was a composer on the run. While Kapellmeister to the King of Saxony, Wagner had taken active part in the republican insurrection of 1848. When Prussian troops gained control of Dresden in 1849, he was forced to flee, first to the shelter of Franz Liszt in Weimar, then to Switzerland on a fake passport.

Among the other political refugees in Switzerland was Georg Herwegh, who introduced Wagner to the quietly radical philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in the fall of 1854. Schopenhauer's Buddhist-derived ideas about release from the karmic cycle of suffering through denial of the will were pivotal for Wagner's subsequent music dramas, as was Schopenhauer's esthetic elevation of music above the other arts.

"I have now become exclusively preoccupied with a man who - albeit only in literary form - has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven," Wagner wrote to Liszt in December 1854 in a letter in which he also makes his earliest reference to Tristan. "It is Arthur Schopenhauer, the greatest philosopher since Kant, whose ideas - as he himself puts it - he is the first person to think through to their logical conclusion... His principal idea, the final denial of the will to live, is of terrible seriousness, but it is uniquely redeeming."

This being Wagner, there was much more to come before Tristan and Isolde had its premiere in Munich nearly eleven years later. Wagner wrote his own librettos, drawing on painstakingly researched historical models and many conceptual sources, progressing from prose sketches to completed librettos with extensive revision at every step. Wagner's main narrative source for Tristan and Isolde was the epic Tristan by 13th-century poet Gottfried von Strassburg. In The Music of the Future (1860), Wagner wrote that with Tristan he "plunged into the inner depths of soul events, and from the innermost center of the world, I fearlessly built up its outer form. A glance at the contents of this poem will show you at once that I have rejected the exhaustive detail which an historical poet is obliged to employ so as to clarify the outward developments of his plot, to the detriment of a lucid exposition of its innner motives, and I have trusted myself to the latter alone."

The musical precursors of the Tristan chord and the haunted opening phrases of the opera are almost as numerous and varied as are its aftershocks, ranging from the slow movement of Mozart's String Quartet K. 428 to Louis Moreau Gottschalk's sentimental piano meditation The Last Hope, which had just started its popular rounds in 1854. A more immediate influence was Hans von Bülow's orchestral fantasy Nirvana, which Wagner had been studying in detail in October 1854, just as he was starting to sketch the Tristan text. (He did not begin musical sketches for another two years.) Nirvana includes intimations of both the opening of Tristan and a parallel transfiguration/resolution at the end. Several songs by Liszt also suggest the Tristan chord, and Liszt's ideas about chromatic harmony, and thematic transformation generally, were highly influential on Wagner.

By 1859 Wagner had finally finished the music for Tristan and was trying to get the work staged. Wagner considered Tristan an entirely practical piece, but it was planned or proposed for stages in Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Rio de Janeiro (!), Dresden, Hanover, Stuttgart, Prague, Vienna, and Paris with only frustration as results. Wagner came to realize that while Tristan's production requirements might be comparatively modest, its musical demands on the principals and orchestra exceeded anything then known.

It is these demands that made the score the landmark that it is. The two lead singers carry most of the burden, needing extraordinary musicianship and stamina as well as superlative acting skills, but the large orchestra is also kept continuously challenged with chromatic polyphony and coloristic effects ranging from piercing blasts to the most delicate solos.

Wagner had begun conducting what we now call the Prelude and Liebestod (Love-death) as instrumental excerpts from Tristan years before the opera was finally staged in Munich in 1865. But in those orchestral performances, Wagner called the prelude Liebestod and labeled the close of the opera Transfiguration. That gets at the conceptual and musical core more pertinently, for the famous prelude does encapsulate the yearning of a love hanging between past and future death. The prelude is the first of the work's great A-B-A arches, and its crest musically prefigures the climax of the first act.

