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Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner

by Luca

A vassal is sent to woo a beauteous princess for his lord. While he is bringing her home the two, by accident, drink a love potion, and ever thereafter their hearts are fettered together. In the midday of delirious joy, in the midnight of deepest woe, their thoughts are only of each other, for each other. Meanwhile the princess has become the vassal’s queen. Then the wicked love of the pair is discovered, and the knight is obliged to seek safety in a foreign land. There (strange note this to our ears) he marries another princess whose name is like that of his love, save for the addition With the White Hand; but when wounded unto death he sends across the water for her who is still his true love, that she come and be his healer. The ship which is sent to bring her is to bear white sails on its return if successful in the mission; black, if not. Day after day the knight waits for the coming of his love while the lamp of his life burns lower and lower. At length the sails of the ship appear on the distant horizon. The knight is now himself too weak to look. “White or black?” he asks of his wife. “Black,” replies she, jealousy prompting the falsehood; and the knight’s heart-strings snap in twain just as his love steps over the threshold of his chamber. Oh, the pity of it ! for with the lady is her lord, who, having learned the story of the fateful potion, has come to unite the lovers. Then the queen, too, dies, and the remorseful king buries the lovers in a common grave, from whose caressing sod spring a rose-bush and a vine and intertwine so curiously that none may separate them.’
Upon the ancient legend which has thus been out-lined Wagner reared his great tragedy entitled “Tristan und Isolde.” Whence the story came nobody can tell. It is a part of the great treasure preserved from remotest antiquity by itinerant singers and story-tellers, and committed to writing by poets of the Middle Ages. The first of these, so far as unquestioned evidence goes, were French trouvères. From them the tale passed into the hands of the German minnesinger. The greatest of these who treated it was Gottfried von Strasburg (circa A.D. 1210), who, however, left the tale unfinished. His continuators were Ulrich von Türnheim and Heinrich von Freiberg, whose denouement (not, however, original with them) was followed by Hermann Kurtz when he published a version of Gottfried’s poem in modern German in 1844. This, unquestionably, was the version which fell into Wagner’s hands when, in the Dresden period (1843–1849) he devoted himself assiduously to the study of Teutonic legend and mythology. In English the romance has an equally honorable literary record. In 1804 Sir Walter Scott edited a metrical version which he fondly believed to be the work of the some-what mythical Thomas the Rhymer and to afford evidence that the oldest literary form of the legend was British. The adventures of Tristram of Lyonesse (who is the Tristan of Wagner’s tragedy) form a large portion of Sir Thomas Malory’s thrice glorious “Morte d’Arthur.” Of modern poets Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and Swinburne have sung the passion of the ill-starred lovers.
Elements of the legend can be traced back to the ancient literatures of the Aryan peoples. The courtship by proxy has a prototype in Norse mythology in Skirnir’s wooing of Gerd for Van Frey. The incident of the sails belongs to Greek story — the legend of AEgeus and Theseus; the magic potion may be found in ancient Persian romance; the interlocked rose-tree and vine over the grave of the lovers is an example of those floral auguries and testimonies which I have mentioned in connection with the legend of Tannhäuser and the blossoming staff : in token of their innocence flowers spring miraculously from the graves of persons wrongly done to death.
A legend which lives to be retold often is like a mirror which reflects not only the original picture, but also the social and moral surroundings of different relators. So this ancient tale has been varied by the poets who have told it; and of these variants the most significant are those made by Wagner. If the ethical scheme of the poet-composer is to be observed, the chief of these must be kept in mind. In the poems of Gottfried, Arnold, and Swinburne the love potion is drunk accidentally and the passion which leads to the destruction of the lovers is a thing for which they are in nowise responsible. Wagner puts antecedent and conscious guilt at the door of both of his heroic characters; they love each other before the dreadful drinking and do not pay the deference to the passion which in the highest conception it demands. Tristan is carried away by love of power and glory before man and Isolde is at heart a murderer and suicide. The potion is less the creator of an uncontrollable passion than it is an agency which makes the lovers forget honor, duty, and respect for the laws of society. Tennyson omits all mention of the potion and permits us to imagine Tristram and Iseult as a couple of ordinary sinners. Swinburne and Arnold follow the old story touching the hero’s life in Brittany with the second Iseult (she of the White Hand) ; but while Swinburne preserves her a “maiden wife,” Arnold gives her a family of children. Wagner ennobles his hero by omitting the second Isolde, thus bringing the story into greater sympathy with modern ideas of love and exalting the passion of the lovers.
