Imagination creates reality.
– Richard Wagner
CHAPTER AIM: Is there any point…when we remain chained to our desires??
Clip from Act II
Tristan & Isolde is a love story, a passionate love story. Our lovers are Tristan the knight, and Isolde the Princess. But this is no fairy tale or noble courtly romance.
As a portrayal of love, the opera is raw, shocking, and profound. All suffused with sexuality and spirituality of such intensity that it sometimes hard to separate. This was a love story to which Wagner could give full musical expression, after his long study of Schopenhauer’s ideas. This was thought – philosophy even – that Wagner could turn into music.
Tristan and Isolde are already in love, before the opera even starts. But this is a love they cannot have, for Tristan is bringing Isolde home to marry his lord, King Mark. They both drink a potion they believe is a death potion, to end their lives. Only the potion is a love potion, and what was love between them transforms into the most frenzied and unquenchable passion. Theyu both become desperate drug addicts to love, slaves to their immense desires and cravings, representation of pure Will in action. It is a desperate craving that can only be fully satisfied by death.
The opera is intense, to the point of hallucinatory, and it allowed Wagner to created some of the most original and brilliant music ever composed.
Music that has Schopenhauer’s ideas in its DNA.
Take this clip, from the prelude to Act 2:
Isolde is waiting to meet her lover, Tristan. The music reflects her nervous agitation.
Listen to how the rhythmic layering of the lower strings against the upper ones give the sense of a quickening pulse, a nervous energy of desire. This isn’t just lovers meeting for a bite to eat. These are junkie desperate for a fix.
The music is restless, always striving without quite attaining. It articulates the sense of ‘Will‘ that pervades everything in the opera. Every page of the score has this sense of longing and appetite, of reaching for something that never quite falls into your grasp. These are ideas given a musical form, expressed in a way we can instantly understand, without a character singing a word.
This is why for example the violins so often play tremulo. Or why there is so much chromatic movement (ie through semitones as discussed ). The chromaticism – that movement between the smallest units of music, expresses perfectly that sense of inching towards something you cannot quite reach…
These are ideas woven into the harmonic and melodic fabric of the music itself.
Listen again to the famous ‘Tristan’ Chord section, from the overture to the opera:
It’s a chord that gets a lot of attention (Brian Mcgee’s excellent book on the subject is named ‘The Tristan Chord’). That is because it is an intensely powerful rendering of thought into music.
The chord itself acts like a hinge between states, suspending us rather than resolving. Let’s look at that chord in more detail. It is in fact made up of two separate motifs.
The first part of the motif is associated with Tristan, and with what we might call a longing for death:
The second part is associated with Isolde, and equates with desire. I think of it as the curious raised eyebrow instinctively raised, after someone very attractive passes by:
And so built in these two motifs (and these two chords) we already have what really is the crux of the entire opera. That death is always there, awaiting us, rendering our lives meaningless.
And yet we still desire – we desire life – and that continually drives us on.
That sense of compulsion and desire you hear in the opera’s first chords remain constantly throughout. It is a musical expression of ‘Will‘, driving us all compulsively on.
As Wagner himself wrote of his opera:
The motif, tumbling up and down, describes a hunger that cannot be ultimately satisfied, a thirst that cannot be slaked.
And so there is always inherent contradiction in this music. When we hear the motif, we hear a passion, driving the music on. And yet at the same time a futility, a constant dissatisfaction. A failure to complete, or end.
It’s like an engine driving forward, but without end or purpose. Such is the expression of the power of ‘Will’:
We hear this process, this longing for desire to be satisfied, throughout the opera, and we hear it articulated most perfectly, at the very end of our own Liebestod:
The sense of striving and reaching comes from the restless ascent in pitch, key, and volume.
But also listen closely to the notes the violins play. They sound repetitious. But each time, the melody seems to vary, either by note or rhythm. The sequence never quite remains the same, causing the sensation of uplift, and yet constant unsettlement.
We keep reaching towards something…craving a final release…whilst ever rising upwards:
Liebestod near end 2
There is only one way this incessant craving can be relieved. With one has to be the greatest climax ever conceived in art:
Death & Transfiguration
And so, following Tristan’s death at the end of the opera, Isolde joins her lover.
They had never intended to take a love potion, they both thought it was poison. They were seeking death when they drank the potion, and even though they have fallen so shatteringly in love, they have both essentially been seeking death ever since….
Only this isn’t a death. Wagner himself always called this section the ‘Verklärung‘, which means transformation or transfiguration. It’s the rest of us that have kept calling it ‘Liebestod‘ (love-death).
And so in a few bars of music, we can experience something for which Schopenhauer strove across hundreds of pages: an expression of the universal ‘Will’.
It’s a sudden epiphany of a ‘reality’ that lies hidden from us throughout the experience of our everyday lives. A moment of supreme understanding and acceptance, a final relief from the sufferings of our inexhaustible desires.
Relief that can finally only come through the acceptance of our own death.
At this moment, sexuality and death become transmuted – transfigured – into a musical language that defies words. It is the resolution for which not just this finale, but this entire opera has been searching.
It goes beyond words, even Schopenhauer’s. This music feels like a revelation, a spiritual cleansing, and a redemption.
This is what music can do. Reach for the highest emotions and at the same time the most intense expression of pure thought. This is pure philosophy in music.
And it is beautiful.