Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 1

Tristan und Isolde, overture opening: principal composite leitmotiv

Sooner Than Later

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 14, 2024 (four weeks ago) was entitled “Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs.” Among the featured “drinking songs” was the famous “quaff the presumed poison” scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde.  

That May 14 post offered a video link to the scene, from a performance recorded live at La Scala in Milan in 2007. Featuring Waltraud Meier as Isolde and Ian Story as Tristan, and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it is hands down my favorite recording of the opera on DVD.  I promised to feature the performance in a post of its own “sooner than later.”  

I trust today is soon enough.

Today’s double-length Dr. Bob Prescribes post will deal with Act I of Tristan und Isolde.  Next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will pick up from  there, with Acts II and III. 

Write What You Know: Tristan und Isolde as Autobiography

The aspiring writer is advised to “write what you know.”  What Richard Wagner (1813-1883) “knew” during the late 1850s was an unquenchable passion for the wife of his benefactor.  That benefactor was a wealthy businessman named Otto von Wesendonck; his wife (and the object of Wagner’s desire) was beautiful young woman named Mathilde von Wesendonck (1828-1902).  It is no coincidence that at exactly that time Wagner decided to write a music-drama about an unconsummated passion between a heroic knight named Tristan and a beautiful princess named Isolde, a princess that happens to be engaged to the Tristan’s benefactor, King Marke of Cornwall.  While the original story of Tristan and Isolde goes back a thousand years, Wagner’s version has everything to do with his life in the late 1850s. 

Tristan und Isolde: The backstory

All of the following occurs prior to the beginning of Wagner’s music drama.

Tristan is a knight and nephew of King Marke of Cornwall, on the coast of southern England.  Isolde is an Irish princess.  In battle, Tristan kills Isolde’s fiancé, Morold (believe it or not, a name that failed to make the top-ten male baby names for 2023).  Badly wounded himself, Tristan is brought to Isolde who, like her mother, is famous for her skills with non-prescription pharmaceuticals.  He does not reveal his identity to her, instead claiming that his name is “Tantris” (“Tristan” spelled backwards).  Nobody’s fool, Isolde figures out who Tristan is pretty quickly.  She picks up a sword to kill him, but she cannot, because she realizes that she is in love with him.   Instead, she heals Tristan who swears to her his undying love. He then demonstrates his love by walking out on her.  He returns some five (or ten) years later, having been tasked with hauling Isolde off to Cornwall, there to marry his elderly uncle, King Marke.…

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