This week, that fine BBC radio programme In Our Time featured a discussion on Purgatory. Don didn’t listen to it but thought referencing it here would raise the general tone and bolster his tarnished reputation following the rather scruffy Post 28. Surely one of the lessons of the concept of Purgatory is that nothing lasts for ever. And so it is with some relief that season 2016/17 has finally finished and gone to a better place. Such was the reverential atmosphere at the latest Stop! Hammertime podcast featuring some sensible people and none other than Don. Should you wish to pay respects to the recently departed season you may do so here . If he can find them, Don will re-live one or two season “highlights” below. [Spoiler alert, scroll to the end for some footie – stay here for the classy stuff].
In other news, excitement builds for the forthcoming Longborough Festival Opera and Don will be there, in Morton-in-Marsh, for the opening night of Tristan and Isolde. It will be a magical evening and so in eager anticipation lets consider a few aspects, even some magical ones. So much has been written about it, so much seen in it; Don will merely scratch the surface.
It’s easy to be disdainful of the story of Tristan and Isolde. Two lovers, deceiving a cuckolded (would be) husband. More so, if one considers Gottfried von Strassburg’s medieval poem upon which Wagner drew extensively. This and the copious other accounts of the Tristan legend emphasised the cunning ruses played out by the artful lovers in their attempts to deceive King Marke.
But Wagner generally ignored the ribald “Carry On Tristan” aspects and honed it into an intense and deep psychological drama in which the real action occurs within the minds of King Marke and the eponymous two, as much as anywhere else. In this way we have a pinpoint edgy piece more in keeping with Alfred Hitchcock than Sid James.
Let’s take two medieval legends identified in Newman and elsewhere; they are both interesting and also draw out deeper nuances of the characters, in these cases, of Marke in particular. But first, the basics one needs to know, is that Tristan is the erstwhile loyal and favoured nephew of the King who was sent from Cornwall to Ireland to fetch Isolde (Iseut) as the King’s mate (and so future Queen). This was a strategic alliance with a defeated but still aggressive enemy and Iseut, the fiery Irish maid, is brought back under sufferance (to put it mildly). The two fall in love on the journey due to a love potion but more significantly to previous complications.
So the two legends;
- Tristan and Iseut have fled and are living rough in a Cornish forest to escape the wrath of King Marke. They are discovered and the King is alerted. He finds them asleep in a cave, lips touching and with Tristan’s sword between them. King Marke has the right and the ability to kill them both as per his original intention. Instead and we can and shall ponder why, he leaves them in their sleepy embrace. But when they awake, they are in no doubt by virtue of various signs, that he was there and has chosen to spare them and ipso facto legitimise the adultery.
- In death, the lovers are buried by King Marke, at opposite sides of a graveyard. Briars emerge from each grave and reach across the graveyard to become entwined. King Marke has them hacked down. Twice more the briars reach out to each other and twice more are they cut down. On the third occasion, he leaves them and orders that they shall never be touched but left in perpetual embrace.
Neither of these legends appears in the opera but they feed into what the characters, including here King Marke, were feeling.
For ultimately Tristan, not just Wagner’s Tristan, though it is especially so, is about the transcendence of Love. Emphasis for now on transcendence because Love is too big a concept for this world; it is too big a concept for a concept. It transcends. The magic in Tristan is not a potion here or there, the magic is love, which, where it is so powerful that it metamorphoses two souls into one, it cannot be boxed in by important but wordly concepts like Honour, Loyalty and Trust. It must burst beyond this life and find peace only in death or wherever is beyond our understanding.
So in a possible answer to the question posed in Post 27; how much Schopenhauer does a Tristan or Isolde performer need to understand?, the answer is probably not too much. But Don (from his naïve non-musical soap-box), feels she certainly must understand where love sits in comparison to those other honourable attributes and how a certain type of love can only be truly sated beyond this life. One doesn’t need to have understood Arthur Schop to feel this.
This doesn’t mean Trust, Honour, Loyalty wilt away without protest. Wordly responsibilities weigh heavy, as we are transported by the music inside Tristan’s head in Acts 2 and 3. His disloyalty to his uncle and King is killing him; indeed it is guilt over his love for Isolde from the pre- story, that makes him volunteer to “fetch” her back to Cornwall in the first place.
This cannot be intellectualized, this must be felt and in Don’s view it can only be wholly felt where it resonates with life experience. Only a parent can truly feel what Wotan feels in bidding Leb Wohl to Brunhilde and only one who has loved and lost and balanced other loyalties can truly “feel” Tristan and/or Isolde. And this is also the majesty of good art. It can take a story from a thousand years before and extrapolate the timeless mythical aspects to make it real now. In Don’s limited experience Wagner does this like no other. As much as Shakespeare tries, it cannot be done simply with words. They are descriptive, prescriptive, clinical by comparison. Music though…is soul. And in Tristan, where those cellos and violins are in utter supremacy, music reaches into ours, burglarizes and leaves us a wretched mess.
