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Le vin herbé

Frank Martin (1890-1974)

(replacing Zemlinsky's DER TRAUMGÖRGE)

Secular Oratorio (1938/1941) for voices, 7 strings & piano 
Libretto based on 3 chapters of Joseph Bédier's Tristan et Iseut

Sung in French with German & English surtitles
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An introduction (in German) on YouTube will appear here before the production opens

A prologue heralds the tale of Tristan und Iseut (Isolde). How they loved each other passionately, in great sadness. And died of it. Part 1: The Love Potion Iseut, called the fair, is to be taken to Cornwall by ship to marry King Mark, against her will. Her mother prepared a love potion, which she entrusted to Iseut's companion Branghien's safekeeping, to be given to Iseut and the King on their wedding night. Tristan, sent by his uncle Mark to bring Iseut to a foreign land, is also on board. Iseut hates Tristan because he killed her uncle. While the ship puts in to port and everyone has gone ashore, Tristan and Iseut remain on board. He tries to console the future Queen. A young serving girl unwittingly gives them the love potion. Tristan felt as if a bramble was growing in his heart, whose branches were tying him to Iseut. Tristan and Iseut try in vain to fight their quickening desires. Iseut, in despair, tells Branghien what happened. She is told that: the drink promises love and death. The ship is nearing King Mark's land. Part 2: The Forest of Morrois Iseut is now King Mark's wife. But he soon finds out about her love for Tristan. The lovers flee into the forest of Morrois. When the King, pursuing them, takes the lovers unawares he sees that Tristan's sword lies between them. Moved by the purity of their love, he forgives them. When Tristan and Iseut awake they realise that the King has spared them. Full of remorse, Tristan prays for the strength to be able give his beloved back to his uncle. Iseut accuses herself of infidelity. They part. Part 3: Death Three years later Tristan married Iseut, the whitehanded. Hoping this might help him forget Iseut, the fair. His wife is Duke Hoël's daughter, and his friend Kaherdin's sister. Tristan is wounded in battle by a poisoned lance. He begs Kaherdin to bring Iseut the fair to him. His wife, Iseut the whitehanded, secretly listens to their conversation and finds out that when Kaherdin returns he is to set a white sail if the beloved woman is with him, a black one if not. Iseut, filled with undiminished love, grants Tristan's wish. After a long, hazardous voyage, the ship approaches under a white sail. But the whitehanded woman tells her mortally ill husband that it is black. Tristan dies. Iseut finds out about her beloved's death when she comes on land. She embraces Tristan and dies. King Mark has them buried them next to each other. A flowering bramble grows out of Tristan's grave and into Iseut's. An epilogue closes the story, promising solace for all of love's travails.

The Swiss composer Frank Martin's decision to set the Tristan saga to music again 60 years after Richard Wagner, in a completely new way, was single-minded and daring. Another Tristan emerged, a sort of secular oratorio, and an intentional antithesis to Wagner's opera. Unlike the overpowering, dramatic prototype, Frank Martin composed for solo voices, a vocal ensemble, six string players and piano. He also went on a different journey to Wagner by using the professor for French medieval literature Joseph Bédier's Le roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900) instead of Gottfried von Straßburg's Tristan. This enabled Martin to use an objective style of telling the story, with the action described and commented on by a vocal ensemble and the lead roles, such as Tristan, Iseut and King Mark, being taken by soloists. The story is told in 18 scenes, a prologue and epilogue, from their voyage to Cornwall, where Isolde is to marry King Mark against her will, until they are joined in death. He avoided using any large scale dramatic effects, focussing instead on the apparent ambivalence of the main characters, with complex chamber music. The narrative text called for narrative music. The score includes archaic moments á la Gesualdo and declamatory texts, bridging the gap with ancient Greek theatre. »Music is not the language of emotions, but emotion as a language«, wrote Frank Martin in a letter to a friend. This is made clear in his Secular Oratorio Le vin herbé, a very unusual, modern masterpiece.

With generous support from the