Wagner’s Tristan: From the Celts to the Romantics

Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.

Published in 1919 by the Avalun Publishing House, Vienna/Leipzig.

It was a long way to the premiere of Richard Wagner’s great opera or, as the composer would have said himself, his plot ‘Tristan und Isolde’. The material is based on old Celtic legends, was written down in the 13th century and adapted for opera by Wagner in the 19th century. Wagner himself spent another five years shortening and rewriting the plot as well as setting it to music – that is, when he wasn’t busy with other projects. When the work was finally completed in 1859, nobody wanted to perform it. Its length of four hours made ‘Tristan und Isolde’ the world’s longest opera at the time. Accordingly high were the challenges for the performers and crew of the production.

At first the opera was planned to premiere in Rio de Janeiro, then in Karlsruhe and eventually in Vienna – once that decision had been made, the rehearsals could finally begin. After about 80 rehearsals, however, the project was called off. It was announced that the piece was unstageable and Wagner didn’t really know what to do. The windfall that was to save the project came from Bavaria, where King Ludwig II promised Wagner unconditional support. At last, the endeavour met with success: the premiere took place on 10 June 1865 at the Munich Court Theatre – and was a huge success. A stroke of luck for posterity, where Wagner’s masterpiece reverberates to this day.

1st act.

Great Music, Great Poetry

If you don’t quite remember the plot of Tristan und Isolde, click here to refresh your memory about the second most famous love affair of the Middle Ages. What Wagner does with the material is truly amazing. He didn’t limit himself to compose music, he also rewrote the text, revealing his talent as an original and eloquent poet. “Anyone who listened to ‘Tristan und Isolde’ will no longer be able to detach the poetry from the music”, Berthold Viertel wrote enthusiastically in the postface.

Moreover, Wagner significantly shortened Gottfried von Straßburg’s 13th-century tale, reducing it to the key psychological moments. This was his first stroke of genius and resulted in the fact that Tristan und Isolde would later be gladly read as an example of the conflict between one’s inner drive and social norms in the sense of Freudian psychoanalysis. His second stroke of genius was of musical nature. As soon as in the second bar of the prelude, a chord is played that was to drive musicologist nuts for decades to come. There are countless interpretations of the “Tristan chord” – F, B, D sharp, G sharp – and musicologists certainly can explain them much better than I do. Basically it’s about the fact that the chord is resolved (or rather not resolved) in an unusual way, leaving listeners with a profound feeling of unease and irritation. This chord, which is repeated again and again as a leitmotiv, is – you might say – an epitome of Romanticism, a musical interpretation of an insatiable, painful longing; and the fact that it isn’t resolved drives the listener crazy. By linking these two elements – leitmotivs and psychological states of mind – Wagner revolutionised opera.

A Collector’s Edition from the Avalun Publishing House

The work we present today is a text edition of the musical drama written by Wagner. The book was published by Avalun, a Vienna-based company that has been listed in the commercial register as a publishing house, book shop and art dealership since 1919. We don’t know how long the publishing house actually operated in Vienna, probably until the mid-1920s. But thanks to a German print from the early 1930s we do know that another branch was founded in Leipzig. Avalun specialised in luxury prints, portfolio works and bibliophile editions. Only very few copies of the 40 or so titles in the series were published. The publishing house had the works printed by renowned presses and printers such as the Austrian State Printing House in Vienna and Jakob Hegner in Hellerau near Dresden. The books were often illustrated by well-known artists, an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Reiseblätter aus Österreich,’ for example, was adorned with original etchings by Luigi Kasimir.

The Imagery: Celtic Knots, Dragons and Longboats

But let’s take a closer look at the imagery of this volume. Typesetting and etchings are by Alois Kolb, a German-Austrian painter, who was a professor at the Royal Academy for the Graphic Arts and the Book Industry in Leipzig as of 1907. There he turned the etching department into a top school that was to produce many famous artists. (By the way, the city of Leipzig also connects him to Wagner, who was born there.)

Detail on the right title page.

The upper margin of the left title page is adorned with a braided band that is reminiscent of insular illumination. For comparison: on the right, you can see an excerpt of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterwork of book art from the 8th century. Kolb’s interpretation of this braided band is much more playful, somewhere between Romanticism and Art Deco. The Lindisfarne Gospels were famously produced at the monastery of the same name, which was attacked by Vikings in 793 – and it is to them that we’ll turn next.

For the round vignette on the right title page shows a terrifying image: a turbulent, stormy, and dark sea with tall waves, a Viking longboat with oversized bow and a daunting dragon head ornament, manned with warriors ready for battle and equally larger-than-life geese, presumably inspired by Nordic myths. Like all other etchings in the book, this one too is signed by Alois Kolb.


The last page of the dramatic text depicts the final scene of the opera. The huddled figures at the bottom of the picture are King Marke and his entourage, who mourn the deceased Tristan. On the left somebody plays the organ; this motif is probably the result of Kolb’s artistic freedom – in any case, there’s no organ in Wagner’s opera. The ornaments in the upper section of the depiction are once again reminiscent of the saga’s Celtic origins. The lines seem to be a playful version of a Celtic knot, which you can see for comparison right next to it.

This means that all motifs of the artist’s edition were strongly inspired by Celtic book art and not so much by Wagner’s romantic adaptation of the material but by the historical period in which the love story is set. Insular illumination came up around the 6th century in Ireland and northern England, and the Vikings invaded these territories between the 8th and the 12th century – the story of Tristan and Isolde is supposed to take place sometime during this period. And it is set between Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. So geographically speaking it’s spot on as well.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Here you can find out more about the medieval manuscript of Tristan und Isolde by Gottfried von Straßburg.

The BBC Music Magazine provides you with more information on the fascination of the Tristan chord.

This podcast by the National Arts Centre tells you more about Richard Wagner and his masterwork Tristan and Isolde.

Wagner’s music is also taken up by modern film projects. Here, for instance, it was used for the visually stunning drama Melancholia by the experimental director Lars von Trier.

Unfortunately, Wagner is also known for his problematic relationship with anti-Semitism. It’s beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on this here, but we recommend this article on Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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