Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, which in turn was based on the story of Tristan and Isolde as told in French by Thomas of Britain. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and received its first performance in Munich on June 10, 1865. Many Wagnerian critics of the time claimed that the musical portion of the opera attained the highest summit of all music; on the other hand, an equally influential group of critics, centered around Eduard Hanslick, condemned the work as being incomprehensible.
The story of Tristan and Isolde was one of the quintessential romances of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Several versions exist, the earliest dating to the middle of the 12th century. Gottfried's version was of the so called "courtly" branch of the tradition, and had a huge influence on later German literature.  Gottfried's emphasis on themes of courtly love and chivalry informed Wagner's retelling.
Significance in the development of classical music
The very first chord in the piece is the so-called Tristan chord, often taken to be of great significance in the move away from traditional tonal harmony:
The music of Tristan und Isolde is also notable for its use of harmonic suspension: a musical device in which unfinished cadences lead to a desire on the part of the listener for resolution. This is a means of creating tension in music. While this device had been used on occasion by other composers, Wagner here uses harmonic suspension over the course of an entire opera. The unfinished cadences in the Prelude are not finally resolved until the very end of Act 3, and on a number of occasions during the opera the anticipated musical resolution is deferred. A particularly notable example of this occurs at the end of the love duet in Act 2 ("Wie sie Fassen, wie sie lassen...") where Tristan and Isolde gradually build up to a musical (and, some would say, sexual) climax, only to have the expected resolution destroyed by the dissonant interruption of Kurwenal ("Rette Dich, Tristan!"). The long-awaited completion of this series of cadences arrives only in the final Liebestod when Isolde, this time alone, works through the same chords and in resolving them (at "In des Welt-Atems wehendem All") finds her release in death.
Act I. Isolde and her handmaid, Brangaene are quartered aboard Tristan’s ship, being transported to King Marke’s lands in Cornwall where Isolde is to be married to the King. The opera opens with the voice of a young sailor singing of a “wild Irish maid”, which Isolde takes to be a mocking reference to herself. In a furious outburst she wishes the seas to rise up and sink the ship, killing all on board. Her scorn and rage are directed particularly at Tristan, the knight who is taking her to Marke. She sends Brangaene to command Tristan to appear before her, but Tristan refuses Brangaene's request, saying that his place is at the helm. His henchman, Kurwenal, answers more brusquely, saying that Isolde is in no position to command Tristan, and reminding Brangaene that Isolde’s previous fiancé, Morold, was killed by Tristan.
Brangaene returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, a stranger called Tantris had been brought to her, found mortally wounded in a boat, and that she had used her healing powers to restore him to health. However she discovered that Tantris was actually Tristan, the murderer of her husband, and had tried to kill him with his sword as he lay helpless before her. However Tristan had looked not at the sword that would kill him, but into her eyes, and this had pierced her heart. Tristan had been allowed to leave, but had returned with the intention of marrying Isolde to his uncle, King Marke. Isolde, in her fury at Tristan’s betrayal, insists that he drink atonement to her, and from her medicine-chest produces the vial which will make this drink. Brangaene is shocked to see that it is a lethal poison.
At this point Kurwenal appears in the women’s quarters saying that Tristan has agreed after all to see Isolde. When he arrives, Isolde tells him that she now knows that he was Tantris, and that he owes her his life. Tristan agrees to drink the potion, now prepared by Brangaene, even though he knows it may kill him. As he drinks, Isolde tears the remainder of the potion from him and drinks it herself. At this moment, each believing that their life is about to end, they declare their love for each other. Their rapture is interrupted by Kurwenal, who announces the imminent arrival on board of King Marke. Isolde asks Brangaene which potion she prepared and is told that it was no poison, but a love-potion. Outside, the sailors hail the arrival of King Marke.
Act II. A nocturnal hunting party leaves King Marke’s castle empty except for Isolde and Brangaene, who stand beside a burning brazier. Isolde several times believes that the hunting horns are far enough away to allow her to extinguish the flames, giving the signal for Tristan to join her. Brangaene warns Isolde that one of King Marke’s knights, Melot, has seen the looks exchanged between Tristan and Isolde, and suspects their passion. Isolde, however, believes Melot to be Tristan’s most loyal friend, and in a frenzy of desire extinguishes the flames. Brangaene retires to the ramparts to keep watch as Tristan arrives.
The lovers, alone at last and freed from the constraints of courtly life, declare their passion for each other. Tristan decries the realm of daylight which is false, unreal, and keeps them apart. It is only in night that they can truly be together, and only in the long night of death that they can be eternally united. Brangaene is heard several times throughout their long tryst calling a warning that the night is ending, but the lovers ignore her. Finally the day breaks in on the lovers, Melot leads Marke and his men to find Tristan and Isolde in each others arms. Marke is heart-broken, not only because of his betrayal by his adopted son, Tristan, but because he, too, has come to love Isolde.
