Searching the forgotten sonority of the shipstune in Richard Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' Act III.


By Daniël Vernooij


The Holztrompete or Tristan Trumpet is an instrument born from a peculiar footnote in the score of Tristan & Isolde by Richard Wagner. In act III, at a pivotal moment in the Opera, a cheerful melody announces the arrival of Isolde in Brittany. Though scored for English horn, Wagner suggests in the footnote that a special instrument should be made for this section of the opera. In the subsequent century and a half, a number of instruments have been made based on Wagner's specifications. This article is divided in three parts. First, it describes the sources we can draw on for the construction of the Holztrompete. Second, it aims to catalogue some attempts to build Tristan Trumpets. Many different versions have been designed and built, most opting for a valved instrument, in 4 ft C. Third, it looks more in depth at the design and construction process of a Tristan Trumpet by Gunther Cogen and myself, Daniël Vernooij, for the 2023 production of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen of Tristan & Isolde, where we motivate our choice for a 8 ft C natural trumpet.

Much scholarly attention has been paid to harmonic and tonal aspects of Wagners music, such as the 'Tristan chord' and the 'leitmotiv'. By contrast, work on Wagner’s orchestration, and Tristan & Isolde more specifically, is scarce. For example, Eric Chafe (2005), in his ostensibly comprehensive and otherwise very interesting work on Tristan & Isolde, does not mention the instruments involved in his musical examples, given as piano reductions. As EAM Reeve asserts, this is illustrative of a wider tendency in musicology to view orchestration as secondary, a derived and decorative exercise after real work of composing harmonic and tonal structures is completed. (Reeve, 2022, p.3) While this view might correspond to some composers and some works, it certainly does not hold up for Wagner. His remarks on orchestration in his own writing and correspondence far outweigh his comments on harmony or leitmotivs. Even the iconic Tristan chord, often understood as a key harmonic innovation in the history of western tonality, was first construed as sonority. In early sketches of the prelude to Tristan & Isolde, Wagner had already decided on which instruments should sound before he decided on the exact harmony (Reeve, 2022, p.3)

Perhaps because of the subservient status of orchestral matters in much of musicology, work on the Tristan Trumpet has played out largely outside of the academic theatre, in the domain of instrument makers and musicians. In this article I hope to document some of these efforts and discuss the questions musicians and makers have faced in this endeavour. The direct cause that prompted me to write this article is my involvement with the production of a Tristan Trumpet. After I gathered as much information as I could in order to build the instrument, I concluded that condensing all that I had learned in short publication might prove to be useful to those interested in the instrument.

ACT I  -  The sources

An instrument maker that sets out to build a Tristan trumpet has both direct and indirect sources to draw from. The first group contains very little; we have the score, a footnote to the score and a letter from Richard Wagner to Heinrich Esser. Based on these brief and somewhat contradictory fragments, no coherent instrument can be built. These sources should be supplemented by the indirect sources, which can be further divided into two groups. First we have Wagner’s remarks about other instruments from the same period he wrote Tristan; they give valuable insight into what he was familiar with and expected from musical instruments. Second, we have the larger context within the music-drama itself; what role does the instrument play in the story and what musical truth does it articulate? In this part all these sources relevant to the Holztrompete are discussed.

Act III of Tristan & Isolde is set in Kareol, in Brittany. Kurwenal, Tristan's servant, has brought Tristan here after he was severely wounded by Merlot in Cornwall. Only the arrival of Isolde, from across the channel, can save Tristan. Kurwenal explains this to an inquiring shepherd, who volunteers to keep watch. He plays a sorrowful melody, alte Weise, performed on English horn. Should the ship of Isolde arrive, the shepherd agreed to play a merry tune (frohe Weise) to signal her arrival. Curiously, the English horn is not in the orchestral pit, but is situated on stage, behind the scenes.

Tristan wakes up in agony, bemoaning his fate. He laments to have been cast into the false realm of daylight, and he curses his fate and ceaseless yearning for Isolde. When Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way, he momentarily revives, but as the alte Weise continues on the English horn Tristan realises her ship is not in sight. He relapses into delirium, accompanied by more mournful chromatic notes on the English horn.

Then, quite suddenly, the whole atmosphere of despair and anguish is lifted by a distant ‘frohe Weise’, announcing Isolde’s ship. When Isolde finally arrives; Tristan dies.

While the frohe Weise is scored for the on-stage English horn, Wagner explains he would prefer to have a special instrument made for the occasion:

Das Englischhorn soll hier die Wirkung eines sehr kräftigen Naturinstrumentes, wie das Alphorn, hervorbringen; es ist daher zu raten, je nach Befund des akustischen Verhältnisses, es durch Oboen und Klarinetten zu verstärken, falls man nicht, was das Zweckmäßigste wäre, ein besonderes Instrument (aus Holz), nach dem Modell der Schweizer Alphörner, hierfür anfertigen lassen wollte, welches seiner Einfachheit wegen (da es nur die Naturskala zu haben braucht) weder schwierig noch kostbar sein wird.

