The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.
The early years of the new millennium (if one takes the millennium as beginning in 2000 rather than 2001) witnessed a flurry of books that take on the much-discussed but always slippery topic of the relationship between Wagner's Tristan and Schopenhauer's philosophy. First was The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 2000). by the British historian of philosophy Bryan Magee. Although the book is about Wagner's engagement with philosophy during his whole career, not just his appropriation of Schopenhauer beginning in 1854, its central chapters offer an intelligent and useful discussion of the philosopher and his influence on the composer, especially with respect to Tristan. Then came Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), by Roger Scruton, who like Magee has written compellingly about philosophy, but who also has a far deeper grasp of music (see, for example, his Aesthetics of Music [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999]), Scruton's fundamental claim is that Tristan is literally a sacred work -- that it offers us a model by means of which we, as contemporary human beings, can enrich and ennoble our lives. In contrast to Magee, Scruton addresses in considerable detail both the literary work on which the opera is based, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan und Isot, and Wagner's music. Schopenhauer's philosophy plays a major role in his reading, but nothing like the commanding role accorded to it by Magee. In between Magee and Scruton is a strange (and massive) new biography by the German journalist and scholar Joachim Kohler, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans (trans. Stewart Spencer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004; originally published as Der Letzte der Titanen: Richard Wagners Leben und Werk [Munich: Claassen, 2001]). Kohler's long chapter on Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Tristan ("The Grand Passion," pp. 408-68) is noteworthy for its iconoclastic view that Wagner's undying acknowledgement of Schopenhauer's influence from 1854 to the end of his life is in fact proof that he was in fact no influence at all--the point being that the composer without exception hid the real influences on his work.
Enter, improbably, Eric Chafe--a scholar-known for his publications on the music of Monteverdi and Bach, not on nineteenth-century opera, and indeed one who has no previous publications on Wagner whatsoever. Chafe's The Tragic and the Ecstatic dramatically trumps all the above works in every respect. This is not to say that they are not worth reading; they are, and one would do well to read them before attempting Chafe. But, in comparison with them, he offers by far the most detailed and persuasive account of Schopenhauer's influence on the opera. His discussion of the relation of Schophenhauerian philosophy to Tristan begins on the first page, and it is the central plank on which Chafe builds his entire interpretation of the work--philosophical, dramatic, and musical. Like Scruton, he engages Gottfried's Tristan in detail, but he argues convincingly that Wagner's opera is at bottom a Schopenhauerian drama with an overlay of Gottfried, not the reverse. Most important, he provides a magisterial analysis of the music, using, Schopenhauer as his guide to develop dramatically and musically compelling readings of all levels of the work, from its global structure down to individual phrases, chords and notes. It is hardly possible to praise his musical acumen--his ear, his sensitivity to motive, harmony, tonal process, and line-- Sufficiently. And his musical skills are supplemented wonderfully by his philosophical, literary-critical, biographical, and archival ones. The Tragic and the Ecstatic is ultimately a work of synthesis, and Chafe's signal contribution is to tie all sorts of disparate threads--Wagner's pre-1854 philosophical and literary influences (Schelling, Hegel, Feuerbach, Griepenkerl), Schopenhauer, Gottfried, the composer's aesthetic writings, his letters, his sketches, the past 150 years of Wagner scholarship, and musical analysis--together into a compelling and convincing interpretation of the opera.
But be forewarned: this book is not for the faint of heart. Chafe sets the bar unusually high. Unlike the other three books, which are aimed at both popular and scholarly audiences, his is uncompromisingly conceived for the professional musical scholar. He expects the reader to move as effortlessly as he does among the elements that he synthesizes, and he especially demands a professional music-analytical skill--a sensitivity to leitmotifs and their subtle transformations, a grasp of Tristanesque harmony and tonal structure, an ability to interpret early versions of music represented by sketches, an ability to move back and forth between musical levels, from opera to act to scene to phrase to chord to single note, and to be able to hold all of the above in one's memory in order to understand the musical, philosophical, and critical points that he is making. I readily admit that, excepting articles or books full of Schenker graphs or music-theoretical mathematics, Chafe's book is the most daunting that I've encountered in a long time; my pages-read-per-hour rate was distressingly low--often in one-digit numbers, even in small one-digit numbers.
