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By the end of 1854, Wagner had sketched out all three acts of an opera on the Tristan theme, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's telling of the story.While the earliest extant sketches date from December 1856, it was not until August 1857 that Wagner began devoting his attention entirely to the opera, putting aside the composition of Siegfried to do so.By October 1857, Wagner had begun the composition sketch of the first act.During November, however, he set five of Mathilde's poems to music known today as the Wesendonck Lieder.He had, in fact, made a point of giving prominence to the lighter phases of the romance, whereas it was its all-pervading tragedy that impressed me so deeply that I felt convinced it should stand out in bold relief, regardless of minor details.
One evening in September of that year, Wagner read the finished poem of "Tristan" to an audience including his wife, Minna, his current muse, Mathilde, and his future mistress (and later wife), Cosima von Bülow.
In April 1858 Wagner's wife Minna intercepted a note from Wagner to Mathilde and, despite Wagner's protests that she was putting a "vulgar interpretation" on the note, she accused first Wagner and then Mathilde of unfaithfulness.
After enduring much misery, Wagner persuaded Minna, who had a heart condition, to rest at a spa while Otto Wesendonck took Mathilde to Italy.
Wagner would later describe his last days in Zurich as "a veritable Hell".
Minna wrote to Mathilde before departing for Dresden: I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage.