THE prelude to the first Act of Tristan und Isolde begins with a sad wail, The Confession of Love, a short theme on the violoncello, followed by The Desire, on the oboe, supported by two clarinets, the cor anglais, and two bassoons. This is four times repeated with significant rests between. Next comes The Glance, announced on the ‘cello. The next two themes are The Love-Philtre and The Death Potion, sometimes on the wood-wind and sometimes on the brass. The Magic Casket is heard a little later, announced on the violas and oboes, followed by a tremendous sweeping crescendo run and rich chords, The Deliverance by Death, thus introduced on the violins, and given to the other strings with superb effect. The motive are set against and combined with each other in such a manner that we soon realize that Love is to be the one theme of the drama. The Confession of Love now dies away sorrowfully on the wood-wind and the curtain rises to a phrase on the double bass and violoncello, ending with two pizzicato notes.
ACT I. The deck of a ship richly hung with tapestry, making a kind of tent and closed at the back. A narrow hatchway leads to the cabin. Isolde, the Irish Princess (soprano), reclining on a couch with her face buried in the cushions; Brangane, her attendant (mezzo-soprano), holding part of the tapestry open, looks over the side of the ship. A young Sailor (tenor) from the mast is singing a melancholy song, ” Westwarts schweift der Blick.” His third phrase, ” Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu,” is used as a leit-motiv for The Sea. He sings of his sweet-heart, his own Irish maid, but Isolde, imagining that he alludes to her, is insulted and rises indignantly, saying, ” Wer wagt mich zu hohnen ? ” Her Anger blazes forth on the violoncello, strengthened by the double bass. Then she asks Brangane where they are. The motiv of The Sea is now heard from the violoncello. Brangane, looking out, sees land. ” What land ? ” Isolde asks. ” Cornwall,” Brangane replies. They should arrive to-day ! Isolde is in despair and greatly agitated. “Never! ” she exclaims. Brangane drops the tapestry and runs to her side. By all the power of the sorcery Isolde knows, may storms arise from the calm sea and engulf this ship ! And to the wildest winds she consigns the lives of all on board ! The orchestra becomes agitated; Brangäne is frightened : from the first, she has dreaded evil; Isolde has been so strange; she left home without a tear ; will not her sweet lady confide her grief to Brangäne ? Isolde calls for air. Brangane draws aside the tapestry. The stern of the ship is there-fore revealed and beyond it the sea and horizon are seen. Sailors are busy with ropes near the main-mast, and knights and esquires are seated in the stern. Tristan (tenor) stands somewhat apart with folded arms, gazing reflectively into the sea. At his feet lies Kurwenal, his squire (baritone). From the mast comes the voice of the young Sailor, ” Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu.” This time ‘cello and double bass accompany this song with a muffled tremolo. Isolde’s glance has sought Tristan. To the melody of the Death motiv she sings scornfully : ” Tod geweihtes Haupt ; Tod geweihtes herz.” The Confession of Love motiv returns, although she predicts Tristan’s death. W hat does Brangfine think of that hero ?
Brangäne, like all the world, has only praise for Tristan. Tristan has neglected Isolde throughout the voyage. Isolde would like to speak to him. She imperiously commands Brangfine to order him to appear before her. As Brangane walks past the sailors, we hear the motiv of The Sea on the wind and brasses, combined with a figure on the strings perfectly illustrative of their action with the ropes. Isolde returns to her couch ; Kurwenal pulls Tristan’s mantle, telling him Isolde is sending a message.
Brangne, curtseying before Tristan, repeats Isolde’s message. Tristan, who is agitated at the mention of Isolde’s name, sends her a courteous answer; but he can-not leave the helm. All through this scene we have heard The Glance, Desire, The Sea, Death, and The Love-Philtre ; now we are to hear something new, for Kurwenal, springing up, asks Tristan if he may make reply. Tristan would like to hear it first. Then Kurwenal sings that ” Tristan is a hero ; he has offered Cornwall and England to this daughter of Ireland; his own she cannot be; Tristan is a hero-knight and he brings his king a bride.” Tristan tries to silence Kurwenal; Brangane indignantly returns to Isolde, and Kurwenal, to a melody known as Glory to Tristan, sings a mocking song about Sir Morold, who came for tribute to England, where his body remains, but his head now hangs in Ireland as Tristan’s tribute. The refrain, ” Sein Haupt dôch hangt im Irenland,” is taken up by the men as a chorus. Brangane closes the hangings, and Isolde rises, incensed. She had heard all. Brangne has witnessed her disgrace and shall now know everything !
