The method to his madness; Richard Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' has been widely misunderstood. And maybe that's a good thing, because those who 'get it' are likely to be driven to distraction by its raw, yearning power.


The music of Richard Wagner's opera, "Tristan und Isolde," can affect you like a jingle; you can't get it out of your head. The difference is that it's not 60 seconds of harmless fluff. It's four hours of music, alternating between erotic yearning and erotic bliss, that continues to grind its gears in your ears long after it's over. Fortunate listeners get a persistent headache; less fortunate ones forget themselves and go mad.

Performances of "Tristan" are rare. The current Washington Opera production, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is its first in almost 20 years. But one must approach Tristan with trepidation. It has always wreaked havoc on oversensitive natures.

The young Bruno Walter, who was to become one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, scraped together enough money from his limited means to buy a ticket for "Tristan":

"And so there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera and from the very first entry of the cellos I felt my heart contract. ... I was no longer of this world. At the end I wandered aimlessly through the seats and when I got home I said nothing and asked to be let alone. The song of ecstasy continued to vibrate within me the whole night long, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew the world was a changed place."

Wagner himself, never one given to understatement or to underestimating his talents, knew he was producing an exceptional work of art even before he had finished it.

"This 'Tristan' is turning into something terrible," he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk, his married inamorata who is often credited with helping inspire this superheated opera about the proximity of love and death. "This final act!!! I'm afraid the opera will be banned -- only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones are bound to drive people insane -- I can't imagine it otherwise."

One is almost tempted to believe that it was his teen-age passion for "Tristan," rather than the syphilis he contracted as an adult, that drove Friedrich Nietzsche mad and into an early grave.

Toward the end of his life, the philosopher rained down curses upon Wagner's head: "Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a sickness? Everything he touches he makes sick -- he has made music sick. I have observed young men who were exposed for some time to his infection. The first relatively harmless effect is the corruption of their sense of taste. Wagner has the effect of a continuous use of alcohol. He dulls the senses, congests the stomach. ... In the theater one becomes mob, herd, woman, Pharisee, voting animal, patron, idiot -- Wagnerian."

Yet even in his dementia, Nietzsche fondly recalled the passion with which "Tristan" inspired him when he was only 16: "Even now I am still in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as 'Tristan' -- I have sought in vain, in every art."

Part of the fuss about Wagner in the composer's lifetime -- and about "Tristan" in particular -- was caused by his frank musical treatment of physical desire. Sexual longing is the subject of the opera and the process by which Wagner's music depicts such yearning is no mystery.

The prelude to "Tristan" begins with what was then the most extended dissonance in the history of Western music -- sighing chromatic phrases that provide a potent musical image of the work's preoccupation with yearning.

Wagner began to write "Tristan" in 1854, after finishing the first act of "Siegfried," the third of the four "Ring" operas. He needed a break from the gargantuan story of the "Ring" and he had fallen in love with Mathilde, the beautiful and intelligent wife of his chief source of financial support, the silk merchant Otto Wesendonk.

It was never enough for Wagner to merely borrow money from his friends and never return it; he had to borrow their wives as well. Actually, it's unlikely that Wagner ever consummated his passion for Mathilde Wesendonk. Despite his huge head, with its oversized nose, and his dwarfish body, Wagner was surprisingly attractive to the opposite sex. But Mathilde seemed happier just to serve as Wagner's muse.

In 1857, the composer moved into a small house adjacent to the Wesendonks' mansion in Zurich, and relations between the two families began to deteriorate. Wagner's first wife, Minna, was insanely jealous of Mathilde. And the composer's behavior to Otto was hardly calculated to improve things: when the composer and Mathilde were alone discussing artistic matters, Wagner began to obstreperously object to Wesendonk's presence in the man's own drawing room.

Soon Wagner found himself living alone in Venice -- without a wife, without a muse, without a wealthy benefactor, without any money and with an opera to write. All he had was the misery created by his yearning for Mathilde. But those feelings were the ideal soil from which an opera based on the medieval Romance of Tristan and Iseult could grow.

This romance, which made its first appearance in 12th-century Provence in five separate versions, is perhaps the central myth in the evolution of the Western idea of love or, more properly, of passion. It is less about love than about desire and romantic yearning. Tristan and Iseult (Wagner Germanized the spelling) are not kin to Romeo and Juliet, or even Heloise and Abelard.

Tristan and Iseult is the one great European myth about adultery. It belies the illusion that marriage can fulfill our needs for passion and it links the latter with death.

Wagner's own outline for the opera makes exactly this point:

"The loyal vassal, on behalf of his king, woos Isolde, the woman whom he will not admit to himself he loves, who goes with him as his sovereign's bride because she is powerless to do anything but follow the wooer. Thanks to a [mistakenly taken] love potion, the passion of Tristan and Isolde suddenly flares up and they have to confess mutually that they belong only to each other. And now there are no bounds to the longing, the desire, the bliss and the anguish of love. The world, power, fame, glory, honour, chivalry, loyalty, friendship are all swept away like chaff, an empty dream. Only one thing is left alive: yearning, insatiable desire, ever reborn -- languishing and thirsting; the sole release -- death, dying, extinction, never more to awaken!"

Few operas have been so misinterpreted as "Tristan" -- in the mistaken belief that Wagner is dealing only with sensual desire and its satisfaction.

That so mistaken a notion is so widely shared by audiences testifies to the wonderful ability of the theater-going and CD-buying public not to hear what is being sung and played. It's no wonder they don't get headaches and don't go mad.

Those who take "Tristan" seriously enough to be infected by its grim but intoxicating vision almost invariably do.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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