The purpose to write a Tristan drama was in Wagner’s mind three years before he began its execution. While living in Zurich, in 1854, he had advanced as far as the second act of his “Siegfried” when, in a moment of discouragement, he wrote to Liszt: “As I have never in my life enjoyed the true felicity of love, I shall erect to this most beautiful of my dreams” (i.e. the drama on which he was working) “a monument in which, from beginning to end, this love shall find fullest gratification.
I have sketched in my head a `Tristan und Isolde,’ the simplest of musical conceptions, but full-blooded; with the `black flag’ which waves at the end I shall then cover myself — to die.” Three years later he took up the project, but under an inspiration vastly different from that notified to Liszt. The tragedy was not to be a monument to a mere dream of felicity or to his artistic despair, but a tribute to a consuming passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of a benefactor who had given him an idyllic home at Triebschen, on the Lake of Lucerne. Mme. Wesendonck was the author of the two poems “Im Treibhaus” and “Traume,” which, with three others from the same pen, Wagner set to music. The first four were published in the winter of 1857-1858; the last, “Im Treibhaus,” on May 1, 1858. The musical theme of “Träume” was the germ of the love-music in the second act of “Tristan und Isolde”; out of “Im Treibhaus” grew some of the introduction to the third act. The tragedy was outlined in prose in August, 1857, and the versification was finished by September 18. The music was complete by July 16, 1859. Wagner gave the pencil sketches of the score to Mme. Wesendonck, who piously went over them with ink so that they might be preserved for posterity.
In 1857 Wagner had been eight years an exile from his native land. Years had passed since he began work on “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and there seemed to him little prospect of that work receiving either publication or performance. In May of that year he received an invitation from Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, to write an opera for Rio de Janeiro and direct its production. Two and a half years before he had seriously considered the project of coming to America for a concert tour; so the invitation did not strike him as so strange and extraordinary as it might have appeared to a musician of less worldly wisdom. It is not likely that he took it seriously into consideration, but at any rate it turned his thoughts again to the opera which he had mentioned to Liszt. With it he saw an opportunity for again establishing a connection with the theatre. Dom Pedro wanted, of course, an Italian opera. Wagner’s plan contemplated the writing of “Tristan und Isolde” in German, its translation into Italian, the dedication of its score to the Emperor of Brazil, with the privilege of its performance there and a utilization of the opportunity, if possible, to secure a production beforehand of “Tannhäuser.” Meanwhile, he would have the drama produced in its original tongue at Strasburg, then a French city conveniently near the German border, with Albert Niemann in the titular rôle and an orchestra from Karlsruhe, or some other German city which had an opera-house. He communicated the plan to Liszt, who approved of the project heartily, though he was greatly amazed at the intelligence which he had from another source that Wagner intended to write the music with an eye to a performance in Italian. “How in the name of all the gods are you going to make of it an opera for Italian singers, as B. tells me you are? Well, since the incredible and impossible have be-come your elements, perhaps you will achieve this, too,” Liszt wrote to him, and promised to go to Strasburg with a Wagnerian coterie to act as a guard of honor for the composer. Nothing came of either plan. Inspired by his love for Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner wrote the opera and succeeded in selling the score to Breitkopf & Hartel for the equivalent of $800. Then began the hunt for a theatre in which to give the first representation. Eduard Devrient urged Karlsruhe, where he was director, but Wagner wanted to supervise the production, and this was impossible in a theatre of Germany so long as the decree of banishment for participation in the Saxon rebellion hung over his head. The Grand Duke of Baden appealed to the King of Saxony to recall the decree, but in vain. Wagner went to Paris and Brussels, but had to content himself with giving concerts. Weimar, Prague, and Hanover were considered in order, and at length Wagner turned to Vienna. There the opera was accepted for representation at the Court Opera, but after fifty-four rehearsals between November, 1862, and March, 1863, it was abandoned as “impossible.”