Isolde was the betrothed bride of Sir Morold, an Irish knight, who was killed by Tristan in a combat. Tristan sent the head of Sir Morold to Isolde, who discovered in it a bit of steel left by the unknown adversary’s weapon. Tristan had been wounded, for Sir Morold’s sword had been poisoned. Tristan, remembering that Isolde had secret balms, went to Ireland, calling himself Tantris, and asked her to cure him. One day she discovered that the notch in this knight’s sword corresponded to the bit of steel she had preserved. She brandished the sword above the sick man’s head, intending to kill him, but their glance met. She spared him, and, concealing the story from- everybody, she cured Tristan and sent him home. But he soon re-turned with a royal suite to make an offer for the hand of Isolde in the name of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Her parents accepted, and now Isolde is being sent to him under Sir Tristan’s escort.
Isolde is grieving she thinks Tristan loves her in secret, and she knows that she loves him, although she will not acknowledge it to herself. Her feeling towards Tristan, however, she does not impart. As in bitterness Isolde tells Brangne how she tended Tristan, a new motiv appears in the orchestra, Tristan Wounded. Tristan has shown strange gratitude to Isolde ; she protests against this marriage. Brangane tries to comfort Isolde; she thinks, on the contrary, Tristan showed his gratitude by presenting her with the Kingdom of Cornwall. Isolde grows thoughtful. Tristan fills her mind ; how sad her fate to live near one who will never love her ! Brangane thinks she is referring to King Mark. Why not resort to the Magic Casket? Among those wonderful philtres that her mother gave her at parting there is one that subjects any one who drinks it to love. (The Love-Philtre. Isolde bids Brangâne bring the Magic Casket. From it she selects a phial containing a Death-Potion. This she will make Tristan drink !
Glory to Tristan, Desire, The Glance, Anger, The Magic Casket, The Deliverance by Death, The Love-Philtre, and The Death-Potion are all narrated by the orchestra, which therefore tells us the whole story in its own language.
Brangane is alarmed. The sailors are calling to each other (” Ho ! he ! ha! he ! “) ; Isolde knows that they are nearing land. Kurwenal comes to bid them prepare for landing : the flag on King Mark’s castle can be seen. Isolde, first agitated, becomes composed. Kurwenal must tell his master that Isolde bids him sue for her pardon. With a defiant gesture (intensified by the strings), Kurwenal departs. Isolde bids Brangane farewell ; she must greet her parents for her. Now pour out the Death-Potion : Isolde intends to die !
As Brangane is entreating her to forbear, and Isolde commanding obedience, Kurwenal announces Sir Tristan. Brangne retires to the background and Kurwenal departs. As Tristan enters, a new motiv is announced, Tristan the Hero, the first phrase of which is played on the wood-wind and the second phrase on the strings. This is repeated again and again (reinforced by the brass), and increasing in intensity. The lady may demand what she will ! Isolde wishes to know why he has avoided her ? ” It is honour,” Tristan replies.
Isolde now reminds him that there is a debt of blood between them and refers to the death of Morold ; once she had Tristan at her mercy ! Tristan offers her his sword : his life is at her disposal. No, Isolde will pardon him He will, perhaps, drink a cup to seal their friendship ? All through this dialogue Tristan Wounded appears.
Tristan suspects poison ; but, nevertheless, he will drink. Isolde commands Brangne to hand her the draught. The distressed maid, meanwhile, has substituted a Love-Philtre; she will not be the means of murdering Isolde.
The songs of the sailors break in. There is no time to be lost. Quick with the cup! As Tristan takes it from Isolde he sings his own motiv ” Tristan’s Ehre, hôchste Treu ; Tristan’s Elend, kühnster Trotz,” supported by the cor anglais and clarinet. He is drinking it to the dregs, when Isolde snatches it from him and finishes the elixir, throwing the cup away. Now they await death. Their eyes meet. The Confession of Love and Desire, scored for violoncello and wood-wind, are followed by a chord on the harp. Now The Glance (from the viola and ‘cello) grows more and more expressive as the glance of the two lovers becomes one of mutual fascination, and, calling each other’s name tenderly, they embrace. Brangne rushes from the side of the ship, wringing her hands in despair at the result of her work ; the people cry, ” Hail to King Mark ! ” The orchestra is filled with supreme love and passion, and at the same time describes all the confusion of arrival. While Tristan and Isolde are singing of their rapturous love, the curtains are parted and the whole ship fills with people. Now is seen the shore with King Mark’s Castle. Brangne summons Isolde’s women and places a mantle upon Isolde, trying to separate the lovers, who, mutually entranced, are bewildered by the commotion. They take no notice of the salutations to King Mark (with additional cymbals, trumpets, and triangle on the stage). Kurwenal approaches Tristan, reminding him of his duty ; the sailors continue their joyful cries, for King Mark and his retinue are approaching; but Isolde, murmuring Tristan’s name, sinks fainting upon his breast. The people, who have let down the bridge, cry, ” Hail to Cornwall ! ” and as the curtain quickly falls, once more the motiv of Desire sorrowfully rises from the orchestra.
