Tristan and Isolde's 150th Birthday on Saturday's Opera and More

Jun 10, 2015

There are learned people who divide the history of western music of the past 500 years into two categories: before and after Tristan.

Richard Wagner's three act music-drama, Tristan und Isolde, had its first performance on June 10, 1865.

We'll celebrate this great work's birthday on Saturday's Opera and More at 1 p.m.

But after all, folks, its only an opera. What's all the fuss about?

Tristan und Isolde is based on the Celtic legend of the knight Tristan, Prince of Cornwall, who abducts the Irish Princes Isolde as a bride for his aged uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Isolde wasn't easy to kidnap. She was betrothed to an Irish knight called Morold, who was killed by Tristan. The wounded Tristan, brought to Isolde for care without revealing his identity, is brought back to health. The Prince of Cornwall and the Princess of Ireland fall in love, but Isolde takes a splinter of a sword out of Tristan's scalp. The splinter fits Morold's sword. It is Tristan who has killed Morold. Isolde, enraged and crying vengeance, is spirited away to Cornwall.

It is at this point Wagner's opera begins. Isolde seethes and plots Tristan's death. She orders a lethal poison prepared and taunts Tristan into drinking with her. He does so, but it is the liebestrank, the love potion which has been substituted. Now the two are thrown into a passion they cannot endure. The entire opera is, quoting Leonard Bernstein, "About not touching." 

  The two meet a night, in secret. Night stands for death, and both are embraced by the couple. Their passion can't be requited, even in an opera. That's the secret and the devil of Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra builds and builds, sweeping up the voices but the chords do not resonate. One is left hanging, unrequited, unfulfilled. Only Isolde's love-death, the liebestod, ends the opera with a final resolution.

Tristan is difficult to perform but was intended to be easily produced. There's minimal chorus and three sets. The plot is straightforward; the music anything but. The first Tristan and Isolde were married couple, Ludwig and Helena Schnorr von Carolsfeld. The opera literally killed Ludwig, who died at age 29, five days after the premiere. (He was also morbidly obese. Helene lived to be 90)

The very beginning of the opera, the so-called Tristan chord, has been the subject of more than one book:

Throughout the opera, one almost-chord" does not resolves into another "almost-chord.  From this, you can can hear the desperation of the lovers:

The opera ends with Tristan dead and Isolde mourning him as she herself faces death. Death to these two is far from tragic, but an ecstatic relief.

That's opera, folks!