In 1857, after completing the full orchestra scores of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and of the first two acts of Siegfried, Wagner stowed them away indefinitely against a time when they could be considered performable, and only then would he decide to finish the Ring. (He did, in 1872-74.) He then determined to compose an opera likely to be more practical to sing and stage, and Tristan und Isolde was the first result of this new realism. (In 1862 its planned production in Vienna was finally given up after a legendary 77 rehearsals.) On the historical timeline, one can think of it as roughly contemporary with The Origin of Species and the Kékulé theory of molecular structure, but Wagner already knew how much new ground he was breaking; at the end of the sketch for Act I, he wrote So ward noch nie komponirt! (Nothing like this was ever composed before!) I learned this from the late Robert Bailey, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Tristan sketches, and who knew more about Wagner than any other expert of our time.
The second act is the real business end of Tristan und Isolde, the major dramatic focus, where the most serious and profound emotion gets worked through, from deep feeling to passion to ecstasy, and by the time the whole Liebesnacht achieves its terrible climax — it takes about half an hour — one is still left wondering how with all their furious conversation this star-crossed fairytale couple, cursed by a fatal drink, ever had time or energy left for honest lovemaking. But the scene includes some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever set down on paper, and it was heard with rapt attention by a full audience in Symphony Hall on Thursday night. (The BSO program said that Act II lasts about 75 minutes but it was actually closer to 85.)
The major portion of Tristan und Isolde was composed in 1857-58 in Switzerland, where Wagner and his wife were given a residence and material support by Otto Wesendonck, a prosperous merchant and Maecenas. The romance between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck has been well documented, but it exploded Wagner’s already long-strained marriage, and Wagner had to leave, eventually taking refuge in Venice, where he completed Act II. (It is worth noting that the Austrian police, who had held a warrant for Wagner’s arrest ever since the Dresden uprising in 1849, repeatedly sought to extradite him to Saxony for trial during 1859, but the music-loving Venetian police chief, aware that Wagner had renounced all political activity and wished only to be left alone to compose, just as repeatedly brushed off the Austrian demand.) During 1857-58, Wagner composed five songs on poems of Mathilde Wesendonck, which are as exquisite a sampling of Wagner’s mature style in miniature as anything he ever wrote; he identified two of them as “Studies for Tristan und Isolde” but the description fully fits all five. (Wagner orchestrated only the fifth of these songs, Träume, but the other four were no less beautifully scored by his disciple Felix Mottl. See if you can find the incomparable recording sung by Kirsten Flagstad and conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch.) It’s remarkable that the verses by Mathilde, an amateur, are actually quite good as song texts, and bear a much better poetic comparison than with Wagner’s own words for the Liebesnacht music, which are so weak as to be almost ludicrous; but then, one doesn’t listen to the Liebesnacht for the words.
Thursday’s concert began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, composed as a love offering for Cosima on her 33rd birthday, Christmas Day 1870. The original version is for just 13 instruments — 18.104.22.168 – 22.214.171.124, solo strings, but the work is often performed with a full string section, as it was here. The Boston Symphony’s sound was lovely throughout; but Andris Nelsons’s tempo, almost throughout, was undeniably too slow, and this sometimes made for ragged entrances for wind players. Some of this could also be explained by Nelsons’s beat, which was often much too expansive for effective communication at slow tempo. As an audience member I find it annoying when the conductor’s baton hand goes so high that the stick points backwards, directly at the audience; how will a player be able to see a beat in this?
So too with Tristan Act II, which by contrast began much too fast, and much of the time remained at an inflexibly fast tempo. It was especially troubling to hear the opening pages go by so quickly that the beautifully flowing wind passages got lost in the shuffle, when one couldn’t hear the value of their individual notes — these are melodic lines, after all, not School of Velocity exercises. The offstage horns were therefore hurried to the point of inarticulateness, but they were hard to hear in any case with doors closed — they’re marked ff in the score but they were apparently muted, in an effort to make them sound lontano, and the result didn’t work well. (A few bars after the last offstage horns, the same horn music appears within the orchestra [page 329], with muted horns, and that was superb.) When the Liebesnacht finally began (“O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”, p. 550), the muted strings were way too soft — but the tempo was about right. The first part of this section coincides with Brangäne’s call from the watchtower, over arpeggiating strings. It was gorgeous, but the bottom of the orchestra was missing in the sound; I couldn’t hear the basses at all. (Think of how Debussy’s heterophonic orchestration was influenced by this music.) The catastrophic return of the hunting-horn music (pp. 664-665 and 667) was shattering, but the brass were nevertheless too loud: less would have been more! The score moves before the climax from Sehr drängend to Immer etwas drängend to Sehr schnell at Brangäne’s shriek to a more moderate Sehr lebhaft as King Mark’s men come hurrying in, but this too was too fast. In all, this performance quite lacked a very necessary flexibility of tempo that has to be operating essentially all the time, and about which the score, lacking metronome markings, is nevertheless very explicit.
With the very fine singers up against an on-stage orchestra, one could understand why Wagner, in his own design for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, submerged the players below the stage so that they wouldn’t drown out the singers. Nevertheless, I was glad to hear an entire act of a great Wagner opera performed in Symphony Hall. One can download a short performance video HERE.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.