There is just a handful of works of which it may truly be said: they changed the course of western music. Tristan und Isolde is one of them. Ironically, Wagner didn’t set out to cause a musical sensation but merely to create a ‘practical’ work for the traditional operatic stage based on a celebrated medieval tale of love and betrayal. However, this ‘practical’ project turned out to be nothing less than a dramatization of the gulf that separates the illusory nature of the world as we perceive it via our senses (equated in the drama with the all-deceiving ‘day’) from inaccessible reality (the realm of ‘night’), a desirable refuge from the unsatisfiable longings of this life.
If the subject matter was unprecedented in the annals of opera, so too was the music that gave expression to it. Wagner himself never ceased to be amazed by his own achievement, telling Mathilde Wesendonck on one occasion: ‘Tristan is and remains a miracle to me! I find it more and more difficult to understand how I could have done such a thing….’ Even Giuseppe Verdi once confessed to a visitor: ‘This gigantic structure fills me time and again with astonishment and awe, and I still cannot quite comprehend that it was written by a human being’. In 1892, Richard Strauss remarked: ‘I have just conducted my first Tristan (in Weimar). It was the most wonderful day of my life’. More than a century and a half after its composition in 1859, Tristan has lost none of its potency, and each performance offers the promise of a new perspective – a new appreciation.
Few opera plots appear to be simpler. Tristan and Isolde love each other with a smouldering but undeclared love which each assumes is impossible to satisfy in this world. They seek to escape their intolerable longing in a suicide pact, also undeclared. However, Isolde’s devoted maid, horrified at being asked to bring a death potion, brings a love potion instead. After drinking it, they are astounded to find that they are not dying but swept away by the love they had repressed. They seek to satisfy their longings through sexual passion but find that their desire for complete union cannot be met in this world – such union is possible only in the world that is outside space and time. They long for this, and each embraces death in order to quench an otherwise insatiable longing and, at last, to join completely with the other.
Tristan und Isolde was propelled primarily by musical impulses in a way that the Ring, with its more complicated dramatic structure, was not. In Tristan, the text and its vehicle, the human voice, are currents in a great symphonic stream, in which the lovers submerge themselves and then transcend. This is perfect love: the extinction of selfishness, the disappearance of self, total identification with each other.
‘Life and death’ said Wagner, ‘the whole meaning and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul. The whole decisive action materialises when the innermost soul demands it.’
It truly is an astonishing work.