The last words of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, sung by Isolde, are "höchste Lust" ("highest bliss"). It is typical of the world of Tristan und Isolde that this is a paradox. Corpses surround her. Her adulterous lover, Tristan, his loyal servant, Kurwenal, and the man who loved but betrayed Tristan, Melot, all are dead. Her rightful husband, King Marke, stands, literally impotent. Her loving servant Brangäne is forgotten. They have all been left far behind. And that's the point. Life as we know and supposedly crave it has been left far behind. Tristan isn't dead, but lives more truly than any of us, or any of those around Isolde. Nor does she die; she joins Tristan in the life most of us can only aspire to, death.
Sometimes Isolde's last outpouring is called the "Liebestod" ("Love-Death"). But that's a mistake. Wagner called it a "transfiguration." Tristan and Isolde are reborn through the wound made by love; they burn through this too, too solid flesh into a state of being that is engulfing, oceanic. This is the realm of night where there is only the now in all its richness. The realm of day‹values, good and evil, duty, loyalty‹that is a state of merely mechanical being. Night is where the heart beats and the blood courses through the body and every sense is heightened. Those ideas are the center of their love duet in Act II. Melot, who loves Tristan and longs for Isolde, interrupts the duet. He has sprung a trap and brings in the King, who loves both. Typical of this most paradoxical opera, those who are most loved are delivered up to die. Those who are owed the most‹Tristan owes his great king fealty, Isolde owes her good husband fidelity‹are betrayed. But Tristan and Isolde are both betrayers and betrayed.
Sometimes it is thought silly that Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion thinking that it is poison. But it is poison. It leads directly to their deaths. In fact, after they drink the supposed poison in Act I, Isolde's first words to Tristan are: "Treuloser Holder!" Words that essentially mean "Faithless Most True One."
But that way of thinking is day thinking, to be banished through the terrible suffering of Tristan, dying slowly of Melot's wound in Act III, and through the despair of Isolde, arriving too late to repair the wound.
In her final cry, Isolde links music with the sea. A sublime beauty, heard only by those who go where no one dare go, engulfs her‹"In dem wogenden Schwall, in dem tonenden Schalt, in des Welt-Atems" ("in the surging surf, in the singing waves, in the vast breath of the whole world"). Into the sea she will sink, joined forever with Tristan, alive in eternal night, together, brilliant as the stars.
Tristan und Isolde is the most shocking opera ever written, and it was meant to be. The implications of Wagner's text, and the indescribable music he invented to articulate it are unique. A good performance should leave an audience in the same contradictory state as the characters in the drama‹despairingly elated, exuberantly exhausted. We should be senseless with the sense of an endless beauty just beyond, and well worth dying for. And if we're sane, we should be uncertain if we should run from the opera house and take a cold shower, or linger, transfixed and sweaty until the next performance.
The only other work in the western canon as powerful and influential as Tristan is William Shakespeare's Hamlet. It too is full of paradoxes, the highest beauty and yet more horrible ugliness. It too is disturbing because its hero abandons all the "oughts" ‹ those moral precepts the ethical enshrine. Hamlet should avenge his father, take the throne, marry Ophelia, affirm Christian values, exalt life in glory‹and he does none of that. Instead he mocks all of it and drives Ophelia to her death. Hamlet is a terrifying puzzle, a monstrous, mesmerizing wound unbandaged before our eyes. He is human consciousness itself.
The "meaning" of Hamlet is something everyone has wrestled with. It is the likely result of a mixture of the playwright's own experience of despair, disillusionment, and bitterness with a willed commitment to find the most soaring beauty in wreckage. The play is a set of variations on the ruins left by a perception of life as essentially meaningless play. We are all going to end up like the jester, Yorick, dead. And none of us will be the wiser for it.
Little art and less music got made after Tristan without showing its influence. Freud and Jung with their psychiatric theories had to wrestle with the mixing of death with sex, which is profoundly caught by the music of Tristan. Freud's idea of sublimation, of superego and repression are responses to the likely practical application of the lessons taught by Tristan und Isolde. Because Wagner, the dramatist, abandoned reality for a drama of symbols (the potion, the wound, night, the sea, the world's melody), a host of "symbolist" writers followed in his wake. Mallarmé, Proust (who uses a literary "leitmotif" technique), Joyce (whose "stream of consciousness" writing is an imitation of the dizzying senseless sense in Wagner's musical flow) and Maeterlinck with his dramas such as Pelléas et Mélisande made up solely of symbols, all follow in Tristan's wake. So do Thomas Mann's endless explorations of states of simultaneous being and non-being, of sexual doubling, of the moment of clarity in extinction.
