WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

Composition and Orchestration Completed: 8-9 August

First Performance: 10 June 1865, Kˆnigliches Hof- und
Nationaltheater, M¸nchen.

Principal Characters:
Tristan Tenor
Kˆnig Marke (King Mark) Bass
Isolde Soprano
Kurwenal, Tristan’s servant Baritone
Melot, a courtier Tenor
Brang‰ne, Isolde’s maid Soprano
A Shepherd Tenor
A Helmsman Baritone
A Young Sailor Tenor

Literary Sources:

  1. The original author of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseut) is unknown,
    although it is believed to have its origins in the Celtic areas of the
    British Isles, most likely Cornwall. The story was transmitted orally. It
    was received in Brittany following the Conquest (later written down in
    the two Folies) and then spread throughout western Europe.
  2. Following medieval custom, the tale was written down and retold by a
    series of writers, the most important being:

    • Roman de Tristan by BÈroul (12th Century)
    • Roman de Tristan by Thomas d’Angleterre (12th Century)
    • Tristrant by Eilhart von Oberg (12th Century)
    • Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210), completed
      by Ulrich von T¸rheim (c. 1240) and Heinrich von Freiberg (c. 1290),
      on which Wagner based his libretto.
  3. Click here for an
    English translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by M.
    Joseph BÈdier.

A Summary of the Medieval Tale:

Tristan is born to a life of sorrow (tristis in Latin = sad) as
his mother dies in childbirth and his father is killed defending his kingdom.
Eventually the young boy makes his way to the court of his uncle Mark in
Cornwall where he is welcomed and quickly becomes the leading champion of the
Cornish, arousing the jealousy of many of Mark’s courtiers. Cornwall is
paying tribute to the King of Ireland and Tristan defeats the Irish champion,
the King’s brother in law, the Morholt, when he comes to claim the
tribute. The Morholt returns to Ireland to die and Tristan is left victorious
but with a poisoned wound which no one can cure. Eventually the smell is so
foul that he is put in a boat with his harp and towed out to sea. The boat
drifts to Ireland where the Queen, the sister of the Morholt, and her
daughter Iseut are famous healers and succeed in curing the wound, but a
fragment of the Morholt’s sword is found in the wound which they
recognise. They nearly kill Tristan but in the end they spare him (the
reasons differ in the different versions). He returns cured to Cornwall where
he is Mark’s heir. The barons demand that Mark marry and produce an
heir as they do not want to be ruled by Tristan. A swallow drops a beautiful
golden hair on the window sill, and Mark sends Tristan to find its owner as
she is the only woman he will marry, hoping to outwit the barons. Tristan
returns to Ireland as the hair is Iseut’s and saves her from a marriage
to her father’s wicked seneschal. The King expects Tristan to marry
Iseut but instead he claims her for Mark and escorts back to Cornwall. Before
they leave, the Queen prepares a love potion (to last for 3 years in Beroul –
for life in Thomas), which Brangien, Iseut’s lady in waiting,
accidentally gives them to drink during the voyage. The love is
instantaneous, all-consuming and consummated immediately. Nevertheless the
wedding still takes place between Mark and Iseut, but on the wedding night
Brangien, still a virgin, replaces Iseut in the marriage bed, so that
Iseut’s secret is kept. Subsequently Iseut fears that Brangien will
betray her and hires two serfs to murder her, but the serfs spare her and a
penitent Iseut is reconciled with Brangien. Tristan and Iseut lead an
extremely dangerous life at the court of Mark as adulterous lovers, loathed
by a powerful faction among the barons. The fragment of Beroul covers this
period as the lovers triumph over their enemies. Later the lovers are
discovered together in the orchard and Tristan has to flee from the court
leaving Iseut there. The two Folies and Marie de France
describe single episodes from the period of Tristan’s exile in which he
is able to return secretly to Cornwall and gain access to Iseut. Thomas
covers the period of Tristan’s exile in Brittany when, jealous of the
life that he imagines Mark is living with Iseut, Tristan marries Iseut aux
blanches mains to experience the same pleasure and finds himself trapped in a
position where he has to betray either his wife or his beloved. In the end he
dies of a wound inflicted when he was helping Tristan le Nain rescue his
lady, as Iseut is unable to reach his side in time to cure him. Believing
himself betrayed he dies of despair, and when Iseut reaches Brittany too
late, she dies of grief.

P. S. Noble, The
Legend of Tristan and Iseut

An Overview of the Work:

The background to the story

Tristan, the nephew and vassal of King Marke of Cornwall, killed a knight,
Morold, the fiancÈ of the Irish king’s daughter, Isolde, in battle and sent
the head of the dead man to Isolde. Tristan was also wounded in the battle by
a sword that had been dipped in poison by Isolde herself. He travelled to
Ireland under the name of Tantris in order to be nursed back to health by
Isolde. Isolde realised his true identity, as a splinter of metal which was
lodged in Morold’s head exactly fitted a small gap in Tristan’s sword. She
decided to be revenged on Tristan for Morold’s death, but the moment she
looked into Tristan’s eyes her hate turned into love. Fully restored to
health, Tristan travelled back to Cornwall, only to return a short while
later to court Isolde in the name of his uncle, King Marke. Together Tristan
and Isolde set sail for Cornwall.

