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Tristan Und Isolde
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:17 pm - Tristan Und Isolde

I saw the Met’s controversial production of Tristan und Isolde on Monday night, October 6th, the famous Jane Eaglen as Isolde, James Levine conducting. Jane Eaglen was regal and formidable as the mercurially passionate and proud Isolde. Catarina Dalayman was persuasive and compelling as Brangane, Isolde’s Racine-like confidante, the one who switched the potions.
Richard Paul Fink was sturdy and rough hewn as Kurwenal, Brian Davis zealous and virile as Melot, Tristan’s fatal antagonist. It seemed everyone in the audience this evening was particularly stunned by the King Marke of Rene Pape. Though a young man, he has the monarchial power and tragic mein of Jerome Hines in his heyday. Of course Marke is a great part.
This rather minimalist set and the austerity of the oddly geometric decor seemingly out of a Max Beckmann or Miro painting certainly is at a large remove from what Richard Wagner had in mind for Tristan und Isolde in the 1860s. It unquestionably goes right against the grain of Wagner’s own arguments for realism in his critical books. Yet this style has a certain tradition in the work of Wagner’s grandson Weiland’s once very revolutionary sets for The Ring done in the early part of the last century.
I saw very similar sets in the Met’s versions of The Ring in the 50s and 60s; the less-is-more style has a powerful argument for its effectiveness in theatre. The stage engages the imagination of its audience as a partner one way or another in contributing to the illusion that one is present at a reality by its very limitations of elevated stage, lights, curtains, singing actors and so on.
Theatre is magic. The more it tries to emulate life it merely calls upon one more form of show business deception to aid it in bringing the audience into what is in some deep way a ritual much as one appearances in the reading of some sacred lore in a temple.
Perhaps lighting designer Max Keller and the stage director Stephen Pickover overdid it when they played most of the Act Two love duet in extreme shadow on a empty stage or had almost nothing on the boards in Act Three but a few tchachkes along with a real modern sleeping bag with a very neo-medieval zipper. You’d think these expensive people could afford better interior decorating. The costumes by Jurgen Rose were much more authentically real and ancient looking though most of the minor characters and sailors were dressed in black.
Wagner’s operas in their earnestness in weird and even magical situations always verge on farce. This audience tittered at the turning of lights from white to vaginal pink after Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion. It’s one of the problems with staging Wagner that sometimes in the midst of his most sacred moments one can't help laughing.
One thinks of the guffaws that always pass through the Met when they do a Ring and its chorus says to Hagen: “Hagen was zuchts du?” directly after he dispatches Siegfried. One simply doesn't expect anyone to be talking Yiddish after Siegfried plotzes. Yet nobody would giggle there or in Tristan if Wagner’s action in all his operas weren’t always a little ridiculous.
How seriously can we take a story which revolves around a farcical subject like the film Reefer Madness? O’Neill put it in passing in both The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night: “It’s not me; it’s just the whiskey talking.” Sometimes of course particularly in New York we are making love to a covert pharmacy.
It’s plain from Wagner’s very concentrated action that Tristan would have left the disconsolate and furious Isolde alone if he hadn’t quaffed that fatal glass of Love Potion Number Nine. In fact, if anything, he had wanted to expire from the beverage like Socrates, not shtup a bissel.
One as well missed a gigantic Isolde falling upon the dead body of Tristan as Wagner specifies at the end; the 400 pound six foot tall Jane Eaglen might have crushed his Tristan had she plopped on him. In this version Isolde is still standing as the curtain plummets. Isolde doesn’t die. Perhaps this supposed Irish maid had a subsequently rendezvous not with the perished Tristan but with Atkins. One reads that Eaglen is now much thinner after a long crash diet. If so her previous size must have been even more awesome. I am not being cruel; I’m merely saying that her size diminishes her effectiveness in her role.
Odd, abstract and bizarre sets filled with empty space are very effective mirrors of the bankruptcy of the lovers. If they were devices that Wagner certainly never thought of or imagined, they worked in the service of his intent in this opera. Tristan is as many of Wagner’s operas are a pre-Freudian exploration of dream symbolism, psychogenic erotic adhesions to parents as well as lovers, allusions to mysterious polarities of illusion and reality.
In Tristan it zeroes in on day and night, love and death, wounds and balms, magic, and morals, chivalric codes versus passion, etc. Wagner must have done a lot of entitle sober thinking about these images. They come mostly from the ancient world, not medieval sources; they also have references backward to his own operas. The wound images not only refer forward to his own Parsifal, as well backward to Venus and her knight in Tannhauser.
We don’t see Tannhauser himself wounded, Venus healing him in the famous Venusberg music nor the knight’s ambivalence about with this remarkable Hellenic goddess, but the image of Venus attending piteously and without healing effect to the dying Adonis wounded by a boar, is familiar to us from Shakespeare’s great narrative poem if we don’t know the Hellenic legend itself.