ACT II. The prelude to Act II first announces the motiv of Day on the wind with a tremolo on the string quartette; then follows Impatience on the ‘cello, to which the broken triplets on the violins add a feeling of restlessness. To this, Ardour is soon added, introduced upon the flutes and wood-wind. The Desire from Act I next appears, generously distributed on various instruments. This symphonic introduction, so marvellously treated, gradually dies away, and as the curtain rises sounds of distant hunting-horns are heard, producing a poetic effect.
The scene is a garden near Isolde’s apartment to which steps lead. A torch burns near the door. It is a beautiful summer night. Brangane, on the steps, is listening to the sounds of the horns echoing in the distance; King Mark has a hunting-party.
Isolde excitedly enters from her chamber. She thinks the horns have ceased. Brangane insists that the party is still near; she hears the horns. Isolde listens, No ! Brangane hears the fluttering of the leaves and the murmur of the stream ! Here the clarinets pianissimo, and the second violins and violas muted, describe the flowing of the stream and the fluttering of the leaves. Her loved one hides in the darkness ! Brangane cautions her mistress. On Isolde’s arrival, she noticed that Sir Melot observed Tristan and Isolde ! He is Tristan’s enemy and is laying a snare for him; he planned this nocturnal hunt, but his game is a nobler one than is imagined ! Isolde has faith in Melot. He is a friend to Tristan. How Brangane deplores that love-philtre ! Far better have obeyed Isolde and ended all troubles with death ! Isolde does not blame her. The goddess of love, Frau Minne, has willed this, and as she sings of her the harp is heard. Isolde extinguishes the torch on the ground to a descending chromatic scale on the violins, viola, and ‘cello. This is Tristan’s signal. Brangane withdraws. Now the motiv of Impatience, a melody on the ‘cello, accompanied by the broken triplets on the violins, is employed in all its force and to it soon is added Ardour. Isolde peers through the foliage and waves her scarf, to the rhythm of the wood-wind. Her great joy informs us that she sees Tristan, and, in order to see him the better, she runs to the steps and beckons to him. A new motiv now occurs, Passionate Transport ; and, to a tremendous climax of this, the lovers rush into each other’s arms. (Duet: ” Bist du mein ? Rab’ ich dich wieder? “) They sing of the cruel Day that separates them ; and of Night that brings them together. The orchestra has partaken of their rapture; it is a symphony of all the themes we have heard ; Desire, Ardour, Impatience, and Passionate Transport ; and a Song of Love, first played by the violins and viola, joined by the ‘cello, and Glory to Tristan are also heard. They talk of the past, of the potion and of their eternal love protected by the mantle of Night. Night is intoxicating, and the harp now adds its magic. Tristan leads Isolde to a flowery bank and sinks on his knees beside her, resting his head upon her arm. Night and love weave mystery and enchantment around them. Tristan softly sings, ” O night of rapture ” (” O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe “). Isolde joins him, repeating his words to the syncopated chords of the muted strings (Invocation to Night) and gentle sighs from the wind. Every now and again the harp casts its mystery upon the lovely hour. The lovers sigh for death, now, while heart to heart and lip to lip ! Toward the end of his ensemble, the motiv of Death the Liberator appears, which they sing to the words, ” Liebeheiligstes Leben.”
Brangane (invisible) calls from the tower, to a harp accompaniment, that the day is breaking (motiv of Day) ; but the violins and viola, to a bass furnished by the violoncello, are weaving that beautiful melody of Felicity, and the lovers are calling for Death to unite them in this supreme moment.
Tristan begins the Death Song to the words, ” So sturben wir um ungetrennt,” a motiv that will frequently be heard throughout the rest of the drama. Isolde repeats this after him.
