The cycle is a setting of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner's patrons. Wagner had become acquainted with Otto Wesendonck in Zurich, where he had fled on his escape from Saxony after the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849. For a time Wagner and his wife Minna lived together in the Asyl (German for Asylum in the sense of "sanctuary"), a small cottage on the Wesendonck estate.
It is sometimes claimed that Wagner and Mathilde had a love affair; in any case, the situation and mutual infatuation certainly contributed to the intensity of the conceiving of Tristan und Isolde; there is certainly an influence on Mathilde's poems as well.
The poems themselves are in a wistful, pathos-laden style influenced by Wilhelm Müller, the author of the poems used by Schubert earlier in the century. But the language is more rarefied and intense as the Romantic style had developed. Wagner himself called two of the songs in the cycle "studies" for Tristan und Isolde, using for the first-time musical ideas that are later developed in the opera. In "Träume" can be heard the roots of the love duet in act 2, while "Im Treibhaus" (the last of the five to be composed) uses music later developed extensively for the prelude to act 3. The chromatic-harmonic style of Tristan pervades all five songs and pulls the cycle together.
Wagner initially wrote the songs for female voice and piano alone, but produced a fully orchestrated version of "Träume", to be performed by chamber orchestra under Mathilde's window on the occasion of her birthday, 23 December 1857. The cycle as a whole was first performed in public near Mainz on 30 July 1862 under the title Five Songs for a Female Voice. Some males have sung some of the songs: Lauritz Melchior recorded "Schmerzen" and "Träume" for HMV in 1923, "Der Engel" has been recorded by tenors Franco Corelli (in French), Plácido Domingo, Jonas Kaufmann (all), Andrea Bocelli, and the bass Paata Burchuladze. A few have attempted the whole cycle in performance.
The orchestration of the whole cycle was completed for large orchestra by Felix Mottl, the Wagner conductor. In 1972, the Italian composer Vieri Tosatti entirely re-orchestrated the cycle. In 1976, the German composer Hans Werner Henze produced a chamber version for the whole cycle. Each of the players has a separate part, with some very unusual wind registration. In 2013, the French composer Alain Bonardi released a new version for voice, piano, clarinet and cello, including instrumental interludes with oriental resonant percussions.