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


TRISTAN, a Breton Knight, Nephew of King Mark (Tenor)
KING MARK of Cornvall (Bass)
ISOLDE, Princess of Ireland (Soprano)
KURVENAL, Tristan’s devoted servant (Baritone)
MELOT, one of King Mark’s Courtiers (Tenor)
BRANGANE, Isolde’s friend and Attendant (Soprano)
A Shepherd (Tenor)
A Steersman (Baritone)
A Sailor Lad (Tenor)
Chorus of Sailors (Tenors and Basses)
Chorus of Knights, Esquires, and Men-at-Arms (Tenor and Basses)


Before the opening of the stage-action certain events have occurred which it is necessary that the listener should understand. Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, had slain Isolde’s lover, Morold, an Irish chief who had come over to demand tribute. The tribute was paid, but in what form? In the form of Morold’s head! Tristan himself was so grievously wounded in the encounter that he pleaded to be placed in a boat with all his weapons, and cast adrift on the sea to die.

As fate would have it, he was thrown up by the tide on the Irish coast; on that very spot held by his late enemy. Isolde found him, an unknown wanderer, and nursed him back to convalescence by her vaunted "leechcraft." To conceal his dentity, he metamorphosed his name into Tantris; but Isolde recognised him by a notch in his sword corresponding exactly with a splinter found in her dead lover’s head. Isolde’s first impulse was to kill the man thus placed in her power. But as she lifted the sword, her aversion changed to regard and, with a noble chivalry, she allowed Tristan to depart unharmed. Later on, Tristan was sent by his uncle as ambassador to make peace with Ireland, and to demand the hand of Isolde for Mark to seal the bond. Isolde felt that she had been deceived and betrayed. Tristan, her own beloved, come to woo her for another! -- at this her woman’s heart rebelled. But the King’s offer was, by her relatives, considered too good to be rejected. Isolde gave her unwilling consent, and Tristan was now bringing over to wed his uncle her whom he himself held dear. It is with the sea-voyage that the stage-action begins.

The curtains ascends to show a part of the deck of Tristan’s ship on its way to Cornwall. Isolde reclines on a couch in her cabin. Rich tapestries enclose the scene. Brangäne, Isolde’s attendant, is with her, to whom Isolde recounts something of her past, vowing that she will never become the wife of king Mark. An unseen sailor trolls out on the mast-head, singing of his Irish maid. The song seems to Isolde like a covert taunt aimed at herself. Fierce, conflicting thoughts take possession of her when she learns that the voyage is nearly ended; and she bursts out into an excited appeal to the elements to destroys the ship and all in it. Brangäne, to give her mistress air, draws back the curtains. The whole length of the vessel in thus revealed; and Tristan, his arms folded on his breast, his knights and his squire Kurvenal beside him, is observed standing at the helm, looking sadly across the sea. At sight of him Isolde utters a deep malediction; and after roundly abusing him to the bewildered Brangäne, bids the maid command him to her side.

Tristan declines the summons on the pretext that he cannot leave the helm. On her insisting, Kurvenal offers to settle the matter, and sends Brangäne back to her mistress with a rough but decided answer, singing derisively after her a song about Morold and his fate. Isolde is more indignant than ever; for Tristan has already been guilty of apparent coldness and discourtesy in avoiding her during the voyage. Her impatience increases as she gazes at him in moody meditation. In a long and violent scene she goes over the story of the Morold and Tantris episode, declaring that her love is now changed to hate.

Brangäne endeavours to soothe her wrath. "Can you not remember your mother’s arts?" she says. "Think’st thou that she who’d mastered them would have sent me o’er the sea without assistance for thee?" This is explained by the fact that Isolde’s mother, knowing of her daughter’s heart-trouble, had entrusted a love-potion to the hands of Brangäne, with directions to give it to the bride on her wedding-day. Brangäne now bring forward a small golden coffer containing healing drugs, poisons, and -- the love-potion.

Land is already in sight; short must now be Isolde’s time with Tristan. Tristan was once hers; if she cannot live with him, she will die, and take Tristan along with her "into the night." The cabinet of magic vials is at her hand. Isolde austerely chooses one and bids Brangäne give it to her. "The draught of death!" cries the alarmed attendant. The shouts of the sailors are heard as they sing their "Ho, heave ho!" while shortening sail. Isolde protests that she will not land unless Tristan comes and pleads forgiveness for his neglect. Kurvenal is sent to him with a message to that effect, and in the meantime Brangäne is instructed by her mistress to prepare a loving-cup and pour the death-draught into it.

