Theosophy – October 1897

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: VII-1 — Basil Crump

VII. TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.

For this is the essence of true Religion: that, away from the cheating show of the daytide world, it shines in the night of man's inmost heart, with a light quite other than the world-sun's light, and visible nowhence save from out that depth. — Wagner's "State and Religion."

     Under the leaf of many a Fable lies
The Truth for those who look for it; of this
If thou wouldst look behind and find the Fruit,
(To which the Wiser hand hath found his way)
Have thy desire — No Tale of ME and THEE,
Though I and THOU be its Interpreters.
      — Salaman and Absal of Jamal

The real meaning of this noble and deeply touching drama has been so misunderstood by those who have not had the opportunity or inclination to study the poem and its author's prose works that it will be necessary at the outset to show how mystical that meaning is. The long quotation in our last article on the Ring revealed Wagner's intuitive perception, from the first, of the great principle of Renunciation — the Stilling of Desire, and his realization of its logical necessity by the aid of Schopenhauer's clear-cut thought.

Towards the close of 1854, when that great philosopher first began to claim his attention, Wagner writes to Liszt:

His chief idea, the final negation of the desire of life, is terribly serious but it shows the only salvation possible. To me of course that thought was not new, and, indeed, it can be conceived by no one for whom it did not pre-exist; but this philosopher was the first to place it clearly before me.

Two years later the subject is mentioned again and a quotation from a letter will serve to show how all these works grew out of one another and were intimately connected in their inner meaning in Wagner's mind. We have shown in the previous article how he connected Siegfried and Tristan, in their "bondage to an illusion." Now he refers to an idea for a Buddhist drama, which later developed into Parsifal:

I have again two splendid subjects which I must execute. Tristan and Isolde you know, and after that Der Sieg (Victory), the most sacred, the most perfect salvation. . . To me it is most clear and definite, but not as yet fit for communication to others. Moreover you must first have digested my Tristan, especially its third act, with the black flag and the white. Then first will my Sieger become a little more intelligible to you.

It may be mentioned here that Tristan is one of the Knights connected with the Celtic versions of the Parsifal and Holy Grail legends.

Of Die Sieger (The Victors) the sketch alone remains and I shall refer to it more fully when I deal with Parsifal. For the present I shall have enough to do to clearly indicate the "inner soul-motives" which connect Tristan with the earlier dramas and to clear this singularly pure love-allegory from the vulgar charges of immorality and sensuality which have been brought against it. In his fine essay Zukunfts music (Music of the Future) which belongs to his later and more deeply mystical period, Wagner traces the Thread-Soul which governed the development of his dramas from the Flying Dutchman up to Tristan and Isolde. Pointing to the lesson of the terrible power of Doubt embodied in Lohengrin he goes on to say:

I, too, felt driven to this "Whence and Wherefore?" and for long it banned me from the magic of my art. But my time of penance taught me to overcome the question. All doubt at last was taken from me when I gave myself up to the Tristan. Here, in perfect trustfulness, I plunged into the inner depths of soul-events, and from the inmost centre of the world I fearlessly built up its outer form. . . Life and death, the whole import and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul. The whole affecting Action comes about for reason only that the inmost soul demands it, and steps to light with the very shape foretokened in the inner shrine.

In the face of such words as these there is only one possible light in which to regard this drama; and yet there is some excuse for those who cannot see its inner meaning, since the writings of Tennyson, Malory and others on this same subject all lean more or less to the gross and sensual. It has remained for Wagner's deeper insight to grasp the true meaning of the myth and mould it in a drama of unique beauty.

