Photo: Joseph Albert - Ludwig und Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Tristan und Isolde 1865
29 Jul 2022Sofia Opera and Ballet


After the revolution of 1848 Wagner was forced to live in exile in Switzerland. The hospitable Wesendonck family took him in at their villa near Zurich. Soon a strong love flared between the mistress of the house, Mathilde, and the maestro, though both knew it is without prospect. Still, they couldn’t give up on each other. Wagner found the poetic reflection of this passion in the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde. As it is known, it ends tragically, with the death of the two lovers. This profound pessimism, a natural trait of Wagner's character, was evident even before his encounter with the philosopher Schopenhauer and the composition of the triad "Der fliegende Holländer", "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin". In "Tristan", pessimism makes its mark particularly strongly on both the lyrics and the music.

In his recollections of the time when he wrote this opera, Wagner said that the verses of the libretto /it was his work based on motifs from the novel by Gottfried von Strassburg/ already contained the germs of the individual melodies. The soulful drama of the protagonists is expressed here not so much externally and in the stage action as in the music, "undulating like a boundless ocean, constantly changing its colour, spilling into the mist like an endless melody". "The eternal, unceasing excitement, the amorous anguish and passion... the mysterious circles on the surface of the ocean, which then sink and disappear like death... the eternal melody of souls in love... the boiling ocean – all this is the music of my "Tristan", Wagner said.

Out of this powerful and mysterious poetic impulse Wagner moves from the hopeless philosophy of Nothingness to the philosophy of Affirmation. An incredible force of life in Wagner's orchestra, which in its battle against Hopelessness finally triumphs and glorifies life.

In 1857 Wagner completed the lyrics of the libretto. He began to compose it on the shores of Lake Zurich, near his beloved Mathilde /he later dedicated a remarkable song cycle for voice and orchestra to her/. Soon he would have to part with her – she had three children and a noble and magnanimous husband who forgave her everything. And Richard Wagner had a wife – the ageing, sickly and jealous Minna. He left Switzerland and went to Venice, where he completed the score.

In the diary he kept at the time, almost every line was dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck: "Now, my dear child, I return to my Tristan, to converse with you through him..."

The score was completed in 1859, but the first performance was not until six years later, with the premiere on 10 June 1865 in the capital of Bavaria, Munich.



In the first third of the 19th century, Romantic poets rediscovered the world of ancient legends and among them a very characteristic motif – that of the magic drink with unearthly, demonic power, capable of binding lovers until their death. This fairy-tale theme is familiar to science from the legends of various Indo-European peoples, from the Persians to the Celts. It forms the core of the legends of Tristan and Isolde. Motifs from the legend spread far and wide across Western Europe, across French and German lands. They can also be found in the myth of Siegfried, who, like Tristan, drinks the magic potion. In the story of Siegfried, the idea of the indivisibility of destinies, the pretence, the joint death, plays a decisive role.

Siegfried's victory over the dragon is actually repeated in "Tristan". In an ancient version of this legend, researchers have discovered the theme of the "duality of the beloved woman". Here, Tristan loves two Isoldees: Isolde the Golden-Locked and Isolde the White-Handed. Doesn't this legend remind us of the hero Siegfried? Yes, Siegfried loves Brünnhilde, but under the influence of the magic potion he forgets her, betrays her, betrays her treacherously into Gunther's hands, and goes to Gudrun himself.

The duality of personality manifested at particular moments in this story is linked to an ancient myth of nature. In the Middle Ages, the myth of nature, embodying the love of the Sun for the Earth, appears in romantic, chivalric garb. Indeed, it is the core of the legend of Tristan. The ancient primeval image of Tristan can be found in the ancient Icelandic epic "Edda" under the name Skirnirsfaerd. Skirnir, the god of the spring winds, took the winter Earth, or "White-Handed Gerda", for his master, the sun god Freyr. Here, too, there is a magic drink: Gerda gives it to Skirnir, who has slain her kinsmen.

The name Tristan probably comes from the Celtic Dristan, meaning "stormy wind". Its cognate Sanskrit word sounds like "Dritstan" and translates as "boastful". The German word "turstig" means "brave" and "wild" like the Greek "thrasis". The origin of the name Isolde is also interesting. The ancient Germanic goddess of winter was named Isa. German etymologist linguists believe that the name of the city of Eisenach in the province of Thuringia comes from the name of this goddess. Eisenach is not far from the town of Wartburg. Nearby is the Holde mountain, also known as the mountain of Venus. According to ancient Germanic myth, Frau Holde, the Germanized Venus, lived in the cave of this mountain, in whose nets the Wartburg singer Tannhäuser fell. And from the fusion of these two names, Isa and Holde, came the name Isolde!

The first literary treatment of the tale of Tristan dates back to the 12th century. The author was the English writer and chronicler Luke Ghoust, who told the story not in his native English but in French. His contemporary, Eilhart von Oberg /1189 – 1207/, sang the tragic story of the knight already in verse. We can also meet Tristan's story in the Ausburg Folk Book, published in 1498. But in true poetic, artistic form, Tristan and Isolde are immortalised in Gottfried von Strassburg's wonderful chivalric epic of 1210. In this sprawling heroic poem, the author recounts the hero's childhood adolescence. His mother died at his birth, and he never met his father. Tristan's joyless childhood and knightly upbringing are recounted in great detail by this remarkable medieval writer. Tristan finds himself at the court of his uncle, the Governor of Cornwall, King Marke. He saved the country from the Irish invaders and even killed their leader, Morold, himself. But wounded in battle, he falls on the Irish coast, where the Irish king's daughter heals his wounds and falls in love with him. But she soon learns that she has saved the life of her betrothed's murderer, Morold. Tristan takes Isolde hostage and takes her to the court of the old King Marke. Gottfried von Strassburg also sings of the battle between Tristan and the Dragon, when the cured hero saves Ireland from the terrible monster /there is a parallel here between Tristan and Siegfried – they both slay the Dragon!/ The author then presents Tristan and Isolde's sea voyage selectively, and also the story of the magic potion. He also masterfully reveals the inner struggle in Tristan's soul, torn between his feelings for the two Isoldes.

Richard Wagner's lyrics, however, are not a dramatization of this ancient tale. For his libretto, the composer uses elements from different eras and versions of the legend – French, Celtic, Icelandic, Germanic, British. The ancient myths of nature remain the basis. For Wagner, the magic drink is an important dramaturgical and psychological moment. His Tristan and Isolde fell in love so passionately and strongly not under the influence of this love elixir, but simply on their first meeting at first sight! They both try in vain to fight this love. Isolde wants revenge on Tristan for the death of her fiancé, Morold, besides being humiliated by him. She wants to give him the poison to kill him, but along with that she is also willing to die with him because she loves him. And when they both realize that the moment has come when they must die, passionate words of love erupt from their breasts like a volcano.

Using a variety of sources for his libretto, Wagner created a true masterpiece of poetry and dramaturgy. The background story told by Gottfried von Strassburg is not set here as stage action. It is only in Isolde's narratives.  

In this, his opera, Wagner has avoided all the details of the external action in order to present to us in a truly ingenious way the drama in the souls of the two characters.