May 26, 2005


Wagner and The Lion King: Where to find the total work of art: a review of Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton (John H. McWhorter, May/June 2005, Books & Culture)

Richard Wagner's lasting claim on our attention rests above all on his conception of the "total work of art" or Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, poetry, dramatic action, and visual spectacle blend to create an overpowering experience. In description, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk operas tantalize. One reads that in his later works such as Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Ring Cycle, Wagner eschewed arias designed to show off singers and provide passing delight. Instead he tightly yoked vocal lines, orchestral accompaniment, and visual setting to the purpose of conveying inner psychology, mythic ideals, and philosophical truths, in a quest for a quintessentially mature art form. One eagerly anticipates the magic.

In performance, however, these operas are a truly curious experience, and ultimately exhausting. One must do without discrete songs; the vocal lines are mostly a kind of extended recitative, integrated tightly with ever-shifting colors from the orchestra. The narratives themselves would fit on one side of an index card; most of the time, little is actually happening onstage, and what does happen moves quite slowly. In Die Walküre, Wotan spends an hour recapitulating the events in the preceding Das Rheingold. In Tristan and Isolde, King Marke, catching his bride Isolde with Tristan, declaims his sense of injury for about twenty minutes—and in vocal lines with not even a hint of a "take-home tune." The pieces also require a certain Sitzfleisch: the second act of Die Walküre alone runs over two hours. Tristan takes over four hours for a plot that consists of the lovers coming together by drinking a love potion, Tristan being mortally wounded and taken to his homeland, and Isolde coming to expire along with him.

Why do these pieces occupy such an exalted place in the artistic canon? Addressing that question regarding Tristan and Isolde, Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart is an elegant, erudite exploration attempting to make the operagoer "get" this piece and, by extension, Wagner's intent in all of his Gesamtkunstwerk ventures.

Scruton shows us that traditional dismissals of Tristan's brief plot as Wagner's self-therapy in the wake of a frustrated love affair miss the point. Wagner infused his version of the oft-told tale with insights from Schopenhauer's conception of life as a vile illusion and German Romantic poets' fascination with "night" and "death" as driving themes of existence. His Tristan, in particular, presents himself in a crucial passage as a creature of darkness bound to love only in death; here is his "heart devoted to death" (Todgeweihtes Herz) in Scruton's title. Tristan's mother died in childbirth, depriving him of the ability to find love in the harshness of light, and hence to truly be united with him, Isolde must follow him back into the "wondrous realm of night." Wagner's lovers are bound in an attraction so powerful that its only possible consummation is mutual expiration, the maximal manifestation of subsuming themselves within each other.

So Tristan is Darth Vader?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2005 8:13 AM

And the denouement is a bunker in Berlin. Fitting.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 26, 2005 9:25 AM

tristan would be more akin to luke skywalker, whose mother also died in childbirth.

Posted by: cjm at May 26, 2005 9:48 AM

tristan would be more akin to luke skywalker, whose mother also died in childbirth.

too bad there is no book on offer for this movie reference.

Posted by: cjm at May 26, 2005 9:49 AM