The legend of Tristan and Isolde is one of the most influential medieval romances. The original texts bears the tale of a love triangle between Tristan, the hero, Isolde, his uncle’s wife and Mark, his uncle. The story in the early traditions was altered and modified by alternative accounts with time, but the legend still held the captivating and thrilling romance originally expressed by the tale. It is from this legend that the Arthurian romance story of Lancelot and Guinevere was wrought. With time, the hero Tristan joined the Round Table fellowship of King Arthur.
Today, experts believe that there are two distinct traditions relating the Tristan legend. The earlier of these two comprises of romance accounts from two 12th century French poets, Beroul and Thomas. This account can be traced back to the most original Celtic romance. The second tradition brewed up later from the Prose Tristan. Prose Tristan went on to became the officially recognized medieval tale of the legend that is Tristan and Isolde. It is this tale that provided Sir Thomas Malory, the English author of Le Morte d’Arthur (1469), with raw materials.
Several other accounts came up before the 17th and 18th century and its these that formed the bases of the opera Tristan and Isolde. Ideally, Tristan and Isolde is a music drama through and through. Richard Wagner composed the three acts based on a German libretto he had written himself. Specifically, he based his libretto on a romance account by Gottfried von Stratburg. He took three years, 1857 to 1859, to compose the opera. However, the production delayed for several years. It was not until 10th June 1865 that the opera was performed in Munich, conducted by Hans von Bülow.
From that moment on, it was clear that Richard Wagner had done a splendid job. Operatic historians believe that Wagner’s libretto and composition of the Tristan und Isolde legend was mainly inspired by two things; his illegitimate affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and his acquaintance of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The opera was a trendsetter, placing the echelon of operatic harmony and tone to a level unventured to in that age. Even today, the opera is widely acknowledged and respected as a prominent peak in operatic repertory. Especially great was Wagner’s advanced skill in using chromaticism, splendid orchestral colour, massive balance in tonality and a uniquely appealing harmonic suspension.
Indeed, philosophers concur that Tristar and Isolde marked an influential revolution among the western classical composers. It actually became an inspiration for such composers as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Karol Szymanowski and Alban Berg. This movement triggered the departure from conventional tonality and harmony towards the ultimate atonal movement of the 20th century.
Wagner took refuge in Zurich after an arrest warrant was issued for him in Dresden in around 1852. In Zurich, he met Otto Wesendonck, the wealthy silk trader, who became a bankrolling supporter of his from 1852. Richard Wagner met Mathilde, Wesendonck’s wife, and they begun an affair. That passion enamored him to compose romance texts such that although he was at that time working on an epic, Der Ring des Nibelungen, he built intrigue around the romance legend of Tristan und Isolde. Soon enough, by 1857, Richard Wagner began the inspired conception of the opera, as if to express an innate ecstatic expression.
That passion and that spirit that ignites romance sparkles through the entire performance. Indeed, after finishing the composition, he wrote to his friend Franz Liszt and put in words what the audience would only hear on stage. He wrote, “Never in my life have I enjoyed such a true happiness, a happiness of love. Thence shall I erect an eternal memorial to this noble and loveliest of all my dreams, in and for which, from the first to the last, true love shall come and for once, find her utter repletion. In such a feeling of ecstasy, have I devised in my mind and quill, a Tristan and Isolde, this, the simplest and yet the most full-blooded musical of conception unimaginable, this, that with two black flags waves at the very end, so too shall I flag and cover myself to die.”
The main characters in the legendary opera were Tristan, the Cornish knight and nephew to King Mark in tenor, King Mark the King of Cornwall in bass, Isolde the Irish princess in soprano, Kurwenal one of the Tristan’s retainers in baritone, Melot the courtier in baritone, Brangane who was Isolde’s personal attendant in mezzo soprano, a shepherd in tenor, a sailor in tenor, a helmsman in baritone, sailors, knights, esquires and men-at-arms. The setting is in legendary times, in four different locations namely; a ship in the ocean, outside the palace of King, Cornwall, the platform at Kareol and at Tristan’s castle.