Described by Nietzsche as a ‘dangerously fascinating’ work, Tristan und Isolde was for the most part written during Wagner’s final years in Zurich, when he was staying in a house he described as his ‘refuge on the town’s Green Hill’. It had been furnished by a woman whose name is inextricably linked to his work on the score: Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his patron Otto Wesendonck.
Wagner first met Mathilde on 17 February 1852 following a concert at which he had conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Coriolan Overture. According to Jörg Aufenanger, who has examined in detail the history of their relationship in his book about this ‘love between artists’, ‘this evening marked the start of an adventure that was to affect the lives of three people and, indeed, the whole history of opera’.
Mathilde proved wholly receptive to Wagner’s visions, confirming him in his beliefs and, by inspiring him in countless ways, functioning as a quintessential muse. At the same time, however, Wagner was aware that theirs was an impossible love, not least when it became the talk of the town. In December 1854 he wrote to Franz Liszt: ‘Since I have never in my life enjoyed the true happiness of love, I intend to erect a further monument to this most beautiful of dreams […]: I have planned in my head a Tristan and Isolte [sic], the simplest, but most full-blooded musical conception; with the “black flag” that flutters at the end, I shall cover myself over in order to die.’
Even if the subject matter of Gottfried von Straßburg’s medieval romance was impossible to square with nineteenth-century bourgeois morality, his tale of adultery cast a spell on many poets of the later period, the most famous German adaptation at this time being August von Platen’s poem Tristan, which begins with the lines ‘He who has beheld beauty with his own eyes / Is already in thrall to death’. Less well known is Schumann’s plan to write an opera on the subject in 1846, when Robert Reinick drafted a scenario for him. It is possible that Wagner was aware of these plans as Dresden’s artists – including Wagner and Schumann – met on frequent occasions during the winter of 1845/46 in order to exchange ideas. At this date Wagner seems to have had no interest in writing an opera on the subject of Tristan and Isolde, but within ten years this situation had changed, when one of Wagner’s friends, Karl Ritter, who had studied with Schumann, wrote a play that reminded him of the theme at a time when his feelings for Mathilde Wesendonck had reached a preliminary high point. In his autobiography, Wagner recalled how Ritter ‘had stuck to the more boisterous episodes in the romance, whereas what immediately attracted me to it was its profound tragedy’. As a result, he felt that the main focus of any account of the tale should lie ‘in the depiction of love’s torment, a torment to which the two lovers, enlightened as to their true relationship, fall victim from then until the moment of their death’. The desire for love proves to be a longing for death, a state that cannot be represented onstage but one that Wagner is able to hint at in the great love duet in the second act and in the passage that concludes the work and that he himself described as ‘Isolde’s transfiguration’.
For the first time in the history of opera as a genre, Wagner relocated the action and focused on the inner lives of his protagonists. (The work is subtitled a ‘Handlung’ – an ‘action’.) ‘It was with utter confidence that I plunged into the innermost depths of the soul and from the most intimate centre of this world fearlessly constructed its outer form. […] Here life and death, the whole import and existence of the outer world, depend solely on inner movements of the soul. The whole of the emotionally affecting action is revealed solely because the innermost soul demands it, and it emerges into the light with its very form prefigured from within.’
Wagner began work on the prose draft in December 1856, concentrating initially on the final act and completing the draft by the autumn of the following year. By 31 December 1857 he was able to present Mathilde with the composition sketch of the opening act with an accompanying dedication: ‘Overjoyed, / of pain uncloyed, / pure and free, / alone for thee – / all the pain that they bore / and the joy they forswore / Sir Tristan and Isold’, / in sounds of purest gold, / their kisses and their tears / I lay before you, here’s / an angel’s song of praise / from one she did upraise’.
Wagner completed the full score of Act One and the composition sketches of Act Two before he was obliged to abandon his ‘refuge’ in Zurich, when, in the presence of Otto Wesendonck, his wife Minna accused him of sleeping with Mathilde. On 17 August 1858 he left for Venice, where he completed Act Two in March 1859. The third and final act was written in Lucerne after Wagner had been forced to leave Venice on account of the growing political unrest in the city. Throughout this time he kept a diary for Mathilde, detailing his work on Tristan und Isolde. One entry reads: ‘Tristan is and remains a miracle! Less and less am I able to understand how I was ever able to write anything like it!
Translated by Stewart Spencer