“Tristan und Isolde” or “Tristan and Isolde,” “an opera in three acts” with words and music by Richard Wagner, was first presented in Munich, June 10, 1865. In 1857, Wagner interrupted his work on the ” Ring of the Nibelungs ” to write “Tristan und Isolde” which was designed to renew his association with the stage. Influence was brought to bear in his behalf but failed to secure for him permission to return to Germany to supervise the performance of the new work. It was not until six years later that it was given a satisfactory production, under the direction of Hans von Billow.
The plot is derived from an old Celtic poem of the same name, written by Gottfried of Strasburg, who flourished in the Thirteenth Century, though Wagner has changed the narrative sufficiently to make it his own. Tristan is one of the most popular of the legendary heroes and has been treated of by numerous writers, among them Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Swinburne.
Tristan, a Cornish Knight. Marke, King of Cornwall. Isolde, an Irish Princess. Kurvenal, Tristan’s servant. Melot, a jealous friend of Tristan. Brangaene, attendant of Isolde. A shepherd, steersman, sailors, knights and esquires.
Isolde is the beautiful daughter of the King of Ireland. Her hand is sought in marriage by Marke, King of Corn-wall. Unfortunately, as it proves, the royal bridegroom sends his favorite nephew, Tristan, to bring the Princess to England. Previous to the opening of the drama, Morold, a kinsman of Isolde, has been sent to Cornwall to collect tribute money and for certain acts of insolence has been slain by Tristan. With somewhat ghastly irony, the Cornish knight sends the head instead of the tribute to Ireland and this memento is piously preserved by Isolde, who promises to avenge the murder. The conqueror, how-ever, has not escaped unscathed. He is badly wounded and, knowing Isolde’s skill as a healer, he lands upon the shore of Ireland and she nurses him back to health and strength. Recognizing the necessity of keeping his identity a secret, he presents himself as Tantris, a minstrel, and all goes well until Isolde discovers that a splinter of steel found in the head of Morold, fits a large nick in her patient’s sword. Her first impulse is to take her revenge but she finds that the sword she would lift against Tristan is swayed by love. She allows him to depart without injury. King Marke, aged and without an heir, is urged to take a wife and, finally consenting, he sues for Isolde’s hand and sends his nephew to conduct her to England.
The drama opens on the deck of the vessel which has on board the unwilling bride and her unhappy guide, for though he has not confessed it, Tristan has given his heart to his whilom nurse and she is deeply incensed that he should countenance her marriage to another. Meanwhile, Tristan stands apart with averted face and even at Isolde’s demand for an interview, courteously refuses to speak with her. The Princess broods over her griefs and the result of her gloomy meditations is a decision to take her own life. Accordingly, she bids her attendant Brangaene prepare a deadly draught and calls Tristan to share it with her. This he gladly consents to do, though suspecting its nature, for he prefers death to life without her. Brangaene, however, has substituted a love-potion and, as the two gaze into each other’s eyes waiting to see the glaze of death appear, they see instead the glow of love which grows into a boundless passion. As the shouts of the sailors announce the landing, they throw themselves into each other’s arms.
The second act finds Isolde in Cornwall, wedded to her aged lord but engrossed in thoughts of Tristan. The King and his attendants have gone to the hunt, leaving the women behind. Night has fallen and a torch flares at the palace door a signal for the watching lover. Brangaene stands on the steps, a reluctant sentinel and a conscience-smitten one, for she begins to fear the consequences of the potion administered by her hands. Even more does she fear the treachery of Melot, professedly Tristan’s friend. In spite of Brangaene’s warning, Isolde impulsively extinguishes the torch and runs forward into the garden to meet the waiting Tristan. They engage in the most rapturous of love duets and rejoice that, instead of dying, they have lived for such inexpressible joy. No heed whatever do they pay to Brangaene’s cry from the battlements that a foe is near but continue to sing their measureless love in an abandonment of ecstasy.
Finally, upon their unwilling ears is borne the piercing cry of Brangaene, as King Marke, Melot and the courtiers in hunting dress enter swiftly and surprise the lovers in their embraces. More in sorrow and shame than in anger does the king reproach his nephew for his perfidy, while the guilty Isolde sits motionless. Tristan offers no explanation but calls upon Isolde to follow him to death. She makes unfaltering agreement, which is sealed with a kiss. At this Melot rushes upon Tristan with drawn sword and stabs him.
In the third act, Tristan is found at his castle in Brittany, hovering near death and nursed by his devoted squire, Kurvenal. His couch is placed in the garden which commands a view of the sea. From beyond the wall is heard a shepherd’s pipe playing a mournful tune which is to change to a sprightly melody if a sail becomes visible, for Kurvenal hopes for the coming of Isolde. Sometimes the wounded man rouses to make faint inquiry and some-times he sinks into a stupor so deep that the faithful henchman has to listen for the heart-beat to be sure that his master still lives.
At last the shepherd’s notes change to gladness and Isolde rushes in. Tristan staggers toward her uttering her name in delirious joy, only to fall dying into her arms. She does not realize that he is dead and tries to woo him to sensibility but, when the truth comes to her, she reproaches him gently for leaving her alone and falls unconscious beside him. Now the shepherd announces that a second ship is coming. It bears King Marke and Melot. Kurvenal, thinking the approach means enmity towards his master, attacks them and falls mortally wounded. But it is only to forgive that the King has come, for Brangaene has told him the story of the love-potion. Isolde is restored to consciousness, but scarcely listens to his words of pardon and chants her own death-song over the body of her fallen hero.
” Tristan and Isolde ” marks the final and complete breaking away of Wagner from all conventions. It is the first opera given to the world which fully represents his theories that the music, verse and action should be homogeneous; that the orchestra should be the tonal illustrator of the drama and the commenter on the emotions and situations it contained ; that the drama should be esteemed as of paramount importance and that ensembles should be abolished as unnatural. As this was the first opera of the new order to see the light of day, the wildest of controversies was waged about it. Battles royal were fought but today ” Tristan and Isolde ” is generally esteemed one of the masterpieces of the musical world and is regarded by many enlightened critics as holding the first place among Wagner’s works.
The Wagnerian plan of ” endless melody” in the orchestral score practically precludes having any clearly and definitely defined numbers in the work. The prelude to ” Tristan and Isolde ” is, however, a selection familiar to all patrons of orchestral concerts and is rightly admired by everyone who is in the least in sympathy with modern music. The great love duet in the second act, the wonder-fully beautiful ” Night music ” which precedes it, the long and intensely difficult scene for Tristan when he lies suffering and partially delirious during the greater portion of the third act and the magnificent ” Love Death ” Isolde’s fare-well and greeting to her dead lover with which the noble work ends, are supreme moments in this ” most passionate of love operas.”