Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thoughts on The Tristan & Isolde Fantasy by Franz Waxman

The Tristan & Isolde Fantasy (for Solo Violin, Solo Piano and Orchestra) was written by Franz Waxman in 1947. Like many talented musicians and composers, Franz Waxman fled pre-war Germany and came to settle near Hollywood. Trained in Dresden and Berlin, Waxman briefly travelled to France after the Nazis came into power and was acclaimed for his film score to Fritz Lang's movie called “Liliom.”

The blossoming film industry needed composers who were both musically flexible and who could work quickly, and Waxman’s first American success came with his score for the “Bride of Frankenstein.” During his long film career, Waxman collaborated four times with Alfred Hitchcock, but is best known for his score to “Sunset Boulevard” which won an Academy Award in 1950.

Anyone who has seen the movie “Jaws” quickly learns to identify the presence of the shark through purely musical means. The score to that movie, written by John Williams, was inspired by Richard Wagner’s use of leitmotifs.

Wagner used leitmotifs as a web of developed and altered musical signals for everything from emotional states to objects. Scholars have labeled more than 45 leitmotifs in Wagner’s opera Tristan & Isolde. Imagine the density in a movie like Jaws if in addition to the “shark” motive there were forty-four other significant musical gestures, each of which could be altered or developed throughout the film.

The communicative qualities of the leitmotifs in Tristan & Isolde are compelling. Once one absorbs them it is tempting to want to further extend and develop the ideas inherent in them. In his Fantasie Franz Waxman used a technique idiomatic within the film industry—the splice—to create new associations among a collection of leitmotifs.

The work opens with seven notes in the bass drawn from the transition between the Prelude and Act I during which the curtain opens on the drama itself. Both the solo violin and solo piano that are used characteristically in this work are introduced when they play the “desire” motive in a long splice from the prelude that is simultaneously familiar and changed. The splice concludes a famous and often analyzed passage of the prelude, but neither solo instrument is used by Wagner in Tristan & Isolde, and we enter the passage midway—as if we had just tuned into a radio program. Several other ideas from the prelude are then spliced into this opening section, including motives with colorful names like “glance,” “deliverance by death,” and the “magic casket.”

With a sudden shift into D-flat major, the violin and piano soloists begin to work through ideas from Act II of the opera. Beginning with the “ardor” motive that marks the sense of anticipation before the secret meeting of the lovers. Waxman then explores an extensive collection of splices from the famous duet between Tristan and Isolde: “O sink hernieder, nacht der liebe (Descend upon us, night of passion).”

Waxman’s final collection of splices flow from the “Liebestod” by that ends the opera. This section is introduced by four-note arpeggiated figures in the solo piano while the tune begins to sound in the orchestra. From the time that the solo violin takes the tune, Waxman’s music opens and gradually breaks free from splicing. He expands upon the glorious climatic writing of the Liebestod and guides it gracefully back to quiet textures that recall Wagner’s ending—a splice that recalls the opening of the prelude.


  1. Hello, I'm trying to find the score for Waxman's "Tristan und Isolde Fantasy." I'm hoping to play the piano with a local group. Any idea where to find it?

  2. One has to purchase them from this site (it is still under copyright): http://franzwaxman.com/music-performance/tristan-isolde/


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