The juxtaposition of night and day which fascinated Wagner has equally hoary precedents that he must have pondered over in his quest for understanding of his own poisonous fevers. Eros is blind, only rules people at night, Samson is tamed by Delilah, both names meaning respectively a sun-god and a creature of night. Lillith is a night demon. Wagner had been impressed as a conductor and influenced as a composer by Marschner’s scary Der Vampyr, an opera about a male night creature.
These images tend to have a weird sexual ambiguity. Tristan is wounded twice and dies from his wounds; Marke is as well irreparably wounded like Amfortas in Parsifal, the woman is stronger than the man, witch and Creatrix who can nurse the individual spirit back to life. We think of wounds as vaginal images; here they operate mysteriously as I suppose all symbols should. Day and night get a similar confused rendering in Wagner’s palette. It’s hard to tell from moment to moment which the author thinks is illusion, which reality. It’s plain that he wants to know.
There is a kind of intuitive audacity in Wagner’s use of these symbols, coherent or not, which is very courageous as well as effective. In fact Wagner never was as focused in other operas in what we could think of as psychological thinking as he was in this fearless and chilling inquiry into the hidden nature of the erotic.
Although they aren’t absent much of the padded writing and labial talk of the past that disfigures other Wagner operas are relatively minor stuff here. This opera certainly is flaccid at times, is too long, yet not near lethally as in large portion of Siegfried or Die Walkure. Tristan has, all agree, Wagner’s best libretto, the only one that has any literary merit. Even when Wagner is awful his initial ideas are wonderful, his musical talent impeccable.
Tristan und Isolde is very un-erotic, in a virtuous way rather detached and clinical about the roots of low amorous hunger. Wagner attempts to hang the carnality and intimacy of his characters on prior traumas; in the end the main action rests on something as profound as swallowing a double dose of Prozack. It illuminates one’s perception of Tristan und Isolde knowing that Wagner in his late forties, not often an age were love normally is the focus of anyone’s life, was conducting an illicit affair using his own wife and his mistress’ husband. His patron, as postmen of erotic letters though these dupes didn’t know it; it was generally living one more michugas in a very messy life that must have give him great anguish as well as a bane of constant fear of discovery.
He said at the time in a letter that he himself had never had any erotic satisfaction whatsoever beyond shallow sexual relief and was writing Tristan und Isolde as a look at what was possible, if not for him. It’s a tawdry geschichte of betrayal only worth bringing up because Tristan und Isolde isn’t really a paean to passion as the 19th century thought it was. Au contraire, folks.
His bourgeois audience misunderstood him because few of these drudges shared his lifelong libertinage and sexual excesses. Tristan deliberately anatomizes passion as both lethal and trivial. Tristan and Isolde have their illicit and doomed affair because of love elixirs they guzzled trying to die; yet passion kills them both, the venom of an elixir substituted by Isolde’s confidant. They expire after five hours of singing not out of some tragic lesion in their characters, although later Tristan says otherwise.
This knight’s illicit amarant Isolde is a mercurial, death-ridden and desperate woman who is controlled by Tristan under a miliary occupation after Tristan has killed her betrothed, yet was nearly mortally wounded himself. She has a witch has nursed him to health. She is in very desperate circumstances, never has any hope that she can resolve any of her dilemmas beyond killing herself during the whole opera. Her ambitions for relatively tranquil amour were blasted forever before the main action of this opera has started. However one feels upon reflection she would have been as volatile to her luckily perished lover.
Tristan isn’t far behind her in desire for his own destruction, leading another posthumous life, even offering himself to be slain not only by Isolde in act One but by one of king Marke’s attendants in Act Two. He is sure as she is in Act One that her potion is a poison that will kill them both. Both these characters are wretched, tormented psychic invalids as Wagner saw himself even before their acts of betrayal to King Marke in a way that makes them rather detached spirits for most of us. The wounds they suffer are inward as well as real.
Certainly Wagner’s Tristan is very different from any other version of the tale before or after it. It has always been a subject for writers from the medieval romance of Tristram and Iseult to Matthew Arnold’s early long poem offering scant sympathy for such low amour. Edward Arlington Robinson’s great long romance written in the 1920s is one of the greatest poems in English if nobody now reads it. Only Wagner’s libretto is very psychologically analytical; none of the others even attempt to make sense of the irrational. The audacious Wagner even investigates how the eyes and the gaze seem to transmit magic and transform the amarant. He has a thousand wonderful intuitions of this sort.
Longing for the unattainable in the erotic is a hunger we can all but a few zealous Voltarians, eunuchs, celibates and Buddhists share. This is not the subject of Tristan. Rather curiously the very composer one would expect to take up this Don Juanish taste, Wagner, as busy analyzing in late middle age why such passion is stupid, injurious and trivial.