The difficulty is partly due to the author's insistence on identifying the musical passages to which he refers and cross-refers by citing the libretto text or a particular motivic usage, rather than giving measure numbers. Excepting chapter 6, on the prelude to act 1, which makes liberal use of measure-number references, there are only about fifteen to twenty measure-number references in the whole densely packed, 330-page book. This practice complicates the already challenging task of understanding what is being claimed about the music, because it is by no means always easy to find the passages to which the author is referring. There are still one or two passages in the book in which I cannot, despite repeated efforts, figure out exactly where the music is that the text is describing. The book includes a moderate number of music examples, but the reality is that, to read the music-analytical chapters (chapters 5-15), one has to have the score at hand and to flip through it constantly to follow the discussion.
Is this work worth the effort? Of course it is. A brief review can only hint at the rewards to be gained. But a summary of a few of Chafe's philosophical and dramatic-interpretive points, and a few of his musical ones, will give a flavor of what is in store. First philosophy. It is Chafe's claim that 'Tristan is at its core a musical instantiation of Schopenhauerian metaphysics--a work that Wagner conceived as he was first reading the philosopher in 1854, but that he initially imagined musically, only later working out the complex relationships between his musical ideas, Schopenhauer's philosophy, and Gottfried's Tristan. For Schopenhauer the physical world is a product of the conscious human mind, and we as human beings are caught in an endless cycle whereby desire, or the Will-to-live, permeates our existence and even sometimes provides temporary pleasure, yet its insatiable demands trap us tragically in the world of "representation." The principium individuationis, as he calls it, prevents escape from our individual selves and from the larger cycle of which those selves are a part. The only escape--the only "salvation," as it were--is the denial of the individual will and the metaphysical submerging of the self in the oneness of the all. This "conversion" into metaphysics from the world of representation is what. Tristan and Isolde experience over the course of the opera, progressing along the way from one to the other of a number of crucial binary pairs: from the physical (the world of "representation") to the metaphysical, from thought to feeling, from head to heart, from surface to depth, from outer to inner, from day to night, from discrete individual to oneness, from conscious to unconscious, and ultimately from life to death.
Although much of this has been noted in scholarship before, never has it been articulated with anything like the clarity, detail, and sophistication that Chafe brings to the task. He has an uncanny ability to take a conception and show how it works from the most global level right down to the level of the single word, or the single note. Thus he sees the lovers progressing, on their path to Schopenhauerian metaphysical conversion, through three stages, which he designates Desire (act 1), Night-Death (act 2), and Transfiguration (act 3). He then carries this interpretation right down to the level of the word, zeroing in on the words "Bewusst," "einbewusst," and "unbewusst," each uttered by Tristan and/or Isolde in acts 1, 2, and 3, respectively, and showing that they articulate the lovers' (Schopenhauerian) growth from individual consciousness (with its associations with the world of representation and desire), to the merging of individual consciousness into one, and finally to unconsciousness and death.
Critical to Chafe's reading of Tristan is what he calls Wagner's "amendment" (p. 5) of Schopenhauer's metaphysics of redemption via the denial of the will. Although Magee, Scruton, and Kohler all discuss how Tristan reinterprets Schopenhauer on this issue, only Chafe connects the three acts of the opera to explicit stages of the lovers' metaphysical growth; only he notes the connection of "Bewusst/einbewusst/unbewusst" to its philosophical underpinnings and its grounding in the drama (Scruton erroneously claims that the lovers maintain their individuality when they achieve redemption through the denial of the will; Scruton, p. 133); and only he grounds his philosophical interpretation in detailed and convincing musical analysis. The essence of the amendment is that, whereas Schopenhauer denied that sexual love can be a path to denial of the will, Wagner, while composing act 2 of the opera in 1858, decided that it can, and he drafted a letter to the philosopher arguing this point. He never sent the letter, but he did make sexual love foundational to Tristan as the first stage of the sequence articulated by Chafe: desire/consciousness/individual will; fulfillment of desire/the dream of love/overcoming of the individual will; and transcendence through the ultimate denial of desire, as the embodiment of what Schopenhauer called the species will.
