Tristan und Isolde

From Academic Kids

Tristan und Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It was composed between 1857 and 1859, and received its first production in Munich on June 10, 1865.



In the principal parts of this opera Wagner followed the romance of Gottfried von Strassburg, which in turn is based on the story of Tristan and Isolde from Arthurian legend.

Critical reception

Many Wagnerian critics of the time claimed that the musical portion of the opera attained the highest summit of all music; on the other hand, an equally influential group of critics, centered around Eduard Hanslick, condemned the work as being incomprehensible.

Significance in the development of classical music

The very first chord in the piece is the so-called Tristan chord, often taken to be of great significance in the move away from traditional tonal harmony:

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Image:Wagner Tristan opening.png

Sound samples


  • Tristan (Tenor)
  • Isolde (Soprano)
  • King Marke (Bass)
  • Kurwenal (Baritone)
  • Brangaene (Mezzo-soprano)
  • Melot (Tenor)
  • A shepherd (Tenor)
  • Helmsman (Bass)
  • Voice of a young sailor (Tenor)
  • Male and Female Chorus


Act I

Isolde and her handmaid, Brangaene are quartered aboard Tristan’s ship, being transported to King Marke’s lands in Cornwall where Isolde is to be married to the King. The opera opens with the voice of a young sailor singing of a “wild Irish maid”, which Isolde takes to be a mocking reference to herself. In a furious outburst she wishes the seas to rise up and sink the ship, killing all on board. Her scorn and rage are directed particularly at Tristan, the knight who is taking her to Marke. She sends Brangaene to command Tristan to appear before her, but Tristan refuses Brangaene's request, saying that his place is at the helm. His henchman, Kurwenal, answers more brusqely, saying that Isolde is in no position to command Tristan, and reminding Brangaene that Isolde’s previous husband, Morold was killed by Tristan.

Brangaene returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, a stranger called Tantris had been brought to her, found mortally wounded in a boat, and that she had used her healing powers to restore him to health. However she discovered that Tantris was actually Tristan, the murderer of her husband, and had tried to kill him with his sword as he lay helpless before her. However Tristan had looked not at the sword that would kill him, but into her eyes, and this had pierced her heart. Tristan had been allowed to leave, but had returned with the intention of marrying Isolde to his uncle, King Marke. Isolde, in her fury at Tristan’s betrayal, insists that he drink atonement to her, and from her medicine-chest produces the vial which will make this drink. Brangaene is shocked to see that it is a lethal poison.

At this point Kurwenal appears in the women’s quarters saying that Tristan has agreed after all to see Isolde. When he arrives, Isolde tell him that she now knows that he was Tantris, and that he owes her his life. Tristan agrees to drink the potion, now prepared by Brangaene, even though he knows it may kill him. As he drinks, Isolde tears the remainder of the potion from him and drinks it herself. At this moment, each believing that their life is about to end, they declare their love for each other. Their rapture is interrupted by Kurwenal, who announces the imminent arrival on board of King Marke. Isolde asks Brangaene which potion she prepared and is told that it was no poison, but a love-potion. Outside, the sailors hail the arrival of King Marke.

Act II

A nocturnal hunting party leaves King Marke’s castle empty except for Isolde and Brangaene, who stand beside a burning brazier. Isolde several times believes that the hunting horns are far enough away to allow her to extinguish the flames, giving the signal for Tristan to join her. Brangaene warns Isolde that one of King Marke’s knights, Melot, has seen the looks exchanged between Tristan and Isolde, and suspects their passion. Isolde, however, believes Melot to be Tristan’s most loyal friend, and in a frenzy of desire extinguishes the flames. Brangaene retires to the ramparts to keep watch as Tristan arrives.

The lovers, alone at last and freed from the constraints of courtly life, declare their passion for each other. Tristan decries the realm of daylight which is false, unreal, and keeps them apart. It is only in night that they can truly be together, and only in the long night of death that they can be eternally united. Brangaene is heard several times throughout their long tryst calling a warning that the night is ending, but the lovers ignore her. Finally the day breaks in on the lovers, Melot leads Marke and his men to find Tristan and Isolde in each others arms. Marke is heart-broken, not only because of his betrayal by his adopted son, Tristan, but because he, too, has come to love Isolde.

Tristan now asks Isolde if she will follow him again into the realm of night, and she agrees. Melot and Tristan fight, but at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and is mortally wounded by Melot.


Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal says that only Isolde’s arrival can save Tristan. The shepherd says he will keep watch and pipe a happy tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan now wakes and mourns that he is again in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning, until Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is coming. Tristan is overjoyed and asks if her ship is in sight, but only the shepherd’s sorrowful tune is heard.

Tristan relapses and recalls that the shepherd’s tune is the one he heard when his father and then his mother died. Once again he rails against his desires and against the fateful love-potion until he collapses in delirium. At this point the shepherd is heard piping the arrival of Isolde’s ship, and as Kurwenal rushes to meet her, Tristan in his excitement tears the bandages from his wounds. As Isolde arrives at his side, Tristan dies with her name on his lips.

Isolde collapses beside him as the appearance of another ship is announced. Kurwenal sees Melot, Marke and Brangaene arrive and furiously attacks Melot to avenge Tristan. In the fight both Melot and Kurwenal are killed. Marke and Brangaene finally reach Isolde and Marke, grieving over the body of his “truest friend” explains that he has learnt of the love-potion from Brangaene and had come, not to part the lovers, but to unite them. Isolde appears to wake but, in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the “Liebestod”), dies of grief.

