Contrary to popular belief, “Tristan und Isolde” does not end with a Liebestod, or “love-death.” In the final minutes of the opera, Isolde indeed collapses, lifeless, after singing an aria of serene ecstasy over Tristan’s body. But Wagner called that monologue Isolde’s “Transfiguration.” He applied the word “Liebestod” to the music of groping longing that appears in the Prelude and recurs in Act I, as the lovers partake of the potion that they mistakenly believe to be poison. It was Franz Liszt who, in an 1867 piano paraphrase, dubbed the ending “Isolden’s Liebes-Tod.” In its original context, Liebestod indicates a death that turns into love. The later usage implies the opposite, a love that turns into death. The misnomer is particularly ironic because the dying Isolde never mentions death: instead, she hears Tristan’s voice immortally resounding. Her transfiguration unveils a metaphysical realm indistinguishable from music itself.
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