Born: May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy
Premiered: 1862 in Mainz, Germany
Between 1849 and 1863, Richard Wagner was exiled in Switzerland, having fled Dresden to evade a warrant issued for his arrest for taking part in an uprising. Among his admirers and patrons in the new country was Otto Wesendonck, a successful textile businessman from New York who retired in Zürich. Today he is better remembered as “the husband of Wagner’s muse.” In April 1857, Wesendonck, having already settled Wagner’s heavy debts and provided him performance opportunities, placed a small cottage on his estate at the disposal of Wagner and his wife Minna. By August, Wesendonck himself moved to an adjacent villa with his wife Mathilde. Wagner, an exceptionally amorous man who had already been in an extramarital affair before, grew infatuated with Mathilde. Although their love was probably never consummated, the episode gave rise to two important works: the opera Tristan und Isolde, in which their unrealized love was idealized, and the Wesendonck Lieder, a collection of five songs set to the poems of Mathilde Wesendonck.
Originally titled Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five Poems for a Female Voice), the Wesendonck Lieder is a result of the close literary collaboration between Wagner and Mathilde. Wagner firmly believed in the kinship between his own texts and his own music, and the Wesendonck Lieder is his only work with text by someone else. (The fact that the words were written by Mathilde was not revealed until after her death in 1902.) The five songs were composed over the course of two years and not necessarily in the order they are performed today.
No. 1 Der Engel (The Angel), No. 4 Schmerzen (Sorrows), and No. 5 Träume (Dreams) were written in 1857; No. 2 Stehe still! (Be still!) and No. 3 Im Treibhaus (In the Greenhouse) were completed the following year. Two of the songs are marked as “Studies” for Tristan und Isolde, which was composed immediately after the Wesendonck Lieder. Parts of “Träume” appear in the love duet in Act 2 in a more developed form, and “Im Treibaus” has rudimentary ideas for the prelude to Act 3.
Another important influence on the Wesendonck Lieder was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which Wagner was introduced to by his new acquaintance in Switzerland. In particular, Wagner was profoundly affected by the Buddhist-inspired notions of the denial of the will and the quest for nirvana. While these ideas would form the ideological orientations for his remaining dramatic works, Wagner modified Schopenhauer’s ideas with a personal interpretation. In a letter to Mathilde written in December 1858, Wagner describes sexual love, rather than renunciation of desires, as the “path to salvation” and “complete pacification of the will.” This view manifests powerfully in both the Wesendonck Lieder and Tristan and Isolde, as well as in many of his music dramas—many of his protagonists found liberation from earthly concerns through a sublime sexual union. The Wesendonck Lieder, which portray the angel yearning for sublime bliss and eternity, worldly pains and sorrows, and escape by death, is inseparable from the eroticism and desire that encapsulates Wagner’s unrealized relationship with Mathilde.
Some features to listen for…
In Der Engle (The Angel), “the supreme bliss of heaven” is represented by gentle rises of the music. When the words describe earthly anxiety and desires, the orchestral accompaniment becomes relatively static, playing the repeated chords, and the key turns to a minor mode. In the Stehe still! (Be Still!), the contrast between the “Rushing, rumbling wheel of time” and “blissful, sweet oblivion” is represented by animated motions in the strings and the more languid music. Wistful ascending melodies permeate Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse), signifying branches that desperately reach for the air. In Schmerzen (Sorrows), the shift from minor to major indicates the rising of the sun “in [its] former splendor,” or life’s dual gifts of grief and joy. In Träume (Dreams), undulating melodies ride over a delicate heartbeat of chords; they all gently fade away, as the protagonist dreams of “[fading] away upon your breast and then [sinking] into the tomb.”
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University