Tristan und Isolde programme note for the Philharmonia Orchestra, 26 September 2010, pp. 10–13
Sex and redemption in Wagner
Why don’t people have sex properly in Wagner operas? We can’t begin to understand Tristan und Isolde’s power over us, or its function as art, until we unsnarl this riddle.
Early on in Wagner’s œuvre, things seemed well. In Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836), Wagner’s uncharacteristic early reworking of Measure for Measure, a ban on sex is inevitably overturned to make way for a new age of licentiousness, an idea that is refracted in the Venusberg of Tannhäuser in 1845. But the situation is usually quite bad, especially for women. In Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), the Dutchman can’t rest in peace until a young woman is sufficiently besotted with him to throw herself off a cliff for his sake. This function is broadly repeated by both Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung (Twighlight of the Gods, 1874) and Isolde in Tristan und Isolde (1865). Meanwhile, the outcome of Kundry’s sexual longing in Parsifal (1882) is a piteous, hysterical death as the man she tried to kiss directs his attention to the bigger work of salvation, in an echo of Wagner’s treatment of Parsifal’s son, Lohengrin, in his 1850 opera of that name.
Sometimes a slightly more orthodox sexual union is achieved, though not without complications. Siegmund and Sieglinde couple decorously between Acts I and II of Die Walküre (1870) and their child is the hero of the next opera of The Ring, but unfortunately they are brother and sister. Siegfried, their son, attains a blissful sexual union – the most triumphant and positive of any in Wagner – at the end of his own opera, but that marriage turns to tragedy in Götterdämmerung – and in any case, it was between nephew and aunt. And in surely the most allusively self-referential love triangle in opera, in Die Meistersinger (1868) Hans Sachs turns away the young and beautiful Eva, who is also in love with Walther, by reminding her of the story of Tristan and Isolde (with music from Wagner’s opera appearing on cue) and saying that he doesn’t want to play the role of King Marke.
It therefore seems that we shouldn’t look to Wagner for guidance on sexuality, yet among the things most commonly remarked about his operas, particularly Tristan, is that they have enormous sexual potency, both in terms of dramatic incident and their musical and visual symbolism. Wagner is in fact arguably the most sexual of all composers (at least in his music), and we often seem unable to get away from sex in his works. The famous opening chord of Tristan is the most extreme musical encoding of sexual longing that has ever been written. Its omnipresence in the score compels us, even if the drama did not, to long for a resolution that is both sexual and – once Tristan is mortally wounded in Act II – tragic (we want his misery to end with his death). Dramatically and visually the sexual symbolism is always close to the surface too. Wotan’s spear, which gives him patriarchal rule over the universe, is only the most frequently seen of an array of phallic symbols in Wagner’s mature operas, all of which are tied to power. Think of Siegmund’s and Siegfried’s sword, Nothung (which would have saved Siegmund from his nemesis if Wotan hadn’t broken it with his spear, and which allows Siegfried to kill a dragon once he’s reforged it); of how Siegfried and Tristan meet their end (killed by spears); or of how the shift in power is accomplished in Parsifal, which is precisely at the moment that Klingsor’s spear, which had inflicted Amfortas’s never-healing wound, floats through air into Parsifal’s hand (it is later used to heal the same wound).
As in ordinary life, sex is power in Wagner, as attested by Wotan’s fathering first of the Valkyries on the earth goddess, Erda, then the human children Siegmund and Sieglinde on an unnamed woman. Wotan’s reliable mirror, Alberich, apes this sexual power play by fathering his own son, Hagen, on a woman he pays for sex. But sexual power in Wagner can also have an apparently more positive effect, as we see most clearly (though not uniquely) in Tristan: it has the power to redeem the characters on stage.
This critical Wagnerian notion of the redemptive potential of (heterosexual) sex is played out in various ways. Much of Wagner’s thinking, about art as well as human relations, was built on the mutual interaction of rigidly separated male and female principles. For instance, essential to the famous idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’ for which he would build his festival theatre at Bayreuth, is Wagner’s heavily emphatic theorisation in Opera and Drama of the union of dramatic poetry and music as sexual union.