The next year saw the turning-point in Wagner’s career. Ludwig of Bavaria invited him to come to Munich, the political ban was removed, and “Tristan und Isolde” had its first performance, to the joy of the composer and a host of his friends, on June 10, 1865, at the Royal Court Theatre of the Bavarian capital, under the direction of Hans von Bulow. The rôles of Tristan and Isolde were in the hands of Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife. Albert Niemann was prevented by the failure of the Strasburg plan from being the first representative of the hero, but to him fell the honor of setting the model for all American representations. The first performance in the United States took place in the Metropolitan Opera-house on December 1, 1886, under the direction of Anton Seidl. The cast was as follows : Isolde, Lilli Lehmann ; Brangane, Marianne Brandt ; Tristan, Albert Niemann ; Kurwenal, Adolf Robinson ; Konig Marke, Emil Fischer ; Melot, Rudolph von Milde ; ein Hirt, Otto Kemlitz ; ein Steuermann, Emil Saenger; ein Seemann, Max Alvary.
Two circumstances bid us look a little carefully into the instrumental prelude with which Wagner has prefaced his drama. One is that it has taken so prominent a place in the concert-room that even those whose love for pure music has made them indifferent to the mixed art-form called the opera ought to desire acquaintance with its poetical and musical contents ; the other is that the prelude, like the overture to “Fidelio” known as “Leonore No. 3,” presents the spiritual progress of the tragedy from beginning to end to the quickened heart and mind of the listener freed from all material integument. To do this it makes use of the themes which are most significant in the development of the psychology of the drama, which is far and away its most important element, for the pictures are not many, and the visible action is slight. Listening to the music without thought of the drama, and, therefore, with no purpose of associating it with the specific conceptions which later have exposition in the text, we can hear in this prelude an expression of an ardent longing, a consuming hunger which doth make The meat it feeds on, a desire that cannot be quenched, yet will not despair. Then, at the lowest ebb of the sweet agony, an ecstasy of hope, a wildly blissful contemplation of a promise of reward. If I depart here for a brief space from my announced purpose not to analyze the music in the manner of the Wagnerian commentators, it will be only because the themes of the prelude are the most pregnant of those employed in the working out of the drama, because their specific significance in the purpose of the composer is plainly set forth by their association with scenes and words, and because they are most admirably fitted by structure and emotional content to express the things attributed to them. The most important of the themes is that with which the prelude begins.
Note that it is two-voiced and that one voice ascends chromatically (that is, in half steps), and the other descends in the same manner. In the aspiring voice there is an expression of longing; in the descending, of suffering and dejection. We therefore may look upon it as a symbol of the lovers and their passion in a dual aspect. After an ex-position of this theme there enters another.
In the play the first of these two is associated with the character of the hero; the second with the glance which Tristan cast upon Isolde when she was about to kill him — the glance which inspired the love of the princess. Two modifications of the principal theme provide nearly all the rest of the material used in the building up of the prelude. The first is a diminution of the motif compassed by the second and third measures, which by reiteration develops the climax of the piece.
The second is a harmonized inversion of the same short figure, preceded by a jubilantly ascending scale.
