Nina Stemme as Isolde in the Met's new production.
Programme essay on Tristan und Isolde
The hardest synopsis to write, opera critics and scholars will often confess, is of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Just when you’re getting into it, you realize you’ve left out some detail which turns out to be crucial to the story later on, and have to go back and explain it. Perhaps it’s no wonder that that’s precisely how Wagner ended up writing the poem of the Ring, starting at the end and working backwards.
But writing the Ring’s synopsis is a breeze compared to writing a synopsis of the first opera that Wagner composed while taking a break from the cycle, which suffers from the opposite problem: you’re just getting started detailing the action of Tristan und Isolde when you realize you’ve already finished. For so little happens in the opera that a synopsis seems inevitably to miss the point. More importantly, what does happen stubbornly resists explanation. Even if one succeeds in giving a satisfying shape to the lovers’ three attempts to engineer their deaths in order to satisfy the demands of their love, one is still at a loss to show how these desires are motivated in synoptic form, still less to point to the work’s peculiar combination of tragic romance, erotic celebration and enactment of a quasi-religious mystery. At every point, you’re faced with the question: but why?
For all that, the two works do have something very important in common, which is both easy to summarize and to explain. Both are about man’s desire to obtain his freedom. In the Ring man obtains freedom from the gods, whereas Tristan and Isolde seek to obtain freedom from themselves. And in both cases, the agency through which this freedom is effected is love.
Wagner’s lifelong preoccupation with the idea of love, and his conviction that loving desire has an urgent political dimension, derived in part from his immersion as a young man in the radical philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose writings had become a kind of secular bible for the German radical left-wing, among whom Wagner counted himself – until the late 1850s – a committed and active member. The arguments and structure of Wagner’s essay The Artwork of the Future, in which he developed a powerful account of the relationship between art and society, and of how opera and music need to appear if they are to help to bring about and participate in a better society, were inspired by Feuerbach’s book Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. More importantly, Wagner’s Ring cycle was, at least originally, conceived in many respects as a dramatization of the central argument of the most influential and widely read of Feuerbach’s books, The Essence of Christianity.
Gods, Feuerbach argues, did not create mankind. Mankind created the gods, through acts of subconscious invention designed to provide explanations for our fears and desires, and to alleviate the experience of failing to control the paths of our own lives. As man’s knowledge of his world increased, his fears and desires focussed less on everyday objects and more on the phenomena behind them. Christianity, according to Feuerbach, is the most advanced of the religions because its concentration on a single, all-knowing, all- powerful, transcendent god of love answers to the least mediated of human desires: fear of death and desire for love. But even Christianity had had its day, argued Feuerbach, because it is only through binding ourselves to the experience of genuine love that we free ourselves from desires that we have outgrown and no longer need, and that we find our humanity most fully realized. The revolutionary political extension of the argument, upon which Marx and Engels were later to pour so much scorn, is that in coming to a more transparent relation with our needs and desires, we would no long be beholden to masters and laws the need for whom or which we had no real use.
This, in a nutshell, is the outline of the story of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in which man gains his freedom from a loveless world through the experience of compassion and the renunciation of artificially and unnaturally wielded power. Also central to the dramatic landscape of Tristan und Isolde is the way the lovers reject the artificially maintained powers that control their worldly existence. But the comparison only goes so far before it stumbles. King Marke is no Wotan: when his trust is betrayed by his nephew and most loyal servant, he seeks at first only to try to understand the reason for the betrayal. Conversely Tristan and Isolde are no Siegfried and Brünnhilde. They do not seek to reject the worldly order in order to replace it with something better. They seek to reject it because the world has itself become false to them. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde do not seek a better life, for themselves, for others or for anyone. Having found each other, they seek only to extinguish the light of day, in death.
Why? To that question, the answer is to be found not in Feuerbach but in the philosopher Wagner discovered while drafting the music to Die Walküre: Arthur Schopenhauer. Such was the force with which Schopenhauer’s thought struck Wagner during the autumn 1854 that he read his central text, The World as Will and Representation, no fewer than four times in the period of a year. After that, the philosopher’s work remained at his side for the rest of his life, discussed with such frequency and intensity that his wife Cosima began to record in her diary not those occasions on which Schopenhauer was read, discussed and proselytized by her husband, but the rare occasions when he wasn’t discussed.
