Tristan und Isolde
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 self-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 a tragic, sacrificial love. This is the theme for both hero and heroine, the latter – and especially in the case of Wagner – acting as redemptress. Thus, redemption through Love, death being its prerequisite and unlikely complement.
“Never in my life” – Wagner wrote – “having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.”
In his mature years, Wagner described Tristan as a kind of pilgrimage, an expression of how to reach out beyond the world, the flesh and the devilish itch of sexual desire, to the pure realm of the spirit. This is something that has been passed by by many commentators and critics, and it is by and large the most important dimension when thinking of, talking, or writing about love, desire, suffering, yearning or longing…
Apart from the role woman played in Wagner’s spiritual aspiration and interiorization, and confluent with it, was the influence that Buddhism and Brahmanism via Schopenhauer ‘s philosophy exerted on him. He wrote: “The life of man is a continual slaying of the self… Death accordingly is the most perfect deed of love: it becomes such through our consciousness of a life consumed by love”.
“Tristan and Isolde’s love is a force of nature that exists outside social and cultural convention, just as Wagner’s music creates a new world of harmony and a parallel dimension of orchestral sumptuousness and color; so much so that you feel the music creates its own consciousness, that it lives, breathes and feels just as organically as you do.” (from ‘Notes’ guardian.co.uk – Tom Service)