The musical drama Tristan und Isolde is Richard Wagner’s testament to his power to impart musical dominance. Regarded as one of the best musical dramas in history, Tristan und Isolde has imparted deep influence and inspiration due to its eclectic amalgamation of ideas circling on the realm of metaphysics. Musical aestheticism is the overriding force in the entire drama, the illustration of its overall poeticism being highly reliant on the way its musical scores are composed. The drama imparts its messages through Wagner’s emphasis on the drama’s entire musical agglomeration. Music strongly portrays various character emotions and scenarios in Tristan and Isolde; it is through that in which the drama’s distinction stands out. Wagner used music as a medium to express philosophical ideas, the essence of the characters and their emotions due to the direct influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. By comparing Schopenhauer’s philosophy with different aspects of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, I aim at proving that Schopenhauer is directly responsible for Wagner’s theory transformation.
Tristan und Isolde deeply portrays Schopenhauer’s influence on Wagner’s musical direction. The esteemed composer took heavy consideration of the qualities of each character and scenario as a technique in steering his musical direction towards full portrayal of the drama. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical view on human beings, which circles on every human’s struggle for meeting aspirations, is evident in the drama. Such is highly manifested in its voluptuous nature, in which Wagner’s musical production fully established the characters’ desire for one another – one that superlatively exceeds the sexual realm. That apparent attribution to Schopenhauer’s philosophical ideas is an important cause of study in this essay. Ergo, this essay has the objective to establish, in an illustrative fashion, that Wagner drew influence from Schopenhauer.
Academic Book Review:
Roger Scruton’s book Death-devoted heart focuses on Richard Wagner’s version of Tristan and Isolde. Through philosophical and musicological perspectives, Scruton explores subject matter ranging from the origins of the story Tristan and Isolde and Wagner’s treatment to the story, to Wagner’s philosophy of religion, love, tragedy, sacrifice and music. Scruton attempts to gain insight into the themes of erotic love and religion. Scruton argues that, the theme of erotic love is taking place in the music and that the aesthetics of music have a strong religious meaning. Scruton also argues that Wagner’s music drama is a profound religious work that aims at being a manifesto for a new religion.
It should be noted that, Richard Wagner’s adoption of Schopenhauerian philosophy was evident in his work before he ever conceived Tristan und Isolde. Many of the central figures in Wagner’s earlier works are actors in a dark universe, where heroism and a striving for happiness run up against the inevitable misery and hopelessness that Schopenhauer ascribed to the temporal world. Wagner came to realize that Schopenhauer’s concept of rejection actually formed “a long-standing, if unconscious, Wagnerian conviction” (Vandenabeele 349). As such, “the main characters of those operas he wrote before coming under the spell of Schopenhauer – The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and even The Ring – already exemplify an attitude very much like the Schopenhauerian negation of life” (349). Wagner’s interpretation of the Schopenhauerian philosophy in Tristan und Isolde can be seen as the natural evolution in Wagner’s musical aesthetic. It is an emphasis on music, which expresses those philosophical concepts that lead Tristan und Isolde to the ultimate fulfillment of their love, the Liebestod. As such, Wagner’s romantic tragedy represents a transformation in music theory, one profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer’s writings.
Certainly, it must be credited that, Wagner’s principle source for Tristan Und Isolde was Gottfried von Strassburg, who wrote Tristan und Isolde at the beginning of the thirteenth century (Scruton 16). However, it must be known that, Wagner did not fully adapt Strassburg’s version, he merely used it as bases for his underlying meaning of erotic love. Wagner had a different vision for his version of Tristan und Isolde, one that would embody both the tragic and ecstatic of human existence through musical aesthetics, a vision that was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Arthur Schopenhauer is a renowned German philosopher, whose work inspired and influenced most of the contemporary arts. Schopenhauer’s prowess in literature and allegory has been echoed and reinterpreted by artists in the 19th and 20th century. His influence is evident beyond philosophical confinements, to include music and other artistic works. Evidently, Richard Wagner’s works are a clear portrayal of Schopenhauer’s influence and inspiration in the music of Tristan und Isolde. For example, in Wagner’s personal letter to a close friend he writes:
“I have now become exclusively preoccupied with a man who – albeit only in literary for – 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 od the will to live, is of terrible seriousness, but it is uniquely redeeming. I havefound 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 properly sated from beginning to end: I have planned in my head a Tristan and Isold, the simplest, but most full-bloodied musical conception; musical, not poetic. With the “black flag” which flutters at the end I shall then cover myself over, in order – to die” (Spencer, Chafe 3).
