Then let us sail across the sea and here and there found a young Germany…but let us do better than the Spanish, who turned the New World into a papal slaughterhouse, and better than the English, who have turned it into a shop.
– Richard Wagner
CHAPTER AIM: Exploring the historical context of Wagner’s work
Tristan & Isolde, Prelude to Act III
The years leading up to the composition of Tristan & Isolde had witnessed unparalleled political unrest across Europe. Germany itself didn’t yet exist as a unified nation, but was still the patchwork of states and principalities it had been for centuries.
Wagner himself had manned the barricades in Dresden in 1849, campaigning for a new Republic. After the failure of the uprising, the penniless composer fled to Switzerland to become a political fugitive in order to avoid arrest.
And yet, by the time Tristan & Isolde was staged (1861), Wagner was on his way to building his own new opera house, and Germany was on its way to building its own new nation.
1848, the Year of Revolution
The real political earthquake had come at the end of the 18th century, with the French revolution of 1789. That turned out to be only the start of a number of uprisings that questioned the very social fabric of European society.
These upheavals culminated in a series of revolutions that happened around 1848. Across dozens of countries, protests led to all kinds of mass uprisings stemming from a bewildering variety of causes. Barons rose up against kings, serfs against landlords, indigenous peoples against foreign occupiers.
Conflict was everywhere. “Society was cut in two” remarked Alec de Toqueville in his reflections on the events of 1848, “those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had something united in Terror”.
Wagner was politically active, and a strong German nationalist. Germany itself was not (yet) a unified nation, but a loose federation of kingdoms and principalities. Wagner and his fellow revolutionaries wanted a full integration of the Germanic Peoples into a fully autonomous democratic Republic.
The uprising in Dresden failed, and the authorities tried to arrest Wagner. The composer fled the Kingdom of Saxony to self-imposed exile in a country which had itself only recently become a federalized nation: Switzerland.
Meanwhile Germany itself remained nothing more than an idea. A romantic idea.
Tristan & Isolde, Prelude to Act III
Wagner was suffering more than just political problems at the time he began composing Tristan & Isolde, in 1856. He’d basically been ducking creditors for years.
Much of the hardship came from the struggle to put his own ideas of what musical drama ought to be into practice. His first staged work Rienzi (1840) was a success (and also rather pleasant on the ears). He could easily have turned out more traditional operas like it, with more choruses and more obvious tunes.
But the restless and intellectually ravenous Wagner never going to be satisfied producing standard fare. Instead, he composed increasingly long operas with less and less obvious melodies. This had culminated in his composition of an epic four-opera political allegory, The Ring. He was midway through the third of the operas, Siegfried, when he stopped work and began work on Tristan und Isolde.
Exile in Switzerland brought not only a break from politics, but also a big change of perspective.
Installed in a lakeside villa by a wealthy patron (with whose wife Wagner had an affair, as related ), the strife of revolution must have seemed distant. Wagner was wearied of the political world, with its empty ambitions and false promises.
Wagner retreated from his overtly political work, setting aside his Ring cycle in the middle of the third opera (Siegfried) in order to begin work on 1856 on Tristan & Isolde.
The story is a medieval tale of amour fou between two lovers, brought together by the effects of a love potion. But it was the music that insisted itself upon Wagner. He described how musical components for the opera kept coming to him, until he had to put The Ring aside, and commit them to paper.
Tristan & Isolde
Tristan & Isolde, Prelude to Act I
The story of the opera involves Tristan bringing Isolde home to Ireland, as a trophy of war for his King to marry. But the pair are already in love with one another, and take a potion they believe is poison in order to end the pain and shame of their situation.
Only, the potion turns out to be a love philtre.
Their love becomes a flaming – and unquenchable – passion, a roaring furnace of intense feeling that blows away all feelings of courtly honour or decorum. The world of rulers and politics becomes a blur, even to the ever-loyal Tristan. As their ship arrives in Ireland and the king prepares to board, the stunned Tristan doesn’t even know who his lord is anymore. “Which king?” he sings.
Now Isolde is everything to Tristan, and Tristan is everything to Isolde. Passion blurs all boundaries between them. And yet nothing will satiate this passion.
Nothing that is, but death.
Tristan & Isolde is a philosophical and psychological investigation, not a political one. It was written as a retreat from politics and political art.
And yet at its core, this opera communicates a deep need for conclusion and union.
