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8.660152-54 - WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, the acknowledged son of a Government official Carl Friedrich Wagner, and his wife Joanna, but possibly fathered in fact by the actor Ludwig Geyer, who was to marry Johanna in August 1814, nine months after Carl Friedrich’s death. Wagner’s education was an intermittent one, much of it in Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Weber and Der Freischütz, the first great German romantic opera. Returning to Leipzig he was to profit more from contact with his uncle Adolf, a widely read scholar, with a knowledge of Greek tragedy, as well as of the classics of Italy, the works of Shakespeare, and of course, of the literature of his own country. In Leipzig Wagner took the opportunity of furthering his own interests in music, stimulated by the performances of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which he heard in 1829. He borrowed books from the music lending library of Robert Schumann’s future teacher and father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, and took private music lessons at the Thomasschule, where J.S. Bach had been employed a century earlier.

The later career of Wagner was a turbulent one. His income never matched his ambitions, and he was driven on by an aggressive and ruthless urge to create a new form of music, the music of the future, particularly in the conjunction of all arts in a series of great music dramas. He worked first as conductor at the undistinguished opera-house in Magdeburg, married a singer, Minna Planer, moved to Königsberg and later to Riga. From there, pursued by creditors, he sailed for England, and thence, a week later to Paris, where success continued to elude him. Recognition was finally to come from his native Saxony, with the production of his opera Rienzi in Dresden and an official appointment to the royal court. His own tactless espousal of revolutionary notions led to his flight from Saxony in 1849, at first to Liszt in Weimar, and then to Switzerland. Further troubles were to follow as the result of the political suspicions he had aroused, the constant attention of creditors and his selfish unscrupulousness in his relations with women and with benefactors. The protection later afforded by King Ludwig II of Bavaria allowed some respite from difficulties, but his liaison with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, wife of the Bavarian court conductor Hans von Bülow, and his unpopularity in Munich led to a further period of exile in Switzerland. His final relative triumph in the establishment of a Festival devoted to his work in Bayreuth was accomplished again with the encouragement of King Ludwig. The first festival took place in 1876, but did nothing to reduce his increasing personal debts.

Wagner died during the course of a visit to Venice in 1883. In his life-time he had inspired equally fanatical devotion and hatred, both of which continued after his death. His principal achievement must be seen in the creation of massive and stupendous masterpieces for the theatre, such as his German epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen, and his expansion of traditional harmonic and constructional devices in music.

In the drama Tristan und Isolde, Wagner transforms an early legend recounted in the work of the medieval poet Gottfried von Strassburg, derived from Le roman de la rose. Wagner’s work reflects something of his own life. In Switzerland, where he had settled in 1849, now exiled from Germany, he had met, in 1852, the merchant Otto Wesendonck and the latter’s wife, Mathilde. Wesendonck was of material assistance to Wagner, who had often to call on others for financial support, and in 1857 made available to him a house in the grounds of the new Wesendonck villa on the outskirts of Zurich. A relationship had developed between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, a liaison that Wagner found himself increasingly obliged to explain and justify, particularly when his wife Minna intercepted a letter that her husband was sending to Mathilde, couched in the warmest terms, together with a pencil draft of the Prelude to the new drama. Wagner had already given Mathilde his newly completed poem Tristan und Isolde, received ecstatically. Minna reacted to the letter with anger and confronted Mathilde Wesendonck, whose husband Otto was already aware and patiently tolerant of the liaison between his young wife and a composer whom he greatly admired and continued to support. Minna’s action made it impossible, Wagner thought, to remain at the garden house that he had called the Asyl. Minna was despatched to Brestenberg to take a cure, while Wagner left what he had called the Green Hill, moving first, in August 1858, to Venice, continuing work on the music of his new drama, but finding the necessary conditions for the completion of the score in Lucerne the following year. Tristan und Isolde was not performed until 1865 in Munich, where King Ludwig II, the nineteen-year-old King of Bavaria, had tried to install Wagner. In April of the same year, two months before the première, Cosima, the younger daughter of Liszt, and wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who had spent part of their 1857 honeymoon with the Wagners, gave birth to the first of her children by Wagner, Isolde.

The first performance of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Hans von Bülow, had a varied reception. While some greeted it with the greatest enthusiasm, others found the work objectionable or unintelligible. Nevertheless the chromatic harmonies that characterize the score, heard in the famous ‘Tristan chord’ in the second bar of the Prelude and at later points in the drama, claimed as a key influence in future musical development, have their precedent in a number of earlier composers. Indeed the rising chromatic phrase of the second and third bar of the Prelude has its own possible immediate source, it has been said, in Hans von Bülow’s opera Nirwana. The score makes use of leitmotifs, phrases or figures associated with elements of the drama, that are often more abstract in their reference than the distinctly concrete associations found in some earlier works. The music, in fact, is imbued with a sense of yearning, of love, of whatever kind, to be found ultimately in death.

Keith Anderson

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