|Catalogue WWV 91|
Composed 1857 (1857)–1858
Scoring voice and piano
|Text Poems by Mathilde Wesendonck|
Wesendonck Lieder, WWV 91, is the common name of a set of five songs for female voice and piano by Richard Wagner, Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five Poems for a Female Voice). He set five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, with titles translating as "The Angel", "Be still!", "In the Greenhouse", "Sorrows" and "Dreams", while he was working on his opera Tristan und Isolde. The songs, together with the Siegfried Idyll, are the two non-operatic works by Wagner most regularly performed.
The songs are settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Richard Wagner's patrons. Wagner had become acquainted with Otto Wesendonck in Zurich, where he had fled on his escape from Saxony after the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849. For a time Wagner and his wife Minna lived together in the Asyl (German for Asylum in the sense of "sanctuary"), a small cottage on the Wesendonck estate. It is sometimes claimed that Wagner and Mathilde had a love affair; in any case, the situation and mutual infatuation certainly contributed to the intensity in the conception of Tristan und Isolde.
Wagner sold the settings to the publisher Schott in 1860 for 1000 francs. The first published version (1862) was titled Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five poems for a female voice), and the first performance was given at the publisher's residence in Mainz, by the soprano Emilie Genast, accompanied by Hans von Bülow. No name was given for the author of the texts at the first publication; it was not publicly revealed until after Mathilde's death (1902). The present order of the songs appears for the first time in the published version, and this has raised doubts as to whether the sequence is a genuine song cycle, or should be regarded simply as a collection of individual pieces.
- "Der Engel" ("The Angel"), composed November 1857
- "Stehe still!" ("Be still!"), composed February 1858
- "Im Treibhaus – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde" ("In the Greenhouse"), composed May 1858
- "Schmerzen" ("Sorrows"), composed December 1857
- "Träume – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde" ("Dreams"), composed December 1857
Wagner himself called two of the songs "studies" for Tristan und Isolde, using for the first time certain musical ideas that are later developed in the opera. In "Träume" can be heard the roots of the love duet in Act 2, while "Im Treibhaus" (the last of the five to be composed) uses music later developed extensively for the prelude to Act 3.
Wagner initially wrote the songs for female voice and piano alone, but produced an orchestrated version of "Träume", to be performed by chamber orchestra (with violin playing the voice part) beneath Mathilde's window on the occasion of her birthday, 23 December 1857. Some male singers have sung some of the songs: Lauritz Melchior recorded "Schmerzen" and "Träume" for HMV in 1923, "Der Engel" has been recorded by tenors Franco Corelli (in French), Plácido Domingo, Jonas Kaufmann, Andrea Bocelli, and the bass Paata Burchuladze. A few have attempted the whole cycle in performance.
The orchestration of all five songs was completed for large orchestra by Felix Mottl, the Wagner conductor. In 1972 the Italian composer Vieri Tosatti entirely re-orchestrated the songs. In 1976 the German composer Hans Werner Henze produced a chamber version for the songs. Each of the players has a separate part, with some very unusual wind registration. French composer Christophe Looten wrote a transcription for voice and string quartet (Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, March 2015). In 2013 (the bicentennial of Wagner's birth) the French composer Alain Bonardi released a new version for voice, piano, clarinet and cello, including instrumental interludes with oriental resonant percussions. In the same year, the Chinese-British composer Jeffrey Ching premiered his Wesendonck Sonata, based on the music of the songs, for voice, cello or viola, and piano.