Thursday, September 24, 2009


This is a post about Wagner.

No, not that Wagner, this Wagner:

I like opera (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the pretty stuff, the accessible stuff: Verdi, Puccini, Bizet's Carmen, Cav & Pag, that lot.

I like classical music (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the likes of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tchaiko, R. Strauss, sacred music, 20th century Brits.

I don't spend much time or money on Wagner. I agree with Mark Twain that Wagner's music is better than it sounds: as Twain said, having attended Parsifal, "The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing." And afterward: "Seven hours at $5 a ticket is almost too much for the money."

And yet after decades of marinating in, reflecting on, being transported, enlightened, educated & ennobled by classical music in general, and opera in particular, I return again and again to eight minutes of Richard Wagner, the final aria of Tristan und Isolde: Der Liebestod. I'm old enough now (or stupid enough) to propose that this eight-minute song is the greatest work of art ever created by a human being. Higher than not just every other piece of music, but all architecture; all literature; all drama; all painting & sculpture. The best. The one.

Please note: I'm not saying Liebestod is the greatest thing man has ever done; it's the greatest work of art.

I tell you now, I will drop dead if anyone would draw this conclusion having listened to Liebestod once. A more likely reaction would be one had endured it, outlasted it, survived it. The music wanders, shapeshifts, restless, weird....unmusical? The voice & orchestra meander around one another. The lyrics, detached. Yet taken as a whole it's also intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, alluring, immense, pointing to something unclear. If music were seen and not heard, St. Paul would say, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood."

Through repeated listenings spread out over decades, Liebestod has become less dim; clearer, but not fully so. As Paul says, full understanding will come.

To give the reader some background, Tristan und Isolde is a tragedy not unlike Romeo & Juliet. In the final Liebestod scene, Isolde mourns over the body of the beloved Tristan, then dies from sorrow. Yeah, yeah, been there, seen that. But Liebestod (love-death) is about much more than Isolde's grief on so many levels at the same time, bears a range of ideas and emotions through mutually-supporting elements of the music, the voice, the plot, the lyrics. The appeal is very, very intellectual; but also powerfully emotional at a primal level. Liebestod grabs onto some ancient, pre-language, pre-culture, time out of mind part of humanity we can't fully understand, the dirt that God breathed life into; and stirs it. From desolate despair to eternal serenity in eight minutes.

And the scale. It veers from the Isolde's miniscule focus on Tristan's eyelids (are they opening? is he alive?) to a vast, horizonless expression of joy, a release from life's grinding, sorrow-wracked struggle, to transcendence. All the passions of love, life, God, death & eternity explode, detonate at a galactic scale, then fade, leaving a gentle residue of God's infinite love. No kidding. I'm still moved to tears, looking at a computer screen.

But don't take my word for it, listen again to the curmudgeon Mark Twain:
This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.
But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
I know what he means. There's no substitute for repeated exposure to the work.

And I'll quote 1Corinthians again, because Liebestod always reminds me of Paul at his most eloquent:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away......So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Rather than link to one of the online videos of the actual opera, I offer this performance, depicted on the album cover at the beginning of the post:

YouTube - Karajan - Ultimo Concerto - Wagner Liebestod

It features the conductor Herbert von Karajan in what I understand is his last performance. He chose to spend the final eight minutes of a 60-year career in music conducting Liebestod (von Karajan died about a year later). The heroically beautiful Jessye Norman sings Isolde's death, and von Karajan expresses the winding-down of his own life through Isolde's: eight minutes, two minutes, two seconds....done. I believe this is the greatest artistic moment in human history. All the elements combine: singer, conductor, orchestra, composer, audience, building, culture, to show what human beings can achieve. How Man still cooperates with God to create beauty that must exceed our own limitations, even at the close of a century that endured the Godless scourges of Communism, Nazism, and worse. This is the wonder of the West. The centuries of accumulated knowledge; lifetimes of rigorous training; the sacrifice of time & money; the systematizing of music; the exactitude of the instrument makers; the preposterous invention of a symphony orchestra; building a concert hall; all this tremendously expensive resource-devouring effort, all this, this fabulous waste just to crack open an eight-minute window into the Mind of God. But it is worth it.

But don't watch it yet! Wagner takes getting used to....sometimes a lot of getting used to. You may decide to first watch this more accessible piece:

Here is the Prelude to Das Rheingold. In the opera it expresses the flowing water of the Rhine river. In the video it accompanies the exquisite, wordless opening scene of The New World, directed by the auteur Terence Malick (I will not digress about Malick), possibly to a greater effect than in the opera:

YouTube - The New World - Vorspiel

A last note: I haven't said much about Liebestod's lyrics. They absolutely contribute to the complete experience, but at least to start, there's no way to deal with either the German or the English while also trying to take in the rest of the work. The words are at the bottom of this page:

Richard Wagner - Libretti - Tristan und Isolde

BTW, feel free to post your own choice for the #1 work of art if you have one. It doesn't have to be music.


Otepoti said...

Bach's Mass in B minor.

He had me at "Kyrie"...

kkollwitz said...

Thatnks, I'll have to check it out. Interesting that both of us have picked music.

Otepoti said...

A painting or sculpture, however great, can exist in only one place, and may not even stand the test of time very well.

A reproduction of the artwork is only an aide memoire of the real thing.

A work of music, on the other hand, is still itself, no matter where or how or how many times or even with what degree of expertise it is reproduced.

Hence, music is the primary artform, and all others are secondary.

I'd be interested to hear your response to the Mass in B minor.