At the climax of their duet in Act II, Tristan and Isolde literally dissolve into one another. "Ich Isolde, nicht mehr Tristan," he cries, "I am Isolde, Tristan is vanished," to which she answers, "Tristan Ich, nicht mehr Isolde!" Those life rafts we use to cling to sanity in daylight: gender and basic identity, are tossed away by these two as they sink into a sea of nothingness that is everything. Since every thinking person endures a period of crisis where they ponder just who they are, Tristan will always be timely.
The great miracle of Tristan is, of course, its music. There is nothing remotely like it. Wagner certainly had influences as a composer but, as he did with his lovers, with one leap he went into an unexplored terrain. Afterwards, no music could be written without reference to Wagner's procedures in Tristan.
The score is impossibly dense. But there are three techniques that were original and can be briefly described. One of them is the long delayed resolution. Until Tristan, all music relied on a clear statement of key. In a longer movement (say a Beethoven symphony) that key would change briefly (modulate) to other keys to provide contrast and conflict. (In many of Beethoven's symphonies the modulation provides the sense of drama, of something happening or unfolding.) But the listener could always be sure the movement was heading back to that original key. The moment of arriving back is called a resolution. In a four-movement work each movement would resolve, each resolution leading to the final one in the last movement. In operas of course, every aria and ensemble would resolve. This provides a sense that all is right with the world, that the experience presented in art is complete. If one looks at the starting key in a symphony and the first theme arising from it as a question, then the final resolution is the most satisfying, the truest answer. Beethoven could build up suspense by delaying resolution. Schubert might wander into keys very far from his starting key, suggesting disorientation and tragedy (as in the death-besotted B Minor Symphony, the "Unfinished"). But every composer before Wagner always came back through a logical and comforting process to that starting key.
Wagner turned that process on its head. Resolution in Tristan is delayed for close to four hours. Nothing resolves before the final chord. Wagner often builds up to what the ear, the brain, and the heart should demand be a solid resolution only to defeat that expectation cruelly. That's what happens in the Act II love duet. No one had ever so harshly strung out the nerves of an audience offering no relief but only more agony.
Secondly, all music until Tristan had depended on clearly defined "themes" or melodies, even if they were subject to variation treatment (that is, changes to reflect alterations in circumstances or character). Tristan depends solely on one chord. This is the four-note configuration of F-B-D sharp-G sharp. Known as the "Tristan chord," it changed harmony forever. Every measure of Tristan depends on a manifestation of those four notes. The prelude starts with a yearning motive, which leads to that chord. And then there is silence‹an improbably long rest. That's repeated a minor third higher. The gradual build to the impassioned end of the prelude results not in a resolution of that chord, an answer to its implied question, but a denser restatement of the chord with one added note, a G.
Because every note has two names (D-sharp is also E-flat which is also F-double-flat), and therefore has many functions in different keys, Wagner is able to generate not only all the melodies of Tristan, but also, very often, the vocal line from that chord.
Even for those who approach opera only by "ear" the tension and agony of this process is inescapable. For those who can absorb or intuit it, Tristan's music is obsessive, hypnotic, and constantly turning in on itself, as the music looks for the same resolution that the lovers seek. And there will be those who don't hear melodies in Tristan and give up. They may be luckier than those who hear the work too well and get lost in its mesmerizing maze of contradictions, inversions, and endless questing.
Yet another discovery of Wagner's in Tristan is the diminishing or loss of melody and harmony altogether, the substitution of timbre or sonority as the most important expressive unit. If the work of Schoenberg came from Wagner's harmonic practice; that of composers as different as Stravinsky and Boulez is rooted in this attempt to imagine "new" sounds that suggest old states of being some might think inexpressible. The bleakness of the sound world at the start of Tristan's Act III had never been heard before. How perfectly it demonstrates the flat empty sea and summons up what the brink of despairing death must be like. How eerie is the intrusion of the shepherd's pipe with its weird twisty non-tune. As Tristan tells us, it is music as life and death simultaneously.
As with Hamlet and perhaps King Lear, one shouldn't like Tristan too well. Most of us spend our lives denying uneasily what these works embrace so powerfully. But it's only in the past forty years that we have begun to insist that all art be comforting, we've been taught by the formulas of television and the movies and the opportunism of politicians. There isn't any comfort to be had in Tristan, but there is a painful experience of otherness without which one's sense of actual unfeigned life‹its terrors and its fleeting, intense beauties ‹ is poorer.