13 Aug 2006

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde, Handlung (drama) in three acts.
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner.

Composition and Orchestration Completed: 8-9 August 1859.

First Performance: 10 June 1865, Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, München.

Principal Characters:
Tristan Tenor
König Marke (King Mark) Bass
Isolde Soprano
Kurwenal, Tristan's servant Baritone
Melot, a courtier Tenor
Brangäne, 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 Béroul (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 Türheim (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 Bédier.

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 fiancé 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. Brangäne, holding open a curtain, looks over the side of the vessel.
Westwärts schweift der Blick Young Sailor
Nimmermehr! Nicht heut', noch morgen Isolde, Brangäne
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, Brangäne, Tristan
Wer Kornwalls Kron' Kurwenal
Herr Morold zog zu Meere her Kurwenal, Male Chorus
Scene 3 Isolde and Brangäne alone with the curtains completely closed. Isolde rises with a despairing gesture of wrath. Brangäne falls at her feet.
Wie lachend sie mir Lieder Isolde, Brangäne
Da schrie's mir aus Isolde, Brangäne
O blinde Augen! Isolde, Brangäne
Fluch dir, Verruchter! Isolde, Brangäne
O Süsse! Traute! Brangäne
Wo lebte der Mann Brangäne
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 Künste nicht Isolde, Brangäne
Scene 5 Kurwenal retires again. Brangäne, 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 wünscht 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 König Marke Heil! Male Chorus
Was träumte 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 Brangäne).
Hörst du sie noch? Isolde, Brangäne
Dem Freund zu Lieb' Isolde, Brangäne
Dein Werk? O thör'ge Magd! Isolde, Brangäne
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 (Brangäne's Watch) Brangäne
Lausch', Geliebter! Tristan, Isolde
So starben wir Tristan, Isolde
Habet Acht! Brangäne
O ew'ge Nacht Tristan, Isolde
Part 3
Scene 3 As Tristan and Isolde remain in their enraptured state, Brangäne 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. Brangäne 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) König Marke
O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen Tristan
Wohin nun Tristan scheidet Tristan
Als für ein fremdes Land Isolde
Verräther! Ha! Zur Rache, König 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
Dünkt 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 excitement.
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! Hör! Shepherd, Kurwenal, Helmsman
Todt denn Alles! Kurwenal, Melot, Brangäne
Mild und Leise (Verklärung-Transfiguration) Isolde

[Source of Summary: Bayerische Staatsoper]

Click here for the complete libretto.