Wagner had become deeply depressed during his exile in Switzerland. This opera could be said to represent the deep longings beating deep within the heart of a German Nationalist, living away from his homeland. Longings shared by many Germans of this time.
A desire for unity.
After completing the opera (1859), Wagner struggled for years to get it staged. But suddenly in 1864 his fortunes were reversed. Ironically for the ex-revolutionary Wagner, it took the efforts of a king to affect the change.
Prince Ludwig of Bavaria had long been an obsessive admirer of the beautiful. When he was a boy, ugly faces actually made him cry. That meant certain servants keeping their distance from the young child.
The foppish young Prince was big fan of Wagner, and a passionate admirer of his operas. So when ascended to the throne as King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1864, he immediately set out to persuade the composer to move to Bavaria’s capital, Munich.
It would be fair to say the young king (and lifelong bachelor) was suffering from more than a little case of hero worship.
Wagner may not have reciprocated Ludwig’s feelings, but he did have a soft spot for the King’s power and wealth.
The deal that eventually brought Wagner to Munich involved paying off all the composer’s considerable debts, not to mention the King’s promise to build a grand new opera house exactly to the composer’s specifications at Bayreuth.
“He sends for me twice a day, I fly to him as a lover…” Wagner wrote caustically to a friend that same year, “…we sit for hours, lost in each other’s gaze”.
It’s a relationship which dramatizes how far the wheel of fortune had turned during the period we’ve been looking at over this course. The 18th century Bach would never have thought to question the rights of his rulers to rule.
Mozart shows rather more dissent, taking on a freelance career in Vienna, and later joining the Freemasons. A generation later, at the start of the 19th century, Beethoven was declaring himself the equal of princes.
Now, the wheel seemed to have turned fully. As far as things went with Prince Ludwig, Wagner seemed to be the one in charge.
The 19th century may have been a troubled time for the royalty of Europe, but the art-form that would later be labelled ‘classical music’ was becoming increasingly popular. It was also reaching a wider public. By Wagner’s time, the art-form was hitting a popular peak.
The pianist and composer Franz Liszt was playing sell-out tours to swooning female fans. Opera composers like Verdi and Meyerbeer were hugely successful celebrities. Even Wagner, struggling for years to stage Tristan & Isolde, was acquiring a growing entourage of adoring acolytes.
Amongst these was Liszt’s own daughter, Cosima. The young woman was actually married to another Wagner devotee, the conductor Hans von Bülow. But that was no impediment to Wagner. Soon after finishing the score for Tristan & Isolde (and finishing the affair with Mathilde Wessendock) Wagner and Cosima began an affair of their own.
Cosima gave birth to Wagner’s illegitimate daughter a few years later, on the day von Bülow began orchestral rehearsals for Tristan & Isolde. Bülow, who venerated Wagner, pretended not to notice what everyone else could see. He accepted the child as his own.
They even named her Isolde. It was the very hottest show-biz gossip, 19th century-style.
It’s again worth comparing Wagner’s situation with the earlier composers on this course.
Bach was never really famous in his lifetime, not in the sense we recognise it today. Mozart was more celebrated, but as a performer of the piano rather than as a composer.
By the time Beethoven was an old man, the deaf composer had sometimes to contend with the trickle of curious fans and musical tourists that tried to make his acquaintance.
But once Wagner was installed at Bayreuth, the coterie of fans had swelled to a flood, who all needed careful chaperoning. It was a role performed by Wagner’s second wife-PA, Cosima.
Thanks to King Ludwig’s largesse, pilgrims now had a shrine to visit.
Wagner believed an opera house – his opera house – should be more than a place of entertainment. It should fulfill a spiritually educating function, more like a church. A cultural shrine, a place for German people to come together and quench their spiritual thirst.
The new opera house at Bayreuth was built – at great cost – according to the specific designs of Wagner himself. The theatre premiered his Ring Cycle in 1876, to an audience that included Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Schumann, Bruckner and Liszt.
The situation materially affected Wagner’s own life.
By now he could comfortably afford the expensive silks, thick carpets, and exotic perfumes which he adored. All of it paid for by King Ludwig, who was in the process of bankrupting himself by lavishing money on a series of fantasy castles that make Bayreuth look positively frugal.
When Ludvig had finally emptied the Bavarian coffers, It was Bismark’s Prussia who eventually settled the King’s debts. But the settling came at a heavy political cost for the ‘Mad King’, as he was termed in his own lifetime.
The price? Bavarian agreement for the unification of Germany.
