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Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde is an opera or music drama that was composed by Wagner between the year 1856 and 1859 (Borchmeyer 10). It was however premiered in Munich on the 10th of June 1865. To come up with this drama masterpiece, Wagner got inspiration from his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck as well as Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. This piece of drama is largely seen as very significant in the development of Western music (Borchmeyer 15).

Wagner’s work has however not been without critics. In 1882, when Wagner’s opera was staged in London’s Drury Lane Theatre, The Era protested against what it termed as the worship of animal passion in Wagner’s operas (Borchmeyer 22). The Era claimed that the passion in Tristan was unholy in itself and at the same time it was represented impurely. Wagner was also criticized for glorifying sensual pleasure in the Tristan. This criticism came from the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in the 5th July 1865 edition (Borchmeyer 24). The edition additionally claimed that this opera from Wagner was full of materialism and treated human beings as having no destiny higher than vanishing in sweet odours like a breath after a life resembling that of turtle doves. He was also criticized by the same edition for enslaving music to the word (Borchmeyer 25). Lastly, the edition criticized Wagner for failing to show the life of his heroes, a move that would edify as well as strengthen the spirit of his audience. The edition claimed that he concentrated more on showing how the life of these heroes were destroyed through sensuality. History has also criticized Wagner’s personality. He is described as arrogant, self-centered, vulnerable to excess indiscretion, as well as intolerant. He is said to have tried to evade his creditors before Ludwing bailed him out (Borchmeyer 42).

Operas/ music dramas written by Wagner include: Die feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot( The Ban on Love), Rienzi, Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), Tannhauser – including the “Pilgrim’s chorus”, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg (The Master Singers of Nurnberg) and Parsifal which is a semi-religious work. This makes a total of about nine (Borchmeyer 50).

Wagner’s operas were quite distinctive. This can be seen through his use of a remarkable range of orchestral color, as well as harmony and polyphony in the Tristan. This is done with a freedom not experienced in earlier operas (Wagner 33). In the Tristan, the first chord, popularly known as the Tristan chord, marks an exit from traditional tonal harmony by resolving to a different discordant chord. Tristan shows many other things distinctive with Wagner’s operas like frequent use of two consecutive triads whose roots lie a triton apart (Borchmeyer 30). Wagner was also the first to make use of harmonic suspension, which involves exposing the listener to prolonged but unfinished condenses. This is the surest way a composer can create musical tension because it inspires a desire as well as an expectation from the audience and this creates musical resolution.

Wagner’s exposure to medieval literature formed the basis for his stories. He developed some of the ideas from this literature into operas as well as music dramas. Wagner’s contact with a middle high Germany epic called the Nibelungenlied for instance led to his composition of the Der Ring des Nibelungen. On average, Wagner’s performances would last for about three hours (Borchmeyer 14).

Wagner’s tragic story of Tristan and Isolde took place during the medieval times during the regime of king Arthur. Isolde of Ireland was a daughter to Angwish, the king of Ireland. In this story, Isolde was betrothed to the king of Cornwall whose name was Mark (Scruton 20). This king send his nephew, Tristan to Ireland to help bring Isolde back to Cornwall. The author argues that Tristan is a name standing for sorrow and this character was given it because the mother died at his birth. He is described as a noble knight. Isolde’s handmaiden was called Brangraine. As Isolde was leaving for Cornwall from Ireland, her mother gave her handmaiden a love portion which was supposed to be kept safe until they reached their destination . (Scruton 30)

This love portion was to be given to Isolde during her wedding night. The two didn’t observe these instructions as they drank the portion. This made them fall in love forever. Although later Isolde married mark as scheduled, the portion left her with no choice but to continue loving Tristan. King mark later realized the affair but had the heart to forgive Isolde the betrayal notwithstanding. He however decided to ban Tristan from Cornwall (Scruton 40).

After the ban, Tristan moved to the court of king Arthur and later to Brittany. There he met Iseult of Brittany whose other name was Iseult of white hands. Owing to the similarity of her name to that of Isolde, Tristan got attracted to her (Scruton 75). They got married although they failed to consummate their marriage since he was unable to let go his true love Isolde. Tristan later fell ill and decided to send for his true love Isolde. He was so much in love with her that he believed she could even cure him (Scruton 80). They believed that if she decided to come for his rescue, the returning ship’s sails would be white and black if she didn’t. Iseult was not comfortable with the healing arrangement and therefore lied to Tristan that the sails of the returning ship were black though they were white. This caused Tristan to give up hope which caused him to succumb to grief shortly before Isolde could reach him. Isolde died later out of an heart break. Iseult later regretted deeply the injustice she had done since she came to learn the deep love Tristan and Isolde had for each other (Scruton 100).

Anti-Semitism refers to hostility towards Jews. Such people hate the ethnic background, culture as well as the religion of Jews. Anti-Semitism is evident in the work of Wagner. Firstly, despite being the most influential composer of his time, he never staged any performance in Israel. His anti-Semitism is also evident in his essay titled “Judaism in music”. In this essay, he savages Jewish composers by deeming them a threat to Germany music since he described their music as having an alien influence and negative (Scruton 90).

Liebestod is a German word for love death. This is the title of the last dramatic aria in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This world comes from the German words Liebe , meaning Love and Tod meaning Death. A literal use of this word refers to the erotic death theme. This theme can also be referred to as the “love death” theme. Its a theme that indicates that, two lovers consummate their love in death or after death (Scruton 112).

The theme of death is evident in the Wagner’s final dramatic aria in Tristan and Isolde which he named the liebestod. Its witnessed when Tristan died just before the arrival of his true love Isolde and also when Isolde died as a result of a broken heart later. Desire is on the other hand seen in several episodes in this final aria. First, there is the desire to love that Tristan has towards Iseult. The desire for healing is seen when Tristan sent for his true love to come and cure him. The desire to live is also seen when Tristan sent for Isolde to cure him (Borchmeyer 50). The theme of night was evident when Tristan invited Isolde to follow him into the night realm which she agreed to before he kissed her on the forehead (Borchmeyer 70). The marriage of Isldole was also carried out at night. We can define renunciation as the act of avoiding negative emotions through practices such as widening of love. This was evident when Tristan was banned from Cornwall. To avoid the negative emotions brought about by loosing his true love, he went ahead to find another love (Borchmeyer 80).

Works cited

Borchmeyer, D. Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, London: Princeton University Press, 2003

Scruton, R. Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. London: Oxford University Press, 2004

Wagner, R. Tristan and Isolde. London: J. Calder, 1981

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