Prelude from Tristan und Isolde


Richard Wagner

Born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany

Died February 13, 1883 in Venice

The Kronos Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov’s arrangement for triple quartet of the “Prelude” and “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the 2012 Uppsala International Sacred Music Festival. Two aspects of that sentence give one pause.

First, a gentle adjustment is needed: what we now call the “Prelude” was for Wagner the Liebestodor “Love-death,” while he designated the opera’s closing moments Isolde’s Verklärung or “Transfiguration.” Second, Wagner’s Tristan at a festival of sacred music?

The idea is less far-fetched than it may seem at first glance.  Wagner, after all, founded a cult (with himself as demiurge), a pilgrimage site at Bayreuth, and even a “festival-play for the consecration of a stage,” Parsifal. (“To sit five hours: the first stage of holiness!” sneered the master’s one-time acolyte Friedrich Nietzsche.) The enigmatic chord of F, B, D#, and G# in Tristan’s second measure is widely considered a musical epiphany, the moment when major minor tonality began an irreversible slide into liquefaction — a grand narrative that abides even in our postmodern times.  (Mr. Vrebalov’s arrangement, incidentally, makes use of Wagner’s own concert ending for the “Love-death”/Prelude.) The word Verklärungoffers even weightier grist for the mill. Klar in Verklärung is cognate with clear, “free from darkness.” In Christian theology, transfiguration denotes the radiant fusion of human and divine: Jesus was transfigured when “his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light,” and his disciples saw him in glory conversing with Moses and Elijah. During her transfiguration, Isolde gazes upon the lifeless Tristan and sees him “ever brighter, brightly shining, born in starlight high above.” Tristan and Isolde, though, are no Christians, and they spurn the day and its illusions in favor of night — the realm of truth and oneness and desire’s annihilation in Wagner’s reading of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Buddhist- and Hindu-tinged philosophy. Tristan shines and Isolde is transfigured because, like stars in the night sky, blackness swallows them up. 

Schopenhauer may also offer a clue as to why Ms. Vrebalov chose to arrange the “Liebestod” and Transfiguration for both live and recorded performers. It is surely not a matter of numbers alone: the notion that Wagner wrote only ear-splitting music for bloated forces is slander, and some of the most haunting passages in Tristan and the master’s other operas comprise mere wisps of sound. In The Recording Angel, his penetrating study of phonography, Evan Eisenberg suggests that recording, which seems to give listeners access to disembodied sound, helps us to “hear what Schopenhauer heard:” to perceive music as “the true reality” and the visible world as illusion. The idea that music is intrinsically noumenal and immaterial is of course open to question, but Ms. Vrebalov’s arrangement, mingling musicians seen and unseen, sounds “real” and spectral, inviting concert audiences to meditate on the primal mysteries at the heart of Tristan.

David Harrington, Kronos’ founder and first violinist, became mesmerized by the Tristan “Prelude” after seeing Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011), in which Wagner’s music serves as soundtrack to the end of life on Earth. He subsequently fell under the spell of a desperately beautiful performance by the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter that was recorded in 1943. In Mr. Harrington’s view, works such as Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, and Wagner’s song of passion (in both the profane sense of “sexual love” and the religious meaning of “suffering”) are “sacred” for their density, magnetism, and the vulnerability they convey. “No religion has a monopoly on the sacred,” he says.

The delicacy and open-hearted fragility of the “Prelude,” qualities heightened in Ms. Vrebalov’s distillation of Wagner’s score, represent for Harrington “the place where we humans are in our most direct contact with the vastness of the universe, and where the resulting friction between us and the world meets the friction of the bow on the string.” Like  Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Bernard Herrmann, and countless others since 1865, Kronos, Ms. Vrebalov, and today’s audiences are sure to be transformed by the blinding light and otherworldly darkness of Tristan und Isolde.

Aleksandra Vrebalov’s arrangement of the “Prelude” from Tristan und Isolde was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the David Harrington Research and Development Fund.

Program note by Marion Lignana Rosenberg.