Wagner’s changed the old story to exclude Parsifal from the tale, eliminated Isolde’s doppelganger, Iseult of the White Hands altogether. He made King Marke more compassionate, explicitly had Marke call Tristan a son, closing down the openendedness of the original leisurely told story with its two lovers with the same name into one very narrow action.
Obviously Wagner was looking through the prism of this opera to understand why he was acting as badly as he did. Although one of the men most wicked and larded with vices of creators in and out of the musical world we know of, Wagner was always struggling right to the end of his life in a Venetian palace perfumed, filled with every tool of degeneracy with his mysterious talent for evil and felling lousy; it’s the twin major subjects of all of his operas.
Not a composer like Beethoven who always gave one something utterly new from work to work, what Barry Malzberg once said abut Philip K. Dick is applicable to Wagner; his operas tend to have parts hat could work as interchangeable chunks in other operas. Parsifal is a reworking of Wagner at his near death of Tristan with different musical ideas. Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger refers to the hoary age of King Marke rather satirically as a niche in life one would not want to embrace in a love affair. The self-emasculation of Klingsor in Parsifal might refer obliquely to some of the problems this middle aged libertine was having with his own inamoratas.
It’s hard in one’s late meddle age even if one is an amoral rake unless finds the right potion to keep a slew of adoring and hungry women carnally happy. Sometimes good turns to evil and vice versa. If Wagner had had viagara we never would have had Tristan.
Tristan looks backward to other operas by Wagner. It has the ship motif of The Flying Dutchman, the tormented knight cavorting with Venus of Tannhauser, the fearsome character of the feminine in Die Walkure, most obliviously and centrally, all of the same motifs in Parsifal. Wagner wasn’t quite as original in he claimed to be in Tristan und Isolde; after one has read through the chromatic and altered chords in the scores of Liszt’s Dante and Faust Symphonies one realizes how much Wagner took from his pal. This secret eclectic borrowed from various operas from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots; early on he imitated Mendelssohn’s Elijah in particular.
We can note the similarity of Wagner’s plot, somewhat at a remove from the classical tale, to Andromache by Racine. Isolde is a furious betrayed witch; Wagner might have been thinking of Ariosto’s Alcina, or Euripides’ Medea when he looked into the power of furious and vengeful women in Dei Walkure and Tristan. Yet nobody has put on stage before him such fearsome women as Brunhilde and Isolde. Paradoxically they are familiar to us; in Wagner’s time it was simply not permissible to acknowledge this side of the feminine. Wagner’s psychological genius connects this perception with primal fear of the mother.
We can see several influences that seem to close to Les Troyens which Wagner might have seen the score of in the 1850s; he and Berlioz were friends. There is the coming of the ship, the nuit d’ectasse aria of Dido and Anaeas which may remind us of Act Two of Tristan, the regal and fearsome nature of both Dido and Isolde, both who had nurtured the hero when he was desperate, the female confidantes of the queen, even the generous use of hunting horns before the love scene in both operas.
Wagner’s libretto is redolent of French Symbolism, not so much of Schopenhauer as the critics say. We find Wagner’s prose vocal lines in 18th century opera seria, The long English horn solo dominating Act Three is awfully similar to the one in the third movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, a work from which Wagner certainly learned the musical potential of leitmotivs and the notion of an orchestral score as a Caracas of musical symbols depicting the inner life of a tormented man “half in love with easeful death” as Keats says.
Yet this backward look at his derivations gives no hint of the alchemy and genius with which Wagner took these materials and made hem into a very personal psychological exploration of passion, torment, a sense of sin, hope for expiation, a general melancholy we associated with middle aged jades and libertines such as he was. He could have done all this and been lousy. Tristan is a great opera. Wagner had the ability of genius to transform what he took from others into theatrical magic we can be awed by yet can't explain.
Sitting next to me a young American musicologist or composer of some sort was reading though the score of Tristan. I took a few peeks; we discussed it. The remark of Hanslick that this overture is a heap of “chromatic blatherings”, the tale that an opera company gave up mounting it altogether after seventy rehearsals sesames today a little strange and perverse itself. Wagner’s orchestral score is very conventionally lilt out in most ways with germ materials expanding into leit motifs much as in the two middle period E Flat piano sonatas of Beethoven that in their way are theatre music without a theatre. One could say the same about the unrelenting chromaticism and sorrowful unspoken dramas of Chopin’s late piano music which Tristan in this way resembles.
Wagner’s chromaticism and altered chords, restless harmonies which oscillate to the relative minor, major or simply resolve into a questioning and melancholy diminished chord often punctuated by a stab of the winds, elevate or lower the third, or even treat the ninth as a consonance in his language of restless and endless surprises. There are quantitatively many more of these elements along with diminished and augmented chords on the upbeat, treated as consonances, than one might find in any previous composer. These tools aren’t confined to an episode; they are absolutely central to Wagner’s musical lange which has fitted the marginal into a dominant option of execution, doing for the elements of his craft what he did for himself.
Tristan und Isolde is mostly like The Ring very triadic, filled with conventional consonances, horn calls, the orchestral parts are straightforwardly and squarely in three four and four four like other operas; it’s the vocal parts in prose that are asymmetrical, flow over the bar lines. Although Wagner always wrote at the piano he was hardly a virtuoso; his twenty years of conducting regional orchestras of erratic quality had trained him to think of the orchestra as his true instrument.
One can't think of Tristan as music ruptured from its instrumental color as one can the music of Bach. Wagner’s invention of various instruments show how focused he was on color and timbre in a way none were before him except Berlioz.
James Levine, the Met’s artistic director, conducted this score with an emphasis on its regular beat, avoiding the famous or infamous fluid beat that Wagner had proffered in this and other scores, some of them not by him, others by Beethoven. Fluid beats are tough stuff in the pit for instrumentalists.
It means they either have to follow the conductor with a precise alacrity or memorize the conductor’s rubati. If the maestro has had a hernia or a cunning massage the instrumentalists may have a different set of rubati to handle in his caprice fluidity or all the entrances will be wrong.
In our contemporary concerts and operas the scant rehearsal time forces a conductor to be regularly on the beat, at most pick a few passages for some detailed rhythmic subtlety. Everybody wants to get through music played in public without a breakdown. Of course a great soloist often plays off the beat; most attain fresh and spontaneous sounding near vocal effects that touch the spirit precisely because it avoids the mechanical metronome rhythm in the score. Yet as many have testified in the 19th and early twentieth century about such liquidity from Nikisch to de Pachmann, rubato has its excesses.
Levine’s unobtrusive classical approach kept attention on the singers, the orchestra adding psychological marginalia, an ideal closer to Verdi than to Wagner. It’s all for the best; the narcissistic Wagner wanted people to listen to the orchestra because he was conducting it. The poor man couldn’t sing. It was the same psychological defect that kept him from leaving the stage pithily in De Meistersinger. This Man Who Came To Dinner excess in Wagner is less impolite in the more measured an controlled Tristan und Isolde.
I don’t think anybody would argue that, if The Flying Dutchman and Tristan are fairly well focused compared to the others, all Wagner’s operas are flawed in the same ways, need help if they can get it. Cutting doesn't really aid them; it makes them even more choppy, emphasizes the episodic character in them that is a formal defect of his music. Wagner really thinks of music in long forms the way Dylan Thomas did when he wrote a novel; they played trump, in Wagner’s hand his unquenchable musical genius.
Like Thomas, Wagner was one whom we are probably if we have a purse and mates all better off knowing posthumously than otherwise. Such labial creators don’t cut or concentrate on plot and character; they fill lesions they sense with more magic. Levine gave us what can be done in the service of Wagner: no swells, few rushes of sound, attention mostly on getting from the beginning to the end.
The score of Tristan, apropos of Nietzsche’s insight, is interesting in how Wagner wrote out a piece somewhat like the miniaturist Chopin, is sometimes in no key at all, moving around episodes in many keys. If it stays in one key for a while Wagner notes its sharps or flats. If it moves he will add the sharps, flats or naturals as it moves farad. It’s the score of a man who has to face an orchestra, try to get them on his side by making the playing as easy as possible.
The orchestral score is very easily playable; the problems are in the vocal parts. Some of the intervals are strange for singers: augmented fourths to get the top of those altered chords as the first note of a melody without preparation over a full orchestra isn’t normally included in a singers craft of solfege.
Wagner adeptly shifts chromatic, diminished and augmented chords, false resolutions on the six chord of a tonic, in fact anything he can think of to give his bottom and inner voices a freedom to move without strong resolutions in an ultimately fluid language reflecting his melancholy and restlessness.
Given his succus at conveying that inner life, his harmonic range cannot be trashed on formal grounds. Music is such inner thaumaturgy. Forma is always the handmaiden of magic.
Apparently Wagner generally didn’t have the same concern for singers. In Tristan they have to sing often over a full orchestra of winds and brasses. Insiders were praising Jane Eaglen tonight for never breaking down over five hours of constant singing. Some felt she was a little tired.
Certainly tonight’s Tristan, Ben Heppner, though he looked the part as Eaglen didn’t, was a fatality of this indifference to singers, his voice cracked and never completely received in the middle of Act Three. It was curious because it broke on middle, not high notes. He was just pooped. He must be taking a vow of silence and sitting in an ashram as I write this.


The famous Tristan chord: F-B-D#-G# around which the entire five hours of the opera is based is probably the first time in musical history any piece at all was a fantasy on all the possible extensions of a dissonance. One can see how influential this method was on composers of the future. Scriabin’s idea of triads in fourths instal of thirds probably come from this simultaneous presentation of ascending fourths, one augmented varied again and again. If one thinks enharmonically of the D# as E Flat and the G# as A Flat one sees a kind of implied circle of fifths; one also sees at once a G# Minor chord with a flatted seventh, probably how we hear it mostly, the serveth at the root of the chord for optimal ambiguity.