Wagner mentions the instrument again in a letter from the 15th of june, 1861 to Heinrich Esser. At the time, Esser was working on the preparations for the production in of Tristan & Isolde in Vienna:

Auch empfehle ich Ihnen dringend, mit einem gleichen Instrumentmacher wegen der Anfertigung des Instruments zu verkehren, welches ich für den letzten Akt verlange. Es soll den Ton eines mässigen Schweizer-Alpenhornes, etwas kräftig, selbst rauh – jedenfalls naturartig-naiv haben. Etwa mindestens 3 Fusslänge, von Holz, fast trompetenartig, gegen unten etwas krumm gebogen, so dass der Schalltrichter zur Seite offen steht.

In this letter Wagner seems more convinced than in the footnote that the English horn, whether or not doubled by clarinets and oboes, will not suffice (“…empfehle ich Ihnen dringend…”). Both fragments stress that the instrument should be made from wood and sound like a Swiss alphorn. Robert Pyle and Sabine Klaus (2008) have suggested that Wagner probably heard the alphorn while composing the last act of Tristan & Isolde in Lucerne in 1859. The alphorn was a common signal instrument in village communities in the Alps and Carpathian mountains.1 It remains a striking feature of the soundscape of the Alps to this day, and might have been even more so in the nineteenth century. Immersed in vast mountain landscape the distant call of an Alphorn can sound precisely as Wagner describes; “etwas kräftig, selbst rauh – jedenfalls naturartig-naiv” 

Andreas Schöni (2004) has suggested that the short size mentioned by Wagner might refer to Hirtenhorn. He might have heard in inner Swiss and mistakenly took it to be a alphorn. The size specified in the letter, at least 3 foot, seems to correspond with this short type of instrument more than with the alphorn. As there are no lateral holes in either Alphorns nor Hirtenhörner, only the natural harmonics can be played. Wagner explicitly asks this in his brief description of the Holztrompete: ‘da es nur die Naturskala zu haben braucht’. When we consider the notes Wagner requires the instrument to play, a conundrum arises that has animated instrument makers to this day. 

Let’s organise the specifications for the instrument, based on the score and text fragments:

  1. It should play six pitches: G4, C5, D5, E5, F5 and G5
  2. It should only play the natural harmonics
  3. It should be made from wood
  4. It should sound like a Swiss alphorn, or in any case natural and naive

The instrument maker faced with these specifications will first have to decide on the length of the instrument. Two obvious choices present themselves; an 8 ft C natural trumpet or a 4 ft C valved or keyed trumpet. An 8 ft C instrument could play the required set of notes using the 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th harmonic. However, considerable skill on the musicians’ part is required to properly intonate the 11th harmonic. Natural trumpet players adjust their embouchure in order to raise and lower the pitch they produce. Musicians specialising in natural trumpets, such as Jean Francois Madeuf, are perfectly capable to play baroque repertoire on natural trumpets, but it requires years of practice.2

For an 8 ft C natural trumpet the 11th harmonic, situated halfway to the cent3 between F5 and F#5 can be ‘lipped down’ for F5 or ‘lipped up’ for F#5. The musician has to move the sound a quarter tone away from the tonal centre, and this significantly changes the colour of the sound. This change of colour has been understood, from teleological and progressivist organological histories, as a mistake to be corrected.4 On the other hand, this change in colour, and other acoustical quirks of natural trumpets have been understood as qualities.5

Another option entirely is to build a 4 ft C instrument, with a valve lowering the pitch on the instrument a whole tone. In this constellation G4, C5, E5, G5 correspond with the 3rd, 4rd, 5th and 6th harmonic. A valve gives access to D5 and F5 with valve depressed as 5th and 6th harmonic. This set-up results in an instrument that is easier to handle; much smaller and lighter. Moreover, D5 and especially F5 will be much better in tune; there will no need on the musician’s part to lip down these notes. Any trumpet player, not just those specialised in natural trumpets, would be able to play this instrument. As Wagner’s remark about the natural scale was made in the context of portraying the instrument as neither costly nor difficult, perhaps it was not a quintessential aspect of the instrument, but rather a way of selling the idea to have the instrument made. In order to asses that question, let’s investigate Wagners relation to natural trumpets, and the brass instrument technology of his day.


