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The History of 'Tristan and Isolde'
(German title: Tristan und Isolde)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner

"Tristan and Isolde," like "The Flying Dutchman," was the fruit of discouragement, written at one of the many acute epochs of the composer’s life. Wagner had been working at his "Ring," without hope of ever seeing that mighty drama staged. He was in the direst straits of poverty, despairing, unhappy at home, thinking of ending all by his own hand. Meanwhile, the story of Tristan had been engaging his attention, and in 1854 he sketched out the text. About that time we find him writing to Liszt:

As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams, in which, from beginning to end, that love shall thoroughly satiated. I have in my head "Tristan and Isolde," the simplest, but most full-blooded musical conception. With the black flag which floats at the end of it I shall cover myself to die.

To which Liszt immediately made answer: "Your ‘Tristan’ is a splendid idea. It may become a glorious work. Do not abandon it." Wagner had no intention of abandoning it. A subject of this kind suited his temperament too well! In Wagner’s idea the highest satisfaction and expression of the individual is only to be found in his complete absorption, and that is only possible through love. Now, a human being is both man and woman (this is Wagner, remember); and it is only when these two are united that the real human being exists. Thus it is only by love that man and woman attain to the full measure of humanity. And yet, "when we talk of a human being, such heartless blockheads are we that quite involuntarily we only think of man." The citation is direct from Wagner, who himself pointedly quoted: "Male and female created He them."

Well, as I have said, Wagner had no intention of renouncing Tristan. But he needed some incentive to go on. The incentive came from Brazil, of all places! Don Pedro, the Emperor there, was a Wagner enthusiast, andhe put his enthusiasm to practical purpose by asking Wagner to write an opera for the Italian Company in Rio Janeiro. Wagner was to have whatever sum he named, if only he would go to Brazil to conduct the work himself.

The offer was tempting -- tragically tempting in the circumstance -- but Wagner "saw the hopelessness of trying to get Italian Opera singers to perform such a music-drama as he was about to write," and he declined it. Nevertheless, Don Pedro’s friendly overtures shaped his private resolution; and, as he told Liszt in the summer of 1857, he finally determined to give up his headstrong design of competing the "Ring," and set to work seriously upon "Tristan and Isolde." That superb creation came to him as a veritable inspiration, embittered as he was by debts and disappointments, by a nervous illness, by a hopeless outlook on the future. He has an interesting note in this connection, illustrating the affinity between the characters of Tristan and Siegfried:

The complete equality between the two consists in this, that both Tristan and Siegfried, bound by an illusion which makes this deed of theirs involuntary, woo for another their own predestined bride, and, in the false relations arising therefrom, find their doom. What in the Ring could only come to rapid utterance in the climax, becomes in Tristan the subject of a many-sided exposition; and it was this that formed my incentive to treat that story at that precise period, as a supplementary act of the great Nibelung Myth, a myth that compasses the wide relations of a world.

The First Act was finished on the last day of 1857; and in the June of the following year the Second Act was sketched, Wagner being all the time in a state of misery and unrest because of the now inevitable rupture of his home life. Venice, where he had gone for quiet, saw the finishing touches put to the Second Act. At this date, let it be recalled, Wagner was in danger of arrest as a revolutionary. Venice he regarded as a safe retreat because Venice had no German alliance. But the Saxon Government openly expressed its desire that he should be hounded from Italy; and so, utterly broken in spirit and finances, embarrassed by many untoward situations and circumstances, he fled to Lucerne, where, in the beginning of August 1859, he completed the Third Act of "Tristan."

The finished score this in his hands, the question of its performance had next to be faced. Difficulties of all kinds confronted the composer in this direction. In one town he could get singers but dare not appear in case of arrest; in another town he was safe from police intervention but had no chance of securing competent performers. Early in 1861 he proceeded to Vienna, hoping that there a performance might be arranged. To his inexpressible delight, the manager of the Opera accepted the score.

But here again Wagner’s ill-luck pursued him. The preparations began in earnest, but the artists found the work so impracticable that, after fifty-four rehearsals, it was abandoned as hopeless! Ander, the tenor, who had been cast for Tristan, and for whom Wagner had made certain alterations in the music, said that "as fast as he learned one act he forgot another." Wagner, on the other hand, declared, later, that all the singers went through the entire work with himself at the piano.

At any rate, Vienna declined to entertain the idea of producing "Tristan." Carlsruhe, Prague, and Weimar were all tried without result. Everywhere "Tristan" was pronounced impossible. Then, in 1864, as has been told in the biographical sketch, King Ludwig came to the rescue, providing Wagner with a home at Munich, and giving him the means of having his great music dramas performed. The first result of the intimacy between king and composer was the public presentation of the work now under consideration. Hans von Bülow (whose divorced wife, the daughter of Liszt, Wagner was presently to marry) was summored as conductor; Wagner set about looking for capable singers; and, in Munich, on the 10th of January 1865. "Tristan and Isolde," the highest exemplification of Wagner’s genius, was produced before a large audience which received it with "applause of the most vigorous kind." Three performances, all equally successful, followed within as many weeks. Wagner, happy at last, if only temporarily, returned to his great drama of "The Ring."

There is no need to follow up in detail the various performances of "Tristan" which were given before the first London production (in German) at Drury Lane, under Sir Augustus Harris’ direction, in June 1882. That performance, conducted by Wagner’s old friend, Dr. Hans Richter, was also a great triumph. "We hear talk of fourteen or fifteen rehearsals," said a leading musical journal, "and are ready to believe that a task so heavy could not have been so well discharged without them. But, however prepared, the performance reflected immense credit upon the company, and will be long remembered as an illustration of what is possible to well-directed energy and skill even amid the stress of a London season." At this performance the parts of Tristan and Isolde were taken respectively by Herr Winkelmann and Frau Sucher. The musical journal just quoted says that praise was especially due to these artists for their discharge of "a terribly trying task." "We are at a loss," continues the surprised critic, "to imagine how they contrived to get their respective parts into their heads, and our wonder is that their physical resources endured the strain of reproducing them. A very little of such work must tell upon the most robust performer." Much water has flowed under London Bridge since that was written. Nowadays we do not consider the task of singing through "Tristan" a test of physical endurance, though undoubtedly the title parts do involve an immense strain.

It need only be noted further that the drama was first given in English by the Carl Rosa Company at the London Lyceum in 1890. Mr. Hamish MacCunn was the conductor, and the parts of Isolde, Tristan, and Brangäne were taken respectively by Lucille Hall, Philip Brozel, and Kirkby Lunn.

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