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Thread: Discrepancy in terminology for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"

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    Default Discrepancy in terminology for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"

    I have a question that I hope this community can clarify. I am fact-checking a music text book and have been asked to explore the following discrepancies:

    From the author: "One section of my book is devoted to the "music drama" by Richard Wagner called Tristan und Isolde. From that long work, we discuss in some detail two sections: the opening instrumental "overture" and the final "aria," in which Isolde sings over the dead body of Tristan and then dies. These terms in quotes are standard terms from Italian opera, but Wagner didn't use them, nor did he use the term, "opera", for his later operas.

    My question concerns the titles for these two pieces, that is, how I should refer to them in the book. There are at least two versions:

    1. In some sources, the "overture" is referred to as the "Prelude", and the "aria" is referred to as "Liebestod" (Love-Death).

    2. In other sources, the "overture" is referred to as "Liebestod", and the "aria" is referred to as "Transfiguration" or "The Transfiguration".

    One explanation for this difference is that Version 2 is what Wagner called these sections, and Version 1 is what Franz Liszt called them.

    So two questions flow from the above:

    1. Is this "naming story" correct in any or all of its details? Are there other things I should know about them?

    2. What do most music historians and music critics call these sections today? Is there a strong preference for one or the other version? If so, has that consensus changed over time? Or are these writers deeply and perhaps evenly divided on this question?

    The answer to these two questions will help us decide what we should call them."

    Any insights would be greatly appreciated! Many thanks!
    Last edited by RDA1059; Sep-10-2018 at 18:20.

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    Senior Member Granate's Avatar
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    @Wooduck

    Welcome to Talk Classical RDA1059. There are two recent threads that may have your answer:

    Let's talk Tristan und Isolde
    Tristan... a personnal semi revelation

    As for your two options, I am astonished that you imply that Option 1 was explained by Frantz Liszt and Option 2 by Richard Wagner. We've been denying any transfiguration reference in lots of pages of this forum and I would guess that members would go for Option 1. This just shocked me. Are you sure they aren't switched over?

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Depending on our context, I don't think we need to be rigid in our terminology. Wagner, in writing his theoretical treatise/manifesto "Oper und Drama," detailed plans for a new kind of opera which he preferred to call "musikdrama." At that stage in his thinking music was to be placed entirely at the service of expressing the meaning of the text, unlike traditional opera in which it was often a vehicle for vocal display, vocal ensembles, choral singing, and dance, which he regarded as frivolous entertainment. He wanted to achieve a more "natural" effect focused on the words, and the first two-and-two-thirds operas of the Ring show an uncompromising application of his principles. There is no choral singing or dance, and voices are never allowed to sing together except in the cases of the Rhinemaidens and the Valkyries when they function, in effect, as corporate entities. Even the voices of Siegmund and Sieglinde never overlap in their love scene.

    Tristan und Isolde was a turning point in Wagner's artistic development, in which, he acknowledged freely, he realized the full power of music to go beyond service to the text and to express things words could not. In Tristan he not only permitted voices to sing together, but even allowed his orchestra to obscure them in pursuit of the uttermost power of expression of which it was capable. He seemed so awed by the purely musical forces he had unleashed that he came up with a brand-new designation for the work, "Ein Handlung" - "an action" - which seems simply a way of saying, with a shrug, "this thing is beyond description."

    Whether Wagner ever called Tristan a music-drama I don't know, but as a result of his having let music out of its theoretical box, his next work, Die Meistersinger, is quite shamelessly and unambiguously an opera, with choral singing, dancing, a quintet, and even some old-fashioned coloratura, albeit of a comic sort, in Beckmesser's serenade. Shaw may have been the first to point out that when Wagner returned to the Ring to complete Siegfried and compose Gotterdammerung, he indulged again in the conventions of operatic ensemble writing, with a love duet for Siegfried and Brunnhilde, an oath of brotherhood duet for Siegfried and Gunther, a vengeance trio for Brunnhilde, Gunther and Hagen, and a massive choral scene for the vassals, none of which he would have countenanced under his strict guidelines for "music drama."

    During rehearsals for the Ring at Bayreuth, Wagner, coaching his cast in the proper rendition of his challenging music, tried to ensure that his vocal lines were sung melodiously and not declaimed by telling his singers, "There are no recitatives in my operas! It's all arias!" If this anecdote is true, it suggests that Wagner was, outside of his theoretical essays, pretty easygoing about what terminology he used in referring to his own work. I don't see why we shouldn't be too, unless we absolutely insist on calling Parsifal a "Buehnenweihfestspiel."