While the horrified attendant is kneeling to expostulate, "Sir Tristan" is announced. Isolde upbraids him for shunning her. He pleads etiquette. She reminds him fo that never-to-be-forgotten incident in Ireland when she nursed him back to life. Revenge, she adds, is her debt against him. Tristan offers his sword and bids her take his life. That, she bitterly replies, would never do: it would mortally offend King Mark. Rather let the feud be terminated with a cup of reconciliation. Tristan, fully alive to her meaning, is content thus to end his hopeless passion. Brangäne, answering at last Isolde’s repeated order, brings the "fatal" cup; and Tristan, uttering words which indicate that he knows he is drinking his death, lifts it to his lips. "I must halve it," exclaims Isolde, who snatches the goblet from his hands and drains the remainder.

Slowly the frames of the unfortunate pair tremble. They stand entranced, gazing bewilderingly at each other. Love, not death, they discover, is what the cup of reconciliation has brought them. In a moment or two they rush into each other’s arms in an overmastering burst of passion. Brangäne had changed the draught -- had substituted for the cup of poison the potion of love, intended by Isolde’s mother to ward off the evil consequences of Isolde’s infatuation for Tristan.

The philter is already working, thought not yet in its full strength. But the boat bearing King Mark, coming to welcome his bride, is drawing near. The sailor’s chorus, "Hail!
hail! to Mark the King," is heard. Tristan and Isolde awake once more to real life. Faltering words of loving wonder, of amazement at the revelation which has come to them, fall from their lips. Their whole being vibrates under the strain of their newly-found joy; and as the curtain descends, Tristan can but ecstatically sigh out the name of Isolde, while Isolde, overcome with emotion, sinks in a faint into her attendant’s arms.


The Second Act has been truly described as one vast love-duet. It opens with an introduction which leads to a scene in the Castle garden -- the Castle of King Mark. Isolde’s apartments are at one side, with a flight of steps descending from the door. Isolde waits, longing for the daylight to fade when she may meet her lover. Brangäne is watching the retreat of Mark and his party on a night-hunt. She hears their horns curiously sounding in the distance; but her mistress, coming to the top of the steps, wilfully ignores the strain.

A lighted torch stands by her door, the pre-arranged signal for Tristan not to approach. Brangäne warns Isolde that she is being betrayed by Sir Melot, Tristan’s false friend, who is seeking to curry favour with the King. Isolde will not listen. "This very night-hunt," she says, "was contrived by Melot to serve his friend." Presently, as the soft summer eve is falling, Isolde makes out the figure of the beloved drawing near. Isolde waves her kerchief to Tristan. Vainly does Brangäne implore her to leave the torch burning. Isolde seizes it. "The torch -- were it the light of my life, laughing would I quench it without fear," she exclaims, as she extinguishes the flame.

Tristan rushes in, and once more they clasp each other. In a transport of tingling delight, they cast themselves on a bank of flowers, supremely happy, oblivious of everything; love alone being in the hearts and thoughts and feelings of both. Tristan, resting his head on Isolde’s arm, beseeches the night to last eternally-

O night of rapture, rest upon us,
Lift our lives’ remembrance from us.

A passion of that kind is attenuated by the cold light of the common day. The common day is approaching, but Tristan and Isolde are still in oblivious ecstasy. Still the lovers linger on the flowery bank entranced, enshrined in nameless love, given over to themselves. More than once Brangäne comes to expostulate with them about their possible danger; warning them the darkness is rapidly giving place to the dawn. They heed her not. "Let me die here!" exclaims Tristan. "Let the day to death surrender!" too long the lovers had remained in their blissful waking sleep. Treachery had too surely been at work.

Tristan’s servant, Kurvenal, rushes in with an unavailing warning. Behind him follow King Mark and Melot, with a group of courtiers. Melot has played traitor in discovering the lovers to the King. He expects to be praised for his zeal. But the noble Mark is too stupefied by the staggering revelation. Turning to Tristan, whom he has loved better than a son, he pours out a flood of touching upbraidings. "Where now," he says, "has truth fled if Tristan can betray? Where now are faith and friendship fair, when from the fount of faith -- my Tristan -- they are lost?"