It’s not really different than the second chord at the beginning of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; it is stretched out in its implied cycle of fourths in a way that Beethoven’s more Bach-like progression isn’t. Also Beethoven didn’t start and wouldn’t with such a chord; his progressions are an emotional language that always begin and end in firm tonic chords. It isn’t that he’s formal or narrow and couldn’t think of anything else; it’s a different mentality, very sure of himself. Only somebody with ontological vertigo like Wagner would have thought of doing the opposite.
There is something Beethovenesque in deriving an entire work from what might be previously understood only as a minor seventh, possessable a five chord leading to a one chord, or the four rout tones in a harmonic progression of fourths, the core of which is stated at the same time as if it were somehow a triad.
A chord which can lead to four roots at once is as restless as Wagner could have gotten. The inharmonic logic would itself play on the ambiguity of notes that can be read a few microtones higher or lower in just intonation. One suspects the original chord was F-B Flat-E Flat-A Flat, with Wagner adding more ambiguity to it with the initial trigone.
The succussion of fourths as a direction suggests horizontal motion though it is presented vertically ass well. My guess is that Wagner, sitting at the piano one day in the 1850s, perhaps even reading thorough some Liszt like the Sonata in B Minor, letting the keys stray was looking for such an ambivalent core for a fulcrum. There certainly is a kind of parallel between the descending opening of the B Minor Sonata and the ascending prelude to the first Act of Tristan.
Again one must say that as much as one can find examples of whom Wagner borrowed from, only a genius could have written his music. Does it matter than many Beethoven motifs are a triad or some simple harmonic movement? We all have them to play with; only Beethoven could do with them what he did. There’s nothing inherent in the chord that generates Tristan. In the same sense only Wagner had the power to make of the Tristan chord into Tristan. Just as thousands of people passed a the same Grecian urn before Keats did and wrote a peon about it, anybody else would have shrugged and gone on to another chord.
Nietzsche, a composer himself who had been a close friend of Wagner once, aptly described him in his pithy Anti-Wagner as a covert miniaturist. One might amend this a little to say that it isn’t that Wagner aims to create small lapidary effects; he end in doing so because though he has great initial ideas, is a masterful melodist and admirably cunning orchestrator, he can't exeunt ideas either in his libretti or music with any skill. He had to either stop the music or join it with something else.
As a result his Tristan is a fairly incoherent tale covered up as best he can with his enormous and persuasive talent for producing momentary emotional perorations. Wagner blurs this tendency to put the listener in the present at all times like a schizogenic or someone on LSD, the lack of ability to extension the material symphonically is concealed by the dearth of final tonic chords. Wagner was great at melody, harmony, orchestration, rhyme and counterpoint; he was oddly severely deficient, probably because he was neurotic to half crazy, at a kind of horizonal logic at which Haydn and Beethoven were particularly masterful. Haydn was the most impeccable of them all at extension of ideas; he was the most measured and sane. Of course it was typical of Wagner to turn his weaknesses into strengths.
Although as the Met notes of Tristan say, the opera was a kind of revolutionary call to arms for the devotees of the passions as well as a harbinger of a kind of seriousness in opera that led George Bernard Shaw to title one of his ironic yet sermon-like long and funny essays The Perfect Wagnerite, the world linked Wagner with Ibsen as apostles of the serious and uncomfortable.
They accepted perhaps more selectively Wagner’s plaints that other composers of his time compared to him were vendors of vulgar gewgaws and trivia. He stood, he asserted, for high and sacred Art. This of course is bilge. The notion of the sacred can male one breadless and genocidal a well as honestly pious; it is neutral as a lightless planet. Moreover Tristan is about injurious compulsive hungers, pretty low stuff. There’s nothing sacred about it. Wagner like Ibsen lacked a sense of humor; at least Ibsen never trashed other playwrights with a more comic or lighthearted sense as vaudevillians though Ibsen was affected with the same uncivil narcissism.
I think Shaw’s affinity to both Wagner and Ibsen is a good point of departure to understand what Wagner beyond his great musical gifts had to offer an audience. Wagner had no talent for abstract music; he could sustain absolute musical ideas beyond a few minutes. He was a consummately amusing and sensational theatre composer, one who consistently acid more attention to setting the word sensitively than anybody before him. He has more ways to illuminate the world “tod” than anybody.
Words in opera before him can be almost banal throwaways; with Wagner they are the source of his inspiration. Wagner’s opera are more like melodramas than what we think of as opera, that is spectacle generated by plot and character first, intense amounts and emotionally pungent music garlanding an essentially theatrical idea.
