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Case study: Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Stowell, Robin 2012. Case study: Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde. Lawson, Colin and Stowell, Robin, eds. The Cambridge History of Musical Performance, The Cambridge History of Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 696-722.

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Richard Wagner was a focal figure in the history of opera in the nineteenth century. Tristan und Isolde (1856-65) represents the quintessence of his mature style, retaining features of his earlier operas while introducing innovations in both theory (Wagner’s Oper und Drama had been published in 1851) and practice and achieving a true synthesis of words and music. As a work which changed the course of western art in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and exercised so potent an influence on succeeding generations of composers, it stands out as an ideal case study for closer scrutiny. In his multifarious role as a composer, conductor, theorist, writer and critic, Wagner recognised serious shortcomings in the standards of his contemporaries in reproducing the composer’s intentions, and he directed his efforts towards ‘decent and correct performances’ of his own dramatic works. Scornful of the prevailing attitudes in opera houses, he provided copiously detailed instructions for conductors, singers, instrumentalists, designers and producers, all of which reveal his views on turning theory into practice. This chapter explores the genesis of Tristan und Isolde, its performance history (in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and elsewhere) and its critical reception, including the most prominent singers and conductors and the rich legacy of recordings. It focuses also on the revolutionary nature of Wagner’s demands on his interpreters. Among the numerous performance practice issues to be addressed are: vocal and instrumental techniques and playing styles, articulation, accent, expression, tempo and tempo modification, portamento, vibrato (vocal and instrumental), ornamentation, pitch, conducting, the constitution of the orchestra in the light of experiments with and the development of instruments, instrumentation, conventions of orchestral layout, set design, and aesthetic questions about the realization of Tristan und Isolde on the stage.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Music
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > ML Literature of music
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521896115
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Last Modified: 04 Jun 2017 02:59

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