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Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde
Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde
Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press, 2003
248 pp., 72.00

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John H. McWhorter

Wagner and The Lion King

Where to find the total work of art.

Richard Wagner's lasting claim on our attention rests above all on his conception of the "total work of art" or Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, poetry, dramatic action, and visual spectacle blend to create an overpowering experience. In description, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk operas tantalize. One reads that in his later works such as Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Ring Cycle, Wagner eschewed arias designed to show off singers and provide passing delight. Instead he tightly yoked vocal lines, orchestral accompaniment, and visual setting to the purpose of conveying inner psychology, mythic ideals, and philosophical truths, in a quest for a quintessentially mature art form. One eagerly anticipates the magic.

In performance, however, these operas are a truly curious experience, and ultimately exhausting. One must do without discrete songs; the vocal lines are mostly a kind of extended recitative, integrated tightly with ever-shifting colors from the orchestra. The narratives themselves would fit on one side of an index card; most of the time, little is actually happening onstage, and what does happen moves quite slowly. In Die Walküre, Wotan spends an hour recapitulating the events in the preceding Das Rheingold. In Tristan and Isolde, King Marke, catching his bride Isolde with Tristan, declaims his sense of injury for about twenty minutes—and in vocal lines with not even a hint of a "take-home tune." The pieces also require a certain Sitzfleisch: the second act of Die Walküre alone runs over two hours. Tristan takes over four hours for a plot that consists of the lovers coming together by drinking a love potion, Tristan being mortally wounded and taken to his homeland, and Isolde coming to expire along with him.

Why do these pieces occupy such an exalted place in the artistic canon? Addressing that question regarding Tristan and Isolde, Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart is an elegant, erudite exploration attempting to make the operagoer "get" this piece and, by extension, Wagner's intent in all of his Gesamtkunstwerk ventures.

Scruton shows us that traditional dismissals of Tristan's brief plot as Wagner's self-therapy in the wake of a frustrated love affair miss the point. Wagner infused his version of the oft-told tale with insights from Schopenhauer's conception of life as a vile illusion and German Romantic poets' fascination with "night" and "death" as driving themes of existence. His Tristan, in particular, presents himself in a crucial passage as a creature of darkness bound to love only in death; here is his "heart devoted to death" (Todgeweihtes Herz) in Scruton's title. Tristan's mother died in childbirth, depriving him of the ability to find love in the harshness of light, and hence to truly be united with him, Isolde must follow him back into the "wondrous realm of night." Wagner's lovers are bound in an attraction so powerful that its only possible consummation is mutual expiration, the maximal manifestation of subsuming themselves within each other.

Scruton wants to usher us into an understanding of the piece beyond even that of musicologists, who have traditionally spent much energy in identifying the leitmotifs in the orchestral accompaniment, brief phrases that recur, endlessly interwoven, throughout the opera connoting particular emotions (the famous Liebestod in Tristan is one of these motifs, rather than a "song" with a beginning, middle, and end). Scruton is more interested in our understanding the philosophical substrate that these motifs are manipulated to convey, devoting chapters to Wagner's conceptions of love, sacrifice and redemption, and ritual. He worries that Tristan and Isolde speaks less directly to us moderns because "the two experiences on which Wagner draws for his emotional material—erotic love and religious sacrifice—are no longer easily available to modern audiences without quotation marks."

But I am not sure that this is why, before the second act at a performance of Die Walküre I attended, a man chirped to his wife, "Well, I guess we're ready to sit it through!", apparently not feeling the sublimity that Scruton finds in late Wagner. It is unclear that people were better acquainted with passionate love in the old days, or that they were more comfortable with the idea of dying for religious principles. Rather, the problem is the very idea that Wagner's music is "universal." In itself, Scruton's book is a model of lapidary suasion. But with all due awe at Wagner's achievement in the formal sense, I fear that his conception of his Gesamtkunstwerke as couched in a "universal" language was a parochial one rooted in his time, nationality, and personal temperament, and that modern analysts who assume this universality are themselves misled by a different kind of parochiality.

No one disputes Wagner's solipsism in matters such as his claim that German was the only language that operas should be written in. Wagner argued that German "still displays an immediate and recognizable connection with its own roots," presumably referring to the fact that where English's word emergency is borrowed from French, German conveys the meaning with Notfall, composed from the words Not and Fall for need and case respectively—the German word transparently depicts an emergency as a "case of need." But as a linguist I cannot help but note that Wagner's thesis falls apart in the historical sense. However familiar German's vocabulary was to him, German is in fact an oddity among European languages in that a third of its words have no known ancestry in the ancient language that was father to most of Europe's languages. German's lexicon is oddly bastard as European languages go. Meanwhile, on other grounds, Wagner's notion is immediately ridiculous even to non-linguists. Few singers consider German an especially "singable" language, and in our modern awareness of the multicultural, we cannot help but chuckle at Wagner's assumption that out of the world's 6,000 languages, the one he happened to speak as a native was the one best suited to convey music of universal meaning.

But there is risk of a similar solipsism in the notion that European classical music is somehow "universal" in its appeal. Wagner's explicators operate under the assumption that even if the ordinary listener cannot identify the motifs in the orchestra as they pass and has no training in the mechanics of harmony, the music has its effects subliminally. This means that we are to take the complex demonstrations in works like Scruton's of how inner psychological states are conveyed by key changes, countermelodies, and details of instrumentation as representing what actually goes on the mind not just of musicologists, but all, or maybe most, people in an audience.

I don't buy this. Never mind that the case seems hopeless if we imagine, say, making a tribesman from Papua New Guinea sit through Tristan and Isolde. Do we really think that someone with no experience with hearing classical music and Western harmony would still find meanings and suggestions in the action based on the melodic fragments roiling by here and there, anymore than we respond meaningfully to the tribal music of his people? This, after all, is what we presumably mean by terming Wagner's music "universal."

But even allowing that one means "universal" in terms of Western listeners, the idea is still problematic. Someone who can roll his tongue doesn't know that everyone can't until noticing it as he grows up. In the same way, in my experience people who happen to have good ears for harmony often do not realize that this is not true of most people. Moreover, because this difference is less obvious and concretely demonstrable than tongue-rolling, it is possible to never notice it at all.

Nevertheless, over the years I have repeatedly noticed that the typical ear hearkens first to rhythm, is satisfied with simple melody while often finding no especial delight in more complex melody, and is about as sensitive to small harmonic shifts as most of us are to barometric pressure. Now and then I have encountered people who were quite fond of various kinds of music and were not tone-deaf but who, nevertheless, had a hard time even saying whether a triad played on the piano was major or minor. This is why, for example, modern pop can be based so much on rhythm and vocal charisma and make billionaires: most people do not derive any particular pleasure from richness of melody or harmony. This, in fact, is something of a genuine universal. Think of most indigenous music: it's all about the beat and the feel of the singer's voice. Classical music is, in its way, quite peculiar in its foundation on melody and harmony: a classical string quartet is as bizarre, as human creations go, as the Pyramids.

Therefore, most people, Western or non-, do not hear a tinge of nostalgia in a flatted-fifth or augmented chord. They do not automatically hear a minor chord as sad, as is clear from a certain minor-key fetish in much modern pop music, even in songs intended as cheery or neutral. This means that the idea that most people can link five hours of roiling, chromatic surges and shifts to subtleties of characters' psychologies is an illusion, harbored by people who happen to have especially sensitive ears. Wagner, who was musically self-taught to a considerable degree, was such a person himself.

But none of this suggests that the Gesamtkunstwerk principle is futile in itself. Indeed, it can be applied in a fashion that even smart, musical, cultured people find transcendently meaningful to a degree that they would seek in vain in an evening of Wagner. The Broadway version of the Disney film The Lion King is an example. To listen to the cast album, with its thin, formulaic Elton John pop ditties and Zulu chants over African drumbeats leaves one wondering what the fuss is about. But people who see it onstage—where director Julie Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan have placed actors in enchanting animal costumes into magnificent tableaus and pageants—praise it for its sheer spectacle. In comparison to Tristan and Isolde, the visual plays a rather larger part in the total impression.

But even then, in performance The Lion King focuses the aural in a way that the album cannot convey, in throwing the percussion at the audience from assorted directions. And when in the liner notes of the album Taymor says that the Zulu chants enhance the piece because "comprehended language trivializes an event and takes away from the poetry and mystery of the sound of these languages," she sounds quite a bit like Wagner proposing to appropriate the vocal lines in his late works as "the sensuous substance of the roots of speech." Finally, The Lion King depicts African animals played by both black American and white actors, singing songs written in styles derived from both white musical theater tradition and African choral genres, in a story written by white people—not truly "universal," perhaps, but going much further in that direction than Wagner manages. This commercial confection is, quite simply, Gesamtkunstwerk on Times Square.

And audiences have eaten it up for eight years, often describing it as a holistic kind of experience: "It's just, it's everything. I was just. … the drums, the costumes, the music. … it was just. … it was just everything. … well, you just have to go see it." This is precisely the response that Wagner hoped to achieve with his late operas.

When I saw Die Walküre at the Met last spring, none other than Tony Bennett happened to be sitting a few seats from me, and he whispered with his ladyfriend throughout, not exactly mesmerized by the anguished musings of Wotan. The most immediate and memorable experience most of the audience had was when the orchestra struck up the Ride of the Valkyries in the underscoring, upon which there was a detectable flurry of giggles. No mystery as to why: it was Bugs Bunny. Now that several generations have been raised on the Looney Tunes masterpiece What's Opera, Doc?, that melody immediately evokes "Kill da wabbit!" This is decidedly not what Wagner had in mind. He wanted us to get past listening for isolated "songs." I suspect that in this, he was requiring something that none but the occasional scholar or fanatic will ever live up to.

Certainly what is initially challenging comes to sit more comfortably if one is patient: Beethoven, Fellini, oysters on the half-shell. There is envelope-pushing art that is initially deplored but eventually becomes canonical. Still, there are built-in limits, as serialists in the classical music world learned decades ago. Five agonizingly slow hours in declamatory German where one is expected to listen for harmonic subtleties and fleeting leitmotifs in a musical language meaningful only to a few people with strangely discriminating ears adds up, at the end of the day, to a very rarefied enterprise. Scruton hopes to endear Tristan and Isolde to a wider audience, but in the end he has written a useful guide for a select number of people whom nature blessed with a queer hypersensitivity to melody and harmony.

John H. McWhorter is the author most recently of Defining Creole (Oxford Univ. Press).

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