This is the expression of the ecstasy of hope, the wildly blissful contemplation of a promise of reward of which I have spoken. Wagner tells us what the thing hoped for, the joy contemplated in expectation, is, not only in the drama, but also in an exposition of the contents of the prelude made for concert purposes. He deserves that it shall be known, and I reproduce it in the translation of William Ashton Ellis. After rehearsing the legend down to the drinking of the fateful philtre, he says : —
The musician who chose this theme for the prelude to his love drama, as he felt that he was now in the boundless realm of the very element of music, could only have one care : how he should set bounds to his fancy, for the exhaustion of the theme was impossible. Thus he took, once for all, this insatiable desire. In long-drawn accents it surges up, from its first timid confession, its softest attraction, through sobbing sighs, hope and pain, laments and wishes, delight and torment, up to the mightiest onslaught, the most powerful endeavor to find the breach which shall open to the heart the path to the ocean of the endless joy of love. In vain ! Its power spent, the heart sinks back to thirst with desire, with desire unfulfilled, as each fruition only brings forth seeds of fresh desire, till, at last, in the depths of its exhaustion, the starting eye sees the glimmering of the highest bliss of attainment. It is the ecstasy of dying, of the surrender of being, of the final redemption into that wondrous realm from which we wander farthest when we strive to take it by force. Shall we call this Death? Is it not rather the wonder world of night, out of which, so says the story, the ivy and the vine sprang forth in tight embrace o’er the tomb of Tristan and Isolde?
If we place ourselves in spirit among the personages of Wagner’s play, we shall find ourselves at the parting of the curtain which hangs between the real and the mimic world, on board a mediaeval ship, within a few hours’ sail of Cornwall, whither Tristan is bearing Isolde to be the wife of his king Marke. The cheery song of a sailor who, unseen, at the masthead, sings to the winds which are blowing him away from his wild Irish sweetheart, floats down to us. It has a refreshing and buoyant lilt, this song, with something of the sea breeze in it, and yet something, as it is sung, which emphasizes the loneliness of the singer.
An innocent song, the strain of which, more decorous than any modern chantey, inspires the sailors as they pull at the ropes, and gives voice to the delights of the peaceful voyage.
Yet it stirs up a tempest in the soul of Isolde. She is the daughter of an Irish queen, a sorceress, and she now deplores the degeneracy of her race and its former potency. Once her ancestors could command wind and wave, but now they can brew only balsamic potions. Wildly she invokes the elements to dash the ship to pieces, and when her maid, Brangane, seeks to know the cause of her tumultuous disquiet, she tells the story of her love for Tristan and of its disgraceful requital. He had come to Ireland’s queen to be healed of a wound received in battle. He had killed his enemy, and that enemy was Morold, Isolde’s betrothed. The princess, ignorant of that fact, —ignorant, too, of his name, for he had called himself Tantris, — had herself nursed him back almost to health, when one day she found that a splinter of steel, taken from the head of Morold, where he had received the dolorous stroke, fitted into a nick in the sword of the wounded knight. At her mercy lay the slayer of her affianced husband. She raised the sword to take revenge, when his look fell upon her. In a twinkling her heart was empty of hate and filled instead with love. Now, instead of requiting her love, Tristan is taking her to Cornwall to deliver her to a loveless marriage to Cornwall’s “weary king.” It will be well to note in this narrative how the description of Tristan’s sufferings are set to a descending chromatic passage, like the second voice of the principal theme already described.
The thought of her humiliation maddens the high-spirited woman, and she sends her maid, Brangane, to summon the knight into her presence. The knight parleys diplomatically with the messenger. Duty keeps him at the helm, but once in port he will suffer no one but himself to escort the exalted lady into the presence of the king. At the last the maid is forced to deliver the command in the imperious words used by her mistress. This touches the pride of Tristan’s squire, Kurwenal, who asks permission to frame an answer, and, receiving it, shouts a ballad of his master’s method of paying tribute to Ireland with the head of his enemy ; for the battle between Tristan and Morold had grown out of the effort made by the latter to collect tribute-money from England. It is a stiff stave, rugged, forceful, and direct, in which the spirit of the political ballad of all times is capitally preserved.
