The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

Synopsis

Chafe argues that Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is a musical and dramatic exposition of metaphysical ideas inspired by Schopenhauer. The book is a critical account of Tristan, in which the drama is shown to develop through the music.

Excerpt

IF THERE IS ONE SINGLE QUALITY of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that underlies its fascination for musicians, culture historians, and a substantial segment of the opera-loving public from its own time to the present, it is that, more than any other work in the Western musical canon, Tristan embodies a vision of human existence in which the tragic and the ecstatic are interwoven, a vision encompassing much that had formerly been the province of religion and that its author now proclaimed the domain of art. That vision drew Wagner to study myth and philosophy, literature and Eastern religion; and it enabled him to recognize qualities in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan und Isolt that reached across the centuries, bridging the two greatest eras in all of German literature. Once realized in the unique sound world that forms the Tristan style, it communicated itself to all around him, most notably the young Friedrich Nietzsche, and it spread rapidly through Europe and the Western world. By now its influence, direct or indirect, is incalculable.

Wagner’s vision is clear from the earliest reference to his plan to compose an opera on Tristan and Isolde, a letter to Franz Liszt of December 1854. This letter is also Wagner’s first announcement of his discovery of Schopenhauer:

I have now become exclusively preoccupied with a man who—albeit only in literary
form—has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven. It is Arthur Schopenhauer, the
greatest philosopher since Kant, whose ideas—as he himself puts it—he is the first
person to think through to their logical conclusion…. His principal idea, the final
denial of the will to live, is of terrible seriousness, but it is uniquely redeeming…. I
have… found a sedative which has finally helped me to sleep at night; it is the sincere
and heartfelt yearning for death: total unconsciousness, complete annihilation, the end
of all dreams—the only redemption!—….

But since I have never in my life enjoyed the true happiness of love, I intend to erect
a further monument to this most beautiful of dreams, a monument in which this love
will be properly sated from beginning to end: I have planned in my head a Tristan and

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