THE STORY BEHIND: Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde: Prelude & Libestod
Title: Tristan and Isolde: Prelude & Liebestod
Composer: Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Last time performed by the Rhode Island Philharmonic: October 18, 2008
Orchestration: This piece is scored for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, timpani and strings.
The eternal story of lovers who can never be united—except in death. That is the theme of the two greatest love tragedies of the Western world: Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. Richard Wagner conceived the idea of an operatic Tristan and Isolde in 1854 under the influence of readings from Arthur Schopenhauer and his own love for a woman, Mathilde Wesendonk. Wagner had completed Die Walküre for The Ring cycle in 1856, and by the end of that year he was working on the libretto to Tristan. The following August, the composer broke off work on The Ring entirely to devote himself to composing Tristan. Exactly three years later, work was completed on what may be the most consummate realization of Wagner’s ideal “music drama” and possibly the greatest of his operas.
The famous opening of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde interlocks two of the opera’s most important melodies. This leads to a long build in the music that drives relentlessly to the Prelude’s sensuous climactic moment.
In a program note written in 1860, Wagner writes of the: “. . . longing, longing, insatiable longing, forever springing up anew, pining and thirsting. . . . In one extended succession of linked phrases . . . that insatiable longing swells from the first, timid avowal . . . through anxious sighs, hopes and fears, bliss and torment . . . into the seas of lovers’ endless delight. But in vain!“
In the final scene of the opera, Tristan dies in Isolde’s arms. Now in a shocked trance, she sings her final soliloquy. Though filled with emotion, the orchestral music in this scene projects a strange, consoling sweetness rather than dark tragedy. At last, Isolde joins Tristan in the only way possible, as Wagner wrote:
“Death, which means passing away, perishing, never awakening, their only deliverance. . . . Shall we call this realm Death? Or is it not rather the wonder- world of Night, from which, as legend tells, the ivy and the vine grew from the graves of Tristan and Isolde to entwine in inseparable embrace?“
Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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