Through Wagner’s writing’s it is evident that Schopenhauer had a profound impact. For Wagner, Schopenhauer provided the precise blend of metaphysical, poetic and philosophical ideas he had been searching for. As seen above, Wagner was quite direct in crediting Schopenhauer with the inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. However, this time poetry was not to be Wagner’s inspiration. It was rather that, Schopenhauer’s influence inspired the primacy of music by letting the opera express itself not by visual images or words, but by musical aesthetics.
The musical aesthetic aspect of Tristan and Isolde is one of the clearest indictors of Schopenhauer’s inspiration. Schopenhauer’s view of music derives from metaphysics. Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the metaphysical nature of human beings, which he referred to as ‘will’ is portrayed in the individual’s effort to improve his life and his world, though this will ultimately leads to disappointment, since the majority of the things that individuals strive for are short-lived. Schopenhauer’s philosophy of ‘will’ puts grave importance on music. More specifically, Schopenhauer believed that by thinking outside of traditional tonal harmony and melody could represent the essence of the visual world. As Schopenhauer stated:
“Music acts directly upon the will, or the feelings, passions and emotions
of the hearer, so that it quickly raises or changes them, may be explained
from the fact that, unlike other arts, it does not express the ideas, or grades of the objection of the will over to the province of the mere idea. Music never causes us actual sorrow but ever in its most melancholy strains is still pleasing, and we gladly hear in its language the secret history of our will, and all its emotions and strivings with their manifold protractions, hindrances and grief, even in the saddest melodies. When, on the other hand, it is our will itself that is aroused and tormented, we have not then to do with tones and their musical relation, but are rather now ourselves the trembling string that is stretched and twanged” (as cited in Barry 128).
Wagner embedded this ideology of ‘will’ and music from Schopenhauer and reiterated it through his opera, giving life to the inner drama of the characters. By the use of metaphysics or what Wagner called ‘orchestral melodies’, Wagner used the technique of reputation, regrouping of themes, and motifs to make the music visible through the characters emotions. By adapting this new technique, Wagner’s music achieved a new beautiful relationship of atonality and tonality unknown in his previous operas. For example, throughout Wagner’s composition there are several orgasmic peaks, which repeat themes to emphasize love, passion, and death. This use of music to represent emotion is what ethnomusicologist Eric Chafe calls an “affirmation of tonality,” which mirrors the romantic aspect, in the Liebestod, the power of which is brilliantly set up by the atonality of the music leading up to Tristan’s curse in Act 3 (Chafe 14-15). This atonality addresses “something much closer to Schopenhauer’s negative, or pessimistic, wisdom” (14-15). The idea of “affirmation of tonality” is an important aspect when looking at Wagner’s inspiration from Schopenhauer. It is especially important because Wagner is expressing Schopenhauer’s somber perspective of reality through musical aesthetics. Thus, it must be seen that, this form of music displays underlying themes that are largely influenced by freeing the traditional aspects of music composition such as, tonal harmony and melody. With freedom in the musical composition from the constraints of traditional tonal harmony, Wagner was able to provoke such a powerful range of emotion. In so doing, he created a vortex of feeling by consciously using the music as a sensual channel for erratic, even evocative feelings of passion. Through this, it is evident that, Schopenhauer had persuaded Wagner that music could provide a conduit to a deeper realm, one in which rendered superficial traditionally straightforward artistic representation of love, death, and passion.
Wagner’s representations of love, death, and passion throughout the music drama are highly inspired by Schopenhauer, who had previously established that the will to live is largely influenced by the thrill of sexual love. As such, Wagner points out that sexual love is more than an urge to maintain life; it is actually an expression of selfness and willingness of an individual to put his pride aside and consider the interests of his partner (Martin). Wagner demonstrates an intense sexual love that even the physical bodies are considered as obstacles to its satisfaction. At this level, individuals feel compassion to each other, and they put themselves in the shoes of those undergoing the suffering. He establishes that, at this point, individuals feel that hurting one other equates to hurting oneself. As such, both Wagner and Schopenhauer concur that compassion, unity and will of individuals are key components of human satisfaction. And that, craving for a long-lasting union drives this love, where individuals live as one forever even after death.