Influence of Schopenhauer on Tristan und Isolde

Wagner was introduced to the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer by his friend Georg Herwegh in late 1854. The composer was immediately struck by the philosophical ideas to be found in “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (The World as Will and Idea), and it is clear that the composer and the philosopher had a very similar world-view. By the end of that year, he had sketched out all three acts of an opera on the theme of Tristan and Isolde, although it was not until 1857 that he began working full-time on the opera, putting aside the composition of Der Ring des Nibelungen to do so. Wagner said in a letter to Liszt (December 1954): “Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.” By 1857 Wagner was living as the guest of the wealthy silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck, and during the composition of Tristan und Isolde was involved in an affair with Wesendonck’s wife, Mathilde, although it remains uncertain to what extent this affair was purely platonic.

Nevertheless, the twin influences of Schopenhauer and Mathilde inspired Wagner during the composition of Tristan und Isolde. Schopenhauer’s influence is felt most directly in the second and third acts. The first act is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of an exposition of how Tristan and Isolde come to be in their current state. However the second act, where the lovers meet, and the third act, in which Tristan longs for release from the passions that torment him, have often proved puzzling to opera-goers unfamiliar with Schopenhauer’s work. Wagner uses the metaphor of day and night in the second act to designate the realms inhabited by Tristan and Isolde. The world of Day is one where the lovers must deny their love and pretend they do not care for each other, where they are bound by the dictates of King Marke’s court: it is a realm of falsehood and unreality. Tristan declares in Act 2 that under the dictates of the realm of Day he was forced to remove Isolde from Ireland and to marry her to his Uncle Marke. The realm of Night, in contrast, is the representation of intrinsic reality, where the lovers can be together, where their desires reach fulfillment: it is the realm of oneness, truth and reality. Wagner here equates the realm of Day with Schopenhauer’s concept of Phenomenon, and the realm of Night with Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon. This is not explicitly stated in the libretto, however Tristan’s comments on Day and Night in Act 2 and 3 make it very clear that this is Wagner’s intention.

In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the world as we experience it is is a representation of an unknowable reality. Our representation of the world (which is false) is Phenomenon, while the unknowable reality is Noumenon: these concepts are developments of ideas originally posited by Kant. Importantly for Tristan and Isolde, Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon is one where all things are indivisible and one: and it is this very idea of one-ness that Tristan yearns for in Acts 2 and 3 of Tristan und Isolde. Tristan is also aware that this realm of Night, or Noumenon can only be shared by the lovers in its fullest sense when they die. The realm of Night therefore also becomes the realm of death: the only world in which Tristan and Isolde can be united forever, and it is this realm that Tristan speaks of at the end of Act two (“Dem Land das Tristan meint, der Sonne Lich nicht Scheint”).

Tristan rages against the daylight in Act 3 and frequently cries out for release from his desires (Sehnen): it is also part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that man is driven by continued, unachievable desires, and that the gulf between our desires and the possibility of achieving them leads to misery. The only way for man to achieve inner peace is to renounce his desires: a theme that Wagner explores fully in his last opera, Parsifal.

Recordings of Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde has always been acknowledged as one of the greatest operas, and has a long recorded history. In the years before the Second World War, Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were considered to be the prime interpreters of the lead roles, and mono recordings exist of a number of live performances with this pair directed by conductors such as Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Artur Bodanzky and Erich Leinsdorf . Flagstad recorded the part for EMI near the end of her career under Wilhelm Furtwangler, producing a set which is considered a classic recording. Following the war the performances at Bayreuth with Martha Modl and Ramon Vinay under Herbert von Karajan (1952) were highly regarded, and these performances are now available as a live recording. In the 1960s the soprano Birgit Nilsson was considered the major Isolde interpreter, and she was often partnered by the Tristan of Wolfgang Windgassen. Their performances at Bayreuth in 1966 were captured by Deutsche Grammophon, although some collectors prefer the pairing of Nilsson with the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, available in “unofficial” recordings from performances in Vienna or Orange. Karajan did not record the opera commercially until 1971, and his set is still controversial for the use of a lighter soprano voice as Isolde, paired with an extremely intense Vickers, and for the unusual balance between orchestra and singers favoured at that time by Karajan. By the 1980s recorded sets by conductors such as Carlos Kleiber, Reginald Goodall and Leonard Bernstein were mostly considered to be important for the interpretation of the conductor, rather than that of the lead performers. The set by Kleiber is notable since Isolde is sung by Margaret Price, who never sang the role on stage.

There are many recordings of the opera, some of the most popular being listed below:

  • Thomas Beecham/Fritz Reiner conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior, 1936 – 1937 (EMI, mono)
  • Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus, 1953 (EMI, mono)
  • Karl Bohm conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen, 1966 (Deutsche Grammophon, stereo)
  • Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers, 1972 (EMI, stereo)
  • Carlos Kleiber conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle with Margaret Price and Rene Kollo, 1982 (Deutsche Grammophon, stereo)

External links

de:Tristan und Isolde es:Tristán e Isolda fr:Tristan et Isolde ja:トリスタンとイゾルデ (楽劇) pl:Tristan i Izolda (opera)


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