by Jesualdo Correia


Tristan Chord


[ Tristan`s initial theme and sub-theme ]

Richard Wagner [ est ] … ” le père irrécusable de l’analyse structurale des mythes ” ( Claude Lévi-Strauss. Crue et le Cuit, p. 23 ).

“Du siehst mein Sohn… hier zum Raum wird die Zeit”

[ und zu Färben… werden die Klänge! ]


Works of art, by the sheer force the unescapable virtues of their pregnancies surpass by far their creator’s ability to fully cognize them or even enjoy the fullness of their aesthetic and semiotic implications and riches. Tchernishevsky once asked Dostoievsky whether he was aware of the social impact his novel Belye Nochi (“White Nights”) was to have on Russian society.

Nyet, of course he wasn’t! Why should he? He was just an artist.

The same holds true from a purely critical art-historical point of view, as well as for the very artist himself. Had Wagner attempted to acquire full cognizance about the marvels encapsulated in his opus, he would himself have fallen far short of accomplishing the task. Be it as it may, here is a working-in-progress summation of some forty-five years of aesthetic astonishment.

The experience has been somewhat similar of that of going, in a spiral manner, through one of Van Eyck’s or Da Vinci’s major paintings: there will always be something left to be seen and understood later on, something more than that which “meets the eye”, let alone for the sake of another “perspective “. And in the case of Wagner we must, to start with and above all, forget the romantic label and the ad hoc trivialisations which the title Tristan and Isolde has been carrying along, for it’s just a minor aspect of it.

Now, I would like to draw attention to a clutch of key conceptual terms and guiding images that the reader would do well to bear in mind for the purpose of evolving the requisite perceptions. The work under scrutiny is all about the following:

Dialectics, in all possible ways and manners, dialectics being the very skeleton key of it all, through thematic interaction turning on itself with all its pregnancies and presided by the des-constructive pervading spirit of the chromatic harmonies challenging and evolving the main, if any, supposed tonal anchorage of the work;
Supreme Sensuality heading for an orgasmic, cosmic in dimension blast – and the puritan minds and critics of the time were right to be outraged and foaming at the mouth, since this work is also about that human dimension, in a mixture of love in its Greek erotic sense together with the romantic ideals of the early 19th century;
Waves… of various imagistic kinds, the very sea waves of the drama’s plot, along with the core, all-pervading musical cadence of the ups and downs through which that solitary ship advances north, by westwards, to its fatal destination. And we can almost see them and smell the scents of the foam on the surface, the waters and the depths of which acts as metaphor of our inner, subconscious world, Tristan and Isolde`s vessel being that of our wandering soul;
The Gigantomachia between Yes and No, Systole and Diastole, Yinand Yang, the Divergence/Convergence of earthly and divine realms;
The Colour Spectrum, hues of the twelve, shades and tones of a fully fledged rainbow, bestowing a new palette of sounds, by then yet unknown to human ears;
Advancements within the Chromatic scale, recursive experimentation in dissonance and a new array of semiotic/semantic incursions that score new horizons which are being brought along. We are therefore stepping here into an absolutely new musical realm, a new momentum in Western Classical music history, a terra hitherto incognita and there should be once and for all no doubt about this;
Momentum of expansion, the lavishly gathering of momentum of all the designs and motives spun from the magic carpet which is being weaved…;
Velatura, in the very Italian Renaissance sense of this word, which is to be found in Raphael and Tiziano… semiotic sound-velature;

And… Abnegation…, in that best spirit of the Buddhism-outsourced Schopenhauerian philosophical worldview, which was exercising by the time of Tristan`s composition an extremely strong influence on Wagner.

These image-evoking terms shall be of utmost importance as guides to our journey throughout this unique musical masterpiece, once referred to by Thomas Mann as being no human creation, but rather that of some divinity.

As in Parsifal, (where the initial four and half minutes project us philosophically into a melancholic metaphysical realm), so does the four-note core theme of Tristan`s Prelude, here into a nostalgic mood, three times languishily repeated, at the different pitches, along with its organically connected sub-theme, establishing thereby the subsequent prevailing ambiance and preparing for the magnificent explosion, from which emerges an overall yearning, yet optimistic cello phrase, with its invigorating, declamatory exposition.

But after the blow-up passage, at 1:42, which is as well some sort of deceptive cadence, the strings begin a long and solemn discourse at 1:52, as to inform the public what is all about, to be flanked quite a stretch by a nine-fold pizzicato, long before a reiterative playdoir of sorts is advanced at 3:23 by the main oboe, duly supported by the flutes. This initially mild line of dialogue, somewhat reticent in nature, though incisive by the oboe, has now assumed a more questioning expression and is already stepping into another phase: it`s turning intense and dramatic and is going to be majestically paraphrased by the French horns at 5:45. Wagner is now exploring the coherences and incoherences of that emotive dialogue, at the micro and macro levels jointly, all the way through the route of the Leitmotiv, continuously fragmented and again reconstructed. This progression is soon to become moderately hectic among woodwinds, brasses and strings alike. The yin, feminine nature of the melancholic lines is being upgraded by the yang, masculine control of the situation, to which it yields, if only gradually, now and then, as it keeps jumping head on into more and more vigorous, no matter how ethereal, dimensions.

Momentum has been built up for the looming grand event, some sort of coronation parcours is here in the works, though not at sight yet, being just foreshadowed. Wagner proceeds further, multidimensionally, as Barenboim would say. Yet, the emotions of this diving-and-surfacing through waves of emotions are so poignant that the whole of it has to fight against every single inner fibre of its nature in order to contain the impetus of rushing towards a precocious climax. The rhythm itself must restrain from expanding beyond its frame and the very sense of proportion here discloses Wagner`s mastery of his craft, Il meglio faber, the master of structural approach, “le père irrecusable de l`analyse estructurale du mythe”.

Thus, as the tutti approaches with intensifying strength, the diastolic forces are supposed to be systolically tamed in a last attempt, subdued as if it were. But alas, we already find ourselves beyond the point of no return, confronted with the alloy-like cohesion of the conflicting/converging aspects, needs and demands in their growing assertiveness, advancing head on to a no longer stoppable destinatiion.

Yeah, it`s now already inescapable, the whole situation is no longer reversible, the argumentation has reached a feverish pitch, becoming all the more eloquent. But wait, as a matter of fact they`re no longer arguing with each other. They are now agreeing, proclaiming the same values and desires, they`ve got now a single aim! There is a new sort of Being already alive, e pur se muove, now heading on its own towards its telos and so the timpani, predicting that coming vortex, gives its crucial contribution to that effect at 7:03, projecting thus the whole crescendo into another plan, onto a further dimension. From now on it`s all intensity, all convergences of purposes; all voices, motives, themes and pathoi are engulfing, intermingling, interweaving in that colourful tapestry of the orquestral crescendo and… lo and behold, now that the tutti is just about an inch of its culmination, with the rolling timpani loudly stressing it all, here comes as a majestic arch, yes, no other than that very same four-note of the initial theme, labelled Yearning Motive, stretching and resounding itself gloriously across the whole orchestra, now an apotheotic F, B, D♯ G♯ chord, re-emerging and asserting its thematic hegemony thrice again, far from behind and above, angelic trumpets blowing from heavens as it were, in utter and complete glorification of this conjuctionis of metaphysical noble ideals with Love Supreme in its paramount expression.

And that climax is to last for quite a while before gradually slowing down, marked by the now mildly rolling timpani- melancholy and longing begin to ponder again. Now all is reversing back to the earthly organic realm and to the true tragic nature of love. However, something was glimpsed and acquired at the transcendental level, something was experienced and its seed will have somehow to survive in some sort of metaphysical dimension. Man transcended himself and knows that there is another realm, he was stripped from his organic and mental automatisms by the sheer beauty of the aesthetic impact, with its rhythmic and sound reverberating witchcraft. That momentum will be reminded later on, at 9: 10, although now in a distraught mood, just a sunken kind of echo deprived of the original strength and wichcraft. And thus the orchestra, now reducing itself with gravitas and performing with sober layers ever changing coloratura, sorrowfully drags itself in an intimate chat of melancholic whispering, fragment-like dialogue, between the English horn and the oboes, the timpani continuously trembling at the background, this mood being carried forth as a stream by the cellos, basses and a couple of lonely circumspect clarinets, before everything becomes reduced to the final double pizzicato of the basses. And then, somewhere from the deck, Tristan sings the opening paradox:

“Westwärts schweift der blick… ostwärts streicht das Schiff… Westwards wanders the sight… eastwards skims the ship “!

[copyright ® Jesualdo Correia Gomes de Oliveira. Any quotation only with the author`s permission]

Zubin Mehta conducting:


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