The fundamental motive of the drama is the struggle with the desire of life, alluded to above by Wagner, which finds a wonderful expression in the opening phrase of the Prelude. This deeply pathetic theme permeates in many forms the whole of the marvellous musical creation, to be merged at last into the final tender strains of Isolde's Death Song. It is composed of two parts: the first, grief-laden and resigned, being associated with Tristan, and the second, representing the upward tending nature of Isolde and her deep yearning to draw Tristan after her:

notes1

The first act opens at a point in the story where Tristan "in bondage to an illusion which makes this deed of his unfree, woos for another (King Marke) his own eternally predestined bride" and is bringing her by ship from Ireland to Cornwall. Isolde is seen in a curtained-off space with her handmaid Braugaene. From above comes the voice of a young sailor, reminding one of the Steersman in the Flying Dutchman:

     Westward
     Sweeps the eye;
     Eastward
     Glides the ship.
Homeward blows the fresh wind now;
My Irish maid, where tarriest thou?
Is it the wind that moans and wails,
Or thy sigh's breath that fills my sails?
Sighs the wind so wild!
Sigh, ah sigh, my child!
     Erin's maid,
     Thou wild winsome maid!

Isolde starts up out of her deep dejection asking who mocks her; and then learning that they near the land she bursts out in a wild aside:

Degenerate race,
Unworthy your fathers!
Oh, mother, to whom
Hast thou given the power
To rule the sea and the storm?
     Famed is now
     Thy sorcery's art,
That yield's but balsam draughts!
Awake once more, brave power, for me!
Arise from my bosom, where thou hast hidden!
Hear now my will, ye craven winds.

For Isolde, as may have been guessed by now, represents the "Mysteries," or the inner concealed powers of the soul. She is Princess of Ireland, the laud of the mysteries, even at the present day, and we see that her mother is skilled in magic arts. Even the scene on the ship is symbolical: Isolde in her pavilion shut off from the glare of Day and from its champion Tristan, who is revealed when the curtains are thrown aside by Braugaene, gazing thoughtfully out to sea with his faithful henchman Kurvenal at his feet. Mark Isolde's words as her eyes find him:

Destined for me! — lost to me! —
Fair and strong, brave and base! —
Death-devoted head!
Death-devoted heart!

How clear to the mystic are these words I have italicized! The "head" is Tristan, the "heart" is Isolde; and the whole drama is the story of the great struggle between these two elements — Intellect and Intuition — and their final union.

Tristan is the nephew of King Marke, of Cornwall, and he had freed that country from paying tribute to Ireland by slaying the Irish champion Morold, who was betrothed to Isolde. Wounded himself he went disguised as a minstrel and with name reversed as "Tantris" to seek healing through Isolde's far-famed magic skill. But in the head of Morold, sent scornfully as "tribute," Isolde had found a splinter of steel which she fitted to a gap in Tristan's sword and so penetrated his disguise. Then she raised the sword in vengeance; but, as she now recounts to Braugaeue:

From his sick bed
He turned his look
Not on the sword,
Not on my hand, —
He looked into my eyes;
His anguish wrung my heart,
The sword fell from my grasp —
The wound which Morold made
I healed, that, whole and strong,
Tristan might go his way
And no more vex my sight.

What means all this? Tristan has made his first attempt to penetrate the inner mysteries of his nature; he has conquered their guardian (Morold) and come face to face with the Queen of the Night herself; she knows him beneath his disguise and in that "look" he turns upon her she recognizes his dawning consciousness of the inner life and knows that she is his "eternally predestined bride." We now hear a new pair of motives; the first, rising heroically, represents Tristan's powerful aspiration towards Isolde, while the second is associated with the "look" he casts upon her:

notes2

But Tristan, like Siegfried, does not seize his first opportunity to retain his inner vision, but must needs pass through the narrow gate of suffering ere he learns his real duty. Deceived by that subtle foe of the aspirant, the idea of sacrifice for the fancied good of another, he rejects the intuition which draws him to Isolde and inwardly resolves that he will offer this rare jewel to his uncle King Marke. He argues to himself that he is less fit and worthy than his chief and elder: and so, looking too much on the outer aspect of things, he falls again under the illusion of "the cheating show of the day-tide world" in which Marke wholly dwells. For the good old King is "asleep inside," although upright, pure and noble, and this is just the difference between the two men. Thus Tristan, as we shall see, wrongs not only Isolde and himself, but also the simple soul to whom he offers an alliance which he would never have accepted had he known the hidden truth.

Tristan's action has in reality amounted to a profanation of the Mysteries; for the aspirant who approaches that inner realm has to "learn the lesson of silence" and Wagner has made this clear enough here for those who are not wilfully blind. Listen to Isolde's words to Braugaene:

How loudly Tristan there proclaimed
What I had held so fast locked up
Her name who in silence gave him life,
In silence screened him from foes' revenge,
And how her secret shelter had saved him
He openly published to all the world.

Tristan's reflections are gloomy indeed, as he guides the ship to King Marke's land. He is beginning to awake to the consequences of his false humility, and, as the mystic fire burns ever yet more fiercely within him, he places a stern guard on himself in loyalty to his chief. To Isolde's message bidding him to her presence, he replies that he must not leave his post at the helm. "How could he guide the ship safe to King Marke's land?"

But for the soul once awakened, be it ever so little, to its inner Self, there is no return, and no rest till the consummation is reached. The tie has been made and cannot be broken; Isolde will claim her own in death if need be. Braugaene, thinking she is distraught at the prospect of a loveless union with Marke, gently reminds her of a love-draught which her mother's magic art and foresight had provided to ensure her daughter's happiness: but Isolde had "graven deep a sign" on another phial in the casket — the death-draught, and it is this that she now commands the horror-stricken Braugaene to prepare, while she sends a second and peremptory summons to Tristan.

As the hero, in obedience, now enters we hear his motive again combined with two of the love-motives in a stern and simple form as if to accentuate the iron control he has set upon his inner feelings To Isolde's question he answers that "custom" kept him afar from her whom he was bringing as bride-elect to his King. But Isolde knows naught of worldly conventionality. "For fear of what?" she asks guilelessly; and Tristan can only answer, "Ask the Custom." Then she tells him that a blood-debt lies between them (the death of Morold ) for which atonement must be made. Tristan answers that truce was sworn "in open field," and Isolde's reply is full of inner meaning:

It was not there I held Tantris hidden,
Not there that Tristan fell before me.
There he stood glorious, bright and strong;
But what he swore I did not swear;
I had learned the lesson of silence.

And she goes on to say how at his look she let fall the avenging sword and now they must drink atonement. She signs to Braugaene for the draught and at the same moment sailors' shouts are heard. Tristan asks, "Where are we?" and Isolde with the death-resolve in her heart answers with double meaning:

Near the goal.
Tristan, is peace to be made?
What hast thou to say to me?

His reply is equally significant:

The Queen herself of Silence
Lays on my lips a seal.

He too has now "learned the lesson of silence" and gladly takes the proffered cup which shall release him from his misery:

Heart's deceit! foreboding dreams!
Endless mourning's only balm,
Oblivion's kindly draught,
I drink thee without fear!

But ere he can drain the goblet Isolde snatches it and drinks the rest. And now, at the gate of death, which for them means freedom from the pain and illusion of separateness, they have no further need of concealment. Openly and truly they stand face to face, all barriers cast aside, and the music tells us that Tristan's vision is once more unclouded, for we hear the "Look-motive" loudly sounded. Then follows one of those wonderful passages where speech is silent and the music all-eloquent, telling us of the lofty death-defiance in their hearts changing to the glow of the mystic love-fire. Believing themselves already in another world they embrace and "remain lost in mutual contemplation," unheedful of their arrival and the coming of Marke. Then it all breaks in upon them and they learn with horror that Braugaene, in foolish compassion, has changed the death-draught for that of love, and thus — acting as the agent of that Law which demands expiation — condemns Tristan to a further sojourn in the world of illusion. Isolde is there too, but only figuratively, for her real nature is of the Mysteries and her manifestation is in so far a revelation of those Mysteries. She is throughout the seeress and prophetess. The draught whether of death or love, is also only a dramatic symbol of what must be inevitable between these two.

Thus the first act closes as they are violently torn asunder by the sudden inrush of the Day; while amid the shouts of the sailors, the blare of trumpets and the bustle of the landing, the sad cry of the "yeanring-motive" again reaches our ears as the curtain quickly falls.

(To be continued.)


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