The core of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a revision and extension of the Kantian notion that the world as we know it is not intelligible without reference to the projections of human consciousness, and to the way that we apply concepts – acquired both from logical intuitions and experience – to unify our sense-perceptions. What we see and hear in the world, therefore, is not what there is to see and hear independently of our being in the world, but is a combined product of our ideas meeting the raw data provided by our senses. In Schopenhauer, the order of and relations between these representations is animated not, as it is in Kant, by reason, but by a noumenal, transcendent force he calls the Will. The Will, the ultimate ground of all there is, both animate and inanimate, is a blind and indifferent striving, and the representations we draw from it are implicitly false in the sense that they divert attention away from the underlying nature of things. The only truth, according to Schopenhauer, can come from rejecting the world of representations and reconciling ourselves to the realization that everything that is, ourselves included, is bound up in the undivided movement of the Will. The only partial let-up, Schopenhauer argues, comes from the experience of compassion and the intuition it offers that we are not hermetic individuals isolated by our different experiences but bound together as transient aspects of the same senseless striving. The insight offers little comfort, in Schopenhauer’s pessimistic world view, but it at least offers truth.
Wagner’s attraction to Schopenhauer fastened primarily on this idea of compassion offering some redemption from the indeterminate striving of the Will, because it was an idea that he had already been ruminating upon himself in connection with the Ring. But another deep connection came from Schopenhauer’s conception of music as being the art form in which the Will was least mediated by false representations. The absence of semantic reference in instrumental music, which for the previous century had led to its being singled out as the least powerful of the arts became, in Schopenhauer’s conception, the reason for its being the greatest of the arts. The way we hear music as a dynamic chain of desiring, from one chord or phrase to another, perfectly describes our subliminal awareness of the movement of the Will.
The drama of Tristan und Isolde is inconceivable without reference to Schopenhauer’s thought, but its scope for explaining the opera is still limited. After all, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is one of political and spiritual pessimism, not a celebration of ecstatic mysticism. He is interested in the phenomenon of compassion as a means of alleviating our blind submission to the Will’s relentless manifestation in the world of representations, but he certainly doesn’t ascribe, as Wagner seems to do, redemptive force to the intensified romantic love depicted by Wagner in Tristan. Indeed, the more one considers the opera as a dramatization of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the more one begins to understand how wide is the gap between the two.
There is, however, another much simpler answer to the question of ‘why’ in Tristan und Isolde, which has to do with Wagner’s understanding of Schopenhauer but doesn’t require it to be explained. The answer comes from considering the work not as an opera in the classical sense of a drama set to music, but as a reversal of this: the opera is a piece of music set to drama. The two principal characters, in that sense, are simply the stage manifestations of the two motifs outlined at the very beginning of the opera’s prelude. The fate of the two motifs, or characters, is also bound up with the chord through which they are conjoined. It is a dissonance which seems to require some kind of outcome – it palpably desires resolution – but what outcome is not at all clear. This is because of the ambiguous construction of the chord, which is a hybrid between a diminished 7th, the most dynamic of the standard dissonant chords, and an augmented triad, the most static. The desire embodied within the chord cannot therefore be understood, or handled, with the usual means. It is, in other words, the perfect musical instantiation of the kind of indeterminate desire which, according to both Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, lies at the heart of human consciousness. Remarkably – and this is one of the things that makes Tristan und Isolde such an extraordinary piece of music, as well as such a viscerally coherent drama – the great moment of climax in the Prelude is in no sense a resolution of the opening moment. It answers the opening question only to restate it with such force and urgency that everything which follows, both musically and dramatically, seems to flow inevitably from the Prelude.
The desire for death, then, and the longing to escape the illusory world of the day, is the desire of this chord, and its two constituent motifs, projected onto the stage. The illusory world of representations, created by the Will as part of our unconscious strategies to ignore it, is revealed as false because they constitute only attempts to distract attention from the true source of our being. The twilight realm into which the two lovers sink so blissfully in the great central duet of Act II is a realm where the false articulations of musical cadences and artificial conclusions lose their purchase and which, as the two lovers begin to realize themselves, can only find its fulfilment in the annulment of desire. Death is therefore blissful because it is the only possible resolution to the ecstatic agony of a life which has come into contact with the truth about existence. Importantly, Wagner’s music doesn’t represent this state of indeterminate desire and its resolution. It just is how that state of desire sounds, and its resolution, at last, with the moment of Isolde’s apotheosis, has to be death – because otherwise the music would never come to an end.
This is why so many opera goers remark that, although the action of Tristan und Isolde retains a decidedly opaque quality when discussed or considered outside of the theatre, it all makes perfect sense inside it. When sitting and listening to the opera in the theatre there is nothing remotely surprising about the choices made by the two lovers, or about the circumstances in which they meet their different deaths, because anyone who listens to the music, and gives it the attention it demands from the outset, instinctively and immediately understands that everything that happens must happen purely as an extension of the harmonic and motivic logic of the music. What we make of it afterwards, when our conception of the world, like that of the two lovers in the second act, has changed so unalterably that the utterances of the people around us no longer have any purchase on our sense of reality, is another matter entirely. Unlike Die Meistersinger and to a certain extent the Ring, Tristan und Isolde doesn’t leave us with any ideas of what we can do in the world once we’ve understood it. We can only go back and listen again, understanding ourselves better and more fully as a result.