In this persuasive reading the full range of Chafe's extraordinary critical skills--philosophical-dramatic, music-analytical, and musicological--comes into play. Especially critical is his skill at interpreting compositional sketches. He includes as appendices three passages that are preserved in Wagner's original version of act 2, but were deleted from the final version: the transition to the duet "O Ew'ge Nacht" (this transition sets to music fourteen lines that the composer cut from the final version), and two passages from the duet itself. With these excerpts he attempts to show, particularly on the basis of successions of leitmotifs, that the original version represents more closely Schopenhauer's stages of the denial of the will than the final version; and he speculates that the composer deleted or changed these passages because he felt that they laid out the these stages too explicitly. Making one's way carefully through these arguments (which I find utterly convincing, I should note) points up in nuce both the difficulty and the brilliance of Chafe's book. In order to follow him successfully through the meticulous detail of his presentation, one has to hear internally the passages reproduced from the original version, compare them to the corresponding passages in the final version, consider all the above in the light of the motivic and tonal structure of the whole opera and how both embody the drama, and then evaluate to what degree each version accords with the abstract and metaphysical Schopen-hauerian argument that Chafe is putting forward, both globally and locally. It's hardly surprising that one can read only a few pages per hour.
Of Chafe's countless insights I can mention only a few of the most arresting and intriguing. In showing Wagner's indebtedness to Feuerbach, for example, he focuses not so much on the philosopher's well-known idea of humanity's creating God in its own image--something that virtually everyone who has something to say on the topic (such as Magee) has pointed out--but on his turn from a philosophy of thought, as in Hegel or Schelling, to one of feeling (for Feuerbach, feeling is the "true Absolute"; see pp. 29-30). It was precisely this privileging of feeling over rational thought that provided a foundation of Wagner's aesthetics in the works of 1848-51, and ultimately (with some adjustments) for his conception of music, and what it does in musical drama, from Tristan on. Chafe is content to retain, for the most part, Hans von Wolzogen's venerable labels for leitmotifs in Tristan, but his understanding of motivic processes in the opera far exceeds that of every other previous writer. Regarding musical and dramatic form, he argues that Wagner's famous "art of transition" is ultimately grounded in the underlying principle of "becoming" found in Hegel's philosophy of history, and he has rich and original things to say about how this Hegelian "form as transition" contrasts to and interacts with "form as periodicity" in Tristan. In so doing he steers clear of, yet also clarifies, the vexed issue of musical form in Wagner's work from the Ring on--an issue that has engaged scholars from Alfred Lorenz to Robert Bailey, Carl Dahlhaus, Thomas Grey, and Warren Darcy. Amazingly, he has much to say that is new about the frequently analyzed prelude to act 1 of Tristan, and he offers a reading of its tonal, motivic, and linear processes that is not only persuasive musically, but is also tied elegantly to his broader Schopen-hauerian interpretation. Proceeding from the opening measures of the prelude to the end of the Liebestod, Chafe develops a reading of the tonal structure of the opera that involves 1) a large-scale movement from an A/C axis to an A-flat/B one; 2) a "background" (in a general tonal sense rather than a Schenkerian sense) of an asymmetrical fully-diminished seventh chord that is inflected on the musical surface by the asymmetrical Tristan-chord or half-diminished seventh; and 3) a tonal motion in act 3 of F to B, the compositional model for which is act 2, scene I of Siegfried, the very act on which Wagner was working when he abandoned work on the Ring to take up Tristan in 1857.
A final point: were I to read the entire book carefully, without knowing the title, and then be asked to guess what the title actually is, I would never come up with The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Why? Because, on the one hand, even though the book introduces the Schopenhauerian view of the endless cycle of desire, frustration of desire, and death as tragic; and even though in its first sentence and occasionally thereafter it uses the word ecstatic, it does not foreground these terms; nor does it engage with the theory of tragedy, as the title might lead one might expect. Similarly, although Wagner's musical language in Tristan is widely and legitimately viewed as revolutionary, the book is a multi-faceted critical interpretation of the dramaticmusical text that is Tristan: it is not about the revolution. Accordingly, I would offer a friendly alternate title, one that I think resonates more closely with both its tone and its actual content: Desire, Night-Death, Transfiguration: (Schopenhauerian?) Metaphysics and Music in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Whatever the title, the book is a splendid contribution to Tristan scholarship, one whose salutary influence will be felt for years to come.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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