Review Summary: The theme maybe considered representative of Wagner's later style of melody; although written in D minor its tonality is sufficiently undefined to give rise to the most varied harmonic transitions.
It would be pleasant to think that Wagner's unsuccessful visit to good old Britain suggested to him the subject of his new opera. Unfortunately there is no foundation for such a surmise beyond the fact that its scene is laid in England. 'Tristan und Isolde,' the name of the new work which occupied Wagner till 1859, is taken from the Celtic Mabinogion. It is by some (including the present writer) believed to be its composer's highest effort. Compared with its predecessor, 'Lohengrin,' it undoubtedly marks a great step in advance. According to his own assertion, Wagner wrote it with the concentrated power of his inspiration, freed at last from conventional operatic forms, with which he has broken here definitely and irrevocably. In 'Tristan und Isolde' is heard for the first time the unimpaired language of dramatic passion, intensified by an uninterrupted flow of expressive melody, which is no longer obstructed by the artificialities of aria, cavatina, etc. Here also the orchestra obtains that wide range of emotional expression, which enables it, like the chorus of the antique tragedy, to discharge the dialogue of an overplus of lyrical elements without weakening the intensity of the situation which it accompanies like an unceasing, passionate under-current.
After the stated facts it is not surprising to see that this music-drama has become the cause of much contention between the adherents of the liberal and conservative schools of music. Many people who greatly admire "certain things" in 'Tannhaüser' and 'Lohengrin' draw the line at 'Tristan und Isolde,' which, on the other hand, is regarded by the advanced party to be the representative work of a new epoch in art. A musician's position towards the present work may indeed be considered the crucial test of his general tendency with regard to the past and the future. The subject of Wagner's tragedy is taken from the Celtic Mabinogi of 'Tristrem and Iseult,' which at an early age became popular amongst different nations, and found its most perfect mediaeval treatment in Gottfried von Strassburg's epic. The modern poet has followed his original closely, pruning however and modifying where the economy of the drama seemed to require it. The episode of Biwalin and Blanchefleur and the early youth of Tristan remain unmentioued, and the scene opens on board the vessel destined to carry the unwilling Irish bride to old king Marke. Despair and love's disappointment, together with the insult inflicted upon her family by Tristan's victory over her kinsman Morolt, rankle in Isolde's bosom, and drive her to the resolution of destroying her own life, together with that of her enemy. Tristan is invited to drink with her the cup of atonement, but, without Isolde's knowledge, the prepared poisonous draught is changed by her faithful companion Brangaene for the love philtre. The reader will perceive at once the dramatic significance of this version compared with the old story, where the fatal potion is taken by mistake. This potion itself becomes in Wagner the symbol of irresistible love, which, to speak with the Psalmist, is "strong as death" and knows no fetter.
The further events of the drama are the consistent outgrowth of this tragic guilt. The second act contains the secret meeting of the lovers, which has given the composer occasion for a duet, the pathos and sweetness of which remain unequalled in dramatic literature. Betrayed by Melot (who from the mischievous dwarf of older versions has become a knight and Tristan's false friend), they are surprised by king Marke, and Tristan, crushed by the sad reproach of his benefactor, makes a feigned attack on Melot, who in return pierces his defenceless breast. In the third and last act, Tristan is discovered lying in a state of unconsciousness at his castle in Brittany. His retainer Kurwenal has sent a messenger to Isolde, who once before had cured Tristan from the effects of a terrible wound. Tristan awakes, and on being told of Isolde's approach, tears in an ecstasy of joy the bandage from his wound, which causes his death at the moment when his lost love comes to his rescue. Isolde expires on the body of her lover.
As the opera has never been performed in this great country, the reader would probably care little for the analysis of music which he has never heard, and probably will not hear for some time to come. For 'Tristan und Isolde' has not even in Germany attained popularity in the sense, for instance, that 'Lohengrin' has. Fragments of the work have however been performed at English concerts, and to these a few passing remarks may be devoted. The instrumental introduction, like that of 'Lohengrin,' is founded on a single motive of great impressiveness, which is worked out thematically into various shapes of melodious beauty. The same melody forms a prominent feature of the music-drama, and appears as "leading motive" wherever the composer wishes to suggest the idea of the love potion, or, as we have seen, of irresistible passion. To its strains the names of Tristan and Isolde are uttered for the first time in fond whispering, just after the fatal draught has been drained. The theme maybe considered representative of Wagner's later style of melody; although written in D minor its tonality is sufficiently undefined to give rise to the most varied harmonic transitions. It begins slowly and gravely, but its languor contains all the possibilities of intense passion which are developed in the course of the short piece. In an arrangement for concert performances, the overture is immediately followed by the final scene of the opera, the death of Isolde. It is conceived by the composer as a kind of sad echo of the happy union of the lovers in the second act. The principal motives of the latter scene reappear in the orchestral part as a remembrance of lost bliss accompanied by the broken utterances of the voice. At the same time one may recognise in this retrospective introduction of the same motives a symbolic expression of the lover's reunion after death, quite as simple and significant as the intertwining rose and vine which grow on their graves in the old story.
During the composition of 'Tristan,' Wagner never lost sight of the great work of national poetry which he henceforth considered to be the chief task of his life. The music to 'Siegfried' was begun even before 'Tristan and Isolde' was finished, and occupied Wagner with many interruptions of various kinds till 1869. One of these interruptions was a visit to Paris, one of the most unsatisfactory incidents of Wagner's chequered career. Wagner gave three concerts at Paris early in 1860, the result being a violent paper war between the daily press and a few writers who discovered the genius of the German master through the cloud of national and artistic prejudices. Wagner's own voice also was heard in the contest, which had at least the effect of thoroughly attracting the attention of the French public towards the performance of 'Tannhaüser,' the arrangements for which had been the chief object of Wagner's visit. The event came off March 13th, 1861, at the Grand Opera, and resulted in one of the most complete fiascos
of modern times. It is generally acknowledged that the riotous scene which occurred was to a great extent caused by political excitement. Prince Metternich, the Austrian Ambassador, had taken a great interest in the matter, and owing to his intercession the emperor had commanded the production of the work. This was sufficient for the members of the old aristocracy to damn the work thoroughly and a priori
. The members of the Jockey Club accordingly mustered in full force on the first night, and their hootings and dog whistles were heard before the curtain was up. Wagner's defeat was thorough, but he was able to comfort himself with the thought that some of the best literary men in France, especially poets such as Gautier and Baudelaire, were amongst his warmest admirers. The history of his music in France is curious and soon told. Of his operas only 'Rienzi' has been given and received with approval; but fragments of his works played at M. Pasdeloup's concerts have been and are received with rapturous applause, in spite of the national antipathy fanned into new flames when Wagner in extremely questionable taste published a burlesque on the siege of Paris soon after that event. Although practically banished from France, his operas have made a deep impression on the representative composers of the French school, Gounod and Massenet and Thomas, and most of all the highly gifted Bizet.