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Published to coincide with Wagner’s birth bicentenary in 2013, this limited edition facsimile of the autograph score of Tristan und Isolde offers some fascinating insights into the opera’s genesis and the working methods of its composer.

The handsome 400-page volume in half-leather binding includes a comprehensive commentary by musicologist Ulrich Konrad, a professor at the University for Music in Freiburg. Konrad packs a huge amount of information into his 12-page introduction (given in English translation as well as the original German), beginning with an exploration of the significance of Tristan within Wagner’s oeuvre as a whole. He then provides a detailed biographical sketch of the five years Wagner spent writing Tristan (1854-59), littered with historical sources that bring this story alive. In particular, Konrad explores the impact of Wagner’s own peregrinations – from Zurich to Venice and then Lucerne – on the changes of scene and mood that characterise each act of the opera.

Given the strong emphasis that Bärenreiter places on historical research when putting together publications (see pages 47-48 of this issue), it comes as no surprise that Konrad’s commentary on the original publication process itself makes compelling reading. We learn that Tristan is unique amongst Wagner’s operas in being prepared for printing in several separate stages, a ‘singular production process’ that meant the composer had to have ‘an absolutely clear idea of the final form of his work [at the outset], for, with each partial delivery of the manuscript, that section was lost to him, whether for checking or changes’.

Wagner’s egotism and the demands that it led him to make on his original publisher also come through strongly: as well as the full score, he insisted that a piano reduction by Hans von Bülow and a separate edition of the opera’s text should be brought out for the ‘German educated world, which awaits, clearly not without tense expectation, a new product from me after such a long time’.

Wagner himself had to wait until 1871 for the full autograph score to be returned to him – six years after its premiere in Munich – and only then was able to get it ‘bound ornamentally in wine-red velvet and embossed with the title TRISTAN UND ISOLDE’. At the end of the Second World War it travelled with Wieland Wagner to Switzerland, and from there to Barcelona, finally returning to Bayreuth as recently as 1973.

In addition to the complete score, the facsimile includes Wagner’s autograph concert ending of the opera’s orchestral Prelude, plus three pages that he rejected while composing and later used for sketches. Essential reading for any true Wagnerite, though with a price tag of more than £550 per copy it may have to remain the object of unfulfilled longing for some.

Frances Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing