Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" Part 12
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[Footnote 45: Another proof, if any were needed, that he is not united to her by any indissoluble tie.]
It needed but a few minutes' delay for all to have ended happily. Why did not the poet take the opportunity offered and spare us the harrowing scenes at the end? Why could he not have lowered the curtain on the lovers united with Marke's full approval? Dramatically there was no reason why he should not have done so, but poetically it was impossible. The whole of the story is brought about by Tristan's guilt which had to be expiated; it is not diminished by Marke's generosity.
Isolde now rises to bid the world her last farewell before she departs with Tristan. The words of her swan-song have been described by an English writer as "no more poetry than an auctioneer's catalogue."
Of that I must leave my readers to form their own judgment; they must, of course, be read with their context in the drama. She is speaking in a trance, with ecstatic visions before her eyes. The voice melody is mostly built upon the song of union in death in the second act (No.
14), pa.s.sing into the exultant motive which occurs in the great love-duet (No. 15). The orchestral accompaniment, beginning quietly, gradually swells into a torrent of music quite unrivalled among Wagner's great finales. The end of _Gotterdammerung_ is impressive because of the wonderful gathering together of the musical motives of Siegfried's life, but as a musical composition it cannot compare with the end of Tristan. As it approaches the end the love-motive absorbs the whole orchestra, pa.s.sing into No. 10 from the prelude of the second act, rising higher and higher. The wonderful euphony of tone, the harmony and peacefulness which pervade the surging ma.s.s of instruments are due to the consummate art of the instrumentation, and at last as the music seems to leave this earth in its heavenward flight we feel borne away upon its wings. Isolde does not die; she is carried upwards on the pinions of love, dissolved in the ocean of endless melody.
[Footnote 46: A comparison which, by the way, seems a little severe against auctioneers, if, as I presume, the objection is to the want of clearness of the language!]
Her finish has given occasion to the witticism that the most beautiful thing in the work is the last note. To this I see no reason to demur; it contains nothing more entrancing than the rise to the fifth of the chord at her final cadence
[Music: hoch - - - ste l.u.s.t.]
Once more the love-motive is softly breathed in the oboi and the whole closes on the chord of B major three times repeated by the orchestra.
Wagner always looked upon himself as one who had broken a new path in art and done some of the first rough work, not as having completed the road. Those who seek to continue his work must have the same goal before their eyes as he had. It is the fate of a great man who more than others longs for human fellows.h.i.+p and love, to live alone and, after death, to overwhelm his contemporaries and successors; he occupies a s.p.a.ce which leaves no room for others. In the thirty years which have elapsed since Wagner died, many great composers have come to the front, all of whom without exception show in their external physiognomy the impress of his personality. How many have inherited his spirit? How many have been actuated by his sincerity, his fearless resolve to follow his inspiration from on high at every cost, regardless of all personal advantage? Future ages alone can answer this question. The German nation is at the present day pa.s.sing through a severe trial of its inner strength. The true _Sturm und Drang_ began for Germany in 1871, and is now at its height. Her mission is indeed a n.o.ble one; it is to maintain the principles of law, good government, and pure religion; her genius lies in sober conservatism and high-minded monarchy; her heroes are Durer, Luther, Frederic the Great, vom Stein, Richard Wagner. It is scarcely surprising if, in view of the history of Germany during the last hundred years, some of her sons have become intoxicated and in their zeal for German ideals threaten to destroy the very principles by which she has risen; if while affecting to despise the southern nations for libertinism they should themselves have cast off the bonds of self-restraint. All Europe is infected with the taint of unbridled licence and shamelessness, in every department of life, intellectual and political. On the stage the public revels in cruelty for its own sake, not in the service of justice; it prefers bombast to bravery, lechery to love; "the basest metal makes the loudest din"; while those to whom we look as our leaders for direction only pander to the common vulgarity and grow rich thereon.
There is one ingredient of art mentioned by Aristotle, although it has been little noticed by critics; his word for it is [Greek: aedusma], "sweetening." The poet should never forget that art, however serious, is intended for our pleasure; the hard edge of fate needs to be tempered by a recognition of the reality and beauty of positive life.
The aim of the true poet is not to harrow the feelings with the mere picture of suffering or wickedness. We have enough of these in actual life without going to the theatre; the poet has to show them as subservient to a higher order of beauty and righteousness, and will try to mitigate the pain which they inflict. In the tragedies of the greatest dramatists the sweetness is so conspicuous a feature that it might almost be ranked as a third essential of tragedy, along with the awaking of pity and terror. The purpose of art is to show the unity of truth and beauty, and thus to enhance the power of both, not to sacrifice either in favour of the other. It teaches the divine lesson of nature--perfect fitness united with perfect loveliness.
One more word and I have finished. It is easy to hear too much of Wagner, and I think there can be no question that his works are made far too common in Germany. Wagner's characters are not those of everyday life; they are on a higher and more ideal moral level than ordinary men and women; they are semi-divine. Nor are his works for everyday hearing, but only for high festivals when we can enjoy them at our leisure with our minds prepared. For our daily bread we have other composers as great as he, and more nutritious and wholesome for continued diet--Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and how many more of the highest rank! Caviare and champagne are excellent things at a feast, but we do not wish to live upon them.
Every cultured person should hold it a duty to visit the Bayreuth festival at least once in his life. He need not have any musical training; nothing more is needed than "a warm heart and open senses,"
and, let me add, sincerity of purpose. Those who go expecting perfect performances and ideal surroundings will be disappointed. Immense care is bestowed on the preparation of the performances, and the site and building present incalculable advantages. On the whole the performances are better than elsewhere, but, excepting in the orchestra, there are many shortcomings, and the fas.h.i.+onable audience from Paris, and other capitals of Europe and America, is far indeed from what was contemplated by Wagner. All honour is due to Madame Cosima Wagner, who has worked unflinchingly against immense difficulties to maintain the honour of her husband's heritage. She is not to blame if she has not fully achieved the impossible; If the tree has partly withered, the fault is not with the gardener; it was too vigorous, too n.o.ble, to flourish in the soil of human society.
Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" Part 12
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