“Every artist is entitled to a muse.” For his song collection Five poems for a female voice (1857-58) – later known as Wesendonck Lieder – Richard Wagner’s muse was the wife of his patron, Mathilde Wesendonck. While working on Tristan und Isolde, five of her poems (Der Engel, Stehe Still, Im Treibhaus, Schmerzen and Träume) inspired the composer to compose songs, or rather “compositional studies", that he later used for his opera. I spoke to the Australian Heldentenor Stuart Skelton who shared his thoughts on the Lieder, their influences on Tristan und Isolde and what makes them such soul-shattering works.

Stuart Skelton © Sim Canetty Clarke
Stuart Skelton
© Sim Canetty Clarke

Wagner considered the Wesendonck Lieder as “compositional studies” for Tristan und Isolde. What parallels can you draw between the Lieder and the opera?

The two songs where the parallels are most easily drawn are Im Treibhaus and Träume. They are the most obvious musical, although still incomplete, ideas of what we know are going to become major contributions to the score of Tristan. Yet, I think one would have to draw a long bow to find any textual comparisons between the Wesendonck poetry and what ends up being the metaphysics of Tristan. The interesting part during the recording process was delving into the piece and discovering the musical legacy that these five songs give us. The compositional aesthetic of some of the songs reminds me much more of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin than anything approaching the later works, particular Tristan. But Im Treibhaus and Träume are about Wagner finding that new language, that new harmonic and melodic idea that he was searching for and that was going to dominate everything post-Walküre. He takes the time to grapple with these new ideas that were inside him and wanted to get out; you can almost hear his thought process: “How do I turn this idea? How do I expand it and where does it go?”. To hear those undeveloped and not infantile, but incipient ideas coming to life in Tristan is truly remarkable.

Did singing the Wesendonck Lieder change the way you sing Tristan or vice versa?

Not really. I think singing Tristan can inform the way you approach the Lieder, because Tristan as an opera is the fully formed version, it is fully thought through and a fully realised combination of what Wagner was still searching for in the Wesendonck Lieder. Having sung Tristan has certainly informed my musical approach to the Lieder, but the other way around it’s quite hard to do. Tristan is pretty much all metaphysics. The characters are not singing about any concrete things, they’re singing about concepts and ways to represent those concepts. And although the Wesendonck do that to a certain extent, the poetry doesn’t sit on the same Ebene (level) in terms of its intellectual capacity to encompass that.

Speaking of Mathilde’s poetry, Matthias Goerne, asked by the New York Times, described it the following way: "The worst doggerel Schubert ever set is better than the texts of Mathilde Wesendonck". Was Wagner blinded by love?

I counter this quote with a quote by Richard Strauss who, when asked why he would set not always the greatest poets but often the second string poets, replied: “Because the great ones never needed my help!”

But do you think it’s the music rather than the text that makes the Wesendonck Lieder so soul-shattering?

What make the Lieder so shattering are certainly the musical contributions, it’s the reason we still perform them and still listen to them. It makes the story devastating. But Wagner was a composer who responded to text – to be fair, almost exclusively his own. There must have been something about these texts that he responded to and given that he used them, we can assume they are not completely worthless. He might have had ulterior motives, and what we know of his history, this seems likely, but he set them for a reason and he set them to music that we know became live-changing and changed the world of opera composition as we know it. Had they not been intrinsic to him, I don’t think he would have bothered. At least, I like to think he wouldn’t have bothered.

Do you think the relationship between Tristan and Isolde in some way reflects the affair between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck?

Quite possibly. That assumes that their relationship was consummated and there seems to be some significant debate about whether it was in fact an affair in the strictest terms or whether it was just an admiration that never went anywhere. I think, even if there wasn’t an actual affair that took place, there was certainly a desire for an affair. I can understand the reasoning that even a desire for the affair draws parallels between night and day and love and death, those things that are longed for and unfulfilled – maybe to a certain extent unspoken of – and this whole concept of the Liebestrank vs. the Todestrank.

