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YESTERDAY, A WAGNER opera taught us that chemical enhancement of boy meets girl can lead to trouble. Today in Part 2, Tristan and Isolde aren’t the only ones encountering life’s complications.

Wagner’s Life Mirrors Art. While working on Seigfried, third in the Ring Cycle, Wagner fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of one of his patrons. This was when he came up with the idea that the Tristan und Isolde legend would make a good opera. Hmm…

Agnes Mathilde Wesendonck née Luckemeyer, 1828–1902, German poet and author. Portrait by Karl Ferdinand Sohn, 1850.

Not unrelated to this matter, Nick Slonimsky notes that later, “Wagner chose to give the name Isolde to the illegitimate daughter born to him by Cosima von Bülow on April 19, 1865; during this time, Cosima’s husband Hans von Bülow was conducting strenuous rehearsals of Tristan und Isolde.”

I like Slonimsky’s choice of the adjective “strenuous.”

A Goodly Number of Leitmotifs. Wagnerians enjoy his operas’ leitmotifs, their recurring themes associated with specific characters and things. The Ring Cycle is loaded with leitmotifs, 191 of them according to Sir Denis Forman: things like Anvils, Gold, the Rhine River, the Sword Nothung, Valhalla, and so on. And so on.

By contrast, T&I has perhaps a mere nine leitmotifs: Slonimsky cites the catalogers’ Love, Death, Day and Night, Love Potion, Fidelity, Suspicion, Exultation, Impatience, and Malediction. Forman counts them a bit differently and raises the ante to 18, adding things like Stab, Gaze, and Ecstasy.

Tristan and Isolde, August Spiess, 1881. Mural in the bedroom of Bavarian King Ludvig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle.

Recall, of course, T&I has only five significant roles: Tristan, his pal Kurwenal, his eventual betrayer Melot, Isolde, her potion-concocting maid Brangäne, and King Mark.

Ha! There are a lot more characters cited in any of the Ring’s frequent “Let me tell you about…” backgrounders.

Hans von Bülow, German conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer. Student of Franz Liszt, first husband of Liszt’s daughter Cosima, who later became Frau Richard Wagner.

Schweinehunde! Ethan Mordden recounts a T&I tale in his Opera Anecdotes, 1985: “Tristan’s expansive orchestration called for more players than Munich was used to, and the orchestra section needed enlarging, with a concomitant loss of seats. When the theatre engineer objected, von Bülow snarled, ‘What does it matter if we have a few dozen Schweinhunde, more or less?’ ”

Munich had already been an anti-Wagnerian city, and Mordden writes, “Not until Wagner added his own apology and begged the city for a cease-fire did Munich settle down to its real work: getting ready to loathe Tristan und Isolde.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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