Act I

Summary: Isolde feels that
Tristan has betrayed her and orders her woman, Brangaene, to persuade Tristan
to come to her so they can talk things out. He is very reluctant to do so.
His servant, Kurwenal, declares that a hero can never be subservient to the
maid whom he has courted in his uncle’s name and he sings a satirical song
about Morold’s death. Isolde tells Brangaene about her first meeting with
Tristan. Brangaene seeks to comfort her mistress and reminds her of the magic
potions Isolde’s mother gave her to take with her on the journey to Cornwall.
Isolde is desperate at the thought of being so close to the man she loves
while being forced to live as the wife of another. So she plans to die with
Tristan. When the latter appears, Isolde demands that he should drink the
poison with her as a penance for killing Morold. Assuming that they are both
now about to die, Tristan and Isolde declare their love for each other. But
the potion which Brangaene has given them was not the poison. Accompanied by
cheering from the people, Tristan and Isolde reach Cornwall.


Part 1
Prelude (Liebestod)
Scene 1 A pavillion erected on a ship richly hung with tapestry, quite
closed in at back at first. A narrow hatchway at one side leads below
into the cabin. Isolde on a couch, her face buried in the cushions.
Brang‰ne, holding open a curtain, looks over the side of the
Westw‰rts schweift der Blick Young Sailor
Nimmermehr! Nicht heut’, noch morgen Isolde, Brang‰ne
Scene 2 The whole length of the ship is now seen, down to the stern, with
the sea and horizon beyond. Round the mainmast in the middle are
seamen, busied with ropes; beyond them in the stern are seen knights
and attendants seated, like the sailors; a little apart Tristan
stands with folded arms and thoughtfully gazing out to sea; at his
feet Kurwenal reclines carelessly. From the mast-head above is heard
once more the voice of the young sailor.
Frisch weht der Wind Young Sailor
Hab’ Acht, Tristan! Kurwenal, Brang‰ne, Tristan
Wer Kornwalls Kron’ Kurwenal
Herr Morold zog zu Meere her Kurwenal, Male Chorus
Scene 3 Isolde and Brang‰ne alone with the curtains completely closed.
Isolde rises with a despairing gesture of wrath. Brang‰ne falls at
her feet.
Wie lachend sie mir Lieder Isolde, Brang‰ne
Da schrie’s mir aus Isolde, Brang‰ne
O blinde Augen! Isolde, Brang‰ne
Fluch dir, Verruchter! Isolde, Brang‰ne
O S¸sse! Traute! Brang‰ne
Wo lebte der Mann Brang‰ne
He! he! ha! he! Male Chorus
Part 2
Scene 4 Through the curtains enters Kurwenal boisterously.
Auf! Auf! Ihr Frauen! Kurwenal
Herrn Tristan bringe meinen Gruss Isolde, Kurwenal
Nun leb’ wohl Isolde, Kurwenal
Kennst du der Mutter K¸nste nicht Isolde, Brang‰ne
Scene 5 Kurwenal retires again. Brang‰ne, scarcely mistress of herself,
turns towards the back. Isolde, summoning all her powers to meet the
crisis, walks slowly and with effort to the couch, leaning on the
head of which she then stands, her eyes fixed on the entrance.
Begehrt, Herrin, was ihr w¸nscht Tristan, Isolde
War Morold dir so werth Tristan, Isolde
Ho! he! ha! he! Male Chorus
Wo sind wir? Tristan, Isolde
Auf das Tau! Male Chorus
Tristans Ehre Tristan, Isolde
Tristan! Isolde! Tristan, Isolde
Heil Kˆnig Marke Heil! Male Chorus
Was tr‰umte mir Tristan, Isolde

Act II

Summary: King Marke has
gone hunting at night with his retinue. Isolde is waiting in the garden for
Tristan. Brangaene warns Isolde about Melot, Marke’s liegeman, because she is
convinced that he plans to betray the lovers to his master. Isolde does not
heed her. Impatiently she extinguishes the torch at the door, that signal
that she and Tristan have agreed on. Tristan and Isolde are delighted to be
together without the danger of being disturbed and decide to quit this world,
which does not allow them to love each other, and live only for their love.
At dawn King Marke, who has been alerted by Melot, appears with his retinue.
Disappointed at Tristan’s betrayal of his trust and his friendship, he sees
the existence of all moral values called in question. At this moment,
Tristan’s feeling of guilt and remorse is stronger than his love for Isolde;
he agrees to fight a duel with Melot and runs into the latter’s sword.


