Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tristan, Love & Revolution

Before there was love there was revolution.The eleven years that passed in the composition of Tristan und Islode from idea and early sketch to premiere (1854-1865) are marked by several notable events. First is the failure of the European revolutions of 1848. It is this upheaval that leads to Wagner's revolutionary agitation and flight because of a warrant for his arrest and subsequent geographical displacements and exile. It is this series of events that takes him to the door of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonk. Otto is a wealthy silk merchant and he and his wife ardent devotees of Wagner's music. She is also a poet and in an unusual gesture Wagner puts to music words that are not his own. Themes for what will be major melodic ideas of Tristan appear in two of the five song cycle, Traume (Dreams) and Im Treibhaus (In the Conservatory), later named "Tristan Studies" or Wesendonck Lieder.

It has never been clear if what passed between Mathilde and Richard was infatuation, platonic/ symbolic emotional upheaval, a "love affair" in the full meaning of that term or the collision of two romantic dreamers (common in the nineteenth century) whose "child " was the emotionally extravagant and musically revolutionary Tristan. It is also interesting to note that the work was not written while in a long congress and adoration of the beloved, Frau Wesendock. Minna, Wagner's first wife, intercepted a letter which led to the confrontation of all four parties. Much like the end of Act II of the opera after the great love duet and ravishing night music:

                                                                   O sink hernieder ,
                                                                    Nacht der Liebe,
                                                                 O Night of love,
                                                                    grant oblivion
                                                                    that I may live;
                                                                      take me up
                                                                  into your bosom
                                                                  release me from
                                                                      the world ! 
At the end of Act II of Tristan the lovers are "interrupted" before the great duet can conclude in resolving unison. Similarly whatever happened between Wagner and Frau Wesendonck was also " abruptly " intruded upon by the respective husband and wife and as in the opera they are separated. Otto takes Mathilde to Italy and Wagner also wanders (without Minna) to Venice and Lucerne with his score. It will be published in three separate sections so anxious is his publisher to get the music before the public.
The plot of the vast (about three and three-quarter hours) score is marked by the combined characteristics of encounter, conflict and sudden infatuation (with the help of a love potion) in the first act. Act II is a long uninterrupted movement of unbridled, tempestuous feeling in spite of the great danger of discovery.  Act III, as in the life of the real Mathilde and Richard, is marked by melancholy, regret, separation and wandering. The work of art as usual succeeding where life failed - Tristan and Isolde are reunited under " the black flag" symbolizing reunion and death (I think ...) .He dies in expectation of seeing her again, she dies of the euphoria of their last meeting. Wagner called it not Isolde's Death but her " Transfiguration " . 
By way of personal confession. Tristan (this performance) was the first Wagner opera I ever bought as a teenager. I will never forget handing the record store salesman the lordly sum of $20 and being given a nickel back ! A horrible portent of a lifetime of buying to come. I have listen to almost all available (major) recordings ranging over almost three quarters of a century, dating from the thirties to our time. I have seen it performed and confess only this week to making some sense of Act III. All the talk of Schopenhauer, the love - death, transcendence, transfiguration, mystical union etc... aside, I never drank the Kool-Aide. There was something about all this disembodied talk about love that I just couldn't accept. But I have a theory and it takes us back to the failed revolution and the bitter life of exile that would follow for Wagner. I suspect that what he and we are really saying "farewell" to is not a woman or love, they are the symbols and emotional catalyst for this truly great musical utterance. It is through the eyes of lovers that we now have the long forestalled reaction to the political failure that was to transform the world. Wagner didn't just want to write great music (he did), or have a great love, he did in the form of Franz Liszt's daughter, Cosima. What never happened was the creation of a world, remade through a politics of utopian values; beyond class with the artist at its center. All that was left was flight into the "infinite private life" and the oblivion and endlessness of the "Tristan Chord".  
Tune in to this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera for what Wagner called his monument to life's greatest dream, Tristan, at noon, here on KPAC and KTXI.
by Ron Moore

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