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December 2013
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Tristan: The Shot Heard Around the World


Tristan und Isolde on the Tuesday Night Opera, 8:00 PM

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde stands as the great pivot point in music: there’s all the music that came before; and everything else. Before Tristan, the building blocks of music had a function that listeners innately understood; the notes were connected to each other like a road map between point A and point B. In Tristan, the road twists and turns as if point B is just around the bend; it’s not. In four and a half hours, there is no resolution, not until the final bars. In Tristan, Wagner creates new harmonies that don’t behave the way the old ones did, blowing open the doors to a new vocabulary for composers.

For a marvelous discussion on “The Tristan Effect” by the Chicago Symphony’s Gerard McBurney, click here.

Peter van de Graaff

Peter van de Graaff

The Tuesday Night Opera’s host, Peter van de Graaff answers some questions about Tristan und Isolde:

What separates Tristan from Wagner’s other works, as well as from the rest of music?

Tristan is one of the truly great and revolutionary works in music history. From the enigmatic and unsettling opening chord, all of 20th century music can be heard in the distance.

You’ve chosen a recording that goes back a couple generations, why?

I have selected this recording because it captures two of the greatest proponents of the title roles at the height of their careers (Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad).

If Tristan is such a watershed work, why don’t radio stations broadcast it in its entirety more often?

It’s too long to broadcast regularly!! Most stations shy away from opera anyway, but when you put on a 4 ½ hour Wagnerian marathon, well, that’s just too much. Not for WFMT, though!

Wagner saves the most powerful music for the very end when Isolde sings her Liebestod. She’s already been onstage for nearly four hours. Was this wise?

I don’t think that Wagner ever thought in terms of “wise” when writing his music (much as with Beethoven). He had a sound in his ear and, whether the singers were up to the demands or not, whether they knew how to reserve something for the end or not, that’s how he heard it and that’s how the few singers who have the vocal stamina and technique will have to deal with it!


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