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Wagner (1813-1883) - Prelude & Liebestod, from "Tristan und Isolde"

In Tovey's defence of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony in a programme note, “Defects of form are not a justifiable ground for criticism from listeners who profess to enjoy the bleeding chunks of butcher's meat chopped from Wagner's operas . . .”, his choice of words (the envy of all programme note writers ever since!) made it pretty clear that he did not exactly approve of this practice. However, here we have two such “bleeding chunks”, chopped from one of Wagner's operas by Wagner himself, who apparently did not share Tovey's objections. Why he did this is anybody's guess - mine is that it was simple business, a “commercial trailer” to reel in potential punters. Wagner, let's face it, had only three preoccupations in life: opera, sex - and money. Regarding this last, he seemed particularly intent on maximising his profit margin through minimal investment: he wasted no time on creating something wonderful to join these two passages, just a simple “snip of the scissors” dispensed with the two and a half hours separating Prelude from Liebestod

But the idea of doing it, now that was wonderful! The two passages, while not notable for any dynamic contrast, beautifully balance “longing” against “fulfilment”. The notion that love can be so intense as to achieve its fulfilment, its redemption, only in death is one that endlessly fascinated Wagner, finding no finer expression than in the illicit liaison of Tristan und Isolde. Thus in the Prelude, Wagner conveys the unrequited longing of the lovers through music whose harmonic tensions are kept from exploding only by sheer physical restraint. A rising dissonance resolves only onto further dissonance. Lyrical ardour now flows, now hesitates, lapping like hungry waves surging against a shore. The vocal line is simply omitted from the Liebestod, a lack which you don't feel, unless you know what is missing. The ecstasy of “redemption”, as the lovers finally unite in death, is projected with nerve-tingling passion, through a dominance of arching phrases, shimmering in strings and harp, lapping over one another in burgeoning harmonic, and rhythmic, tension. Here, he time for hesitation and restraint is past. With fervent abandon the music rises to a properly brief climax (apposite word!), before everything dissolves in a long, slow benediction, the Prelude's rising dissonance finally finding its heart's desire – resolution onto consonance.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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