Friday, May 18, 2012

Hearing 'Tristan and Isolde' for the first time

On May 4 1954 I heard the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the Liebestod for the first time. Words remain as helpless as they always were to describe the shattering effect it had on me. After some more fruitless runs at it as a way to start off this postscript*, I give up on all attempts for good. I should have known better by now than to try.

But lying awake several nights recently, I have found myself with enough words at last to tease out from that overwhelming experience strands that are intelligible, at least to me. In with my soaring wonder at this totally new music, the tumultuous onrush of feeling that swamped and swept me away, there mingled a sense of something fathomless and frightening happening to me: an intimation that everything was changing, would not be the same again. I was hearing all there could ever be and nothing you could ever have.

This intuition was uncannily in accord with Wagner’s intention but it worked in me the other way round. When my reason reassembled I had not learned that Bliss lay elsewhere. I concluded that the world was full of wonders and that I enjoyed special privileges, even special powers, to come by them. Unable to express or share it, but never doubting it, I lived in expectation that ineffable beauty would recur, be there for me, not often perhaps but as a matter of course, throughout life. The thought that I would be looking for it in the wrong place never crossed my mind. 

As the busy years went by, I came to know that May 4 1954 would not repeat. When I thought of it I felt no sense of loss. Rather I felt a tinge of guilt, mild unease at something lacking in me that the highest point of all had been this music one night alone. I see now those feelings were more mistaken than if I had felt loss. My out-of-this-world experience changed and magnified my life in this world. It does not relegate any part of it, even though it is more than any part of it. It is not unfortunate that you never have the moment again. It is supremely fortunate that you have it at all.

There is nothing on earth like Tristan and Isolde. Wagner composed it after he came to see ‘the world’s nothingness’. But to see the world as nothing means he must have also seen it as everything - and his to create. On May 4 1954, unprepared, uncomprehending, I shared in with the rest of my experience that frantic intensity of need to exist and exist for - that if this, this, were the only thing the world is to offer, you would live and die to get in to have it.

As for The Twilight of the Gods, I saw an ENO production years ago myself. In it the producer simply refused to accept that Wagner had ever stopped being a young revolutionary. At the end, when the gods had fallen, Valhalla and the world burned, the ring had returned to the Rhinemaidens and the final chord of music died, the curtain did not fall. Instead half-lights came up. The entire cast had come silently back on stage and now stood in the dimness with their backs to the audience. They turned to us as one, putting to us the unspoken question: What kind of world should we be living in?

Not even genius can tell us what to think. When I see young Dave and me in the shop in Enfield now buying Act III of Die Walkure, you are with us; we are all chatting away.

* This is the last part of Wagner Notes for Holly, complete on this site dated April 2007 

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