In a sense the tension between word and music applies within the opera. It is probably beyond doubt that is one of Wagner’s less wordy operas. Various academics say Isolde claims the music and Tristan the poetry.
Back to Schopenhauer. There is a reason that Don bleats on about him in regard to Tristan in particular. Wagner had completed Das Rheingold and Die Valkyrie and most of Siegfried when his reading, nay consumption of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, caused such an epiphany in his world outlook that he abandoned his Ring Cycle to let his thoughts settle. He would say his world view was not changed but clarified by Schopenhauer which meant the direction of the Ring Cycle needed to be arrested. It would be 12 years before he was ready to adjust Siegfried’s path and the first opera he produced in the interregnum was Tristan. Of course with Wagner, rivers do not run smoothly and there were also pragmatic reasons to create an “easier” opera , such as putting food on the table but the fact remains that Wagner thought differently for the rest of his life after initially reading Schopenhauer and the first piece he produced was Tristan.
The legend of Tristan extends beyond, well, beyond the legend. Tales of Wagner’s composition of it as well as early performances also play on its psychological force and add grist to the mill.
As he concluded the work, Wagner wrote to his muse Mathilde Wesendonke in 1859, only partly in jest….”Child! This Tristan is turning into something terrible! This final Act!!! – I fear the opera will be banned, unless the whole thing will be parodied in a bad performance -. Only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad.” And it did.
Whether or not acted upon, it is a comfortable leap that for Wagner, the Tristan/Isolde/Marke triptych, was himself, Mathilde and his long-suffering wife, Minne. Moreover, a decade or so later, after it finally debuted, the first conductor, Hans von Bulow, assumed the real life King Marke role as he gave up his wife Cosima to Wagner, if not willingly then at least with good grace. As life to an extent imitated art, he loved his wife but worshipped the composer.
The first ever Tristan, in the opera associated as much as any other with the ultimate sacrifice, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld lasted four apparently memorable performances before a tragically early death, aged just 29.
Musicians have gone insane, lives have been lost under their own hand; all attributed to this opera.
In Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks, Pfuhl, the music tutor, engaged to teach the young student Hanno recoils at the prospect of playing Tristan to his young charge. As he says to Hanno’s mother… ”I won’t play this Madam. I am your most obedient servant but I will not play it. That is not music…It is pure chaos! It is demagoguery, blasphemy and madness! It is a fragrant frog with thunderbolts! It is the end of all morality in the arts. I will not play it!” The young boy Hanno, is later exposed to the forbidden musical fruit which leads to his death.
Mark Twain, on a visit to Germany, heard Tristan at Bayreuth and commented: “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. [Wikipedia]
So what the hell is it about this piece that provokes such extreme emotion?
It all starts with the Tristan chord. A few notes, a few seconds and music changed forever. A chord that doesn’t settle but ends in a question; a question that will not be answered for over four hours and then after trial, tribulation, tension building on tension, finally, finally finds an end, resolving in death, the ultimate peace. A grateful longed for death.
For the players, orchestra and audience it has been a psychological and emotional experience like no other in opera. Here’s a hint of what they are going through.
Marke: a proud King. Trusts Tristan implicitly. When Tristan betrays that trust he questions what is trust, what is loyalty when the personification of both falls short. Ultimately forgives his nephew, lieutenant and friend.
Isolde: Her hatred for Tristan has several strands. He represents the imperialist conquering force. He killed the great Irish warrior (and her lover/betrothed?) Morholt and then mortally wounded himself, deceived Isolde into using her magical powers to cure him and in curing, love him. Above all though, she hates him for returning to her, not as lover but to claim her for another. Yet even her hatred wilts under the radiant intensity of her love for him. A love she did not seek but a love that claimed her.
Tristan: A loyal servant to his King, to whom he has devoted his life he too does not seek love but it is thrust upon him, he cannot be both loyal to his King and be with the women he loves. Only in secret night can they share a half-life and only in ultimate night; death, can he find moral resolution, and only in death does that half-life become whole.
Only in death can the half-life Purgatory finally end and the lovers find release and peace.
Only in death can it be Tristan and Isolde, Isolde and Tristan. Only in death can he become Isolde and she Tristan. Only in death (or at least the final curtain), can the audience be released from the tension of the Tristan Chord. Happy Days!
West Ham? The best we can say is the season is dead and buried. Resurrection and fresh optimism awaits in August.
STOP PRESS STOP PRESS
As we write, a penalty rolls into the bottom left corner and with it Mr.Wagner and Huddersfield Town roll into the Premier League. Tristan and Isolde bites into the soul but in terms of nail-biting drama, its hard to beat what I’ve just watched. Will Don be good to his word and abandon West Ham for Wagner and Huddersfield? How will he Tristan like, deal with those opposing loyalties? Those good Yorkshire folk will understand when I say..”Welcome Mr Wagner, welcome Huddersfield Town. But don’t be so soft, lad. Tristan and Isolde? Don bleeds Claret and Blue.”
If you have been, thanks for listening.