Liebestod – ‘love death’ – is the central theme in Wagner’s opera with that title. A theme that reverberated through European culture from the time of the Romantic revolution – especially German Romanticism (Fichte, Schelling, etc.) – beginning in the European 18th Cent. It was a movement away from what was Christian Europe up to that time, and also against the classical model of the Enlightenment, and focusing in the individual instead of the collectivity of believers; the individual and his/her possibility of transcending all limitations, all limits, in every direction, even transcending individuality itself, and that, for a personal ideal. In Wagner’s own words, “What Destiny separated in life emerges as life transfigured by death”.
But the story of the original legend was much earlier (2nd half of the 12th Cent.). Here is its presentation at that time by an important witness: “Before now many have told the love story of Tristan and Isolde, but none have done so more faithfully than Thomas, and it is primarily his authentic version that I, Gottfried, follow in presenting to all noble hearts the following tale of love, sacred yet forbidden, healing yet destructive, fulfilling yet frustrating, tyrannical yet benevolent. All with noble hearts will understand. May this tale enhance their minds, enrich their lives, and fortify their love.”
Forward to the 18th Cent.: A revolution of feeling – emotional and esthetic – intent on selt-discovery and having as a goal nothing less than Infinity as opposed to finitude. What was the kind of love being explored and made an exemplar? It was tragical love, sacrificial love. This is the theme for both hero and heroine, the latter – and especially in the case of Wagner – acting as a redemptress. Thus, redemption through Love, death being its prerequisite and unlikely complement. (Will cont.)