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