After the prelude, a sailor sings an unaccompanied song, which goads Isolde into recounting the circumstances of her position to her maid Brangäne in several exchanges. Wagner's concern for the "lucid exposition of inner motives" is apparent here in the way the orchestra interprets the ambiguities of the text. Every time that Isolde refers to Tristan gazing in her eyes (or evading her glance), the big cresting tune from the prelude is heard behind her. Though Isolde is slow to reveal or even recognize her love for Tristan verbally, the orchestra makes her feelings plain.

The use of recurring musical fragments, or leitmotifs, to identify and develop dramatic elements, is a commonly discussed feature of Wagner's later operas. Encyclopedias have been written cataloging the leitmotifs of the Ring tetralogy, and similar efforts have been made with Tristan. Here though, the leitmotifs are generally more plastic and less specific, with different commentators ascribing different meanings to the same fragments. The ear soon makes the important connections, however. For example, after the unseen sailor sings his song again, Isolde refers directly to Tristan, supported by the opening bits of the prelude in the orchestra, until she cries out "Todgeweihtes Haupt" (Death-devoted head). The woodwinds blast a loud A-flat chord, subsiding into a hushed A chord in the brass. Wagner brings back this quite recognizable effect many times, in places where the text refers to death and Tristan, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Wagner himself did not use the term leitmotif. What he considered his "most delicate and profound art" was the art of transition. "My greatest masterpiece in the art of the most delicate and gradual transition is without doubt the great scene in the second act of Tristan and Isolde," the composer wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck in October 1859. "The opening of this scene presents a life overflowing with all the most violent emotions - its ending the most solemn and heartfelt longing for death. These are the pillars: and now you see, child, how I have joined these pillars together, and how the one of them leads over into the other. This, after all is the secret of my musical form, which, in its unity and clarity over an expanse that encompasses every detail, I may be bold enough to claim has never before been dreamt of."

The transition Wagner referred to is the passage from day to night during the lover's tryst. This is a seething sea of leitmotifs, and the transition is as much emotional as it is pictorial. "To enjoy Tristan it is only necessary to have had one serious love affair; and though the number of persons possessing this qualification is popularly exaggerated, yet there are enough to keep the work alive and vigorous," George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1889. "In England it is not yet familiar; we contentedly lap dose after dose of such pap as the garden scene in Gounod's Faust and think we are draining the cup of stage passion to the dregs. The truth is that all the merely romantic love scenes ever turned into music are pallid beside the second act of Tristan. It is an ocean of sentiment, immensely German, and yet universal in its appeal to human sympathy."

Act III opens bleakly, with its own string-dominated prelude. This act is in many ways a bookend to Act I, only centered on Tristan rather than Isolde (her Liebestod notwithstanding). A shepherd plays an unaccompanied instrumental tune that parallels the sailor's song from the beginning, a tune that finally calls the wounded Tristan to life, where he reflects on his past and his hopes, confiding in his friend Kurwenal as Isolde did with Brangäne in Act I. As Tristan's agitation and excitement increase, the music moves rapidly through different key signatures and meters, including a climactic passage in 5/4 just before Isolde's arrival.

Wagner's choice of the word Transfiguration (Verklärung) for Isolde's final solo is apt, for that is what is happening musically as well as existentially. Many of the opera's leitmotifs - particularly those from Isolde's anticipation in Act II - are taken up and transfigured in amazing combinations that make powerful emotional as well as musical connections, a symphonic mix of interactive elements that sustains a soaring apotheosis that not only finally resolves the Tristan chord and the opening musical ambiguities, but transfigures the human passions.

Despite the Schopenhaurian renunciation, for some listeners Tristan represented not the denial of the will, but its self-absorbed vaunting. The lure Tristan exerts seemed like an intoxicating and highly addictive drug to its admirers and detractors alike. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, once the most ardent of Wagnerites, came to view Wagner's music dramas as sensuously sick enticements to moral corruption, without ever losing his craving for them. In 1888 he wrote, "to this day I am still looking for a work of equally dangerous fascination, of an equally shivery and sweet infinity, as Tristan - and I look in all the arts, in vain..."

- John Henken