Sunday, December 30, 2012

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Liebestod)

New Year's is time for reflection; reflection on the past, yes, but more importantly reflection on the future.  Reflection that will hopefully lead us to a psychological breakthrough to the next level, leading to success at our job, success in our family life, simple happiness.  This reflection is maddeningly hard to see through to a successful resolution.

Yes, there's classical music for that.  But there's also penetrating psychological analysis about why it's so hard.  This is from one of the masters of the art.

Joseph Campbell had a pretty big impact on my own psychological development.  He introduced me to Aquinas.  He introduced me to the Vedas and the Great Buddhism.  He introduced me to the Gospel of Thomas:
The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.

He challenged me to peer into that part of myself that was too comfortable where it was, and didn't strive to be where it might.  I missed the part where he would have introduced me to Wagner's immortal Liebestod - what may be his greatest musical work.  Dad introduced me to it, on one of the last trips I made to see him before the cancer began to burn his candle from the inside.  To this day I can't listen to this without thinking of him and Mom, playing their parts to each other as Tristan and Isolde.

But that's looking back.  Campbell reminds us that this is part of the psychological challenge we all face.  You think you're dead and *bing* you've broken past it.

If you're lucky.

I posted this song once before, describing it in musicology terms.  The delayed release of the theme builds a dramatic tension that is only completed at the final pianissimo chord.  Rather than ending with bombast, Wagner ends with a magnificent quiet using this technique.  But that describes it in terms of musical analysis.  Psychological analysis tells us that each year is an uncompleted theme.  We wait, expectantly, for the completion.  That completion is found - if we dare - by peering into that part of our soul that is too comfortable in where we are, and uncomfortable striving for where we might be.  Wagner suggests that the striving can lead to an exquisite - even if pianissimo - breakthrough.

Wagner himself didn't use the term liebestod to refer to this particular music.  Rather, he used the term Isolde's Verklärung - her "coming to clarity".  This description is one of the best that I've read:
The climax of the Liebestod is magnificent; there is a feeling of tremendous achievement, of soaring and freedom.  It seems all obstacles are overcome—only there is this amazing thing: the highest note, a C#, is outside the chord, and there is a terrific feeling of dissatisfaction, as it wants to pull back down to the B, the home key.  Then the orchestra and Isolde gradually descend and the music comes to an E minor chord—a moment of darkness.  Wagner seems to be saying, “In your achievement, don’t forget the struggle.”  Finally, after Isolde’s last notes—an octave leap from F# to high F#—a single oboe bravely plays a high D#, the sweet major third of the key, the full orchestra joins it, and the music resolves on the pure B major chord it has been aiming for from the beginning.  It is because the struggle is honored that the achievement is both believable and so satisfying.
Campbell was certainly wrong about a great many things.  But his challenge to us on the eve of this new year is not his answers, nor even his questions.  His challenge is our answers.  May your new year be filled with revelation and hard won wisdom.  If not, perhaps you can join me in the hope that our struggle will be honored in itself and in the end, if we're lucky, an enlightenment.
And He said, "The Kingdom is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear."
- The Gospel of Thomas (8)
So let it be written, so let it be done.  Amen.


Anonymous said...
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Kansas Scout said...

I don't get the point of the quote from the Gospel Of Thomas. This is hardly profound and discordant with the New Testament as we know it. How this quote ties in with your other points are lost on me. Perhaps you could explain further.
Being a member of the Masonic Lodge, the death/life thing is found there in spades. I understand that point very well. I always enjoy Campbell. Of course, I check in here daily as one of my priority blogs to read in the morning. Well done.

libertyman said...

Good class today.

Lots of snow here today, BTW.