Tristan now asks Isolde if she will follow him again into the realm of night, and she agrees. Melot and Tristan fight, but at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and is mortally wounded by Melot.
Act III. Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal says that only Isolde’s arrival can save Tristan. The shepherd says he will keep watch and pipe a happy tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan now wakes and mourns that he is again in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning, until Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is coming. Tristan is overjoyed and asks if her ship is in sight, but only the shepherd’s sorrowful tune is heard.
Tristan relapses and recalls that the shepherd’s tune is the one he heard when his father and then his mother died. Once again he rails against his desires and against the fateful love-potion until he collapses in delirium. At this point the shepherd is heard piping the arrival of Isolde’s ship, and as Kurwenal rushes to meet her, Tristan in his excitement tears the bandages from his wounds. As Isolde arrives at his side, Tristan dies with her name on his lips.
Isolde collapses beside him as the appearance of another ship is announced. Kurwenal sees Melot, Marke and Brangaene arrive and furiously attacks Melot to avenge Tristan. In the fight both Melot and Kurwenal are killed. Marke and Brangaene finally reach Isolde and Marke, grieving over the body of his “truest friend” explains that he has learnt of the love-potion from Brangaene and had come, not to part the lovers, but to unite them. Isolde appears to wake but, in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the “Liebestod”), dies of grief.
Influence of Schopenhauer on Tristan und Isolde
Wagner was introduced to the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer by his friend Georg Herwegh in late 1854. The composer was immediately struck by the philosophical ideas to be found in “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (The World as Will and Representation), and it is clear that the composer and the philosopher had a very similar world-view. By the end of that year, he had sketched out all three acts of an opera on the theme of Tristan and Isolde, although it was not until 1857 that he began working full-time on the opera, putting aside the composition of Der Ring des Nibelungen to do so. Wagner said in a letter to Franz Liszt (December 1854): “Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.” By 1857 Wagner was living as the guest of the wealthy silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck, and during the composition of Tristan und Isolde was involved with Wesendonck’s wife, Mathilde, although it remains uncertain as to whether or not this relationship was platonic.
Nevertheless, the twin influences of Schopenhauer and Mathilde inspired Wagner during the composition of Tristan und Isolde. Schopenhauer’s influence is felt most directly in the second and third acts. The first act is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of an exposition of how Tristan and Isolde come to be in their current state. However the second act, where the lovers meet, and the third act, in which Tristan longs for release from the passions that torment him, have often proved puzzling to opera-goers unfamiliar with Schopenhauer’s work. Wagner uses the metaphor of day and night in the second act to designate the realms inhabited by Tristan and Isolde. The world of Day is one where the lovers must deny their love and pretend they do not care for each other, where they are bound by the dictates of King Marke’s court: it is a realm of falsehood and unreality. Tristan declares in Act 2 that under the dictates of the realm of Day he was forced to remove Isolde from Ireland and to marry her to his Uncle Marke. The realm of Night, in contrast, is the representation of intrinsic reality, where the lovers can be together, where their desires reach fulfillment: it is the realm of oneness, truth and reality. Wagner thus equates the realm of Day with Schopenhauer’s concept of Phenomenon, and the realm of Night with Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon. While none of this is explicitly stated in the libretto, Tristan’s comments on Day and Night in Acts 2 and 3 make it very clear that this is Wagner’s intention.
In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the world as we experience it is a representation of an unknowable reality. Our representation of the world (which is false) is Phenomenon, while the unknowable reality is Noumenon: these concepts are developments of ideas originally posited by Kant. Importantly for Tristan and Isolde, Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon is one where all things are indivisible and one: and it is this very idea of one-ness that Tristan yearns for in Acts 2 and 3 of Tristan und Isolde. Tristan is also aware that this realm of Night, or Noumenon can only be shared by the lovers in its fullest sense when they die. The realm of Night therefore also becomes the realm of death: the only world in which Tristan and Isolde can be united forever, and it is this realm that Tristan speaks of at the end of Act two (“Dem Land das Tristan meint, der Sonne Licht nicht scheint”).
Tristan rages against the daylight in Act 3 and frequently cries out for release from his desires (Sehnen): it is also part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that man is driven by continued, unachievable desires, and that the gulf between our desires and the possibility of achieving them leads to misery. The only way for man to achieve inner peace is to renounce his desires: a theme that Wagner explores fully in his last opera, Parsifal.
