The birth of Tristan und Isolde: Wagners letter to Liszt 1854

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 1 October 2012 | 4:21:00 am

On completion of Wide Open Opera's internet relay of Tristan Und Isolde last night (for which you can still buy tickets) I was reminded of a letter that Wagner sent to Liszt from Zurich in 1854 wherein he first mentions reading Schopenhauer.  We repeat it in full below in English. Enjoy (And yes to the pedantic - he considered the idea long before this but without Schopenhauer it would surely have been a very different Tristan). But first a response from Liszt regarding Tristan and the role of Brangane.  Personally we have always been pleased that Wagner ignored him on this occasion


"The Child is mad about your "Tristan," but, by all the gods, how can you turn it into an opera for ITALIAN SINGERS, as, according to B., you intend to do? Well, the incredible and impossible are your elements, and perhaps you will manage to do even this. The subject is splendid, and your conception wonderful. I have some slight hesitation as to the part of Brangane, which appears to me spun out a little, because I cannot bear confidantes at all in a drama. Pardon this absurd remark, and take no further notice of it. When the work is finished my objection will, no doubt, cease". Franz Liszt. Letter to Wagner - 1857.

"Apart from you and Calderon, a glance at the first act of "Tristan," which I have brought with me, has roused me wonderfully. It is a remarkable piece of music. I feel a strong desire to communicate some of it to some one, and I fear I shall be tempted to play some of it to Berlioz one of these days, although my beautiful performance will probably terrify and disgust him. Could I only be with you! That, you know, is the burden of my song". Richard Wagner . Letter to Liszt 1858


DEAR FRANZ,

I begin to find out more and more that you are in reality a great philosopher, while I appear to myself a hare-brained fellow. Apart from slowly progressing with my music, I have of late occupied myself exclusively with a man who has come like a gift from heaven, although only a literary one, into my solitude. This is Arthur Schopenhauer, the greatest philosopher since Kant, whose thoughts, as he himself expresses it, he has thought out to the end. The German professors ignored him very prudently for forty years; but recently, to the disgrace of Germany, he has been discovered by an English critic. All the Hegels, etc., are charlatans by the side of him. His chief idea, the final negation of the desire of life, is terribly serious, but it shows the only salvation possible. To me of course that thought was not new, and it can indeed be conceived by no one in whom it did not pre- exist, but this philosopher was the first to place it clearly before me. If I think of the storm of my heart, the terrible tenacity with which, against my desire, it used to cling to the hope of life, and if even now I feel this hurricane within me, I have at least found a quietus which in wakeful nights helps me to sleep. This is the genuine, ardent longing for death, for absolute unconsciousness, total non-existence; freedom from all dreams is our only final salvation.

In this I have discovered a curious coincidence with your thoughts; and although you express them differently, being religious, I know that you mean exactly the same thing. How profound you are! In your article about the "Dutchman" you have struck me with the force of lightning. While I read Schopenhauer I was with you, only you did not know it. In this manner I ripen more and more. I only play with art to pass the time. In what manner I try to amuse myself you will see from the enclosed sheet.

For the sake of that most beautiful of my life-dreams "Young Siegfried," I shall have to finish the "Nibelungen" pieces after all; the "Valkyrie" has taken so much out of me that I must indulge in this pleasure; I have got as far as the second half of the last act. The whole will not be finished till 1856; and in 1858, the tenth year of my Hegira, the performance may take place, if at all. As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams, in which, from beginning to end, that love shall be thoroughly satiated. I have in my head "Tristan and Isolde," the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception; with the "black flag" which floats at the end of it I shall cover myself to die.

When you have had enough of "Rhinegold," send it to Chorusmaster Fischer at Dresden, instructing him in my name to give it to the copyist Wolfel, so that he may finish the copy which he has begun. Your cheering words about the "Rhinegold" were splendid, and it has really turned out well. I hope there will be enough counterpoint in it to please Raff. My anxiety as to this troubles me very much.

Is M. ill? How can I do anything to help her? She should come in the summer to Seelisberg, on the lake of Lucerne. It is the dearest discovery I have made in Switzerland; up there all is so joyful, so beautiful, that I long to return—to die there.

There we must meet next summer; I mean to write "Young Siegfried" there, and you must assist me. Perhaps I shall assist you too. How full my heart is when I think of it! Many thanks to the Princess; at her desire, I send the enclosed autograph. Nothing about business! What do we care about such miserable things? When shall I see your symphonic poems, your "Faust?"

Farewell, my Franz.

RW