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Absolute Wagner

Passion in Tristan and Isolde — By Valère Etienne / BmO

A corner stone of the Western operatic repertoire, Tristan and Isolde stands alone in Wagner’s oeuvre as the superlative expression of human feelings, as an attempt to utter the ineffable: “Only love brings self-knowledge [...] It’s essence is inexpressible, one can only show its movements and variations”, affirmed Wagner. Performing “Tristan” is thus a challenge obliging the performer not only to show passion but to live it.

One can easily have the impression, with Tristan and Isolde, of being confronted with a Wagnerian absolute. Whether this stems from the “metaphysical” aspect of his subject, or from the relative absence of nationalistic or Pan-Germanic references which, in many other of Wagner's operas might put off those music lovers most resistant to his universe, Tristan has a certain broadness of appeal. For, whatever the sources drawn on by Wagner (Gottfried of Strasbourg’s poem, Hymns to the Night by Novalis or Schlegel’s Lucinde ...), ultimately the subject explores the simplest and most universal themes in all their purity: love, suffering and death. And it depicts passion in so absolute a form that, as Romain Rolland said, Tristan towers above all other love poems like a mountain.

As has been stated, love in Tristan and Isolde, appears in its most metaphysical form. This can be seen for example in the way Wagner treats the theme of the love philtre, which here does not play at all the same role as in the original myth: the philtre, this time, functions as a poetical metaphor; it does not engender the love between Tristan and Isolde: that love was already there before the two lovers drank it. Had their love been provoked by the philtre, their passion would have been but a relative passion, a phenomenon belonging to the material and temporal world of cause and effect. It exists, instead, in its own right, timelessly: rather than an objective reality, it is the way in which the two lovers see the world, it is their desire and their will projected on the world (the extent to which Tristan was influenced by Schopenhauer is well known). One need hardly add that the love between Tristan and Isolde does not require staging: rather, it inhabits the characters from within and is lodged at the heart of the singing and the music. Technically, this translates, for example, into the abandoning of recitative in favour of continuous melody: it is less important to further the action than to give life to an emotion.

Ludwig et Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld dans les rôles-titres de Tristan et Isolde lors de la création de l’œuvre à Munich, 1865
Ludwig et Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld dans les rôles-titres de Tristan et Isolde lors de la création de l’œuvre à Munich, 1865 © Joseph Albert

Wagner’s major preoccupation in Tristan, more than in any of his earlier operas, was to live passion and elicit it in others, rather than seeking to express or show it. In 1859, had he not written to Mathilde Wesendonck, who inspired the work, that he wanted all the subtle shades of human feeling to be heard in his music with their incessant swings from one extreme to the other, independent of any action depicted and that no discourse is able to express? He thought he had found the ideal performer for Tristan when the tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who first interpreted the role in the premier performances in Munich in 1865, understood and immediately embodied his thinking, almost without his having to communicate it in words. “When I told him in a low voice that it was impossible for me to express any judgement of my ideal, that he was now about to realise, his dark eyes sparkled like a star of love ... A sob, barely perceptible, and never again did we utter a word concerning the third act”. Carolsfeld was so powerfully possessed by the role of Tristan and lived its passions so fully that Wagner, fearing for his health, ordered performances to be interrupted after the fourth night. “I do not think I have the right to inflict such a state of distress on a man”, he said. And, in fact, the singer, aged twenty-nine, died six weeks later ... Wagner, devastated, mourned not only a friend but also the ideal interpreter of his music, a performer that Carolsfeld had allowed him to glimpse and of which he held the ineffable secret.

Tristan appears once again in 1903 in the eponymous novella by Thomas Mann, exemplifying passion represented in art with such purity that one can only play it by experiencing it from within, and not express it or describe it. Thus, when the ingenuous Gabrielle plays some of Wagner’s most memorable passages on the piano, (the prelude, the second act and the death of Isolde), all their expressive force naturally pours forth. By her side, Herr Spinell, a connoisseur, launches into a long exalted speech that takes up some of the most passionate expressions used by Wagner in his libretto; but his words alone, not being music, appear to Gabrielle as mere obscure rhetoric, leaving her mystified. “I don’t understand everything, Herr Spinell, there are many things I only guess at [...] But how is it that you who understand this so well, cannot play it?” she asks. “The two rarely go together,” Spinell concedes, caught off guard. What one cannot express in words must be lived, played: that is where art begins.   

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