Scored for piano, tape and full orchestra, its form is innovative for an instrumental concert: solo pieces for piano ("preludes") alternate with orchestral passages, which are played partly without, partly with the participation of the piano. The tape has its own system in the score, which indicates the actual sound by means of graphic lines. The twelve-tone-set c#-d-a-d#-e-h-f-a#-f#-g#-c-g can be traced back to the three-tone constellation of major-third and minor-second, which also determine the first three notes of Richard Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" (a-f-e). With respect to the intellectual history, Henze addresses the 19th century, to which he was attracted and at the same time repelled. Blurred quotes from the music of Wagner, Chopin and Brahms are the triumvirate of musical romanticism, which can be described in terms of progress, virtuosity and historicism. Before the work was completed, Ingeborg Bachmann and Wystan Hugh Auden died. On September 11, 1973 Pinochet chased away the dream of a socialist democracy in Chile. Henze was personally affected and sought psychotherapeutic help. A shadow of this crisis can be heard towards the end of the work, when it comes to a Klimax, for which Henze coined the phrase "death cry ... of the whole suffering world".
Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, it was premiered on 20 October 1974 under Colin Davis at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The piano soloist was Homero Francesch, who later recorded it with the composer conducting.
The six movements are:
- Prelude and Variations
- Tristan's Folly
- Peter Petersen: "'...eine Form und ein Name: Tristan." Strukturelle und semantische Untersuchungen an H. W. Henzes Preludes für Klavier, Tonbänder und Orchester." In: Verbalisierung und Sinngehalt. Über semantische Tendenzen im Denken in und über Musik heute (= Studien zur Wertungsforschung Bd. 21). U.E., Wien/Graz 1989, S.148-176.
- Marion Fürst: "Hans Werner Henzes 'Tristan'. Eine Werkmonographie." Männeles, Neckargemünd 2000.
- Hans Werner Henze: "Tristan (1975)". In: Hans Werner Henze, Musik und Politik. Schriften und Gespräche 1955-1984. Erweiterte Neuausgabe, mit einem Vorwort von Jens Brockmeier, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, München 1984, p.227–243, here: p. 232.