The Curse of Tristan: A look at Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Following the 17 3/4 years of hype and media coverage of the exhumation and eventual re interment of Richard III, many of you will be heaving sighs of relief but others may be having some withdrawal symptoms so I want to wean you off gradually by talking about another Richard, Richard Wagner.

Looking at the life and works of Richard Wagner, I was struck by the amount of death and malfeasance that surrounds the opera Tristan and Isolde. At that point I had not heard of the ‘curse of Tristan’ but I was not surprised to find much authentic documentation on a supposed malediction and eagerly set out to find the details.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director and conductor who is best remembered for his dramatic and lengthy operas. Throughout his seventy years of life, Wagner had a controversial lifestyle characterized by exile for his political beliefs and actions, frequent turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flights from his creditors. He was an unconventional man who did not hesitate to use subtle emotional blackmail on his main sponsor to get his own way and many more gulden!

Wagner began work on Tristan and Isolde in 1857 and almost immediately the curse began to have effect. In the entire history of the world until that point, the only disaster of any significance was the treacherous betrayal and slaying of the revered and saint like Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, yet as soon as Wagner had written the first notes in early March, France and the United Kingdom declared war on China, a war that would be known as the second opium war. On 21st March an Earthquake hit Tokyo, killing over 107,000 people and then on 21st May the Indian Mutiny began with the Sepoy’s revolt leading to the terrible Cawnpore massacre.

Wagner began to get worried and put the work on hold for a month or so whilst the world sorted it’s self out and the effects of the curse wore off. During this hiatus his eye strayed to Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his patron, and began affair that eventually led to the estrangement of the Wagners and another ‘notch in the belt of the curse’.

The lovely Mathilde. It is understandable why Wagner's eye should stray to her!
The lovely Mathilde. It is understandable why Wagner’s eye should stray to her!

Wagner had no sooner resumed work than on September 23rd the Russian warship Leffort disappeared with a loss of 826 in a storm in the Gulf of Finland.

Wagner was so busy with his new lady love that he only worked intermittently on Tristan for the next nine months and the curse did not have a chance to take too much effect and only caused local damage: a cook with a cut finger, a cat getting trodden on by a donkey, a pantile falling off a roof and squashing a crow – everyday things that happen every day – but suddenly on June 29th 1858, the curse struck again with the great fire of London Docks, followed in July by a far, far worse happening.

On July 21st spectators were charged for the very first time to see a baseball game!

It seemed the end of the world as people knew it.

Eighteen fifty nine may have seemed like the end of the world for Wagner too as a small pension he received from one of his previous lady loves ceased when he began an affair with another lady. Wagner never learned! but he did manage to complete the ill fated ‘Tristan’ during that year, with it only causing the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii to erupt for 300 days and the “Pomona” to sink in the North Atlantic drowning all 400 aboard.

Wagner himself was not ‘Tristan’s’ biggest fan, writing half-satirically of it ‘… This Tristan is turning into something terrible. This final act!!!—I fear the opera will be banned … only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad.’ Little did he know how true his words would be.

It may well have been just coincidental that Wagner was writing Tristan and Isolde at the time his personal life was falling apart, but what followed makes it seem as if the opera was trying to prevent itself from ever being performed. Even after its completion it was still another six years before it could be performed with difficulties plaguing the composer with funding and finding musicians who were able to sustain the pace during this long and difficult work. Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, two of the greatest dramatic voices of the time, were eventually given leave from their court positions to sing the lead roles; Wagner had also secured the services of the genius conductor Hans von Bülow (it is unknown whether this is because or despite Wagner having an affair with Bülow’s wife Cosima at the time!)

Cosima, H. W. Ernst, Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow (1865) in Pest. The real marriage wrecking 'pest', Wagner, was absent from the picture.
Cosima, H. W. Ernst, Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow (1865) in Pest. The real marriage wrecking ‘pest’, Wagner, was absent from the picture.

The premiere scheduled for May 15, 1865 was cancelled at the last minute when Malvina suddenly lost her voice. It took almost an entire month for her to recover and for everything to be ready for the premiere on June 10, 1865 at the Bavarian State Opera. The reception of the work was disastrous, but Wagner was determined to carry on. His refusal to withdraw the work led to horrifying “coincidence” that Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the original Tristan, suddenly died on July 21, 1865. He was only 29 and the true cause of his death has never been established.

The curse kept quiet for most of the rest of the year, except for causing a forest fire in Oregon destroying about one million acres of timber and two events personal to Wagner. He was exiled from Bavaria and his estranged wife died. He probably would not have minded too much about his wife dying except that meant there was no reason why his mistress, Cosimo Bülow could not move in with him, a move that rather cramped his style with the ladies.

Nothing too great was attributed to the curse for quite a number of years after that except for a huge fire in Quebec destroying 2,500 houses, but suddenly two things happened in 1883. Cosimo broke three finger nails and Wagner died.

The curse was not over yet though. Remember Wagner’s words about good performances driving people mad? Wagner’s erstwhile champion, devoted acolyte and sponsor, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria,

The mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria, getting ready to do a spectacular eye-roll.
The mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria, getting ready to do a spectacular eye-roll.

who had been exhibiting signs of insanity for years, went completely mad and allegedly committed suicide by not drowning and beating up his doctor (long story – I will investigate this further in a future blog).

The next king, Otto, was totally mad and never properly reigned – another victim of the curse.

Not content, still the curse worked its evil causing the Boer war, the death of Queen Victoria after only reigning for 63 years, 217 days and in 1911, causing Felix Mottl to suffer a heart attack, from which he later died, while conducting the second act of Tristan and Isolde.

The next events that the curse of Tristan influenced were both the first and second world wars, the Suez crisis, the Cold War and the assassination of JFK and then in 1968, in a strange mirroring of an earlier event, 60 year old conductor Joseph Keilberth also suffered a heart attack during Tristan and Isolde’s second act.

All of this could safely be dismissed as superstitious nonsense except for my own personal experience.  In November last year Mrs JJ listened to part of Tristan and Isolde on the radio and  flounced out of my life shortly afterwards, never to return and even worse, the very radio she was listening to, fell onto the floor and shattered two days later.

I miss that radio.

People may roll their eyes at this and begin to think that Jefferty has lost the plot, but I seriously  consider that as proof of the curse of Tristan so be afraid everyone, be very afraid.  2015 is the 150th anniversary of the first performance and countries all over the world are planning to stage the opera.

Stay in bed. Hide under the stair well. Emigrate to Antarctica. Wear garlic and carry a stake. Anything (as long as you can still get the internet to read Double History!) Just stay safe and avoid this evil curse.

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Dr Don Ashtray Pill: How to master head shaking.

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Dr Don Ashtray Pill: Sartorial dressing for funerals and other fashion tips.

Dr D Snarkey: The Common Loon.

Jolly N Fellow: How to describe medical conditions in a way designed to upset everyone.

Philippa Langley: How to hide under an  elegant hat to avoid eye contact with neighbour.

Radio Repair Workshop for beginners.

Jeff ‘Jefferty’ Jeff is currently staring sadly at the broken radio whilst accidently inhaling glue fumes and wondering why he is feeling floaty and spaced out.

Jeff has spent the past week searching for fifty quid that he was sure that he had until that day he helped Jeff Fuel.

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© Jeff ‘Jefferty’ Jeff 29.03.2015


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