Isolde resolves to wipe out what she conceives to be her disgrace by slaying Tristan and herself. Brangane tries to persuade her that the crown of Cornwall will bring her honor, and when Isolde answers that it would be intolerable to live in the presence of Tristan and not have his love, she hints that her mother had not sent her into a strange land without providing for all contingencies. Isolde understands the allusion to her mother’s magical lore, and commands that a casket be brought to her. Brangane obeys with alacrity and exhibits its con-tents : lotions for wounds, antidotes for poisons, and, best of all, — she holds a phial aloft. Isolde will not have it so ; she herself had marked the phial whose contents were to remedy her ills. “The death draught!” exclaims Brangane, and immediately the “Yo, heave ho !” of the sailors is heard and the shout of “Land !” Throughout this scene a significant phrase is heard — the symbol of death.
Also the symbol of fate — a downward leap of a seventh, as in the last two notes of the brief figure illustrative of the glance which had inspired Isolde’s fatal love.
At sight of land Tristan leaves the helm and presents himself before Isolde. She upbraids him for having avoided her during the voyage ; he replies that he had obeyed the commands of honor and custom. She reminds him that a debt of blood is due her — he owes her revenge for the death of Morold. Tristan offers her his sword and his breast; but she declines to kill the best of all Marke’s knights, and offers to drink with him a cup of forgiveness. He divines her purpose and takes the cup from her hand and gives this pledge : Fidelity to his honor, defiance to anguish. To his heart’s illusion, his scarcely apprehended dream, will he drink the draught which shall bring oblivion. Before he has emptied the cup, Isolde snatches it from his hands and drains it to the bottom. Thus they meet their doom, which is not death and surcease of sorrow, as both had believed, but life and misery; for Brangane, who had been commanded to pour the poison in the cup, had followed an amiable prompting and presented the love-potion instead. A moment of bewilderment, and the fated ones are in each other’s arms, pouring out an ecstasy of passion. Then her maids robe Isolde to receive the king, who is coming on board the ship to greet his bride.
In the introduction to the second act, based upon this restless phrase, we have a picture of the longing and impatience of the lovers before a meeting. When the curtains part, we discover a garden before the chamber of Isolde, who is now Cornwall’s queen. It is a lovely night in summer. A torch burns in a ring beside the door opening into the chamber at the top of a stone staircase. The king has gone a-hunting, and the tones of the hunting-horns, dying away in the distance, blend entrancingly with an instrumental song from the orchestra which seems a musical sublimation of night and nature in their tenderest moods. Isolde appears with Brangane and pleads with her to extinguish the torch and thus give the appointed signal to Tristan, who is waiting in concealment. But Brangane suspects treachery on the part of Melot, a knight who is jealous of Tristan and himself enamoured of Isolde. It was he who had planned the nocturnal hunt. She warns her mistress, and begs her to wait. Beauty rests upon the scene like a benediction. To Isolde the horns are but the rustling of the forest leaves as they are caressed by the wind, or the purling and laughing of the brook. Longing has eaten up all patience, all discretion, all fear. In spite of Brangane’s pleadings she extinguishes the torch, and with wildly waving scarf beckons on her hurrying lover. Beneath the foliage they sing their love through all the gamut of hope and despair, of bliss and wretchedness. The duet consists largely of detached ejaculations and verbal plays, each paraphrasing or varying or giving a new turn to the outpouring of the other, the whole permeated with the symbolism of pessimistic philosophy in which night, death, and oblivion are glorified, and day, life, and memory contemned. In this dialogue lies the key to the philosophy which Wagner has proclaimed in the tragedy. In Wagner’s exposition of the prelude we saw that he wishes us to observe “the one glimmering of the highest bliss of attainment” in the “surrender of being,” the “final redemption into that wondrous realm from which we wander farthest when we try to take it by force.” For this realm he chooses death and night as symbols, but what he means to imply is the nirvana of Buddhistic philosophy, the final deliverance of the soul from trans-migration. Such love as that of Tristan and Isolde presented itself to Wagner as ceaseless struggle and endless contradiction, and for this problem nirvana alone offers a happy outcome; it means quietude and identity.