The theme of love and death produces such extreme reactions, in which the expression of physical love cannot fulfill the lovers’ profound desire for each other. Wagner’s “lovers feel a desire for each other so intense that the physical world cannot contain it and its only fulfillment lies in their voluntary embracing the ‘supreme pleasure’ of the total dissolution of identity, being and life” (2000). It is in his portrayal of the dissolution of the self, the achievement of what Schopenhauer defined as “Nirvana,” that Wagner’s art comes full circle. Death as the conclusion of failed striving and human yearning was a theme that Wagner explored in his earlier works, but which lacked the pathos of Tristan and Isolde’s fate. Schopenhauer’s contention that an “attitude of sympathy” toward the suffering of others is beneficial to the individual (Caldwell 423) is actualized in the finale of Tristan und Isolde
Wagner contrasts the deaths of Tristan and Isolde. Tristan dies full off joy in the presence of Isolde as he was tearing bandages from his wounds. In contrast, Isolde collapses and dies, with no much sentiment as compared to those of Tristan. Wagner portrays Tristan as the force behind the development of tragedy and as such he is the opera’s tragic hero. In a move to identify the forces that brought about Tristan’s untimely death, Wagner portrays the conflicting forces manifested in the world of day and that of the night. The world of the day symbolizes the real world, whereas the world of the night represents the world of the dead. Adding to that, ‘night’ in Tristan und Isolde is also used to depict the realm of timeless reality. It is used to signify the true but inaccessible world occurrences, which are inevitable such as death. In addition, Wagner uses ‘death’ in his composition to signify a moment of emancipation from one form of personality to another, using examples of Tristan and Isolde. Wagner uses human voices to symbolize symphonic texture, through which lovers in Tristan und Isolde submerge themselves and transcend, representing a perfect and long-lived love free from selfishness and selfness (Wagner 1981). Further analysis reveals that Tristan was torn between his obligation and his desires, whereby his death was a consequence of his urge to give up on his desires (Wagner Tristan und Isolde). This ideology was highly influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy on human suffering and his will to give up on his desires.
Both Schopenhauer and Wagner base their philosophies on religion. They both professed Buddhism religion. Through the Buddha teachings, Schopenhauer had established that human sufferings are majorly caused by their desires for different things. Relinquishing on this desire was seen as the solution to ending this suffering. This teaching influenced Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where he symbolically uses putting out of a torch to depict ending of desires and consequently paving way for peace and harmony among individuals. In addition, Wagner uses metaphors of dualities such as day and night, life and death to portray the contrasts between perceptions and reality (Wagner 1981). To illustrate, the lovers in the composition desire for the night, when the music is largely harmonious and untroubled as opposed to the day, when the music is cacophonous and troubled. In addition, four bars, two of which symbolizes suffering while the next two symbolizes yearning, characterize Wagner’s composition. The interface between the two, dubbed Tristan chord (Magee 2002) represents the inseparable nature of the two and is in consistency with the Buddhist teaching on the relationship between suffering and desire. In his philosophies, Schopenhauer had also noted the inseparable nature of the two. As such, both Schopenhauer and his Buddhist religion in his composition inspired Wagner.
Of course, there is more to an examination of Schopenhauer’s influence on Tristan und Isolde than analyzing the psychological effect on Wagner of “the annihilation of the will” (Vandenabeele 349). In fact, Wagner resisted Schopenhauer’s evident gloominess as contrary to the spirit of his earlier works. However, as has been discussed, Wagner (with the help of Friedrich Nietzsche) came to realize that this was not the case. One must also consider Wagner’s re-assessment of his role as an artist. He came to realize that, given the starkness of Schopenhauer’s perspective, art and music had a vitally important place in the world. As such, Wagner concluded “the true role of artis an escape from this intolerable world into an alternative one” (Magee 186). In other words, to provide a means of escape from the inevitability of man’s limited destiny.
Schopenhauer and Wagner formed what is quite likely the most formidable and lasting coupling of ethos and art in modern Western culture. Tristan und Isolde is widely considered one of the most important works of musical theater in the history of the milieu. It opened new vistas of expression for the composer, significantly expanding the importance of music within the context of opera. Schopenhauer showed Wagner that there is a deeper meaning to the human condition but, more importantly, this realization changed Wagner’s approach to music, the potential of which he understood to be unlimited as a means of articulation. Tristan und Isolde is the product of Wagner’s artistic awakening, the last great evolution of a great career. Together,
Wagner, Schopenhauer and Tristan und Isolde form a triad that transformed not only Wagner as a composer but the entire Western musical aesthetic. This is Schopenhauer’s great legacy to Wagner, whose music reached previously unknown levels of complexity and maturity, indicated by his employment of dissonance (the monumental influence of the famous “Tristan chord,” the initial chord in the opera, is perhaps the most notable example of Wagner’s new musical depth). The extent to which Wagner understood and internalized Schopenhauer’s philosophy is evident in the influence that Tristan und Isolde still wields as an icon of Western culture. Wagner had clearly realized the artistic possibilities inherent in a worldview, which held that unachievable desire is what drives human beings. Schopenhauer’s comprehension and musical interpretation of that philosophy helped Wagner fulfill the vast potential inherent in his music.
Conclusively, Wagner’s work on Tristan und Isolde is highly influenced and inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The ideologies presented in Wagner’s composition that ranges from desires, will, conflicts in the day and the night worlds as well as Buddhism teachings, all which inspired this composition traces their origin from Schopenhauer’s philosophy. As such, Schopenhauer remains a source of inspiration and influence to the contemporary artists and writers.