MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Hearing the Light: The Music of Tristan

(Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in original production as Tristan and Isolde)

A new piece on Tristan und Isolde I just wrote for Washington National Opera’s upcoming production:

Even setting a myth of the beginning and end of the cosmos to music (aka the Ring) wasn’t enough for Richard Wagner. The legend of Tristan and Isolde began to crowd Wagner’s creative imagination thanks to a potent combination of factors in his private and artistic life.

After deconstructing the conventions of the commercially popular musical styles that reigned in opera houses of the time, Wagner had built a Valhalla-like fortress of theory to work out the ideas he was struggling to replace these conventions with, and these he began to apply in practice by composing the Ring. Yet Wagner’s subsequent discovery of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) profoundly altered his attitude toward the purpose of art itself.

The Ring and its musical world originally sprang forth from a basically optimistic world view that placed its faith in the possibility of revolutionary utopia. Viewing the world through the lens of Schopenhauer caused Wagner to regard this as a naïve illusion. On one level, Tristan and Isolde turns the archetypal scenario of the love triangle into a symbol for the unquenchable force of desire in all its forms, which is the root of suffering for Schopenhauer. Apart from Wagner’s fascination with the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas, however, he was naturally attracted to the position of supreme value Schopenhauer reserved for music. It was Schopenhauer’s conviction that music alone can give us immediate access to this stark truth underlying the deceptive “real world” of appearances.


In the Ring (up to this point), music had more or less been ascribed a role subordinate to the unified amalgam of score, script, myth, and staging. But  Wagner found a matchless vehicle with which to explore his changed perspective in Tristan’s story of extreme desire and its frustration—the love potion is merely another symbol for the release of what’s inherent in Tristan’s and Isolde’s natures. Setting it to music provided Wagner with the opportunity to create an unprecedented sound world evoking the human condition of restless desire, the mirage of blissful satisfaction, and, ultimately, a kind of transcendent awareness. The music isn’t there merely to “accompany” the moods of the drama: it provides the very foundation for what we see happening onstage. As Wagner later put it, the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.”

Wagner had made one enormous leap in his musical language when, after a silence of about five years, he figured out how to set the Ring in motion with the remarkable Prelude to Das Rheingold, where the music swims about for minutes in the same key: Minimalism more than a century ahead of its time. But if the Ring proclaimed revolution, the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde seemed like all-out anarchy, immersing listeners into a disorienting soundscape where the familiar compass points no longer had any bearing.

Ironically, still another reason Wagner had determined to delay the Ring and write Tristan was purely practical: he hoped to make money with what he believed would be an easy-to-produce opera (compared, at least, to the Ring). But the originality and complexity of Tristan’s score, and the cruel demands on its two lead singers, doomed attempts to get it performed for several years, until the composer’s powerful new patron King Ludwig entered the scene and provided the financial backing for adequate rehearsals.


Even professional musicians of the era found themselves perplexed by the daring harmonic language Wagner develops here. Its essential character is crystallized in the very first bars of the Prelude: the cellos pose a series of “questions,” their line of descending half-steps “answered” by enigmatic harmony and a similarly ascending phrase in the woodwinds. Yet even these responses are left unresolved—and are in turn followed by tense silences. The music coils forward, full of vibrant, insatiable yearning, but even the climax it reaches seems frustrated—and, to cite the composer’s own description, “the heart sinks back unconscious, back into languishing desire…”

The paradigm of Western tonal music familiar in Wagner’s era (and in pop music today) relied on reassuringly recognizable patterns of tension and release, with a beginning, middle, and end. These patterns play out both in the short term (a phrase of music) and in larger structures (a movement). Tristan’s music supplants this with states of tension that generate more tension. The whole process suggests a condition of tormented, unappeasable longing, with the horizon maddeningly just out of reach.

Instead of a collection of tunes we can look forward to once the curtain rises, the Prelude embodies a microcosm of Tristan’s musical vocabulary and grammar.  Its opening gestures proliferate in countless ways across the span of the opera—until that initially ambiguous “response” is finally allowed to fully resolve on what Richard Strauss once described as “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the whole history of music.”

From the 1998 Seattle Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello

The score of Tristan adapts the advanced musical principles Wagner had been honing in the Ring to its new context. Rather than independent, self-enclosed musical units (arias, quartets, choruses, and the like), each act unfolds as one continuous progression of musical thought. In general, conventional opera relied on tried-and-true forms and familiar, one-size-fits-all harmonic progressions which could apply to any of a number of interchangeable dramatic situations. In Tristan and Isolde Wagner spins out an organic form corresponding uniquely to the particular set-up, crisis, and resolution that make up the dramatic content of each act. Even more, that dramatic content is radically simplified and internalized (in contrast to the epic Ring). This opens up a space for Wagner’s music to trace the states of desire, suffering, and, ultimately, compassion which both Isolde and Tristan experience.

The opera’s large-scale musical and dramatic structure demonstrates a beautifully symmetrical balance, despite the impression of unleashed, formless “dissonance” (in the sense of unresolved musical tension) that the Prelude can still make even on experienced contemporary ears. The first act centers around a portrayal of Isolde in her anger and confusion: she draws Tristan into her fateful sphere before they cross an unexpected threshold together by drinking the love potion. The second act prepares for and leads away from an enormously extended love duet, with its proto-Impressionist, exquisite blends of orchestral color, in which the lovers merge their identities and yield to the intoxication of desire (notice the erotic frenzy conveyed by Wagner’s overlapping vocal parts). With the third act, Wagner shifts the focus to Tristan and his pain. After he dies—to the same strain he sang when overtaken by the potion in act one—Isolde completes the journey Tristan had undertaken in solitude.

Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari in Venice, which Wagner is said to have associated with Isolde’s ecstasy.

But Isolde complements her lover’s desolate vision of the emptiness of desire with a rapturous embrace of oblivion in the scene which concludes the opera (widely known as her Liebestod, or “Love-Death,” though Wagner used that term for the Prelude and referred to this scene as “Isolde’s Transfiguration”). This seals the opera with what musicologist Susan McClary calls “a feminine ending.” McClary quotes a personal exchange with the composer Virgil Thomson where the latter described the Liebestod as Isolde “hang[ing] around to demand one last orgasm of her own.”

Radical harmonic innovation is the most-celebrated dimension of Tristan and Isolde’s score, but Wagner employs all his resources to evoke the extreme states his characters undergo. In the third act, for example, Tristan’s delirious visions are underscored by changes in meter and powerfully syncopated rhythms. Another important device that recurs in some form in each act is the intrusion of the everyday world—for the lovers, the “false world” of day and illusion. From the strains of the sailor’s song opening the first act, Wagner abruptly shifts to Isolde’s point of view. The act late ends with the jubilant sounds of brass and chorus in solid C major to signal the ship’s arrival at its destination, ironically juxtaposed against the music of dangerous ecstasy for the lovers. In the second act Wagner vividly paints the external world of King Marke’s hunting party dissolving—the overlapping horns replaced by burbling clarinets—as Isolde becomes lost in her impatient vigil. And the shepherd’s merry piping in act three acquires a surreal quality as the backdrop for Tristan’s fevered hallucinations.

Tristan and Isolde, the early-20th-century music critic Paul Bekker went so far as to declare, is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.” Part of Wagner’s genius in this epochal work was to dissolve the boundaries between music and drama, orchestra and singers, tones and words, to an extent even he couldn’t have imagined when starting on the Ring—or when he first mentioned the idea he had for a new opera based on the legendary lovers: “the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception.”

Filed under: opera, Wagner


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