Reading parts of the novel I checked out, I am led to believe that the core influence on his composure of different musical pieces was his interest in stories written by Homer, mythological pieces, and the works of Shakespeare, which then evolved into poetical and musical composition.
I find it particularly interesting how “Tristan und Isolde” came about. To make a long story short, it came about after Wagner had half written “Siegfried” when Wagner had gone through stages of depression because he had felt the works he had been writing would never be produced by the end of his life. “He hungered for a closer, an active connection with the stage, and he needed money, and so he regretfully laid aside the “Ring” scores and set to work on the poem of “Tristan und Isolde” (Henderson).This also kind of reminds me of other composers. If I remember correctly, I believe I heard in class that other composers had felt the same way about their works.
It is said the works of Parisfal was occupying the mind of Wagner in the year of 1857, and it was not completed until 1877. “Wagner told me that in the fifties, when in Zurich, he took possession of a charming new house, and that inspired by the beautiful spring weather, he wrote out the sketch that very day of the Good Friday music.” (Henderson). After coming across this excerpt, it instantly reminded me of Vivaldi’s “Spring” movement.
PS– The italics don’t seem to want to go away! Silly technology…
Henderson, William. Richard Wagner His Life and His Dreams. New York: AMS Press Inc., 1923.
Selections from Götterdämmerung: Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March
Overture to Tannhäuser
“Ich sah das Kind” from Parsifal
Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Venue: Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, NY
Performers: Boston Symphony Orchestra; Daniele Gatti, Conductor; Michelle DeYoung, Mezzo-Soprano
The first part of the performance was devoted to Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). It is the last of four operas of Richard Wagner that he combined in a cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (Borchmeyer 2003, 226). “It is the most effective of the dramas and the one with the most compelling action”, as Wagner himself wrote in his autobiographic book My life (Osborne 1991, 244). The Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March is a final stage of the opera, which expresses the most passion and contains death motive. Wagner underlines the message that “in the hands of man, it is a force for evil and intrigue”. (Osborne 1991, 244). Knowing this information helped me to understand the sharp drops of melody from minor key to major that created mysterious feeling. The music actually sounded like a funeral march because of very low pitches of woodwinds. The harps on the left side of orchestra sounded very soft and represented mythological history of the opera.
The second piece of music was the Overture to opera Tannhäuser. The opera is based on two German legends. It is very significant that Wagner wrote the libretto himself. This work was a turning point in his career, because he “attained at last to full awareness of his creative process” (Westernhagen 1978, 79). After finishing the first act Wagner himself wrote, “before I begin to write a single line of verse, or even to outline a scene, I am already intoxicated by the musical aroma of my creation” (Westernhagen 1978, 79). It is very unusual, because in Classical or Baroque Eras the composers didn’t write the texts of operas. Wagner wrote in My Life that his intention was “to force the listener, for the first time in the history of opera, to take an interest in a poetic idea, by making him follow all its necessary developments” (Osborne 1991, 91). The overture presents the pilgrim’s song and synthesizes content of the whole opera and its main idea namely the opposition of two worlds – the world of spiritual piety and world of sensual pleasure. The melody “marks the ardent growth of passion” (Osborne 1991, 91) and sounds louder and louder, but then recedes. The growth of passion was achieved by constant arpeggios of strings in the minor key and main melody played by woodwinds. The violins on the background created tension. If to hear the piece without knowledge of its history and subject, it might be hard to understand the sense of abrupt melody and divine harps.
Prelude and Liebestod is a final dramatic aria of the first Act from the opera Tristan and Isolde. This prelude sets the mood for the entire piece. The opera was composed between 1857 and 1859. Wagner being married was inspired by his feelings to Mathilde Wesendonk, who was German poet and author. After moving into a small house near her mansion Wagner began to compose this opera. (Osborne 1991, 135). Wagner himself called this opera “the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception” (Osborne 1991, 140). The story of Tristan and Isolde is based on a romance of German Minnesinger Gottfried von Strassburg. In Liebestod Tristan and Isolde yearn for death to unite them (Osborne 1991,147) the initial phrase of Tristan ‘chromatically descends” and the answering phrase of Isolde ascends”( Osborne 1991,143). It seems that music presents unfinished lines. However, in the concert hall it was presented by Isolde’s Liebestod without the lines of Tristan. First the melody creates the feeling of melancholy and depression by playing very low pitches. The drops of melody from very soft to very loud and rich sound cause the feeling of anxiety. Before the soprano the melody stopped and left the singer in the complete silence preparing the listener for something mysterious. Soprano was accompanied by strings and woodwinds with inconstant sounds of harps. This piece is very dramatic and represents the Wagner’s state of mind in the period of writing Tristan and Isolde, that’s why it was very useful to know the prehistory of the opera to understand the main idea that author wanted to express.
Charles Osborne. The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner. Vermont: Trafalgar Square publishing, 1991.
Curt Von Westernhagen. Wagner. A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Dieter Borchmeyer. Drama and the World of Richard Wagner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.