Wagner’s composition of Tristan und Isolde was inspired by his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. It is widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory and is notable for Wagner’s advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension.
The opera has been profoundly influential among Western classical composers and provided inspiration to Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Many see Tristan as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century.
The story of Tristan and Isolde is a quintessential romance of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Several versions of the story exist, the earliest dating from the middle of the 12th century. Having fled Dresden as a result of his involvement in the unsuccessful May revolution of 1849, Wagner settled in Zürich. By October 1857, he had sketched out the first act of the opera, but it was only when a contract with Breitkopf und Härtel was signed in January 1858 that he started to write seriously. The opera (or “drama” as Wagner termed it) was completed in August 1859. A series of incidents led to the opera developing a reputation of being unperformable, but it was finally premiered in June 1865.
Tristan has often been cited as a landmark in Western music. Throughout, Wagner uses a remarkable range of orchestral colour, harmony and polyphony, with a freedom rarely found in his earlier operas such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Das Rheingold. The first chord in the piece – the “Tristan Chord” – is of great significance in the move away from traditional harmony, as it resolves to another dissonant chord. While suspension had been used since Renaissance times, Wagner was the first to use it throughout an entire work.
A particularly inspiring exploration of this work can be found by searching for “Stephen Fry” and the “Tristan Chord” on YouTube.
Health warning: this music can be overpowering – please remember to continue to breathe in and out throughout the dying cadences.