Beyond that Wagner as nobody before him used the opera as a way of consistent serious inquiry into the passions that is absolutely revolutionary. I don’t think there’s ever been anything in opera before or after Wagner that theatrically took up the unspeakable much as Ibsen did in theatre after Wagner did it in opera.
Whatever we think ether of Wagner and his music, his bravery when he sat down alone in a room with a blank piece of music paper is admirable. Wagner was comparing erotic love to death as well as adhesions between mothers and sons before Freud did. At least Freud had the example of Wagner to cushion the terror of his frightening perceptions; Wagner had nobody. He faced a lot of demons and scary experiences in that lonely chamber. The psychogenic way men and women replace each other in Wagner as erotic paradigms in the spirit is very similar to Freud’s Oedipal theories.
It’s interesting to compare Tristan to Parsifal from his old age. Parsifal was a second opinion on eroticism and chivalry Wagner had omitted from his first sketches for Tristan. Thinking of a smaller scale, Tristan had been written after composing the middle of the third part of The Ring: Siegfried; it sounds like The Ring sometimes in the brass in particular.
Parsifal was taken up after Wagner dropped an idea for an opera an a Hindu Indian theme one assumes had a doe of Schopenhauer in it. Schopenhauer like our 60s Western punts of instant enlightenment of the Big Kaboom was always big on Hindus. Wagner didn’t really want death; he hated himself and wanted expiation. The passionate and tormented Kundry longing for death, the wounded king Amfortas, the penitent eunuch prince of magic, Klingsor, the perfect fool Parsifal are all further looks in a kaleidoscopic mirror by the dying Richard Wagner.
So were the merely psychically wounded king Marke of Tristan, one who has failed at passing through certain erotic pilgrimages, the knight who had lost father and mother at birth who longs for his vanished parents, the primal and irrational magic of love, the possibility of Parsifal to reject it though the commonly virtuous Amfortas is done in by it, the audacious offer of Kundry to be a mother almost literally to Parsifal.
The remark of both Kundry and Isolde that they had nursed them men back to health though they had almost died echoes both Isolde and Kundry maternal, venomous and corrupt, Marke and Amfortas lacerated and perhaps cuckolded and emasculated fathers, the medieval setting with the hunting horns and so on.
Parsifal was not merely a farewell to romantic libertinage. At the end of his life Wagner, always one with a medieval world view and imagination going back to Tannhauser, saw in Parsifal that carnality and love itself are a kind of clearly evil and illusory magical wickedness. In not too coded language we in Tristan and Parsifal sit in the inside of Richard Wagner’s head as he complains about his lack of parenting, subsequent compulsive hungers for carnal affection ene when his vitality was fading, a seductive and powerful mother who ruined him morally, a weak father whom Nietzsche says was Jewish.
His ambivalence about Jews as a result that led to him to write the infamous Jews In Music was a left handed homage to the heritage he could never embrace without rejecting his formidable mother.
His compulsive cuckolding of his male allies, his feeling that death itself would be a release from the anxiety and pressure he felt simultaneously wooing and escaping from witch-like women like his mother, the furious sense through Tristan and Isolde that his sufferings and self hatred came from a kind of triviality, a series of shallow accidents over which he had no control, are venomous; yet at the end of his life his hero Parsifal does what Tristan cannot: rejects the sensuous and thaumaturgic creatrix of healing and venomous magic.
This of course tells us only half of what we would like to know about Wagner. Plenty of dunces have had Wagner’s neurotic troubles, are blighted by the emotional life of two year olds running tantrums, wanted to be adored like Moloch and are immoral. They haven’t written a bagatelle.
After his life Wagner was a fulcrum of much ire, hagiographic praise and perplexity by many critics. Wagner in his life hadn’t advocated his cause all that well; what was worse he didn’t know it. His claimed rather absurdly that superficial music or the shallow side of life is somehow criminal and odious is silly. Paradoxically Wagner’s main pitch was his capacity to be sensational. Wagner could only write earnest, tumid, humorless music about passion and evil; he would have done better and had more allies, fewer enemies, if he would have sad modestly that he had a narrow skill, admired those with other gifts.
Outside of Beethoven and von Weber, dead, who couldn’t compete with him, and Liszt who championed his music, Wagner trashed all the composers he could not merely as creators he found wonting but near felons. Liszt didn’t get off anymore than Von Bulow did from Wagner’s capacity to injure his friends; Wagner corrupted Liszt’s daughter. Wagner simultaneously borrowed ideas from these many peers and allies while he railed against them. Much of what we think of as Wagner’s ideas even in race and politics are really Lizstian.
Wagner had aspired to be a thinker and philosopher, two fields, as Jackie Mason might say, for which he had no ability; he was an audacious intuitive psychologist as well as a great musician. Like Freud he mostly found his insights in himself though claiming he was in some way a scientist and objective cultural historian. Since he was much crazier, weirder and more tormented than Freud ever was his illuminations of pathology are necessarily on the recondite side. Yet both men were like the French Symbolists intent on making a science of the irrational.
