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06 Dec 2021

WAGNER: “Prelude” and “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde

By Jeff Counts

Duration: 17 minutes in two movements.

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) – Wagner was only one year returned from his exile in Zurich, Venice and Paris when the Prelude and “Liebestod” from his opera Tristan and Isolde was premiered in 1863 (the complete opera would not be fully staged until 1865). He had fled Dresden in 1849 after the socialist May Uprising there (of which he was a minor but willing participant) was put down by Saxon and Prussian forces. The political ban and open arrest warrants on Wagner and the other revolutionaries were voided only in 1862, which extended his time abroad to 12 long, but not unproductive, years.

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

THE HISTORY – Wagner’s reading habits during his expat years would have a significant impact on his composing habits. He was introduced to the writings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1854 and found in them principles and ideals that would greatly influence his future worldview. Among the most important of these concepts was Schopenhauer’s aesthetic placement of music above all other art forms, including poetry. For Wagner, already anxious to push artistic thought in a new direction, this would come to mean that all operatic elements, even the libretto, would bow to the music and that the music would be primarily responsible for telling the story and creating the drama. Before Tristan and Isolde, no composition had shown just how effectively, and effortlessly, music alone could carry a narrative from beginning to end. It is exactly the beginning and the end of Tristan and Isolde that make up the Prelude and “Liebestod.” The title is not exactly what Wagner originally proposed. He preferred Liebestod und Verklarung (Love-Death and Transfiguration), but the modern name survives despite his wishes. Regardless of what we call them today, Wagner’s pairing of the two book-end pieces succinctly captured in a neat 17-minute package both the hesitant longing of the lovers and their final redemptive union in death. It magically mirrored the completeness of Tristan and Isolde’s entire journey and, in Wagner’s own words from the premiere program note, fulfilled their “eternal union in measureless space, no bounds, no fetters, indivisible!” Of academic interest is the opening of the Prelude which introduces the famous unresolved “Tristan” chord, quite possibly the most studied, copied and worshipped note grouping in modern music history. It is the role of the “Liebestod” (or “Transfiguration”) to resolve this harmonic tension and lay the lovers, their story, and their music finally to rest.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the International Red Cross was formed, the January Uprising against the Russian Empire occurred, and Samuel Clemens used his pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time.

THE CONNECTION – Programmed no less than 13 times since 1945, the Prelude and “Liebestod” was most recently programmed on the Masterworks Series in 2003 under Pavel Kogan.