Tristan is implored to explain. Tristan is profoundly moved, but no excuse can he offer. "What thou dost ask must ever be unanswered." Tristan’s only reply is, in fact, to call upon Isolde, now cowering by his side, to follow him to death. He bends down slowly and kisses her forehead. Melot is furious, and, with a cry of treason, starts forward with his drawn sword. Tristan unsheathes his own steel, and turns sternly round, reproaching this so-called friend who has betrayed him. He rushes at Melot.

As they engage, Tristan, evidently seeking death, allows his guard to drop, and instantly falls, wounded, into the arms of Kurvenal. Isolde sinks weeping on his breast, and the curtain descends quickly.


The last Act opens on a scene of great beauty. We are at Karéol, Tristan’s deserted castle in Brittany. Under a lime-tree in the garden lies the dying man, the devoted Kurvenal watching by his side. The blue ocean stretches below, shining like burnished steel in the sunlight. Suddenly the still morning air is pierced by the sad, haunting notes of a shepherd’s pipe. The player comes and looks over the wall, asking if Tristan still sleeps. For answer, Kurvenal can only say that if Tristan wakes it will be but to take a last adieu of earth, "unless we find the lady-leech, the only one to help" -- which is to say Isolde, whom Kurvenal has already summoned by a servant. "Watch the sea, and play a merry tune should a sail come in sight," is the trusty squire’s injunction to the rustic.

Tristan opens his eyes as the shepherd withdraws, playing his melancholy pipe. Racked with fever, his delirious fancies turn solely upon his darling Isolde. Half-musingly, as if to himself, he recalls the various ravishing experiences of their past together. Being told that he may yet gaze on Isolde, strength seems to return to him. But it is only for a moment or two; the excitement of that anticipated reunion proves too much for his enfeebled frame, and he falls back on the pillow exhausted.

Kurvenal, having revealed to Tristan that he has sent for Isolde as a last chance, proceeds to the watch-tower to scan the expanse of ocean. Alas! not a sail is to be seen. He returns to the sick man with themournful news; and again the wail of the shepherd’s reed is heard. Tristan, distressed at the disappointed, swoons away. Kurvenal, deeming him dead, succumbs to a paroxyms of grief. But once more the wounded man rallies; and once more eyes are directed to the blue waters. At last the shepherd’s pipe gives out a lively tune. "Oh rapture! The ship from the northland is nearing."

Tristan’s agitation as he learns the gladsome tidings is intense. He tries to rise, but is too weak. Isolde’s ship is on the beach; her sails are down. Isolde is up the road and through the gateway, hurrying to her love. Tristan, in a wild delirium, tears the wrappings from his wounds, drags himself from his couch, and, shrieking, "The torch is extinct! I come! I come!" staggers to meet the idol of his heart in a long, soul-stirring embrace. Alas! he falls dead in the beloved’s arms. The dying eyes look a sad farewell; the lips murmur "Isolde!" and all is over.

For Isolde, too, the last hour has come. Almost speechless in the agony of her grief, she collapses in a faint on the body of her lover, imploring him to speak once again. Meanwhile, a second ship approaches. On board are King Mark, the traitor Melot, and others. Kurvenal and the shepherd barricade the gateway against the supposed enemy. The gate is stormed, the besiegers enter, and Kurvenal, in a fury of loyalty to his dead master, kills the hateful Melot. Kurvenal himself, in the confusion, receives a fatal wound, and crawls back to his master’s feet, there to breathe his last.

Brangäne steps forward, endeavouring to restore Isolde; assuring her that she has made the King acquainted with the incident of the love-potion, and adding that the King, in unselfish magnanimity, has come, not to fight, but to forgive. His hope had been to see the lovers happily united. But now -- "dead together: all are dead." Isolde is not yet actually dead, but the death-song is already on her lips. Rising to her feet, with face transformed as if a glory from heaven shone on it, she sings her "Liebestod," and falls on Tristan’s body as if transfigured.

So came their hour on them that were in life
Tristan and Iseult: so from love and strife
The stroke of love’s own hand felt last and best
Gave them deliverance to perpetual rest…
And these rapt forth perforce from earthly ground,
These twain the deep see guards and girdles round.

The two souls, bound together by that chord of human sympathy the most holy and noble -- the divine passion, Love -- are united in death, and thus realise far more perfectly, and in a far wider sense, all their joys. Thus ends this incomparable inspiration, the "Tristan and Isolde" of Richard Wagner.


Tristan and Isolde poster

Tristan and Isolde / Iseut - Death of Tristan.
Artist: Gustave Dore.
Size: 18 in x 24 in.
Giclee Print.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
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Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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