Part 1
Scene 1 Isolde with fiery animation advances from the chamber (towards
Hˆrst du sie noch? Isolde, Brang‰ne
Dem Freund zu Lieb’ Isolde, Brang‰ne
Dein Werk? O thˆr’ge Magd! Isolde, Brang‰ne
Part 2
Scene 2 As Tristan rushes in, Isolde springs toward him. There is a wild
embrace, with which they come down to the front.
Tristan! Geliebter! Tristan, Isolde
O sink’ hernieder Nacht (Love Duet) Tristan, Isolde
Einsam wachend in der Nacht (Brang‰ne’s Watch) Brang‰ne
Lausch’, Geliebter! Tristan, Isolde
So starben wir Tristan, Isolde
Habet Acht! Brang‰ne
O ew’ge Nacht Tristan, Isolde
Part 3
Scene 3 As Tristan and Isolde remain in their enraptured state, Brang‰ne
utters a piercing scream. Kurwenal rushes in with sword drawn. He
looks behind him with great alarm. Mark, Melot and courtiers (in
hunting array) come from the avenue quickly towards the front, and
pause in amazement before the group formed by the lovers. Brang‰ne
descends from the turret at the same time and rushes towards Isolde.
The latter with instinctive shame, leans with averted face upon the
flowery bank. Tristan with equally instinctive action, stretches out
his mantle with one arm, so as to conceal Isolde from the eyes of the
newcomers. In this position he remains for some time, fixing his gaze
immovably upon the men, who with various emotions turn their eyes
upon him. Morning dawns.
Rette dich, Tristan! Kurwenal, Tristan
Thatest du’s wirklich? (Mark’s Lament) Kˆnig Marke
O Kˆnig, das kann ich dir nicht sagen Tristan
Wohin nun Tristan scheidet Tristan
Als f¸r ein fremdes Land Isolde
Verr‰ther! Ha! Zur Rache, Kˆnig Melot, Tristan


Summary: Kurwenal has
taken Tristan to his home, Kareol in Brittany. As Tristan’s wound refuses to
heal, Kurwenal has sent for Isolde to come and nurse his master back to
health. A shepherd is keeping a look-out for her ship. He is to announce the
arrival of the vessel by singing a merry song. Tristan’s thoughts are
dwelling on his origins and his childhood, which he had to spend without the
love and support of his parents. His father died after he had been conceived,
his mother died after he was born. When Isolde finally arrives, she is too
late; Tristan has departed his earthly life in the moment of her arrival.
Brangaene has also persuaded Marke to travel to Kareol so that he can offer
the lovers his forgiveness. When the king and his retinue arrive, Kurwenal
tries to stop them from seeing Tristan and Isolde. In the course of the
ensuing struggle, Kurwenal and Melot kill each other. Isolde follows Tristan
into another world.


Part 1
Scene 1 The garden of a castle. At one side high castellated buildings; on
the other, a low breastwork, broken by a watchtower; at back the
castle gate. In the foreground inside lies Tristan under the shade of
a great lime tree sleeping on a couch, extended as if lifeless. At
his head sits Kurwenal, bending over him in grief, and anxiously
listening to his breathing. From without comes the sound of a
Shepherd’s air.
Kurwenal! He! Shepherd, Kurwenal
Die alte Weise Tristan, Kurwenal
D¸nkt dich das? Tristan
Der einst ich trotzt’ Tristan
Isolde kommt! Tristan
Noch ist kein Schiff zu seh’n Kurwenal, Tristan
Muss ich dich so versteh’n Tristan
Mein Herre! Tristan! Kurwenal
Das Schiff? Siebst du’s noch nicht? Tristan, Kurwenal
Wie sie selig Tristan
O Wonne! Freude! Kurwenal, Tristan
Part 2
Scene 2 Kurwenal hastens away. Tristan tosses on his couch in the greatest
O diese Sonne! Tristan
Tristan! Geliebter! (Isolde’s Entrance) Isolde, Tristan
Ich bin’s Isolde
Scene 3 Kurwenal who re-entered behind Isolde has remained by the entrance
in speechless horror, gazing motionless on Tristan. From below is now
heard the dull murmur of voices and clash of weapons. The Shepherd
clambers over the wall. He hastily approaches Kurwenal and speaks
softly to Kurwenal. Kurwenal starts up in haste and looks over the
rampart whilst the Shepherd stands apart gazing in consternation on
Tristan and Isolde.
Kurwenal! Hˆr! Shepherd, Kurwenal, Helmsman
Todt denn Alles! Kurwenal, Melot, Brang‰ne
Mild und Leise (Verkl‰rung-Transfiguration) Isolde

of Summary: Bayerische Staatsoper]

here for the complete libretto.

image_description=Tristan und Isolde by Ernst Fuchs (undated)
first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_by=Ramon Vinay (Tristan), Ludwig Weber (King Marke), Martha Mˆdl (Isolde), Hans Hotter (Kurwenal), Hermann Uhde (Melot), Ira Malaniuk (Brang‰ne), Gerhard Stolze (Shepherd), Werner Faulhaber (Helmsmann), Gerhard Unger (Sailor), Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Live performance: 23 July 1952, Bayreuth Festspiele