Brangane warns them again, but they pay no heed. They still sing of this perfect night ; there shall be no awakening ! Their Death Song grows more passionate, and now ornamented with a graceful turn becomes almost a new phrase, and is given to various instruments.
Brangane rushes in with a cry of alarm, and Kurwenal also appears, sword in hand, telling Tristan to save himself.
A few notes of the hunting-horns usher in Sir Melot (baritone) and King Mark (bass), with knights. They pause before the lovers. Tristan tries to shield Isolde with his mantle. Brangane stands by her side. The ‘cello and the double bass loudly proclaim the Impatience motiv, for the lovers are disturbed. The orchestra further arouses our sympathy by the ominous Death Song, and as their enemy Day, now reddening, has brought discovery, the Day motiv is again heard. Sir Melot is the first to speak. He addresses King Mark. His suspicions were well grounded ! The bass clarinet proclaims the grief of the latter (King Mark’s Grief ), as he addresses his nephew, for whom he has always had such love and respect. His heart is stabbed through and through ! The bass clarinet also delivers another theme, Consternation, and upon these two motive, with the addition of Anger, The Confession of Love, Felicity, Death the Liberator, and The Invocation to Night, the rest of the Act is developed.
Tristan tells Isolde he will return to his birth-place, a gloomy spot, where his mother died in giving life to him ; will Isolde follow him ? Did not Isolde follow Tristan to this strange land ? He has only to tell her the way ; Isolde will come ! Tristan kisses her brow tenderly (Invocation to Night and The Death Song), which so enrages Melot that he attacks Tristan. Tristan reproaches his false friend, he is jealous of Isolde, and therefore betrayed him to King Mark ! He draws, and calls Melot to guard; and as the latter attacks, a rushing movement on the violins, viola, and ‘cello describes the action. Tristan lets his own guard fall and sinks wounded in Kurwenal’s arms. Isolde, weeping, falls upon him; King Mark restrains Melot; and the curtain quickly falls upon the chord of D-minor.
ACT III. The prelude to the third Act is of extreme sadness. It introduces a new motiv, Solitude, the beginning of which is very like Desire. It is played on the violins and ends with an ascending passage. It is followed by a sad phrase on the horns and ‘cello, Tristan’s Distress, which will be heard when he is talking to Kurwenal. Death is also present. On the third occurrence of this ascending phrase of Solitude, the curtain rises.
The scene is the melancholy and rather neglected garden , of the castle, Karéol, in Brittany, supposed to stand on a high rock. The castle is on one side, and the gate and a low breastwork, broken by a watch-tower, on the other side towards the back. Beyond is seen a wide sea-horizon. In the foreground, sleeping upon a couch under a lime-tree, lies the wounded Tris-tan, over whom Kurwenal keeps anxious watch. From behind the scenes, a Shepherd (tenor) pipes a sorrowful tune (on the cor anglais, unaccompanied). This is the motiv, Sadness. The Shepherd, leaning from the breast-work, asks Kurwenal if Tristan still sleeps. Kurwenal fears if he awakes it will only be to take leave of them, unless the lady comes to cure ! Has the Shepherd seen a sail yet ?
If he had, he would play a gay tune, the Shepherd answers. Kurwenal sends him to watch ; the moment a sail appears, he must play a merry tune. Solitude is conspicuous in the orchestra. The Shepherd, shading his eyes with his hand and peering across the horizon, replies that the sea is a blank; and departs playing his ditty.
Tristan awakes. Why should he hear this familiar tune ? Where is he ? At this moment, Kurwenal’s Joy is expressed on the strings. When Kurwenal replies he is at Karéol, the motiv of Karol is expressed on the first and second violins. Kurwenal explains to the sick knight that he still owns his ancestral home and that he brought him here from Cornwall. The most conspicuous motive are, naturally enough, Glory to Tristan and Karéol. The dying hero sings that he has been wandering in the kingdom of darkness; Isolde is still his sunshine; and the door of Death is open for him. How he yearns for Isolde ! Then his mind wanders : will she not extinguish the torch ? How long the light glows ! The flutes reveal his Ardour. We also hear Impatience. During this rambling and excited speech, the Invocation to Night, Day, Desire, Death, and reminiscences and Death the Liberator are heard, some-times in the vocal part and sometimes in the orchestra. Tristan sinks exhausted upon his couch. Kurwenal tells him that he has sent for Isolde, and he recalls, to his regret, that once he defied her. He is now nearly as impatient as his master for her arrival. Tristan shall soon see her !
