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8.555789 - WAGNER, R.: Scenes from Tristan und Isolde and Gotterdammerung
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Scenes from Tristan und Isolde and Gotterdammerung

Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes of reaction. His career was in many ways thoroughly discreditable. He betrayed friends and patrons, accumulated debts with abandon, and seemed, in pursuit of his aims, an unprincipled opportunist. Nevertheless, whatever his defects of character, he exercised a hypnotic influence over his immediate followers, while his creation of a new form of musicdrama, in which the arts were combined, and the magnitude of his ambitious conception continue to fascinate.

As a boy in Leipzig Wagner was inspired by the example of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, while his literary ambitions drew strength from a study of Shakespeare. Study of music in Leipzig was followed in 1833 by appointment as chorus-master at the opera in Wurzburg, through the agency of an elder brother, a principal tenor there. The next year he became music director to Heinrich Bethmann's theatre company, moving with it to Magdeburg, largely at the insistence of the actress Minna Planer, whom he followed to Konigsberg, marrying her there in November 1836. The following spring saw him as music director to the Konigsberg theatre and in the summer he took up an appointment as music director in Riga, where he was joined again by Minna, who had earlier deserted him for other lovers. Employment in Riga ended in March 1839 and debts now forced Wagner to take flight, sailing to London, but finally finding refuge and a possible realisation of ambitions in Paris.

While the French capital offered experience that proved fruitful, there were practical difficulties in earning a living. In 1842, however, Wagner succeeded, with the help of Meyerbeer, in securing a staging of his opera Rienzi in Dresden, followed by Die fliegende Hollander and appointment as music director at the court opera. He held this position until involvement with revolutionaries in 1849 forced him to seek refuge in Switzerland. Years spent there, interrupted by periods in Paris, Venice, and Vienna, brought growing achievement as a composer and the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in Munich, where the great music dramas of his maturity were staged. Rivalries forced his departure, again to Switzerland, where, on news of the death of his wife, who had remained in Dresden, he was joined by Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima, the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow. A year before her divorce from von Bulow, she bore Wagner a son, Siegfried, and brought with her two daughters that Wagner had fathered. The couple married in 1870 and the following year Wagner turned his attention to the building of his own opera house in Bayreuth, with further support from King Ludwig, from whom Wagner had been estranged for some years. It was in the new theatre that the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen was performed in 1876, to be followed in 1882 by the first staging of Parsifal. Over the years Wagner had generally spent the winter in the warmer climate of Italy. He died in Venice in February 1883.

After his escape from Dresden Wagner had been helped in Switzerland by the banker Otto Wesendonck, with whose wife the composer established a relationship, finally exposed by Wagner's wife, Minna. This domestic intrigue lay, in part, behind the story of doomed lovers in Tristan und Isolde, in which the hero, Tristan, betrays his king and benefactor, King Marke, whose bride, Isolde, he has escorted over the water to her new husband. Their love is brought about by a love potion, administered, during the course of their journey, by Brangane, Isolde's servant. [1] The second act of the opera is set in the grounds of King Marke's castle in Cornwall on a summer night. The garden is surrounded by high trees, with steps leading up to Isolde's chamber. There is a torch burning by the open doors. The King, himself has just left on a hunting expedition and the horns are heard in the distance. Brangane, standing on the steps, looks towards the departing huntsmen and then back at the chamber, from which Isolde emerges. [2] Isolde listens to the sounds of the night, oblivious to Brangane's concern that the hunt is still within hearing; [3] no horn-call is so gentle as the sound of the flowing spring. Brangane warns her mistress that she should beware of Melot, a treacherous friend of Tristan, who has organized the King's night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers unawares, and laments the potion she had administered to the lovers, the source of their trouble. [4] Isolde dismisses Brangane's warning; it was love that brought her and Tristan together, and she dismisses Brangane's presentiments of danger. Seizing the torch, she dashes it to the ground, the signal for Tristan to join her in the garden. Aware of nothing but the power of love, she awaits Tristan's arrival, while Brangane goes to keep watch for the return of the hunt.