    As for "Liebestod," that was Liszt's title for his piano transcription of what Wagner himself called "Verklarung" - "transfiguration." Wagner had originally applied "Liebestod" to the prelude to Act One, but he is not known to have objected to Liszt's application.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Sep-10-2018 at 19:14.

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    i don't know what Wagner called the orchestral beginning.
    i feel prelude fits better than overture.
    Wagner called the end "liebestod und verklarung, so i go by the masters description.
    Last edited by Itullian; Sep-10-2018 at 20:09.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post

    As for "Liebestod," that was Liszt's title for his piano transcription of what Wagner himself called "Verklarung" - "transfiguration." Wagner had originally applied "Liebestod" to the prelude to Act One, but he is not known to have objected to Liszt's application.
    So the author of the book's quote is correct.

    N.

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    The opening piece of music is normally called the 'prelude' and the final aria the 'Liebestod'. I wouldn't ever refer to the opening orchestral piece as an overture as it is more in the nature of a prelude rather than an overture which tends to be made up of a selection of stand alone melodies that occur in the opera. I think the final aria can be referred to as an aria (it can stand as a separate piece performed by one singer), but it is commonly referred to as the Liebestod.

    N.

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    Many thanks for responding to my post & for the links that you provided, which I perused. In the "Let's talk Tristan und Isolde" link, on page 6 (15 Feb 2015), I came across a post in which Roger Scruton's “Death Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde” was cited:

    "The music that we now know as the “Liebestod” was first described by Wagner, when arranging it as the second half of the well-known orchestral epitome, as Isolde’s “Verklärung” (“Transfiguration”)."

    The author of the post followed with:

    "It has occurred to me, too, that it was Liszt who gave the title “Love-death” to Isolde's dying song—which Wagner had called “Transfiguration,” giving the name “Love-death” to the opera's Prelude instead—when he wrote his piano transcription of it. That transcription was published in 1867, not long after Tristan's premiere. Liszt and Wagner were, of course, exceedingly close. I've been unable to find any comment by Wagner on this change of title, but we can be sure that he did comment on it, and since the change was allowed to stand, he obviously did not forbid it."

    This post, at least, seems to support the theories that the author of the book for which I'm fact-checking proposes. I can ask the author to confirm that his options are not "switched over"...

    Thank you again for your time and help--much appreciated!

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    Dear Woodduck, I thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. As with many of your other posts that I have read throughout the day--and there have been many!--I appreciate your points of view and sense of humor. I've learned a bunch too! I will pass along your opinion to the author of this text book for which I am only fact-checking. Thank you again!

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    Dear Granate, Many thanks for responding to my post and for the links you provided, which I perused with interest. I wrote back earlier, but my reply seems to have disappeared into the ether, and so I will try again. In the "Let's talk Tristan und Isolde" link, there is a post on page 6 (15 Feb 2015) in which Roger Scruton's “Death Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde” is cited:

    "The music that we now know as the “Liebestod” was first described by Wagner, when arranging it as the second half of the well-known orchestral epitome, as Isolde’s “Verklärung” (“Transfiguration”)."

    The author of the post then continues with:

    "It has occurred to me, too, that it was Liszt who gave the title “Love-death” to Isolde's dying song—which Wagner had called “Transfiguration,” giving the name “Love-death” to the opera's Prelude instead—when he wrote his piano transcription of it. That transcription was published in 1867, not long after Tristan's premiere. Liszt and Wagner were, of course, exceedingly close. I've been unable to find any comment by Wagner on this change of title, but we can be sure that he did comment on it, and since the change was allowed to stand, he obviously did not forbid it."

    This post, at least, seems to support the options that are proposed by the author on whose behalf I am writing and fact-checking. I can ask him, though, to confirm that his options aren't "switched over".

    Again, many thanks for your time and help--much appreciated!

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    Dear Itullian, Thank you for responding to my post--much appreciated!

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RDA1059 View Post
    Dear Itullian, Thank you for responding to my post--much appreciated!
    You're very welcome.
    When all else fails, listen to Thick as a Brick.

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    Thank you, N, for your time and input.

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    Dear N, Another note of thanks for this post as well. I will pass along your explanation, which is very clear and appreciated.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RDA1059 View Post
    Dear Woodduck, I thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. As with many of your other posts that I have read throughout the day--and there have been many!--I appreciate your points of view and sense of humor. I've learned a bunch too! I will pass along your opinion to the author of this text book for which I am only fact-checking. Thank you again!
    The pleasure is mine.

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