Music is a woman. The nature of Woman is love: but this love is a receiving … and in receival an unreservedly surrendering love. … Who then must be the Man, whom this Woman is to love so unreservedly? … The Poet! This procreative seed is the poetic Aim, which brings to the glorious loving woman, Music, the Stuff for bearing.
Wagnerian music drama is conceived as a heterosexual coupling of man and woman that results in the insemination of the empty vessel of music by the creative idea of poetry. Wagner may have believed that neither could exist unsupported by the other, but the lesser role is clearly given to woman. Yet as abstract a relation as this may seem between the poetry and music that form Wagner’s mature music dramas from the 1850s on, we see it concretely realised in the sacrifices of Senta in Der fliegende Holländer
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and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. Woman (real or musical) grounds Man (real or poetic), but she must submit to the man’s formative power. One everyday resonance of this is the bourgeois woman (e.g. a politician’s wife) who keeps her suffering hidden from the public gaze in order to support her man. The man must not suffer; the woman must do it for him. In Wagner’s operas, women are frequently centre stage, singing the best music and gaining the biggest applause; but what might be seen as an elevation of the redemptive function of women and a case of sexual relationships working in Wagner, contrary to my earlier list of abject failures, is actually bound up with with the exploitation of flesh-and-blood women. The ‘eternal feminine’, as figures like Senta and Brünnhilde tend to be called, is, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, ‘the ultimate metaphysical support of the worldly aggressive attitude’ that governs relations between the sexes. The message of these operas is that women – outside of opera, too – gain strength and importance by sacrificing themselves to and for men. That is their highest and most natural calling. In short, this kind of redemption, which constitutes the positive form of sexual relationship in Wagner, works just fine if you’re a man. So, to reformulate my opening question: why don’t Tristan and Isolde have a proper sexual relationship?
Sexual relations in Tristan und Isolde
It is often said that Tristan und Isolde is the beginning of modern music, the moment of the breakdown of tonality and the beginning of a helter-skelter ride to the atonality and serialism of Schoenberg and his followers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tristan is perhaps the most resolutely tonal piece of music ever written, simpler in its fundamental idea than anything by Mozart or Bach. The perfect cadence, the ‘God save the Queen’ line at the end of the British national anthem, is the basic desire of tonal music, the gesture that links points A and B in the key of the piece and makes us feel we have arrived ‘home’. Whenever we hear music sounding like that ‘save the’, we expect the resolution of ‘Queen’. Tonal composers like Mozart tend to delay the resolution for a bar or two, to add interesting spice, but we don’t usually have to wait terribly long, and our desire is satisfied in the end (or we’d leave the concert hall tearing out our hair). When a composer wants to emphasise the attainment of desire, as at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the music is reduced to nothing but perfect cadences, endlessly repeated, and we revel in the sense of being where we want to be and having what we want to have.
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So much for the mystery of tonal musical language. Just what is so different about Tristan? Suppose as a rule of thumb that Mozart would give a solid perfect cadence eight bars into a tune. At the opening of Tristan, Wagner provides us with the ‘save the’ part, and presents us with a pregnant pause that makes us expect the ‘Queen’, but instead of resolving it he presents another ‘save the’ gesture, making us expect another ‘Queen’ in an entirely different key. In fact he makes us wait for the final resolution of the proposed opening cadence until the end of the Liebestod, Isolde’s death, right at the end of Act III. At various critical moments of the opera, particularly the frustrated sex scene in Act II, he keeps reminding us of this most basic musical sense of desire and (denied) resolution. And on that simple tonal gesture rests the entire symbolic and emotional weight of the opera. That he can pull it off at all is testament to Wagner’s sophisticated understanding of the potential of tonality. In fact, if Tristan went beyond tonality, it would have no power over us at all.
There are two points of interest in Wagner’s treatment of this notion of the perfect cadence. On one hand there is the symbolic freighting he gives it in the opera, with its Schopenhauerian binary opposition of night and day, and on the other hand is its effect on us. Both the sound of Tristan – the dense complexity of its orchestration, the sheer energising noise of it – and the sense that its musical structure is simply too vast and mysterious for an audience to comprehend (contrast the relatively simply aria structures of a composer like Handel, for instance) combine to feminise the audience, in the strict sense in which Wagner uses the term. We let the music utterly overwhelm and intoxicate us, flooding our mental and emotional space and reducing us at times to a gibbering, weeping wreck as if it were a powerful narcotic.
