Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Let Us Quaff from the Cup: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

The real-life married couple Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde at the first performance of Tristan und Isolde on June 10, 1865
The real-life married couple Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde at the first performance of Tristan und Isolde on June 10, 1865

On June 10, 1865 – 159 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent and groundbreaking music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (whose wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, Wagner was enthusiastically shtupping at the same time). 

Oh Goodness; Did I Just Write That?

I did. 

I know, right?  Here I am, introducing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most awesome, incredible works of art ever created – and I still couldn’t resist a cheap dig at Wagner the person.  As we have discussed in the past and will do so again, the same personality flaws that made Richard Wagner an often despicable narcissist allowed him the conceit to reject the operatic clichés and conventions of his time and to create a body of dramatic musical art unfathomable in its originality, beauty, dramatic power, and imagination. Of course, had he not been the towering genius he was, and had he not risked everything – including his sanity, over and over again – to create his unparalleled body of work, well, he would just have been another loathsome crank, writing nasty letters to newspaper editors and shouting at people in the street.  

But he was a towering genius, and he did create a singularly stunning body of work, a body of work we all deserve to revel in.  So revel we shall, with the satisfying understanding that our pleasure in Wagner’s music affords him no monetary profit or emotional gratification at all, given that he’s been dead since February 13, 1883.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) in 1860
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) in 1860

Our gameplan.  This post will indeed discuss Tristan und Isolde; it’s basic story line and its origins. But this post will deal primarily with the cliché but inescapable “Wagner Problem”: how to reconcile Wagner the “man” with Wagner the “artist,” and how to allow ourselves to accept the man while reveling in the artist!

Meanwhile, my Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for June 11 and 18 will feature my favorite DVD recording of Tristan und Isolde and, as such, will be all about Tristan und Isolde, all the time!

Don’t Call it an Opera!!!

Tristan und Isolde is a three-act music drama, or what Wagner himself called “eine Handlung” (which means “a drama” or“an action”). By his mid-career, Wagner outright refused to use the word “opera” except as a pejorative, claiming that the word represented the debased musical stage works of everyone not named “Richard Wagner.” Tristan und Isolde’s libretto (or “poem,” as Wagner would have us call it) was written and its music composed by Wagner between 1855 and 1859.

Wagner based his “poem” on a twelfth-century romance entitled Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, who died circa 1210.  Wagner’s poem tells the story of two presumed “enemies” – the Irish princess Isolde and the Cornish (southern English) knight Tristan – who presumably fall madly in love only when they are duped into drinking a love potion.  (Many modern observers – yours truly included – believe that this “love potion” is in fact a placebo, likely of high alcohol content – Bacardi 151, for example – a drink that allows Tristan and Isolde to, like, finally get in touch with their feelings and admit that they’ve actually loved each other for years.)  Unfortunately, their love for each other is illicit (Isolde is due to marry the King of Cornwall, an old dude named “Marke”) and “unconsummated” (despite their very best efforts, T and I never manage to “do the dirty,” perhaps because they just can’t stop singing about how much they love each other).  In the end, Tristan is cut down by a fellow knight of Cornwall and Isolde, on watching Tristan die, expires over his now dead body in an orgasmic haze.

Critics of Tristan und Isolde have referred to Wagner’s linked infatuation with sex and death as “perfumed obscenity” and its orgasmic and deathly conclusion as “snuff opera.” 

Those nattering nabobs of critical negativism aside, I will happily argue that Tristan und Isolde is Wagner’s single greatest work. There’s nothing else even remotely like it in the repertoire.…

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