The Bayreuther Festspiele is underway again in Bayreuth, Germany. It is the annual festival of music dramas by Richard Wagner, in the opera house he designed specifically for his works. Wagner contributed a world of innovations to the opera realm, with his concept of a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk). He sought a single vision uniting the poetic, visual, dramatic and musical arts. He wrote all of his own libretti and texts for his major works, had a hand in costume and stage design, and of course wrote brilliant music. The Bayreuth festival is one of those “things to see”, for every opera lover before they die. It’s funny to me how this prime event occurs outside of the major cultural centers of Germany. Wagner ended up having to go far away to build his temple of the music drama, in part because he was a snake and had sold the performing rights of many of his works to more than one person. If his operas were performed in some of the existing major opera houses, Wagner would get absolutely no money for them. The Bayreuth festival house was a way for Wagner to gain some financial independence for himself and his family, and the festival is still overseen by some of his descendants.
Wagner should have stopped at music and operatic drama, but he also left many writings on philosophy and politics. The political writings show a great deal of the antisemitism of the time and of Wagner’s point of view. This, of course, is repulsive and indefensible. Worse yet, several generations later, the Nazis and their Fuehrer championed Wagner’s music as an example of German superiority in their misguided nationalistic zeal. Wagner’s music was played in concentration camps, and German soldiers, home from the front lines, were forced “guests” of the Fuehrer in the Bayrueth theatre. I think the conductor Daniel Barenboim has said some of the most intelligent things regarding the duality of coming to terms with Wagner, his music and his political views. Some of those can be read in an interview at Barenboim’s website here.
I was going to write a handful of posts on Der Ring des Nibelungen, but something made me think of Tristan und Isolde instead. Wagner took the story of Tristan from a medieval Germanic poem, but the myth itself is one of those ancient tales that seems to have always existed. There are versions of it as early as the 1200’s that have survived, and variations on the tale in over 10 European languages. It is the tragic, romantic story of a knight (Tristan) and a beautiful Irish princess (Isolde). I think it has to be Isolde that gives this story the power to keep being told after 800 years. An Irish queen is beautiful, free-spirited, intelligent, funny, sassy, and one fascinating challenge to be around. If you come into contact with one, you can’t help but be infatuated. It is no wonder to me that one of the greatest romantic stories of all time has an Irish princess at its center.
The music in Wagner’s drama is just as bewitching as the Irish woman in the tale. In fact, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde may very well have been the piece that destroyed tonality. It centers around a harmonic construction called a diminished seventh chord. Now normally, these are very slippery harmonies, because the way they are built they could resolve and lead to any of 8 different major or minor chords for resolution. Normally, this sort of tension and resolution is what gives a piece of music its harmonic forward movement. The diminished seventh chord is by its nature an ambiguous sound, and one cannot predict exactly where it will resolve. In the prelude to Tristan, Wagner simply doesn’t care. His diminished harmonies do NOT resolve. He just wallows in the tension and ambiguity of the chord. One tension follows another and another still after that. It is really a brilliant musical representation of the sexual and romantic tension of the star-crossed lovers that are at the center of this opera. Take a listen.
The precedent that Wagner set with the prelude to Tristan creates a crisis in the world of harmony. Tension and dissonance exist for their own sake, not for their relation to their tonal resolution. This really sets the mess in motion that occupies the bulk of the twentieth century in so-called “art music”.
This is opera, so naturally everyone ends up dead in the end. Tristan and Isolde do not get to live out their days in a cabin in the woods by the lake, dancing in the moonlight on an endless vacation. They die, and cause a good deal of collateral damage along the way in their four-plus hour music drama. It stinks, because I was really rooting for these two. Maybe in a different time and place, there wouldn’t be so many other characters in the opera to get in the way. Wagner’s Germanic mind seemed to have an answer and opinion on everything, I don’t see why he couldn’t have worked it out for Tristan and Isolde. I sure would have appreciated it.