Wagner – Tristan und Isolde – Prelude (Vorspiel) to the Opera & Isolde’s Liebestod

by Max Derrickson

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)      (b Leipzig, 22 May, 1813; Venice, 13 February, 1883)

Tristan und Isolde
– Prelude (Vorspiel) to the Opera
– Isolde’s Liebestod

In the second half of the 1800’s Germany was embracing a grass-roots nationalism similar to that of Italy earlier in the century. The movement encompassed political unity, but even more so, a national character and identity. This German character was championed by many artists and philosophers, but most vocal and committed was Wilhelm Richard Wagner by way of music and writing. This national character was one that strove to cultivate and define the mystical and metaphysical nature of the German people, of humankind for that matter, but it was certainly not the devastating conclusion brought about by the Third Reich early in the 20th century.

An unusually bright man with many talents, Wagner devoted much of his life trying to mold and identify this national character. Not single-handedly, but surely outspoken, Wagner envisioned a pureness of heart and mind in this character. It followed that he believed all artistic endeavor should be blended into a single, powerfully moving amalgam; taking away the boundaries between literature, philosophy, art, and music, and melding them into one unified art. The culmination of this was his Opera House and Festival at Bayreuth, of which in 1910 Stravinsky was moved to conclude the whole notion “sacrilegious.”

But such was Wagner’s ideal, and his 13 operas bear witness to it, combining metaphysical and mythical stories with music of quite a new nature regarding the artistic norm.  Tristan und Isolde, which was composed between 1856 and 1859, may well be considered the ultimate expression of this ideal. The story harkens back to the 12th Century Gaelic tale
[. . .]
It’s an old tale that Wagner idealized and took a few steps further, for, though the literary theme is common enough, Wagner identifies Love with Death, Daylight with Darkness, and Reality with the Unknown.

The Prelude indeed gives us a remarkable hint at how Wagner will proceed. The first three bars of music take us into a place that is
[. . .]

The opera, and more specifically its extraordinary Prelude, has been considered by some to have changed the course of Western music. This is because of its startling ambiguity of key,
[. . .]
two very short, extremely chromatic phrases, and in which appears the “Tristan” chord, a chord that has no harmonic resolution in its context.  These two musical phrases (which Wagner called leit motifs – a musical phrase that represents an idea or emotion), along with the ambiguous Tristan chord, and a third phrase in bar 16, virtually make up the entire opera.

In the time and tide of Western music, admittedly this work had a resounding impact, and in the words of musicologist Bernard Jacobson, “The profoundly inward-looking style of this music established Tristan as the single most influential work of its time, weakening the grip of the classical key system and presaging the atonal explorations of the 20th century.”