Written by Switzerland’s greatest composer, Frank Martin (1890–1974), in the late 1930s, Le Vin Herbé was initially conceived as a 30-minute piece in response to Robert Blum’s commission for his Züricher Madrigalchor. Wanting to distance himself from Wagner and his operatic version of the myth (and, thus, also from the Nazis, who glorified Wagner’s music), Martin based the story instead on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 philological novel, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Bédier’s work was intended for general, not scholarly, audiences, and it drew on diverse medieval sources. In a short note following Gaston Paris’s preface to the romance, Bédier himself described his text as “très composite” (quoted in Gallagher 426). Readable and succinct, Bédier’s version provided the perfect blueprint for Martin’s opera, offering an alternative storyline to Wagner’s. In her book, Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance, Karoline Gritzner notes that, “in the medieval novel, whose traces both Bédier and Martin follow, it is the love potion alone that awakens the love between Tristan and Isolde. This love does not already exist beforehand” (89). In this, Martin further departed from Wagner. “In Wagner, it is only the supposed death potion which makes possible the complete confession of love” (Gritzner 90).

This first, early version of the Le Vin Herbé (often called Part I) was titled Le Philtre, and it was first performed in concert version on April 16, 1940, by the Züricher Madrigalchor in Zürich, with Robert Blum conducting. The libretto focused on the love between Tristan and Iseult, steering away from the theme of death. Following the premiere of the first version, Martin decided to expand it further, and he included two more chapters of Bédier’s book (“La forêt du Morois” and “La mort”), which made the work fuller and more complex, while focusing on both the theme of love and the theme of death (Sealey). Martin finished the piece in 1941, and the first complete concert performance took place on March 28, 1942, at the same theatre, with Blum again conducting.

The staged premiere had to wait until August 15, 1948, in Salzburg (under the German title, Der Zaubertrank), conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, and with Julius Patzak as Tristan and Maria Cebotari as Isolt. Often called a “secular oratorio,” Le Vin Herbé has a musical score that resembles a chamber work, and the dramatic structure of a great Romantic opera. In writing the opera, Martin was also influenced, in addition to Bédier, by Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera by Claude Debussy, which was in turn based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play of the same title. Debussy’s opera premiered in Paris in 1902, and the music and story of a tragic love triangle made a great impression on Martin.

Since the premiere of Martin’s opera, its score has gained cult status. Ted Libbey, in The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, tries to explain the appeal of Le Vin Herbé, as a transitional piece in Martin’s entire oeuvre:

The music of Martin’s maturity, from Le Vin Herbé onward, is marked by elegance of gesture, an extraordinary formal command, remarkable grace, energy, and lyricism. Its emotion is restrained yet intense, at times even haunting, its scoring economical yet sensuous, reflecting Martin’s keen ear for sonority. Few composers of the 20th century succeeded so well at writing music that was suave, expressive, and modern, and at the same time, utterly original. (465)

Although the opera is rarely performed, it has had a couple of memorable stagings. Twenty years after its premiere, in April 1961, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé received its first New York performance by Hugh Ross and the Schola Cantorum. In 1982, Le Vin Herbé received three performances by the Park Lane Music Players, conducted by Simon Joly, and in 1993, another performance by the Netherlands Radio Choir and Chamber Orchestra under Bernhard Klee. In 1985, the opera was staged by New York Lyric Opera Company. The New York Times critic at that time, Bernard Holland, wrote, enchanted:

That Le Vin Herbé was absolutely gripping in this setting—filled with dignity, mystery and a simplicity born of true sophistication—goes without question, though I am still not sure exactly where the impressive beauties of this evening had their roots.

In 2010, Ardente Opera staged Martin’s masterpiece in Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury church. Martin Kettle of the Guardian wrote of Martin’s score:

The fact that Martin should write a medievalist Tristan for an orchestra of just eight players and a chorus of 12, plus tenor and soprano principals, is a powerfully defiant statement of his individuality. In operatic historical terms, it’s a bit like standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

In 2013, the opera was staged at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater in Berlin. Opera News reviewed the production, commenting on Martin’s score:

The score, a key work for the composer’s mature style, shows the influence of serialism, but Martin never abandons the tonal. Martin’s self-avowed wish was to become a master of tonal chromaticism, and in Le Vin Herbé, he succeeded in concocting a harmonically dense potion that, for all its dissonances, also goes down easy. The music unfurls with a hypnotic, often chant-like urgency. This arresting score was exquisitely served by director Mitchell and the fine ensemble of singers and musicians assembled by the Staatsoper.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (11/17/14) 

Read more:

Gallagher, Edward J. “‘This too you ought to read’: Bédier’s  Roman de Tristan et Iseut,” in  Tristan and Isolde: A Casebook, ed. Joan Grimbert Tasker. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013),  425–50.

Goldmann, A. J. “Le Vin Herbé.” Opera News, June 1, 2013.

Gritzner,  Karoline. Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance. Hatfield, Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010.

Holland, Bernard. “Oratorio: ‘Le Vin Herbe.’” The New York Times, April 21, 1985. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/21/arts/oratorio-le-vin-herbe.html

Kettle, Martin. “Le Vin Herbé.” Guardian, January 11, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jan/11/le-vin-herbe-review

Libbey, Theodore. “Frank Martin,” in The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music. Valley View, CA: Expanded Books, 2006.

Sealey, Mark. Le vin herbé [Review]. Classical Net, 2009. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/h/hmu93536a.php