Difficulty and Ease in Richard Wagner’s Liebestod
by Alan Shapiro
(Note: for reference, I am using the beautiful 1966 recording by Birgit Nilsson with Karl Böhm conducting the Bayreuthe Festival Orchestra)
One of the most beautiful, passionate musical works ever written is Richard Wagner’s opera,Tristan und Isolde. The 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow called it “the zenith of musical art up to now!” And some of the greatest music from it is the final scene, which has come to be known as the “Liebestod,” or “Love-Death.” Wagner himself called it Isolde’s Verklärung, which means “a coming to clarity.”
A central reason it’s beautiful, I believe, is in how it puts together struggle and resolution, difficulty and ease. In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel wrote:
Something like struggle is needed by the human being. Something even like discontent is needed by the human being. ….One cannot think of a world made up of smooth roads strewn with roses and bordered by exceedingly accessible marshmallows. The world, like the human body, is a compound of resistance and ease, obstruction and going forward, obstacle and companion.
These words have me understand the beauty of the “Liebestod” in a way I’m tremendously grateful for.
Wagner’s opera tells the story of the love of Tristan, a Knight in the service of King Marke of Cornwall in what is now southern England, for Isolde, an Irish princess who was promised in marriage to the elderly King. She, however, falls in love with Tristan—and when their love is discovered, he is mortally wounded by a knight loyal to Marke. Isolde tries to reach Tristan to heal him, but arrives too late, and he dies in her arms. Then, in a rapture, as she imagines Tristan waking, returning to life, she sings, “How gently and quietly he smiles, how fondly he opens his eyes!. Do you see, friends? Do you not see?” Right from the start, there is a feeling of striving against opposition, a sense of resistance in the music, as the melody rises and falls and then rises higher. The melody is slow, and it comes in softly, almost out of silence.
[Ex 1: beginning to measure 9]
The orchestral texture is itself a relation of difficulty and ease; it is thick, with the low strings playing sustained chords; and they play tremolo, which both adds to the impediment, the thickness, and at the same time makes for a feeling of motion and expectation. The melody Isolde sings begins with a short, two-measure figure, which, as the Liebestod continues, we hear again and again in the orchestra in different keys and on different instruments, growing steadily in intensity.
That two bar phrase begins with a strong, assertive motion, rising from the dominant, up a fourth to the tonic. Yet immediately there is opposition—the melody is stopped from rising further; the tonic note is repeated, and the melody is turned back, dropping a half step and then another half step. In general, it’s easier to descend than to ascend, but this gentle descent of two half steps brings the music to a Cb major chord, very distant from the Ab major chord it began with. It is unsettling and restful at once. Then, with a little rush, the melody ascends two whole steps, but where do we end? On a Bb major chord. The chords resist and push forward at once. They contradict the key we began with, they also open the door for modulation, for moving on to newer keys. Then Isolde repeats this phrase, now in a higher key.
As the music continues, the orchestra takes up the theme, with Isolde sometimes agreeing and often disagreeing.
[ex. 2: measure 9 to “Fühlt und seht ihr’s nicht?”]
Perhaps the most intense and beautiful feeling of struggle comes about midway through. Isolde believes she hears a melody coming from Tristan, and sings, “Are they waves of refreshing breezes? Are they billows of heavenly fragrances? As they swell and roar around me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen to them?” Accompanying this, the violins begin a chromatic melody—a slow upward climb in tight half-steps, struggling to reach something, which again and again falls back and then climbs higher. As it does, the chromatic line is often dissonant to the harmony below and to Isolde’s melody. Yet, because these dissonances by their very nature seek to resolve themselves, they push and pull the melody along. The opposition makes for the advance. Throughout, along with struggle, there is a feeling of unrelenting, inevitable progress, and it is thrilling and deeply satisfying.
[ex. 3: 3:30-4:02, “sind es Wellen” to “sol ich lauschen?"]
What can this music teach us about love, especially in relation to difficulty and ease? I once thought love should be easy. I’d meet the right girl, we’d fall in love, and everything would be great—that is, I would be approved of completely, and there would be no questions. Not surprisingly, I had a lot of difficulty in love, and by my mid-twenties, I felt despairing on the subject. The greatest good fortune of my life was meeting Aesthetic Realism, because I heard criticism of the thing that stopped me from caring truly for a person—my conceit. Once, in a consultation, when I spoke about being irritated with a woman, I was asked:
Consultants: Do you think you’d like to be with a woman who would smile at you under any circumstances? A lot of men have felt, sure, what else is a woman’s purpose, but for him to lean on her shoulder, to have her soothe him?
Alan Shapiro: I think that’s pretty much the way I saw it.
Consultants: But are you really interested in who the woman is? Is the reason you’re seeing each other to learn, and to see where you both can be better—or to have everything nice and easy, no difficulty, and you can just sit back? Have you ever had a sense of being a pasha?
I definitely had! I saw myself as a prize, and any woman should feel so lucky to have me. Love, I learned, is not something you just fall into. It is a process, an education. It is critical and it takes thought. Aesthetic Realism taught me that there was a reason I’d had such difficulty in love: I didn’t have good will, which, I learned, is the desire to have someone else stronger. And I’ve seen that a man can never do well in love, including about questions two people have—as to work, money, family, even how to furnish their home—unless there is good will. “The purpose of love,” wrote Eli Siegel in Self and World, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” Learning this has made it possible for me to care deeply for Leila Rosen, to whom I’m grateful to be married.
The climax of the Liebestod is magnificent; there is a feeling of tremendous achievement, of soaring and freedom. It seems all obstacles are overcome—only there is this amazing thing: the highest note, a C#, is outside the chord, and there is a terrific feeling of dissatisfaction, as it wants to pull back down to the B, the home key. Then the orchestra and Isolde gradually descend and the music comes to an E minor chord—a moment of darkness. Wagner seems to be saying, “In your achievement, don’t forget the struggle.” Finally, after Isolde’s last notes—an octave leap from F# to high F#—a single oboe bravely plays a high D#, the sweet major third of the key, the full orchestra joins it, and the music resolves on the pure B major chord it has been aiming for from the beginning. It is because the struggle is honored that the achievement is both believable and so satisfying.
[ex.4: 3:30 to end, from “Höre ich nur diese Weise”]
A large question about this music is: What is the relation of love and death here? From what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, I think the “Liebestod” affirms the fact that something in us, our narrow, selfish self, must be defeated in order for us to love truly another person. In his poem, “Love; or, When Good Will Wins,” Eli Siegel wrote:
To love a person
Is to be willing
To give up your wrong care for yourself
(Which may be seen as true care)
For good will for that person.
And so love is clearly
The most beautiful thing in the world:
Which everyone, surely,
Knows it is.