Reactions to Tristan und Isolde
Although Tristan und Isolde is today considered one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, and a significant artistic achievement, critical opinion was not always unanimous. "Not to mince words, it is the glorification of sensual pleasure, tricked out with every titillating device, it is unremitting materialism, according to which human beings have no higher destiny than, after living the life of turtle doves, ‘to vanish in sweet odours, like a breath'. In the service of this end, music has been enslaved to the word; the most ideal of the Muses has been made to grind the colours for indecent paintings....he makes sensuality itself the true subject of his drama.... We think that the stage presentation of the poem Tristan und Isolde amounts to an act of indecency. Wagner does not show us the life of heroes of Nordic sagas which would edify and strengthen the spirit of his German audiences. What he does present is the ruination of the life of heroes through sensuality." Such was the opinion in the 5th July 1865 edition of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.
Eduard Hanslick's reaction in 1868 to the Prelude to Tristan was that it "reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." The first performance in London's Drury Lane Theatre drew the following response from The Era in 1882: " We cannot refrain from making a protest against the worship of animal passion which is so striking a feature in the late works of Wagner. We grant there is nothing so repulsive in Tristan as in Die Walküre, but the system is the same. The passion is unholy in itself and its representation is impure, and for those reasons we rejoice in believing that such works will not become popular. If they did we are certain their tendency would be mischievous, and there is, therefore, some cause for congratulation in the fact that Wagner's music, in spite of all its wondrous skill and power, repels a greater number than it fascinates."
With the passage of time, Tristan became more favourably regarded. Giuseppe Verdi interviewed shortly before his death said that he "stood in wonder and terror" before Wagner's Tristan. In The Perfect Wagnerite the writer and satirist George Bernard Shaw said Tristan was "an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers" and described it as "a poem of destruction and death". Richard Strauss was initially dismissive of Tristan, saying that Wagner's music: "would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of [its] hideous dischords." However he later became part of the Bayreuth coterie and writing to Cosima Wagner in 1892 declared; "I have conducted my first Tristan. It was the most wonderful day of my life." He later wrote: "Tristan und Isolde marked the end of all romanticism. Here the yearning of the entire 19th century is gathered in one focal point."
The conductor Bruno Walter as a student heard his first Tristan und Isolde in 1889: "So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically... Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss... A new epoch had begun: Wagner was my god, and I wanted to become his prophet." Arnold Schoenberg referred to Wagner's technique of shifting chords in Tristan as "phenomena of incredible adaptability and nonindependence roaming, homeless, among the spheres of keys; spies reconnoitering weaknesses; to exploit them in order to create confusion, deserters for whom surrender of their own personality is an end in itself”.
Friedrich Nietzsche was one of Wagner's staunchest allies in his younger years, and wrote that for him “Tristan and Isolde is the real opus metaphysicum of all art. . . insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death. . . it is overpowering in its simple grandeur”. In a letter to his friend Erwin Rohde in October 1868 he described his reaction to the Prelude to Tristan: “I simply cannot bring myself to remain critically aloof from this music; every nerve in me is atwitch, and it has been a long time since I had such a lasting sense of ecstasy as with this overture”. Even following his break with Wagner, Nietzsche still considered Tristan to be a masterpiece: “Even now I am still in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as Tristan — I have sought in vain, in every art.”
Recordings of Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde has always been acknowledged as one of the greatest operas, and has a long recorded history. In the years before World War II, Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were considered to be the prime interpreters of the lead roles, and mono recordings exist of a number of live performances with this pair directed by conductors such as Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Artur Bodanzky and Erich Leinsdorf. Flagstad recorded the part commercially only near the end of her career in 1952, under Wilhelm Furtwängler for EMI, producing a set which is considered a classic recording. Following the war the performances at Bayreuth with Martha Mödl and Ramon Vinay under Herbert von Karajan (1952) were highly regarded, and these performances are now available as a live recording. In the 1960s the soprano Birgit Nilsson was considered the major Isolde interpreter, and she was often partnered by the Tristan of Wolfgang Windgassen. Their performances at Bayreuth in 1966 were captured by Deutsche Grammophon, although some collectors prefer the pairing of Nilsson with the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, available in “unofficial” recordings from performances in Vienna or Orange. Karajan did not record the opera commercially until 1971, and his set is still controversial for the use of a lighter soprano voice (Helga Dernesch) as Isolde, paired with an extremely intense Vickers, and also for the unusual balance between orchestra and singers favoured at that time by Karajan. By the 1980s recorded sets by conductors such as Carlos Kleiber, Reginald Goodall and Leonard Bernstein were mostly considered to be important for the interpretation of the conductor, rather than that of the lead performers. The set by Kleiber is notable since Isolde is sung by Margaret Price, who never sang the role on stage. The same is true for Plácido Domingo, who sang the role of Tristan to critical acclaim in the 2005 EMI release under the baton of Antonio Pappano despite never having sung the role on stage.
There are several DVD productions of the opera including a staging by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin featuring the seasoned Wagnerians René Kollo and Gwyneth Jones in the title roles.
There are many recordings of the opera. The following list of CD releases is selective: for a more exhaustive list, see Discography of Tristan und Isolde