If we pause to detach ourselves from his magical musical seductions, we become aware that Isolde is simultaneously sleeping with King Marke and enchanting him as she is with Tristan; Marke refers to it in Act Two and Three. It’s plain in Act One that Isolde, before she drinks any potion, is desperately anxious to sleep with Tristan, the man who has killed her betrothed and is bringing her to another lover; he quite sensibly finds her at that time dangerous and unsavory.
Does one wonder at Tristan’s motives in giving his liege such an equivocal gift? Isolde is stupid, harsh, vain, ruled by passion, has no power of introspection; she made make Marke crazy but not happy. Trustman does have cognitive virtues and learns something, perhaps true or untrue, from his self analysis in Act Three. Yet Tristan, supposedly intelligent and a hero, is constantly offering his life to his enemies. Oddly, the one many he might owe his life to since he has hurt him, Marke, doesn't get that offer.
Of course all this made sense to Wagner because he was grafting his personal carnal life on a story that doesn’t accept it. This murk doesn’t slow down his great theatrical and musical talent; one listens to Wagner like his imitators Bruckner and Strauss for the perorations, not the developments or sense of anything, ideas or music; at its worst his trump of a musical impulse never fails.
We are simultaneously annoyed at him for his self-contradictions and flaws and marvel how he could make his very neuroses and defects seem momentarily delicious.
Nietzsche is right about dearth of large structures in Wagner. His only successful pieces are for the theatre; ene then the plots and characters only fitfully push the work forward. Wagner’s one symphony and piano pieces are awful. When one hears the orchestral excerpts in symphony concerts they make big beautiful gestures; they don’t go anywhere. The music only makes sense if at all as emotional accompaniment to situations and words.
Ernest Newman, the English critic who wrote the most famous and extensive biography of Wagner, marveled that anyone without a single moral virtue could have written such remarkable music. Composers like all of us have their bad days but none are even close to Richard Wagner in fashioning a life of consistent wickedness, self-indulgence, bad manners and childish whining.
Wagner’s own bathetic memoirs, Meine Leben is not only filled with self-serving lies but has a churlish tone of one who is certain the dunce-like world owes him not only a living but continual and unending adoration.
Wagner didn’t seem to know that Meine Leben was about the worst advocacy he could have made for himself. The sodden, kvetchy Meine Leben rather conceals how easy Wagner’s outer life was for such a rude rogue, how much many women and hundreds of amiable men sacrificed their time and efforts for him out of charity for his bottomless nations. He topped off his luck in commanding virtual slaves by enthusing a mad king to build a theatre for him to do with as he wished.
We don’t have any other composers in history who have had such good luck. Most creative people on this planet get kicked into the gutter or slowly starve to death like Poe. Of course when one is congenitally depressed, much of one’s misery comes from neurotic perception. One does attract if one has beauty or Wagner’s gifts other neuroticism looking for waifs or popes for their own crazy reasons.
By the 1890s Shaw, a gadfly glad to champion the unspeakable to Victorians, simply concentrated on Wagner’s Isbenian earnestness about Art, ignoring Wagner’s severe incapacities at sustained thought of any kind as well as his wickedness as trivial.
Decades later Deems Taylor stated that he felt that Wagner should have been honored and accepted just as he presented himself and supported in his very worst infamies outside his music because he had the talent to back up a hunger to make the world into his own autocratic theatre. Does anybody have that gift? Turn this noxious absurdity at a few different angles; one can see why history tends to associate Wagner with Hitler and The Third Reich.
It’s not entirely fair to an coherent, miserable and half crazy genius. Wagner never called for war, eternal struggle or the holocaust of anything or anybody. The Third Reich was an execution of a coherent philosophy if its tents were ultimately evil. One might argue more cogently that Naziism was based on Franz Liszt’s large book on the races than anything Wagner wrote. Of course we like to think of Liszt as a good guy; I think reading his more racist tomes might make one wonder whether he was in fact the founder of National Socialism.
Liszt and Wagner both talk of authenticity and imitation much as Woody Allen does in Zelig. This is all silly stuff by three people who knew nothing about Judaism. Does a self-hating Jew like Woody alien deserve more sympathy than a self hating secret half-Jew like Wagner?
Even Liszt who also knew zilch about Jews was looking for national paradigms, some programmed design in human diversity; he writes about virtues, vices, but has no political program for dominance of anybody. Karl Marx, another self-hating Jew ignorant of Judaism, during the same time wrote a book called for the extermination of Judaism, something Liszt and Wagner never did. Some of their best friends were Jews.
