Wagner – Isolde

FP390 Richard Wagner Isolde Two Flutes and Piano Grade 8 6′ 30″


Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is one of the most important composers of all time and the opera Tristan und Isolde is one of his most important compositions. From this work both the beginning and end are so well loved that they are often heard as a pair in concert versions. Wagner, confusingly, referred to the Prelude as the Liebestod, but that name is now given to the ending, which Wagner actually called Verklärung. It is this, the opera’s final minutes, which constitutes the present arrangement.

At this point in the opera Tristan has been mortally wounded and lies dead in Isolde’s arms. However, transfixed, she believes him to be waking, thinking she hears a melody wafting from his lips “wonderfully and softly, lamenting delight, telling all.” She sings of the billowing torrents and resonating sound before dying herself. These waves and “supreme rapture” are reflected in the music which surges, pulls back and then builds up again finally to explode on a mighty E6 chord. This tremendous rush is also a not very well disguised representation of the act of physical love itself. Tristan und Isolde is commonly considered to be highest development of tonal chromaticism and the harbinger of musical modernism. Commentators also narrow this down to the opera’s first harmony, the so-called “Tristan” chord.

The rest of the opera is no less ambitious. It is, of course, not chords in isolation, but the way they interrelate which is of more significance and in Isolde’s Verklärung /Liebestod, from the initial Ab major chord to the final B major the harmony constantly slips and side-steps so that it is often impossible to ascertain the key. Enharmonics, chromatics, appoggiaturas, false relations, semitone clashes and other dissonances are ubiquitous. Wagner was also a consummate contrapuntist (counterpoint being particularly formidable when the harmony is so complex) as well as a master of orchestration.

Much thought has gone into making this arrangement as idiomatic, yet as faithful to the original as possible. In particular, after some experimentation it was decided not to mimic, in the piano part, the frequent string tremolandos as this is not effective in the various quieter areas and is unpianistic at the best of times. Instead, cross rhythms and broken chords often fulfil a similar function.

The flutes share most of the melodies and counter-melodies. Sometimes, this means realizing the vocal part, but more often it is a case of bringing out the melodic intricacies of the orchestral writing. Unavoidably, with music of this sophistication, a high level of ability is required from all players. Isolde was produced with Finale on a PC. The front cover picture is Study of Jane as Iseult by William Morris (1834 – 1896).

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