‘I have been rebuked’ said Wagner, ‘for not introducing into the second act of Tristan und Isolde a brilliant court-ball, during which the hapless pair of lovers might hide themselves at the proper time in some shrubbery or other, where their discovery would create quite a startling scandal, with all the usual consequences. Instead there passes little more than music in this act…’
‘Little more than music’ indeed; but what music!
Wagner noted that Tristan was more thoroughly musical than anything he had done up to that time (1859), and he admitted that its sound was in his head before he had written a word of text. But the music, which was half a century ahead of its time and effectively transformed the classical tonal system, expressed a non-musical idea so unexpected that no composer other than Wagner would have contemplated it.
In Tristan und Isolde we have the story of a sexual love so intense that even the physical bodies of the lovers are a barrier to its fulfilment. Its driving force is a yearning for union beyond the constraints of time, the fluctuations of physical passion and even separate existences. In the second act, Tristan urges Isolde: ‘So let us die undivided, forever one, without end, never waking, never fearing, embraced namelessly in love, given entirely to each other, living only in our love!’ This is perfect love: the extinction of self; total identification with each other. ‘Plurality’ said the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘is merely illusory, and in all the individuals of this world there is made manifest only one, single, truly existent being, present and ever the same in all…’ This became Wagner’s credo; one so compelling that it warranted the interruption of his Nibelung project after the second act of Siegfried.
When the curtain rises on the first act of Tristan, we are plunged immediately into the inner lives of the characters as events approach a crisis. Tristan’s ship plies the Celtic Sea between Ireland and Cornwall and the Princess Isolde is in despair. The empty seascape mirrors the emptiness in her heart, and the heaving ship – hostage to wind and waves – reminds her that she too is a hostage: to a king to whom she is betrothed but doesn’t love, and to his nephew for whom she suffers the pangs of desire. Stung into action by a sailor’s song and the sighting of land, she lashes out at those who had brought her to this pass. She invokes the tempest, commanding it to rouse the sleeping ocean to wreck the ship, devour its fragments and consign its hapless passengers to the winds. This outburst – just a few minutes into the first act – is the earliest indication we have that Isolde is contemplating a joint death with Tristan for, if the ship goes down, they’ll both go with it. The music is ferocious, punctuated by evocations of the raging sea and the frantic efforts of the sailors. But it’s all in Isolde’s mind for, in reality, they are sailing calmly onwards to the waiting King Marke.
Insight comes to the lovers with the unintended drinking of the love potion. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s thirteenth century account, it was this potion that caused Tristan and Isolde to fall in love, whereas in Wagner’s version they were already in love (though neither admitted it). It is their belief that they are drinking a death-potion that sweeps away their inhibitions. When Tristan offers his sword to Isolde and gives her the opportunity to avenge the death of her suitor Morold, she brushes it aside, feigning concern for King Marke’s feelings. Her displays of bitterness and sarcasm are hollow because, in truth, she is passionately in love with Tristan. So, she resorts to the death-potion, the only draught that can quench the pain of her longing. Tristan too harbours a secret – his love for Isolde disguised by duty to his uncle. Nevertheless, when Isolde offers him the drink of atonement and he guesses her true intentions (suicide), he endorses the only remedy that honour permits.
In Act 2, the lovers catch a glimpse of the realm of perfect union and timeless reality – the ‘wondrous realm of night’ – before the divisive world of day reasserts itself. The act begins stridently but, when the feverish orchestral activity falls away, we hear the evocative sounds of distant hunting horns which, in turn, melt into the sounds of a summer’s night. Never before had music conveyed such a wonderful transition from day to night, from the harsh glare of the outer world of reason to the soft embrace of the private world of emotion.
If the second act is an apostrophe to the night, the third act returns to the world as we know it – the world of yearning and suffering. At Kareol in Brittany, his family seat, the wounded Tristan suffers unimaginable torment in the full glare of the day. He wants to die but cannot because he yearns for Isolde to come to him. ‘I heard the crash of death’s door closing behind me’ he says, ‘but now it stands ajar. I must break forth from night to take her back with me… Ah, Isolde, when will you quench the flame…when will the light die out?’
The Buddhist notion of the interrelationship of suffering and desire preoccupied Wagner at that time. This lies at the heart of Tristan’s agony in Act 3, and it is expressed with profound economy in the opening bars of the prelude and in the so-called ‘Tristan chord’. Tristan dies at the moment of Isolde’s arrival in Kareol and they barely have time to call each other’s names. She chides him for going on without her, and then collapses. When she revives it is to imagine that he is still alive. Her eyes now are fixed on him and, the music tells us, on that wondrous realm of night into which, together, they are about to pass.