A metaphysical love on the coast of Cornwall

John Duncan has painted in 1912 the fateful moment of Tristan and Isolde drinking a love potion. (Courtesy City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries)
John Duncan has painted in 1912 the fateful moment of Tristan and Isolde drinking a love potion. (© City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries)

Love and death. Man enslaved by his passions. Man doomed because of his passions. Romance followed by tragedy. Tragedy on a supreme level. Audience devastated, in tears. Richard Wagner. I like Wagner. Ugh! Well, yes. If I have started this blog half a year ago, it is to a large degree Wagner’s fault. Let me explain: As a student I was fascinated by the nihilistic German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Two years ago, I read somewhere that Wagner was once Nietzsche’s idol, and so I bought a biography on Wagner. The book was full of interesting references to other composers and I bought more biographies. That was the moment I disappeared behind a pile of books about classical music. The start of a passion…

A full-blooded musical drama

The story of Tristan and Isolde is a little intricate (like most love stories) and I will not reproduce it here. Since I can’t summarize it like I did with Tchaikovsky’s “Evgenij Onegin”  – there are too many characters that I would have to introduce – I will point you to some online resources: the libretto in English, the libretto in German and an the synopsis. I shall deal with the music only.

In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt, his future father-in-law, Wagner wrote: “As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams, in which, from beginning to end, that love shall be thoroughly satiated. I have in my head ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ the simplest, but most full-blooded musical conception. With the black flag which floats at the end of it I shall cover myself to die.”

Wagner elevated a love story between two human beings to a cosmic level, a bond of two souls on a metaphysical level, through a music of incredible dramatic expression. I am always quite shaken after listening to it. The real world background of the opera “Tristan und Isolde” is Wagner’s close relationship – or was it a romance? – with Mathilde Wesendonk, the wife of his patron Otto Wesendonk. The spiritual background is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenauer: Salvation through death. So take your precautions when you embark with Tristan and Isolde on that ship sailing to Cornwall.

Exile in Switzerland

“Tristan und Isolde” saw the light between 1854 and 1859. Wagner wrote it after having fled from Germany to Switzerland. In 1848, Wagner was working as a conductor in Dresden. He had supported the insurrection of the German bourgeoisie and advocated republican ideas. Bad idea! As the government tried to retake control of the situation, the King of Saxony issued an arrest warrant for Wagner. On his escape, Wagner was sheltered for some time by Liszt in Weimar before he traveled on a forged passport to Paris and then to Zurich.

In Switzerland, Wagner developed two of his central ideas about music and the music business:  First, art would only be able to reflect the spirit of emancipated humanity, once it has been freed from the mercantile rule of demand and supply. Art should not be a commodity. Second, elements of dance, music and poetry, harmonized so perfectly in Greek drama, must be reunited to express their full potential. The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk was born, the all-inclusive piece of art.

Sing, dance and play

So, how does this translate into reality in Wagner’s opera? In “Tristan und Isolde” Wagner married acting, dialogue and music in a new way. They form a perfect match: The dialogues move the drama forward, the acting enhances or illustrates the dialogues and the music appeals to the subconscious, provoking emotional reactions in line with the dialogues and the acting. And since Wagner insists on all dialogues being sung, vocal and instrumental music are linked in a symbiotic way. They cannot exist separated from each other. This marks a departure from the opera form that Monteverdi had cast centuries before.

To achieve the desired psychological reaction, Wagner had to come up with new sounds that traditional rules of tonality and harmony would not allow. One example is the famous dissonant “Tristan Chord“* in the prelude. As Tom Service puts it in an article for “The Guardian”: Instead of resolving the musical tensions of this chord, as any previous composer would have done, he keeps the music in a heightened state of limbo by continually avoiding answering the harmonic questions it asks, and he sustains that sense of febrile ambiguity throughout all three acts of the drama right until the very end of the piece.”

Long-term goal: Bayreuth

I am fully aware that the recording I have – or any recording – can only confer 50 percent of this opera’s beauty. It unfolds its full power only when performed on stage, and one of my dreams is to see it performed in Bayreuth, where the Festspiele take place every year. Nevertheless I can recommend the recording by the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. This said, I owe Wagner a lot. The biography I mentioned was also full of notes… and I had never learned to read notes. That’s why I started to learn playing the piano – to understand what the biographer was talking about. Now I know.

Here is a link to the excellent article on Wagner and this opera, published in December 2012 by “The Guardian” and a link to an interesting post on Wagner’s idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. I am real and more than the ∑ (my posts).

2 thoughts on “A metaphysical love on the coast of Cornwall”

  1. Thank you for that extensive comment! I truly appreciate any feedback that may also be of interest to other readers. I even welcome dissenting opinions… De gustibus non est disputandum.

  2. An Italian translation of Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ my mother abandoned on the coffee table when I was fifteen changed my life. I couldn’t put it down. A God who danced. I was transfixed. A book that made me want to shout “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I was shocked, many years later, when I heard that the Nazis had been influenced by Nietzsche, since that couldn’t have been further from my own interpretation of Nietzsche’s ideas.

    Have you read ‘The Case of Wagner”?

    The legend of Tristan and Isolt is very close to my heart. I first discovered it in a Mediaeval-style 20th-century version by Joseph Bédier, which my mother brought me from the library while I was in bed with the mumps. I fell in love with it, began researching the background legends obsessively, and read everything I could find on the subject. When I read French at Durham University, I specialised in Mediaeval and Renaissance literature, and the course included all the French versions of the Tristan legend. I went to visit Tintagel because of that.

    I was shocked by one episode in the story: when Brangien tells the men Isolt sent to kill her in the woods that the only offence she could have caused her mistress is lending her her nightgown on her wedding night. The Queen of Ireland had only one nightgown?! I was brought up on Russian and Middle-Eastern fairy tales. There, a queen would have been followed by a caravan of nightgowns, embroidered in gold, silver, with precious gemstones…

    I have a recording of Wagner’s opera with Birgit Nilsson, conducted by Von Karajan.

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