The Wesendonk Lieder are a cycle of songs composed by Wagner in the course of the years 1857 to five poems written by Mathilde Wesendonk. The work is entitled Five Poems for the Female Voice and Piano (Fünf Gedichte für Frauenstimme und Klavier) although they are now usually performed with the orchestra. “I have done nothing better than these songs,” Wagner is reputed to have said. The composition was Wagner's Christmas gift to Mathilde in December 1857. Träume (Dreams) is the fifth and last song in the cycle.
Picasso, Dream, 1932
Finally, the passionate love duet in Act II of Tristan und Isolde finds its source in the setting for Mathilde's final poem, Träume - Dreams. Here the protagonist is dreaming of the “only One.”
What kind of dreams are these that fail to vanish in the desolate Nothingness (ödes Nichts)? Dreams that are more fair each passing hour and each passing day? Obviously, they are dreams that arise from “thinking of only One,” (Eingedenken!), which Wagner understood to be himself. These are the dreams of springtime, of the season of the libidinal sexual passions, which, because they are forbidden, ‘glow and fade on your breast, and then sink into the grave.” (Sanft an deiner Brust verglühen, / Und dann sinken in die Gruft).
The music of the great duet in Act II of Tristan und Isolde is the music of the triumph of Night and Death over Life and Day, the final surrender of Life to Love. After the passionate and almost uncontainable re-encounter of the lovers in the forest, the duet enters the moment of the satiation of love, the after-sex peacefulness of fulfillment.
In this song, which is musically a foreshadowing of that great drama, both of the first two stanzas end in a questioning: what are these dreams about? In the third stanza, we hear a crescendo at ‘holy rays of light’ (hehre Strahlen) and an emphatic slowing down at ‘all forgiving, thinking only of One’ (Allvergessen, Eingedenken!), as if to highlight what the song is all about and what the answer is to the initial, fretful, questioning. Another emphatic long note for ‘Dreams’ (Träume) brings the subject back to the idealizing purpose of the poem, at the beginning of the fourth stanza. Then the resolution of the dreams require an awakening that begins at the end of the fourth stanza, when the springtime greets ‘the new day’ (der neue Tag), but with a deliberate slowdown for the whole line, sinking in the fifth stanza to their final outcome in death, with an ambiguous end, - the sound of the coming dawn of Tristan and Isolde awakening, at the fateful conclusion of Act II of Tristan. The Death, they say, is the Victory!
Ann Evans sings at the 1994 Proms, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.
Sag’, welch wunderbare Träume
Halten meinen Sinn umfangen,
Dass sie nicht wie leere Schäume
Sind in ödes Nichts vergangen?
Träume, die in jeder Stunde,
Jedem Tage schöner blüh’n,
Und mit ihrer Himmelskunde
Selig durch’s Gemüte ziehn?
Träume, die wie hehre Strahlen
In die Seele sich versenken,
Dort ein ewig Bild zu malen,
Träume, wie wenn Frühlingssonne
Aus dem Schnee die Blüten küsst,
Dass zu nie beahnter Wonne
Sie der neue Tag begrüsst,
Dass sie wachsen, dass sie blühen,
Träumend spenden ihren Duft,
Sanft an deiner Brust verglühen,
Und dann sinken in die Gruft.
(trans. Emily Ezust)
Tell me, what kind of wondrous dreams
are embracing my senses,
that have not, like sea-foam,
vanished into desolate Nothingness?
Dreams, that with each passing hour,
each passing day, bloom fairer,
and with their heavenly tidings
roam blissfully through my heart!
Dreams which, like holy rays of light
sink into the soul,
there to paint an eternal image:
forgiving all, thinking of only One.
Dreams which, when the Spring sun
kisses the blossoms from the snow,
so that into unsuspected bliss
they greet the new day,
so that they grow, so that they bloom,
and dreaming, bestow their fragrance,
these dreams gently glow and fade on your breast,
and then sink into the grave.
Translation copyright © by Emily Ezust,
from The Lied and Art Song Texts Page -- http://www.lieder.net/
Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, in the 1870's