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by which ‘key centres came to be defined more by implication than by actual statement.’

But it’s more still than that: harmony becomes psychology, the whole score a glorious extended metaphor for unfulfilled desire, and for the philosophical impossibility of fulfilling desire more generally. So complete is Wagner’s achievement in upsetting our harmonic perspective that the C major chords that brassily intrude at the end of Act 1 sound disturbing and disorientating. And when we finally reach resolution at the close of the opera over 5000 bars and four hours of music later, with what Richard Strauss described as the ‘the most beautifully

The inspiration behind the opera: Wagner’s lover Mathilde Wesendonck orchestrated B major chord in the history of music’, the final effect can and should be totally overwhelming. DIFFICULT BEGINNINGS Strauss was a day shy of his first birthday when his father, Franz, played the horn at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865. The staging of the opera, six years after its completion, was enabled by King Ludwig II, who had intervened decisively in Wagner’s life the previous year, offering him apparently endless funds (welcome) allied to advice and wellmeaning interventions (less welcome). Wagner’s attempt to get the work performed at his own instigation proved fruitless: it famously went through 77 rehearsals at the Hofoper in Vienna in 1863 before the orchestra declared it unplayable. The premiere of the work itself, delayed by a month much to the delight of the hostile elements in Munich, might be counted a modest success. The title-roles were taken by the husband-and-wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the former an artist who Wagner admired perhaps above any other singer he worked with.

That the tenor died a matter of weeks after the event, however, only contributed to the legends that surrounded the new work: not only was it incomprehensible and morally reprehensible and dangerous, its detractors noted, it was also literally dangerous. Its moral dubiousness was, and to a large extent still is, underlined by the biographical circumstances of the work’s composition and earlier history, a series of hardly innocent facts to which no one was afraid to add additional untruths. Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck in the 1850s, while he was being hosted in Zurich by Mathilde’s wealthy husband (and now usually believed to have remained unconsummated), had inspired the composition. Wagner’s relationship with Cosima, meanwhile, had begun in earnest in 1863 and produced a daughter, Isolde, born exactly two months before the opera was premiered under the baton of Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow was still Cosima’s husband at the time, and the little girl was given his surname, but no one was fooled. Wagner was disconsolate, depressed by the uncomprehending reactions of the public, but Tristan had at least been unleashed on the world, although it would wait another nine years for a second staging, in Weimar. After Liszt saw it there in 1875 he wrote to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein:

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