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Richard Wagner Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

The Prelude, depicting the passions and frustration of the lovers, is emblematic of Wagner’s revolutionary approach. In the radiant Liebestod (Love-Death), Tristan and Isolde become one."

Ken Meltzer

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (1865) 17 minutes

Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings.

The Irish princess Isolde and Cornwall knight Tristan are mortal enemies.  After unwittingly drinking a love potion supplied by Isolde’s attendant, Brangäne, they finally admit their true feelings for each other.  This revelation occurs just as Isolde is about to marry Tristan’s uncle, King Marke.  Unable to resist their love for each other, Tristan and Isolde carry on a torrid affair after her marriage to the King.

In the opera’s second act, Tristan and Isolde secretly meet in the gardens of King Marke’s castle.  They are discovered by King Marke and Melot, Tristan’s supposed friend.  When Melot challenges Tristan to a duel, the knight offers no defense and is mortally wounded.  In the final act, Tristan and Isolde are briefly reunited before their deaths.  King Marke blesses the lovers, as the opera concludes.

The music that begins and concludes Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde has enjoyed an independent life in the orchestral concert hall.  The Prelude, begun softly by the cellos, soon proceeds to the winds’ statement of the aching, hypnotic (and in its day, quite shocking) “Tristan Chord.”  The ensuing music of the Prelude depicts, according to the composer, the lovers’ “anxious sighs, hopes and fears, laments and desires, bliss and torment…”  The Prelude closes with two pizzicato notes in the cellos and basses.  This leads directly to the ecstatic Liebestod (“Love-Death”), in which Isolde celebrates death as the consummation of her love for Tristan.   Again, according to Wagner: “As the music rises higher and higher and floods on to its magnificent climax, Isolde is swept away on the crest of the song, past the sorrowing onlookers, to join Tristan in the vast wave of the breath of the world…Night and Death and Love are one.

© Ken Meltzer, 2020