[5] Tristan hastens in and the lovers greet each other, intoxicated by their love for each other that seems a dream. [6] They regret their separation, apart so long, inveighing against distance, and praising their nearness to each other. [7] The day, treacherous and a bitter enemy, seems hateful to them, deceiving Tristan into bringing Isolde as bride for the King. [8] Isolde continues her reproaches against day that had deceived her into plotting Tristan's death, together with her. [9] Tristan continues praise of night and of the draught of death that, instead, brought their love, after the deception of daylight. Isolde adds that the false potion deceived him in his hope for death. Tristan claims it brought him deeper understanding of the night. [10] Now they are consecrated to the night, no longer deceived by the light of day. [11] Tristan kneels by Isolde's side, calling on the night of love to come down on them, singing a prolonged hymn to the night. [12] In their hearts there is the light of love, joining them, heart to heart. [13] Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted only by Brangane's admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower. [14] Emotions intensify, the lovers seeking death rather than awakening from their love. [15] Their love for each other defies death. [16] Their love is Tristan and Isolde and will destroy death. [17] Their death means eternal happiness, for ever, without end. Brangane is again heard briefly, warning the lovers that day is near. [18] The love duet continues, as they seek the night and love, [19] rising unrestrainedly towards an ecstatic climax.

The scene that follows opens with a horrified scream from Brangane, as Kurwenal rushes in, warning Tristan to make his escape, followed by the King, Melot and their friends. The King questions Tristan, reproaching him for this betrayal of trust. Tristan replies obliquely that he no longer feels himself to be a creature of this world and invites Isolde to join him in the sunless land of his birth. She agrees, Tristan kisses her, but Melot, incensed by the frustration of his own love for her, attacks Tristan who falls wounded into the arms of Kurwenal.

Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) was the last opera of the tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung. It was first staged at Bayreuth in 1876. The work reaches its climax in the funeral pyre of the hero Siegfried, joined in death by the Valkyrie Brunnhilde, and culminating in the final conflagration that overwhelms Valhalla.

Siegfried, who had awakened with a kiss Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, condemned by her father to a rock surrounded by fire, has been killed by Hagen. [20] In the Immolation Scene she orders the men to raise a pyre for Siegfried, to bring his horse, to share with her the funeral rites. [21] She tells of the purity of Siegfried, the truest, who yet had broken every oath and vow. [22] She calls on Wotan to hear her, now with her knowledge restored to her; his ravens may take him a message of peace. [23] She gives a sign to the men to bear Siegfried's body to the pyre and takes from his finger the ring, which she now will return to the Rhine with her ashes. [24] She takes a burning brand, bidding the ravens fly home and on their way urge Loge to Valhalla to bring fire there. [25] She hurls the brand onto the pyre and mounting the horse, Grane, rides into the flames, which burn the fiercer. [26] The Rhine swells and overflows its banks, quelling the fire, as the Rhinemaidens emerge. Hagen, casting aside spear, shield and helmet, plunges into the water, eager to seize the ring, and is dragged down by the Rhinemaidens, who now hold the ring up in triumph. In the sky Valhalla is seen, with the gods and goddesses sitting motionless, as the great hall is consumed in cleansing fire, bringing the reign of gods and heroes to an end.

Keith Anderson

Note on the Performance

Wagner's concert ending to the Love Duet (of which this is only the second recording) was evidently created in 1862 against the possibility of concert use. Wagner made a number of such concert introductions and endings, most of which are published for the first time in the ongoing Schott Complete Wagner Edition. The Tristan Konzertfassung forms part of the Appendix to Vol. 8-III, p.183. Musically, it could not be simpler. The ending of the Love Duet and the end of the Liebestod are virtually identical, and to round off the duet all that is required is to append the final nineteen measures of the Liebestod (beginning at bar 1681 of Act Three) to the end of the Love Duet (after bar 1630 in Act Two). This leaves the question of the vocal parts ¡V and it is these that exist in a twostave pencil sketch by Wagner. Isolde's lines remain virtually untouched, and are practically identical to the final bars of the Liebestod. This left Wagner only to supply a vocal part for Tristan, which weaves in and around Isolde's lines, echoing her sentiments.

Tristan enthusiasts will find much else of interest in the appendix to this volume, including new music to facilitate cuts in Acts II & III, as well as all the alterations in Tristan's part which Wagner made to accommodate the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfield, during the abortive rehearsals in Vienna between 1861 and 1863. Today's tenors will be horrified to discover that most of these changes meant taking the vocal part higher rather than lower, as Schnorr was evidently a high tenor who found the role uncomfortably low.

John McGlinn


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