Return of the King
A few short months later, in January 1871, Germany was unified. No one cheered louder than Wagner at this unprecedented Prussian and (as it could now be called) German success.
Wagner had always given full-bloodied voice to the cultural sentiments of German Nationalism. And for him, that didn’t mean any bonds with the Princes, Kings, or Electors that had governed German soil. Wagner felt he represented a body of people bound by a common language and culture.
It was this nationalist culture that Wagner had sought to reinforce with operas like Tännhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848), operas about mythic German knights that attempted to create (or reconnect with) a German nationalist identity.
Small wonder artists like Wagner – or Verdi in Italy – came to be held in such fanatical esteem in their homelands. The timing of their arrival upon the national stage was perfect. These are artists who gave voice – literally – to their people’s nascent desire for nationhood. These are composers who represented their nation’s aspirations, and whom became venerated by many in their nation.
Not everybody was happy about the way the events were heading.
As Wagner held court in Bayreuth in 1871, his former friend, the philosopher Nietzsche, observed the composer surrounded by voices of Power and Nationalism.
“Since Wagner had returned to Germany” as he later wrote, “he had condescended step by step to everything that I despise—even to anti-Semitism…“.
“I can’t listen to Wagner without wanting to invade Poland” quipped Woody Allen.
As a strident German Nationalist with anti-Semitic prejudices, Wagner would inevitably become tainted by the stain of Nazism. Hitler was a passionate admirer, which hardly helped. Wagner’s music became the semi-official soundtrack to the Third Reich.
Wagner cannot be blamed for the rise of Hitler, but nor is he entirely innocent of the horrors of twentieth century Germany. He was an avowed anti-Semite, and he automatically lent respectability to these pernicious ideas.
Wagner believed Germans were superior to others, culturally and racially. He believed that superiority came from the properties of blood. What Wagner founded in Bayreuth rapidly became a nest of racism, fascism, and, by the 1930s, Nazism.
Wagner’s reputation remains damaged to this day.
It’s an issue with an aesthetic as well as political dimension. To the modern ear, Wagner’s Romanticism can sound too idealized, too rich, too metaphysical.
And too aggressive.
The sound of Wanger’s music can seem to overwhelm the listener, to batter at the ear-holes, demanding entrance. I’d make a reasonably guess that Wagner’s may, for many of you, be the hardest music to engage with on this course.
That is of course is a shame. Wagner is politically complicated, and some of his ideas are actually repugnant. To quote from his imfamous 1851 essay on Jewishness in music “In particular does the purely physical aspect of the Jewish mode of speech repel us…The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant, in the Jew’s production of the voice-sounds, is a creaking,
squeaking, buzzing snuffle.” Not exactly ideas that have stood the historical test of time.
He also represents the unfortunate swing from Republicanism to Nationalism that took place during the 19th century. Beethoven talks about brothers, but for Wagner those brothers are German ones.
And since Nationalism led to the bloodbaths of First and Second World Wars in the 20th century, it’s again hardly a reputation to shout about. Wagner requires critical attack on these unpleasant subjects, and his attitudes cannot be totally ignored.
And yet – and this is the big one – there is the music. On this there is no compromise, it is brilliant.
If you feel something in you resisting the music, let yourself go, allow yourself be swept away. You have to be taken by Wagner’s music to appreciate it. This isn’t music you have to grasp, it’s music that grabs you. And it will take you – if you let it – to new and unexpected places of musical delight.
Wagner’s politics are messy and complicated. But his music represents such a totality of sound and thought that surrender is the only option! As the music critic Richard Taruskin put it,
“Everybody feels oppressed during a Wagner performance. That is part of the appeal.”
- at the same time in Italy, Verdi represented a nation’s desire to unify. His Slave Chorus from the opera Nabucco is usually cited as a call for freedom, but check out this wonderfully rousing duet from Don Carlos, with its clarion call to “Liberta!”.
- The Czech composer Dvorak wrote this highly entertaining Slavonic dance (series 1 no 8). And his New World symphony, written and premiered during a three year visit to America, shows that composer’s were also sensitive to other regional influences. It’s opening movement in places sounds like a film score for a traditional western, and this its celebrated 2nd movement, is generally thought to have been influenced by Negro Spirituals.
- The Norwegian composer Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King is truly exhilarating, and seems to throb with a rocky dark intensity that could only come from Northern Europe.
- And soon, Sibelius would chime in from Sibelius. Here is one of Classical Music’s most rousing tunes, from the final movement of his second symphony.