In vain does Brangane sing her song of warning from the tower; the lovers have been transported beyond all realization of their surroundings; they sing on, dream on in each other’s arms, until at the moment of supremest ecstasy there comes a rude interruption. Kurwenal dashes in with a sword and a shout : ” Save thyself, Tristan ! ” the king, Melot, and courtiers at his heels. Day, symbol of all that is fatal to their love, has dawned. Tristan is silent, though Marke bewails the treachery of his nephew and his friend. From the words of the heart-torn king we learn that he had been forced into the marriage with Isolde by the disturbed state of his kingdom, and had not consented to it until Tristan, whose purpose it was thus to quiet the jealous anger of the barons, had threatened to depart from Cornwall unless the king revoked his purpose to make him his successor, and took unto himself a wife. Tristan’s answer to the sorrowful upbraidings of his royal uncle is to obtain a promise from Isolde to follow him into the “wondrous realm of night.” Then, seeing that Marke does not wield the sword of retribution, he makes a feint of attacking Melot, but permits the treacherous knight to reach him with his sword. He falls wounded unto death.
The last act has been reached. The dignified, re-served knight of the first act, the impassioned lover of the second, is now a dream-haunted, longing, despairing, dying man, lying under a lime tree in the yard of his ancestral castle in Brittany, wasting his last bit of strength in feverish fancies and ardent yearnings touching Isolde. Kurwenal has sent for her. Will she come? A shepherd tells of vain watches for the sight of a sail by playing a mournful melody on his pipe.
Oh, the heart-hunger of the hero ! The longing ! Will she never come? The fever is consuming him, and his heated brain breeds fancies which one moment lift him above all memories of pain and the next bring him to the verge of madness. Cooling breezes waft him again toward Ireland, whose princess healed the wound struck by Morold, then ripped it up again with the avenging sword with its telltale nick. From her hands he took the drink whose poison sears his heart. Accursed the cup and accursed the hand that brewed it ! Will the shepherd never change his doleful strain? Ah, Isolde, how beautiful you are ! The ship, the ship ! It must be in sight. Kurwenal, have you no eyes? Isolde’s ship ! A merry tune bursts from the shepherd’s pipe.
It is the ship ! What flag flies at the peak? The flag of “All’s well!” Now the ship disappears be-hind a cliff. There the breakers are treacherous. Who is at the helm? Friend or foe? Melot’s accomplice? Are you, too, a traitor, Kurwenal? Tristan’s strength is unequal to the excitement of the moment. His mind becomes dazed. He hears Isolde’s voice, and his wandering fancy transforms it into the torch whose extinction once summoned him to her side: “Do I hear the light?” He staggers to his feet and tears the bandages from his wound. “Ha! my blood ! flow merrily now ! She who opened the wound is here to heal it !” Life endures but for one embrace, one glance, one word: “Isolde!” While Isolde lies mortally stricken upon Tristan’s corpse, Marke and his train arrive upon a second ship. Brangane has told the secret of the love-draught, and the king has come to unite the lovers. But his purpose is not known, and faithful Kurwenal receives his death-blow while trying to hold the castle against Marke’s men. He dies at Tristan’s side. Isolde, unconscious of all these happenings, sings out her broken heart, and expires.
And ere her ear might hear, her heart had heard, Nor sought she sign for witness of the word; But came and stood above him, newly dead, And felt his death upon her : and her head Bowed, as to reach the spring that slakes all drouth; And their four lips became one silent mouth.