Michael Steen

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: A Short Guide to a Great Opera

Welcome to The Independent’s new ebook series The Great Composers, covering fourteen of the giants of Western classical music.

Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.

No other composer is at once so revered or so reviled as Richard Wagner. Yet his contribution to opera is immense. His reputation rests on ten epic operas which are constantly performed worldwide, without speaking of the annual festival of his music at Bayreuth, the opera house which he designed and built to stage his works. Four of these operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, make up the monumental 15-hour Ring cycle, based on old Norse-Germanic sagas. Many of the others hark back to medieval and Arthurian legends, often dramatising the conflict between the sacred and profane, the sensual and spiritual. Using leitmotifs — themes which symbolise characters and elements in his opera — Wagner introduced a new musical vocabulary.

Endless affairs, twice married, constantly on the run for either political or financial reasons, a prolific writer, an indefatigable composer, Wagner was also, as Michael Steen's narrative shows, a monster of egoism. A revolutionary in his youth, Wagner escaped to Zurich, only to be forced to move on when the businessman bankrolling him was about to uncover Wagner's affair with his wife. He was then lavishly supported in Munich by the ‘Mad King’ Ludwig II of Bavaria, until the king's ministers objected. Once in Switzerland, Wagner was joined by Cosima von Bülow, Liszt's daughter and the wife of a conductor, who became his second wife and helped him realise his dream at Bayreuth.
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