Saturday, 13 February 2016


“Let no one who loves be called altogether unhappy. Even love unreturned has its rainbow.” - J.M. Barrie

In the early 1850s, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) began reading the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schoepenhauer (1788-1860). 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 resonated to this ad he started to show evidence of his exposure to Schoepenhauer by the mid-1850s. “Tristan und Isolde”, the composer’s major operatic project of the decade reflected this influence and the music of the opera assumed an overarching role, soaring above and beyond the lyrics.

Until “Tristan und Isolde”, no one had quite imagined the extent to which music alone could embody drama. In one long musical utterance, 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 is leading to something which our ear finds acceptable and “final”. 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” i.e. “Sounding more clearly, wafting around me”) 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 final and satisfying resolution of the “Tristan chord” from the Prelude.

Here is the orchestral version of the “Prelude and Liebestod” played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti.

And here is Stephen Fry exploring the “Tristan chord” and its significance to modern music.

And the painting above is “Tristan and Iseult” depicted by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853–1922).

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm...a bit too Joan Crawford tear jerker for my tastes. . Once Hollywood gets hold of a piece it is ruined for all time for me.Wagner? I could never understand how anyone could sit through the Ring Cycle.Neither could any of the orchestral musicians LOL Although when I was young and highly emotionally charged I did love this piece, especially the showcasing of the cor anglais ... Sad George Solti has left us.I like seeing what you come up with on Saturdays.Thank you Nicholas for all the effort that you put into your most interesting blog:)