Should we take any entertainer, Wagner, or Woody Allen, seriously as a thinker? Some do. It’s a strange homage to those stand up acts like Woody Allen and Wagner who have a passing genius for shtik. Wagner certainly was an anti-Semite; yet he was also like many anti-Semites paradoxically close with many Jews including Meyerbeer; many in his inner circle included Karl Tausig and Joseph Rubinstein, both Jews.
Since he was almost certainly half Jewish himself at least this ambivalence, probably the harvest of a mother who trashed his Jewish father, is understandable if not acceptable. Like everything else about Wagner his anti-Semitism was initially filched from his friends. Liszt’s theories of racism in his book even in the unpleasant things he had to say about various nations have a kind of detached geniality that of course Wagner transformed into his characteristic meanspirited whining. One shouldn’t forget either that all nationalist movements in the past two centuries have been not so much anti-Semitic as looking to the folk and ancient kin ties as engines of group adhesions to replace the palpably odious church and nobility. Wagner’s racism was typical of most of Germany.
Wagner’s sheer talent made him the champion of causes others took seriously and even took u genocide for later that were for him the childish notions of a crank; for someone with no gift for thinking he influenced and polarized the Western world in a way we still live by.
Salon music, ornamental filigreed music, comic music, dance music, any kind of music but Wagner’s niche of generosity has taken a beating from critics since his day to the point where many of the older among us still think that it is more profound or serious to be melancholy, miserable about nothing, earnest in mein rather than civil, pithy and amusing.
It’s not his fault that others didn’t realize Wagner was in and out of music just an infant genius making mud pies, thinking he was building an Egyptian pyramid for himself.
In a curious way the disasters of his various crankish causes by 1945 freed Wagner from ever being taken seriously again in all his claims to be what he wasn’t. Wanner wasn’t a political revolutionary, a Christian, a German nationalist, a philosopher, a consistent anti-Semite, a philosopher, a dramatic historian; that was all pasture. The reality he had to offer us was exactly the guerdon of amusement he professed to despise; He was often entertaining. He was a great vaudevillian.
Wagner’s lack of other qualities might inspire us at this juncture to have more answers than the very intelligent Ernest Newman did about the mysteries of talent. We have had in history men like Cagliostro, Sabbatai Svi, Aleister Crowley who have attracted empty people over innumerable millennia to take up slavish or suicidal actions, adoring the thaumaturge inspiring them to sacrifice their mortality in modes at once awesome and familiar to us. I think Wagner was the only one of these stellar magicians who wrote operas.
Nevertheless he is a type; Crowley’s life and achievement though hardly as influential as Wagner’s would suggest such a tentative assumption. One can learn something about all of them from one or some of them. We have today charismatics among us of varying characters and persuasiveness, some of them on the news, the Dahlia Llama and the Pope heading machines that are guised banks as in a sense Wagner was, are attached to public engines of money-eating institutions, some therapists, others movie actors, pill pushers, rogues pitching metaphysical candy on television.
The effect of charismatics on humanity is predictable as the love life of the spider. They form a folie a deux with as many desperate and empty people as they can. Like all mental predators their talent, fortune and answers to inexplicable matters that would confound God vary.
Charismatics aside, I would suggest there are not one but many causes of genius, one inherited human specialization and biological legacy, in Wagner’s and Crowley’s case as well the harvest of infantile erotic energies thwarted in primal ways, emerging as a semi-religious force promoting oneself as a papish pundit or ideal messianic infant. Wagner had some power of psychological self-analysis. He used this skill well in the internal crucible and magic of Tristan.
Tristan is in the end a grand magic show based on postures and concerns that are acceptable and even choice fare only on the stage, not in the world. Art is where one finds Wagner’s legacy, nowhere else. His portrait is as much in Isolde as Tristan. Like Isolde, Wagner was a desperate, passionate miserable warlock.
There is as much talk in Tristan and Isolde of death as passion as a solution to misery, as much desire to be a corpse as there is to have a tryst in some momentary chamber Elysium. “Alles todt”, Marke says almost elegaically in Act Three. I don’t see anything in Tristan und Isolde that resembles any attempt to analyze mature love. He knows about it; it doesn’t interest Wagner musically as it fascinates the much less crazy Wagnerian Richard Strauss.
In this addictive passion of a low sort, an atmosphere of degeneracy, Wagner was making a deliberate point about the destructiveness of such itches. Wagner knew what love was; he said as he composed Tristan he didn’t have it.
I think sadly he probably did have it from many women as well as honest friendship from legions of men; the demons that kept him from accepting these allies are the same ultimately neutral devils who have given us his operas. As Groucho Marx said: “I would never join any club that would find me acceptable.” Groucho Marx showed more insight into self hatred than Wagner ever had though Wagner looked for such illuminations over a lifetime.
One can only hope for Wagner that as he maundered in his perfume drenched Venetian palace he was able to embrace in life at least on Tuesday at the end the maturity and measure he tried to write into his perfect fool protagonist in Parsifal.
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