Wagner Prelude and Liebestod Tristan & Isolde

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Wagner Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde Program Notes

Richard Wagner Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde Program Notes. Tristan & Isolde could have been a simple story of tragic courtly love, borrowed by Wagner from twelfth-century legend: King Mark of Cornwall sends his nephew, Tristan, to pick up his young bride, Isolde, from Ireland. Isolde was a healer, which is how she and Tristan had previously met. She had saved his life through her healing powers, learning along the way that Tristan’s injuries were from fighting her newly deceased fiancé). Onboard the ship, she instructs her servant Brangäne to prepare a deadly poison. For reasons of courtly honor, Tristan agrees to drink it with her, but Brangäne has replaced it with a powerful love potion instead.

With Tristan, Wagner divorces the music from some of the tonic-dominant relationships we may hear in classical music from the 1600s onwards. The idea of undermining the loyalty to King Mark and societal structures, and even the murky voyage through the Irish Sea and to Cornwall, England’s southern tip, is hinted at in the opening minutes of the opera. The concept of a forbidden love, a love that must be secret, or even the love which cannot speak its name (closeted love) was a theme that has connected with audiences since 1865. And the harmonic ambiguity of the opening chords blew open the possibilities in classical music, with direct lines from Wagner to Debussy, Mahler, Strauss, Berg, Schoenberg and countless other.

Prelude and Liebestod takes the opening (up to distant bass and cello pizzicatos), then cuts to the end of the opera. Tristan was terribly wounded in a duel, with Tristan and Isolde’s efforts at secrecy at the court of her husband, King Mark, failed. Isolde arrives and Tristan dies in her arms; she faints. Newly apprised of the love potion and willing to bless their love, King Mark arrives too late. Roused, Isolde sings her vision of Tristan alive, as if recounting the bliss of being aware of someone to the exclusion of the rest of the world. From this heightened place, she dies, of love.

Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883, Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, Venice, Italy

Categories: Program Notes