  1. Though not exclusively, it occasionally turns up in other musical contexts. For example, Leopold Mozart wrote a wonderful concerto for Alphorn and string orchestra in G in 1757
  2. McGrattan A. (2012) Chapter 2
  3. Against equal temperament one would travel down 51 cents to F4, 49 cents up to F#4 
  4. See Laurence Libin (2000) for an excellent discussion of teleology in organology
  5. See for example Edward H. Tarr (1997)


Natural trumpets have sounded for millennia. Even their name suggests a primeval existence, before culture, before ‘cultural trumpets’. Wagner had been exposed to natural trumpets in many guises, not in the least the Alphorn (or Hirtenhorn) he mentions himself as direct inspiration for the Holztrompete. He is well aware of the advantages valve trumpets have over natural trumpet, as demonstrated by his rewriting of the opening of the fourth movement of Beethovens Ninth in an article bemoaning the limitations of natural trumpets.6

In the preface of Tristan & Isolde we find a more ambivalent stance towards progressive development of brass instruments, while discussing horns.

Die Behandlung des Hornes glaubt der Tonsetzer einer vorzüglichen Beachtung empfehlen zu müssen. Durch die Einführung der Ventile ist für dieses Instrument unstreitig so viel gewonnen, daß es schwer fällt, diese Vervollständigung unbeachtet zu lassen, obgleich dadurch das Horn unleugbar an der Schönheit seines Tones, wie namentlich auch an der Fähigkeit, die Töne weich zu binden, verloren hat.7

As Reeve (2022) has noted, even though he dismisses natural trumpets in Beethovens Ninth, in Meistersinger the third trumpet is effectively a natural trumpet (p. 292). How do we reconcile Wagner dismissal with his use of natural trumpets? Wagner’s music, and especially Tristan, is often cited as moving Western tonality further into chromaticism, but precisely in this chromaticism the diatonic gains new significance, as it forms a sharp contrast with its chromatic context. In the words of EAM Reeve (2022):

‘…the composer’s increased chromatic palette lends new significance to diatonicism, as embodied by natural brass instruments. In other words, Wagner as Modernist can choose to adopt and manipulate languages of the musical past.’8 (p. 291)

The significance of the natural trumpet in Meistersinger, and more importantly for this article the use of the Holztrompete in the last act of Tristan, lies in their contrast with modern instruments. The opposing poles of diatonic and chromatic are reinforced not only by the tonal possibilities, but also by the colours brought to the music by the opposing poles of natural brass and valved brass instruments. A musical language of the past is imagined, and rendered through the Holztrompete. A past that is simple, natural and diatonic in sharp contrast with a chromatic and miserable present.

The wooden trumpet creates a musical caesura in the act. It separates the first half, characterised by Isolde’s absence, from the second, defined by her return. After the intensity of Tristan’s vocal yearning and orchestral brooding in the first scene, it is only the interjection of music from beyond the pit that can break the spell. As with the herald trumpets in Lohengrin, the use of fanfares as dramatic turning points makes off-stage brass instruments agents of fate in Wagner’s musical world: their independent, external position grants them a special ability to change the direction of the action. (Reeve, 2022, p. 311)


   6 Wagner, R “Zum Vortrag der neunten Symphonie Beethoven’s”, Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, 10 vols. (Leipzig: E. W. Fritzsch, 1871– 1883), IX, pp 288–28

   7 This preface can be found in the RWG critical edition.

   8 Reeve (2022) pp 291-292. See also Carl Dahlhaus (2008) p. 247


This invention or construction of history makes sense in the larger context of the Opera itself, a reworking of a medieval myth in the form of an attempted recreation of Greek tragedy. In the text upon which Wagner bases his libretto we find Tristan & Isolde as a story of passionate love in opposition to the duty, loyalty and obligation. While often understood as a story about individual desire versus social obligations, Denis de Rougement frames the love of Tristan & Isolde as an older pagan idea of love, directly connected to bodily life force in opposition to Plato’s ideas that congealed in the Christian institution of marriage.9 When Isolde’s ship is announced by the shepherd, for a brief moment, there appears to be hope for the love of Tristan & Isolde against the constraints of Christian morality. A raw natural naivety, from an imagined past.

This vitalist reading superficially corresponds with the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom Tristan & Isolde was a work that he encountered at the age of 16 and kept returning to his entire life. However, a closer look reveals the imagined past as a naive Apollonian, rather a than Dionysian force. In Birth of the Tragedy (Nietzsche, 1872), in some respects a long eulogy for Tristan, he would characterise the ‘idyllic tendency in opera’ (p. 117), the optimistic notion of the fundamental goodness of humanity rooted in some primeval paradisiacal state as part of Socratism itself, and his response was unambiguous: ‘Away with the phantom!’ (p. 118) The idealised past, the imagined natural purity before the fall, is a life denying force for Nietzsche. He despised this tendency wherever he encountered it, be it in Christianity or emerging nationalism. The idealised past and its Socratic optimism invoked by the frohe Weise is short-lived and quickly overcome by the tragic events that follow the reunification of Tristan & Isolde, rendering musically what Nietzsche critiqued in his writing, the eventual failure of an imagined past to affirm life.