Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: Myth, Opera, and Obsession
“I fear that the opera will be forbidden,” Richard Wagner wrote to a correspondent as he was completing the last act of Tristan und Isolde. “Only mediocre performances can save me! Absolutely perfect ones will make people insane.” Wagner, not known for his modesty, could be suspected of exaggerating. Yet Tristan, in its reception, has borne him out, inspiring in its listeners an erotic devotion (and at times a visceral disgust) whose intensity frequently borders on the pathological. If Tristan induced fevered responses, it was a fevered opera: onto the archaic skeleton of an Arthurian romance, with its chivalric setting and doomed lovers, Wagner grafted a portrait of self-destructive sexual obsession that scandalized his contemporaries, fusing together pantheistic erotic mysticism, the metaphysical pessimism of his idol Schopenhauer, and a vision of human psychology that, as Thomas Mann noted, anticipates Freud. This heady worldview was conveyed by, or rather seemed to arise directly out of, music whose restlessness and intensity, alternating hypnotic sensuality with outbursts of searing dissonance, could move its listeners to trance or breakdown. What explains Tristan’s extraordinary power?
In this course we will explore Tristan und Isolde and its impact on both Wagner’s era and our own, discussing its music, dramatic narrative, and underlying vision of the human condition. We will listen to and discuss each of its three acts, trying to understand the sources of its unsettling musical power, its capacity to focus desire in ways both liberating and coercive. Through a study of its sources and influences, coupled with readings by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Bernard Williams, and others, we will examine the worldview underlying the opera’s nocturnal delirium, considering how it both forms Wagner’s music and is formed by it. And finally, through an exploration of its musical, literary, and artistic posterity, we will consider its revolutionary impact on the history of the arts, and ask how it continues to reverberate even today, shaping our own understanding of music, sexuality, and the self. What might it mean to call Wagner’s mid-19th-century opera modern?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
September 16 — October 07, 2020