Cinematic love stories that should have Isolde’s “Liebestod” aria as the backing track
Richard Wagner’s music, particularly Tristan und Isolde, has influences far reaching throughout music and pop culture. Particularly, the famous “Liebestod” (“love-death”) aria that erupts from Isolde as Tristan (spoiler alert) dies in her arms is haunting, romantic, and heartbreaking.
Tristan und Isolde is considered to be one of the original tragic love stories, with roots in Celtic lore, although many also see the composer taking inspiration from his own life and love triangle.
Many other tragic love stories have followed since, always waiting for us when we need a good cry. And, while many of these already have their own phenomenal soundtracks by incredible composers, Isolde’s Liebestod would fit just as well.
Romeo + Juliet
Everyone’s favorite “star-crossed lovers” face a tragic end when a message is miscommunicated as the two newlyweds are hoping to skip town to start a new life. Prokofiev’s version of Romeo & Juliet (which we performed in May 2023 under the direction of guest conductor Joseph Young) is of course, stunning. Still, if Juliet had started singing the Liebestod, instead, as she discovers Romeo, we would be all for it.
Whether or not you agree that Rose could’ve made room for Jack on the door and whether or not Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” became a long-lasting regular on your mix CDs like it did on mine, Titanic is a tragic love story for the ages. The “Unsinkable” ship holds so much devastation but also mystery and this movie awoke an odd fascination. Wagner would’ve fit right in.
A Walk to Remember
I may be dating myself by including this movie in the mix. Starring Mandy Moore and Shane West, this film is based on a book with the same name by Nicholas Sparks, well-known for his romance novels (see The Notebook further down on this list). Two teenagers from different social circles fall in love with each other, but one (Mandy Moore) is battling leukemia. She dies shortly after they marry and the movie ends with Shane West’s character, 40 years later, still wearing his wedding ring and that he believes miracles can happen. Tears all around. And if he had sung the Liebestod, forget about it.
This award-winning (including the Academy Award for Original Score, which was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla) 2005 movie stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two cowboys who fall for each other, but societal rules dictate otherwise. The movie includes the famous line, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” which pulls at the heartstrings in the deepest ways. The story ends in tragedy, with the two never able to be together. The scene when Ennis gets the returned postcard is quite Wagnerian.
The Notebook, another Nicholas Sparks tear-jerker, follows the story of Noah (played by Ryan Gosling) and Allie (played by Rachel McAdams after she learned how not to be a mean girl), teenage sweethearts who are torn apart by family expectations. We find that the story is being told from the perspective of an older Noah, who is telling their love story to a memory-losing Allie at a care facility. The final scene would’ve been a perfect Liebestod moment.
Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Despite anyone’s opinions on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, no one can deny the story of Anakin and Padme was cursed from start to finish, similar to Tristan and Isolde’s literally cursed-with-potion story. For three movies, we’re built up on this forbidden love, and when we find out that they’re actually the parents of Leia and Luke, we know it’s over. And when it’s truly over, when Anakin (now Darth Vader) finds out she has died, would’ve been a prime moment for the Liebestod to come in.
Bonus: one that actually did: Promising Young Woman
In this 2020 movie—produced by Margot Robbie, who later convinced Ryan Gosling he is “Kenough”— Carey Mulligan plays a 30-year-old college drop out, Cassie, who is destructively mourning the loss of her friend (to put it lightly). She wreaks havoc, exacting her revenge on all those who caused or denied her friend’s suffering. This climaxes into a scene in the middle of a traffic-heavy intersection, backed by the “Liebestod.” Cassie, too, dies tragically.
As we all know, the soundtrack to a movie is not just an accent to a scene—it can often make or break it. It builds and breaks tension, pulls at heartstrings, and tells us when we can cheer or boo. The “Liebestod” aria is so appropriately sung by Isolde, who has done nothing but suffer in so many ways for her love that would never be fully realized.
See the final act of Tristan und Isolde play out on November 16 at the Hult Center and experience the “love-death,” sung by the phenomenal Nina Warren.
What tragic love stories did we miss? Send us your favorites