October 22

Tristan und Isolde in London (1882):
A Shaky Reception

MusicalWorldCoverJune101876                          WagneratTimeofPerformance

                                [Il Teatro illustrato I, no. 3 (March 1881): 5]

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first performance of Tristan und Isolde (1865).  While now accepted as a masterpiece, critics at first performances were not always complimentary. On September 16, 1876, a letter to the editor of The Musical World gave a scathing and strident condemnation of Wagner’s work, deploring the discordant harmonies and lack of melody in a review titled “The Wagner Epidemic” (excerpts below):



[The Musical World 54, no. 38 (September 16, 1876): 623]


Six years later, on June 24, 1882, four days after the London premiere of Tristan und Isolde,  The Musical World published this caricature, supporting the opinion initially expressed.  It depicts James William Davison, editor of The Musical World, reacting to the “Tristan chord.” WagnerListenerOpening

[The Musical World 60, no. 25 (June 24, 1882): 385]


One month later on July 1, 1882, a much more nuanced and somewhat favorable view emerges.PositiveTristanReviewExcerpt







[The Musical World 60, no. 26 (July 1, 1882): 395-96]


However, the journal also underscored the difficulties in performing this work.  One week later The Musical World published on July 8, 1882 these two caricatures by Charles Lyall — the first depicting the conductor Hans Richter during a rehearsal of Tristan and the second, his appearance after the first performance.


[The Musical World 60, no. 27 (July 8, 1882): 415]


The following two French caricatures were reproduced in Musical America on February 12, 1910.  The first one (bottom left), an 1869 caricature by Andre Gill, expresses a similar view as Wagner ‘worked’ “on the eardrum of his contemporaries.”  The second (bottom right) illustrates the effect of a performance of a Wagner opera.

WagnerEarCaricature                            RunningoutofTheatre

[Musical America XI, no. 14 (February 12, 1910): 18]


The past was not always kind to Music of the Future.


In honor of the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde, here is an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in a style we think you will recognize.

And finally, one of the earliest recordings of the Prelude (1932), conducted by Arturo Toscanini two years after he conducted a performance at Bayreuth, the first by a non-German musician.

RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and others related, search the RIPM Retrospective Index  for “Wagner” or “Tristan” in The Musical World from 1876-1882. The full text of the journal’s complete run (1836-1891) is available.

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A Shaky Reception