This leads us to long for redemption, resolution, for someone – a man – to step in and rescue us from our physical and emotional impotence. Even supposing we know what it is that we want (the two lovers to unite? to die? to reach a sensible, British, Brief Encounter-style resignation?), we have no idea how this will be achieved – but we know that we need it. In other operas this bewildering universe is set to rights by a saintly, asexual, Christlike figure such as Parsifal. In Tristan it will have to come through the redemptive work of Isolde, singing herself to death to be united with her lover in the ‘night’s wonder world’ in which they had swaddled themselves in Act II before the harsh light of day, symbol of the legal and moral concerns of ordinary bourgeois society, came to dismiss it. Yet more important than this Schopenhauerian rejection of the Will that guarantees suffering is the way the opera explodes the myths that support all of our sexual relations.
Nietzsche said that beneath the heroic surface, all of Wagner’s heroines were Madame Bovary. As Žižek observes, Bovary goes to court not because she was an adulteress but because her adultery showed how hopeless adultery was, thus shattering the psychologically necessary illusion that a boring marriage can be relieved by adultery. Wagner tirelessly demonstrates the ways in which sexual relationships go wrong, from the betrayal and tragic jealousy of Brünnhilde, through the childish obsession with a man who’ll be the end of a woman in Der fliegende Holländer, to the way society stands in the way of true lovers uniting, as in Tristan. Yet in every case, the story of tragically failed love is played out against the fantasy background of the redemptive power of a full sexual relationship between a man and a woman. What makes Wagner’s heroines like Bovary is that they shatter the
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various myths that support the reality of sexual relationships, and show up the nature of the fantasy of redemption (which, for less elevated mortals than Tristan and Isolde, might simply mean the security of a happy marriage with a detached house and two children, saving individuals from loneliness and a sense of pointlessness, etc.).
The redemptive myth of this opera reaches its height in Act II, where Tristan line-by-line teaches Isolde the song she will later sing as her Liebestod (to teach her, literally, how she is to die for him). Then, in the closing bars of their duet, Wagner presents the most enormous dominant pedal – a huge ‘save the’ gesture awaiting its ‘Queen’ – as the moment of sexual and dramatic fulfilment for the couple approaches. But King Marke, Isolde’s rightful lord, bursts in on a grand and heartbreaking dissonance, shattering the dream of sexual union forever. As an audience we realise that we’ve been longing all this time for the wrong thing, for the fulfilment of a full sexual relationship. We now need to shift our sights to tragedy and death. Tristan is shortly stabbed, and the only union now possible, in an eternal night, will be in death. So it is that exactly the same dominant pedal returns, now correctly realigned as the desire for Isolde’s death, at the end of her Liebestod a whole act later – and Wagner’s monstrous tonal design, which drags us powerlessly from sex to death, reaches its fulfilment.
Isolde’s death is inevitable from the outset, of course. What is crucial in Tristan is that we see Isolde ‘freely’ choosing her tragic end. It is in that choice, as in Senta’s and Brünnhilde’s, that the redemption is achieved. Yet we know that she has no real choice. First, Tristan gives her the means – he dictates to her, and gets her to repeat back to him, her own suicide note. And second, social and moral codes would allow no other outcome. Isolde has to die, but she has to freely choose it anyway. It will make the moral compulsion seem right if she chooses her inevitable punishment.
So sexual relationships always fail in Wagner. At the very point he suggests that sexual relationships are redemptive, Wagner reveals how this belief is a product of fantasy. In this way, operas like Tristan invite us to reflect on the mythic support we give to sexual relationships in ordinary life. We know very well that simply having a sexual relationship won’t solve any of our existential problems, yet nevertheless we believe it will. Without this myth, internet dating sites would go out of business. Like Madame Bovary, then, Wagner’s heroines make us stare uncomfortably at the blank emptiness at the heart of our conception of what a sexual relationship is or what it does. It’s a chilling message, yet we find it irresistible.