Tristan was the first opera to be finished after Wagner had published his many theories, and it was their completest refutation. He himself wrote afterwards that in composing it he found how far he had gone ahead of his doctrines; but, as a matter of fact, he had not gone ahead of them at all: he simply forgot all about them, and composed as if they had no existence. In no opera in the world is there such an entire absence of the calculation that working to a theory would have involved. It is the most intense and, to use Wordsworth’s word, the most inevitable opera ever written. Words, music and action seem to have originated simultaneously in the creator’s brain. Writing to Liszt, Wagner said he meant to express a love such as he had never experienced. It was as well that he never experienced it: no human creature could endure the strain for twenty-four hours. Here we have the elemental passion of man for woman and woman for man in a degree of intensity that is nothing less than delirium. The action is simple, the story is simple. Isolda has nursed Tristan when he was picked up wounded; she has loved him and he has loved her. He has killed her betrothed, Morold, and she conceives it to be her duty to kill him, but she cannot. Tristan dare not aspire to win her, and when she is claimed by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, he is sent to bring her. At this point the opera opens.
The prelude begins with one of the love themes; other themes are worked in; the parts weave and interweave with each other, swelling and mounting until a shattering climax is reached; then all subsides, and an effect of terrible suspense is produced by the last subdued phrase in the bass as the curtain rises, and we feel that something tragic is to come. Here we have Wagner the full and ripe musician. As a technical achievement this prelude is marvellous; the polyphony is as intricate and yet as sure as anything in Bach or Mozart, part winding round part, and each going its way steadily to the climax; and the white-hot passion expressed by this means makes the thing a miracle. There is nothing like it in Tannhaeuser and Lohengrin. Here we are entirely free of the Weberesque four-bar phrases; the rhythms are subtle and complex, though to the ear they sound clear and simple enough. When the curtain goes up we see a sort of tent arranged on the deck of a ship. From aloft a sailor chants a wild sea-song, unlike any sea-song ever chanted off the stage and yet redolent of the sea and salt winds.
[Illustration: Some bars of music]
Isolda is lying on a couch, her face buried in her hands; Brangaena stands by. In the sailor’s song she has fancied some gibe at herself, for she is being carried off against her will by the man she loves to wed an old man she has never seen. She starts up in rage, and then, realizing her position, asks Brangaena where they are. Now, Wagner, if he scarcely considered the prima donna, took great