It’s a question that’s never really been answered, but it’s a terrific thing to think about. Does the fact that it is a Liebestrank cause Tristan and Isolde to fall in love or is it the fact that they both think that it is a Todestrank, knowing that it’s consequence free at that point? Is that why they are free to say to each other what their hearts wanted to say, because they are going to die? Does it give them the freedom to say things they wouldn’t have been able to say within the convention? Or does the Liebestrank actually have an affect and they are not genuinely in love? Personally, I have not been able to resolve that question. I like to believe – to keep the opera going for the five hours – that what they say to each other is not necessarily a result of having consumed a Liebestrank, but rather having expressed to each, because they know it’s ultimately consequence free. It makes the love they confess through Act Two and Three a lot harder to carry as a burden. It’s a lot harder to carry for the soul: a love that is true as opposed to a love that is chemically induced.

Why did you choose the orchestral version?

We chose the orchestral version, because two of the songs were actually orchestrated by Wagner himself. We kept his orchestration of these two and used Felix Mottl’s for the other three. Mottl was such a trusted resource for Wagner, particularly during the first Ring cycle, that all of his editions were considered the Golden Standard. We also wanted it to be a worthwhile recording for the orchestra as well. There needed to be works for the orchestra to show what a fabulous ensemble it is. I think we managed that.

You mention that Mottl was completely trusted by the Meister. His orchestrations sound like Wagner…

Mottl knew Wagner’s mind, probably better than almost anyone on the planet. He worked so closely with him in Bayreuth and knew what Wagner wanted to sound like. The songs themselves are interesting, because of the signposts they present for us, for those who want to discover Tristan. Most symphonic composers kept revising their works and we really only ever get to hear the final version of what they wanted. Beethoven was such a genius that often a lot of his previous versions of his overtures get played. We have the two versions of Bruckner’s “Romantische” – both are terrific, but I actually prefer the first version, because it’s composed with even more abandon, it’s even more Brucknerian in a way. To be able to hear and perform what we know to be ideas that were still steeping and then to be able to hear those completed ideas in Tristan is a very rare opportunity.

In Opera you can obviously slip into a role. How do you prepare for Lieder?

With Lieder it’s a much more fragile thing, both for the performer and the audience. There are fewer filters. You are closer to the audience, there’s no costume or lighting, no entrances and exits, there’s no set, there’s no design of any description. You have to be able to make your musical, and hopefully intellectual, case with fewer errors which makes it slightly more frightening, but I think also more exciting. But because this is all out of your way, you can then focus on minutiae of things that I think sometimes in opera get buried. You can afford to focus much more on the technical finesse, filigrane of presentation of word and music at the same time. Whereas sometimes in opera the nature of the beast is that you have to make certain – well judged – compromises to take a much broader picture. A Liederabend is more the Georges Seurat version of what you’re doing than it is the Jackson Pollock version. Doing the occasional recital is certainly refreshing for the brain and the voice, and refreshing for the musician that I like to pretend lives inside me. It really is a chance to purify what one does as a singer musically and to reapply oneself to the rigours of what’s required for that. I think there’s a freeing aspect to that which I actually quite enjoy.

The Wesendonck Lieder were published as Five poems for a female voice. What are the challenges for a tenor?

Perhaps the difficulty for the male voice in general, particularly in the piano version, is finding the required delicacy without giving in to the temptation to croon. I know from my own experience that it’s a temptation you have to work on resisting. When you’re doing the piano version you can get away with a little bit of crooning, but the music is certainly serious enough that I think that temptation should be resisted as much as possible. One needs to sing it with all the seriousness in terms of vocal production that one can bring to it to do them justice.

Can a male singer show a new perspective of the Lieder?

These poems by Wesendonck are narrated from a female perspective, yet the ending of Schmerzen, “Solche Schmerzen mir Natur”, that Romanticism to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, composed into the bombastic nature of the vocal line and the accompaniment lends itself to a male voice. Träume and Im Treibhaus, because of their delicacy and finely spun line, certainly suit a female voice that brings that Glanz (shimmer), without even having to think about it. A male voice doesn’t have that. But I don’t think it hurts at all to have a male perspective on those more stentorian songs in the Wesendonck, because of the inner bombast that a male voice brings to it.

Wagner said about his Wesendonck Lieder: “I have not written anything better”. Do you agree?

No. I know I will attract some criticism from those who think Tristan is the pinnacle of all Wagnerian writing, but I disagree. It’s clearly Parsifal, more for what Wagner knew he could leave out than what he included. In Tristan he throws the kitchen sink at it, and the kitchen sink is 24-carat gold. When he gets to Parsifal he realises what he can leave behind, and that is the sign of his greatest work.