Tristan, wandering in his mind, faintly sings that the beacon still burns ; the house is not dark yet ; and that he hears Isolde’s voice. Kurwenal explains again that he has sent for Isolde to cure the wound made by Melot’s sword. Isolde cured him once before (Tristan Wounded).
The key and time change and Joy, a new motiv, is heard as Tristan in delight calls ” Isolde comes !” Then he thanks Kurwenal, embracing him, for his friend-ship. Kurwenal has always been a true friend and shared his sufferings ! All through this conversation Tristan’s Distress is emphasized by the orchestra. He bids Kurwenal run to the tower, and in delirium fancies he sees the ship. She nears, the flag waves from the mast. Hurrah ! Hurrah ! She reaches the bar. Does not Kurwenal see her?
Kurwenal hesitates to leave Tristan, and again the Shepherd’s pipe is heard, accompanied this time by a tremolo on the strings. Again we hear Solitude as Kurwenal says there is no ship in sight, and a doleful trill is made on the kettledrums. Tristan remarks pathetically that it was always thus. He heard that tune on the evening breeze when he was told of his father’s death, and in the morning mist he heard it when he learned of how his mother died. This ditty is associated with his own fate. Here he lies dying and yearning ! He heard it too when he was carried wounded in the boat that took him to Ire-land to be cured by Isolde. She healed him, but she opened another wound; then she presented him with poison, and, as he welcomed that relief, a fiery elixir rushed through his veins the Love-Philtre. How sad he is ! Night’s joy is denied ; Day is unblessed. Ah, cursed draught, for he who quaffed it is accursed ! He sinks as if dead upon his couch. Kurwenal is in despair. Has the noblest of knights breathed his last ? He lays his head down to listen. Ah, no ! he lives, his lips move gently. Suddenly he calls : ” The ship ! ” Does not Kurwenal see it ?
” It will soon arrive,” says the faithful squire. Again Tristan sings, “She floats on the ocean so gracefully” (” (“Wie sie selig hehr und milde “). O what relief she brings ! Isolde is upon her ! Why does not Kurwenal run and look ?
The Shepherd now plays the gayest tune he knows and comes running in to announce the ship. The tune on the cor anglais 1 is repeated by the entire orchestra.
Tristan breaks out in joy. Kurwenal tells him how she skims the waves, how her sails fill and how her pennon flutters ! now the rocks hide her; Tristan fears the rocks. Now she is safe, Kurwenal cries. Tristan is wild : Kurwenal shall inherit his lands for this news ! Does he see Isolde ? The ship is in port, Isolde waves, now she springs to land !
Tristan bids Kurwenal leave the watch-tower and assist her. Kurwenal orders him to be quiet and goes out.
In the greatest excitement, believing that Isolde can heal his wound, Tristan springs from his couch and tears off the bandage. Isolde enters, he staggers to her, and she receives him in her arms.
Isolde tenderly calls his name, but realizes that she is too late. Desire is again heard and The Glance, this time it is Tristan’s parting gaze, for gently breathing ” Isolde, he dies. Isolde tries to call him back to life. Kurwenal, who has entered, is in great distress.
A noise is heard ; the Shepherd climbs over the wall and announces to Kurwenal that another ship is coming. Kurwenal looks over the ramparts. He prepares for defence. Despite Brangane’s call, he attacks what he supposes to be an invasion of King Mark. Melot is among the first to enter ; Kurwenal kills him, and, being wounded, runs to the side of his master to die.
Brangäne, who has clambered over the wall, runs to Isolde, and King Mark, who has forced his way in, sorrow-fully comments upon the lovers. Brangäne tries to inform her lady that she told King Mark about the Love-Philtre, and he has come to give her to Tristan. King Mark’s words substantiate this.
Isolde does not hear. She is looking upon Tristan, and, recovering a few moments, she sings her ” swan-song” ; ” Mild und leise ; ” her lover smiles sweetly, he is calmly resting, she hears his tender words, she is sinking and finding bliss (Passionate Transport).
She falls upon Tristan’s body and dies in Brangäne’s arms. King Mark invokes a benediction upon the dead lovers, and everyone is overcome with grief.
Once again Desire, slightly transformed, appears on the flute, oboe, and cor anglais; and the curtain falls upon the last chord with its long pause.