This 10 June, 2015, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the première of Tristan und Isolde (Munich, 10 June 1865). According to the French-born American historian and philosopher, Jacques Barzun, the year 1859 was a pivotal year. In 1941, Professor Barzun wrote a seminal work, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. The recently deceased Columbia University professor said that in 1859, three major revolutionary works were finalized: The Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin, the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, and Tristan und Isolde, by Richard Wagner. Since then, biology, social sciences and music have acquired new meanings and dimensions and we are still living with the results of such major revolutions.
For many Wagnerians, Tristan represents the supreme peak of the master’s musical inspiration (equaled, perhaps, but never surpassed by his later works); its music and words are a sublime praise of love, a love that is so powerful that it has the capacity to transform everything, including death itself. Because of its stifling, erotic and intoxicating character, this opera has been the Mount Everest of singers and conductors, being simultaneously monumental and uncomfortably intimate. Wagner himself told us that it is about “dying without death, and therefore everlasting falling back upon itself”; longing (“Sehnen”, the key concept in Tristan) keeps Tristan alive, while he is dying for Isolde. “If well performed, it will render the listener insane”, admonished Wagner.