Tristan towers like a mountain above all other love poems, as Wagner above all other artists of his century. It is the outcome of a sublime conception, though the work as a whole is far from perfect. Of perfect works there is none where Wagner is concerned. The effort necessary for the creation of them was too great to be long sustained ; for a single work might means years of toil. And the tense emotions of a whole drama cannot be expressed by a series of sudden inspirations put into form the moment they are conceived. Long and arduous labor is necessary. These giants, fashioned like Michelangelo’s, these concentrated tempests of heroic force and decadent complexity, are not arrested, like the work of a sculptor or painter, in one moment of their action ; they live and go on living in endless detail of sensation. To expect sustained inspiration is to expect what is not human. Genius may reveal what is divine ; it may call up and catch a glimpse of die Mutter, but it cannot always breathe in the exhausted air of this world. So will must sometimes take the place of inspiration ; though the will is uncertain and often stumbles in its task. That is why we encounter things that jar and jolt in the greatest worksthey are the marks of human weakness. Well, perhaps there is less weakness in Tristan than in Wagner’s other dramas Gôtterdammerung, for instancefor nowhere else is the effort of his genius more strenuous or its flight more dizzy. Wagner himself knew it well. His letters show the despair of a soul wrestling with its familiar spirit, which it clutches and holds, only to lose again. And we seem to hear cries of pain, and feel his anger and despair.
” I can never-tell you what a really wretched musician I am. In my inmost heart I know I am a bungler and an absolute failure. You should see me when I say to myself, ` It ought to go now,’ and sit down to the piano and put together some miserable rubbish, which I fling away again like an idiot. I know quite well the kind of musical trash- I produce. . . . Believe me, it is no good expecting me to do anything decent. Sometimes I really think it was Reissiger who inspired me to write Tannhauser and Lohengrin.”
This is how Wagner wrote to Liszt when he was finishing this amazing work of art. In the same way Michelangelo wrote to his father in 1509: ” I am in agony. I have not dared to ask the Pope for anything, because my work does not make sufficient progress to merit any remuneration. The work is too difficult, and indeed it is not my profession. I am wasting my time to no purpose. Heaven help me ! ” For a year he had been working at the ceiling of the Sixtine chapel.
This is something more than a burst of modesty.
No one had more pride than Michelangelo or Wagner ; but both felt the defects of their work like a sharp wound. And although those defects do not prevent their works from being the glory of the human spirit, they are there just the same.
I do not want to dwell upon the inherent imperfections of Wagner’s dramas ; they are really dramatic or epic symphonies, impossible to act, and gaining nothing from representation. This is especially true of Tristan, where the disparity between the storm of sentiment depicted, and the cold convention and enforced timidity of action on the stage, is such that at certain momentsin the second act, for exampleit pains and shocks one, and seems almost grotesque.
But while admitting that Tristan is a symphony that is not suitable for representation, one also recognises its blemishes and, above all, its unevenness. The orchestration in the first act is often rather thin, and the plot lacks solidity. There are gaps and unaccountable holes, and melodious lines left suspended in space. From beginning to end, lyrical bursts of melody are broken by declamations, or, what is worse, by dissertations. Frenzied whirlwinds of passion stop suddenly to give place to recitatives of explanation or argument. And although these recitatives are nearly always a great relief, although these metaphysical reveries have a character of barbarous cunning that one relishes, yet the superior beauty of the movements of pure poetry, emotion, and music is so evident, that this musical and philosophical drama serves to give one a distaste for philosophy and drama and every-thing else that cramps and confines music.
But the musical part of Tristan is not free either from the faults of the work as a whole, for it, too, lacks unity. Wagner’s music is made up of very diverse styles : one finds in it Italianisms and Germanisms and even Gallicisms of every kind ; there are some that are sublime, some that are common-place ; and at times one feels the awkwardness of their union and the imperfections of their form. Then again, perhaps two ideas of equal originality come together and spoil each other by making too strong a contrast. The fine lamentation of King Markthat personification of a knight of the Grail is treated with such moderation and with so noble a scorn for outward show, that its pure, cold light is entirely lost after the glowing fire of the duet.
The work suffers everywhere from a -lack of balance. It is an almost inevitable defect, arising from its very grandeur. A mediocre work may quite easily be perfect of its kind ; but it is rarely that a work of lofty aim attains perfection. A landscape of little dells and smiling meadows is brought more readily into pleasing harmony than a landscape of dazzling Alps, torrents, glaciers, and tempests ; for the heights may sometimes overwhelm the picture and spoil the effect. And so it is with certain great pages of Tristan. We may take for example the verses which tell of excruciating expectationin the second act, Isolde’s expectation on the – night filled with desire ; and, in the third act, Tristan’s expectation, as he lies wounded and delirious, waiting for the vessel that brings Isolde and deathor we may take the Prelude, that expression of eternal desire that is like a restless sea for ever moaning and beating itself upon the shore.
The quality that touches me most deeply in Tristan is the evidence of honesty and sincerity in a man who was treated by his enemies as a charlatan that used superficial and grossly material means to arrest and amaze the public eye. What drama is more sober or more disdainful of exterior effect than Tristan? Its restraint is almost carried to excess. Wagner rejected any picturesque episode in it that was irrelevant to his subject. The man who carried all Nature in his imagination, who at his will made the storms of the Walküre rage, or the soft light of Good Friday shine, would not even depict a bit of the sea round the vessel in the first act. Believe me, that must have been a sacrifice, though he wished it so. It pleased him to enclose this terrible drama within the four walls of a chamber of tragedy. There are hardly any choruses ; there is nothing to distract one’s attention from the mystery of human souls ; there are only two real partsthose of the lovers ; and if there is a third, it belongs to Destiny, into whose hands the victims are delivered. What a fine seriousness there is in this love play. Its passion remains sombre and stern ; there is no laughter in it, only a belief which is almost religious, more religious perhaps in its sincerity than that of Parsifal.
It is a lesson for dramatists to see a man supressing all frivolous trifling and empty episodes in order to concentrate his subject entirely on the inner life of two living souls. In that Wagner is our master, a better, stronger, and more profitable master to follow, in spite of his mistakes, than all the other literary and dramatic authors of his time.
I see that criticism has filled a larger place in these notes than I meant it to do. But in spite of that, I love Tristan ; for me and for others of my time it has long been an intoxicating draught. And it has never lost anything of its grandeur ; the years have left its beauty untouched, and it is for me the highest point of art reached by anyone since Beethoven’s death.
But as I was listening to it the other evening I could not help thinking : Ah, Wagner, you will one day go too, and join Gluck and Bach and Monteverde and Palestrina and all the great souls whose names still live among men, but whose thoughts are only felt by a handful of the initiated, who try in vain to revive the past. You, also, are already of the past, though you were the steady light of our youth, the strong source of life and death, of desire and renouncement, whence we drew our moral force and our power of resistance against the world. And the world, ever greedy for new sensations, goes on its way amid the unceasing ebb and flow of its desires. Already its thoughts have changed, and new musicians are making new songs for the future. But it is the voice of a century of tempest that passes with you.