But Richard Wagner was suddenly drawn to another plot – the ancient medieval legend from the twelfth century about the tragic love of Prince Tristan of Cornwall and Princess Isolde of Ireland, the wife of his father Mark. And in 1854 Wagner wrote to Liszt: «A simple but inspiring musical concept is brewing in my head. With the black flag flying in the last act, I will cover myself – and I will perish!» The idea for this opera is related to his own experiences at that time – his love for the wife of his friend and patron, the charming, extremely spiritual and versatile Mathilde Wesendonck. She shared his feelings, but remained faithful to her husband and their unfulfilled love is expressed in the music of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE. During that period Wagner wrote five lyrical romances based on verses by Mathilde Wesendonck (the famous Wesendonck Lieder), and she herself took an active part in the creation of the libretto of the opera, completed in 1859. Melodies from some of the romances found a place in the opera score – for example Im Treibhaus (“In the greenhouse”) and Träume (“Dreams”) are a kind of studies to “Tristan and Isolde”.
This opera is Wagner’s most extraordinary work – a chamber circle of characters, minimal dynamics in the action, developing mainly in the twilight of the evening and night, condensed psychology and a subtle variety of experiences. According to the composer, this giant vocal-symphonic poem reflects “the depths of the inner movements of the soul ”. The very beginning of the introduction suggests the extreme emotional tension, the “insatiable longing”, with the unstable chromatic harmony, which does not find the solution, to which it constantly strives in the flow of the “endless melody”. This famous “Tristan” chord becomes the leitmotif of the whole opera.