Sunday, September 8, 2019

Richard Strauss - "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde

Dad loved opera and introduced me to a great deal of it, but most notable was this piece.  He and Mom took me to the local symphony 18 months or so before he died, where they played this.  I'm not a big opera fan like they were, but I think that this is the most hauntingly lovely music ever written.

It is more poignant for me because this is Dad's birthday, and Strauss died on this same day.  In my mind, they are linked together.

But this piece is very interesting, musically speaking.  As Beethoven announced the beginning of the romantic era, this was its end - and the start of the modern era.  He wrote what is perhaps the culmination of the operatic tradition.

The story of Tristan and Isolde is very old, one of the Troubadour ballads from the High Middle Ages. Tristan is a knight, sent to bring Isolde as a bride to King Mark. Caught at sea in a storm, they drink a love potion, thinking it was a sea sickness cure, and fall madly in love with each other. The love is doomed, and in Gottfried of Strassburg's twelfth century version of the story, one of the travelers with them says, "Tristan, you have drunk your death."

Their doomed love is brought to life by Wagner in his opera, not least because of how he scored the work, and especially the finale here. Liebestod means "Love's death", and it is the Romeo and Juliet simultaneous death scene. Wagner revolutionized opera by his use of harmonic suspension, a repeated refusal to complete unfinished themes. This refusal builds tension which is only released at the final, lyrical completion. This particular scene is striking in how you hear the suspension from the very beginning of the video, and how it allows a very subdued final chord to be magnificent. It takes a full six minutes to reach the "aha" moment where the theme resolves, which makes the resolution even more sweet.

Mom and Dad took me to hear this (they had season tickets to the Symphony). I'd never heard it before, and it led to a memorable chat with Dad about Gottfried von Strassburg, Schopenhauer, inflection points in music, and how they're all bound up in this music. I sure miss those.

Happy birthday, Dad.  I sure miss you.


libertyman said...

Wow -- very impressive. No wonder you know so much about music!
Have you seen the movie produced by Ridley Scott?
I wonder if it would be worth getting.

Beans said...

Wagner, horrible man, beautiful music. I sat and listened to the whole 'Ring' series one year, beginning to end, all at once. The Gotterdamerung is so powerful and crushing, you really feel the end of an era as the old gods go away.

T&I is one of my favorites, too. My father also introduced me to music, so my musical tastes were wetted on Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass to opera. I, too, miss my dad. Wish I could have one more uncomfortable, semi-talking conversation with him.

libertyman said...

I think you meant Wagner not Strauss, though.

hreward2 said...

Sublime music . Vielen Dank Herr Wagner .

Eagle said...

Wagner was used, almost exclusively, in the soundtrack for the 1981 movie "Excalibur". Yes, there's some incidental music, but the major scenes and major points of the film are emphasized with pieces from Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, and Die Gotterdammerung.

To quote Beans (above): Horrible man. Beautiful music.

Eric Wilner said...

A lot of the great artists were really horrible people. Still are, in fact; see any round of Hollywood scandals, whatever the era. If you purge your music, movie, and literature collections of the works of people who were dreadful (by our standards, or those of their own time), you won't have a lot left.
Encourage them to create, but keep them away from children, and don't take their advice on public policy.
(Someday, I need to flesh out my theory that Alberich is the tragic hero of a working-class uprising, and Wotan is the villain. The Norns kind of hint at this.)