(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Tristan und Isolde (1859; Tristan and Isolde) remains, in many ways, Richard Wagner's most enigmatic work. John DiGaetani in Wagner and Suicide (2003) referred to Tristan und Isolde as “Wagner's most suicidal opera.” M. Owen Lee in Athena Sings: Wagner and the Greeks (2003) called it the “most Aeschylean of Wagner's works.”

Some critics have dismissed Tristan and Isolde as a self-absorbed byproduct of the composer's adulterous liaison (perhaps never consummated) with Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902), the wife of one of his most generous patrons. Others concur with Michael Tanner's conclusion inWagner (1996) that Tristan and Isolde ranks “along with Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, [as] one of the two greatest religious works of art of our culture.” In the midst of such scholarly disagreement, Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart takes an admirably clear-headed and comprehensive look at the opera as music, as literature, as philosophy, and as one of the foremost representatives of aesthetic sensibility from the Romantic age.

Taking its title from Isolde's exclamation of despair in act 1, scene 2, “Todgeweihtes Haupt! Todgeweihtes Herz!” (O, Death-Devoted head! Death-Devoted Heart!), Scruton's study seeks to find a proper place for Wagner's opera within its long cultural tradition and to examine the work in detail from a rich variety of perspectives. Perhaps no other critic in the early twenty-first century is as qualified for this task as is Scruton. Himself the author of a one-act opera, The Minister(1998), which deals with the same conflict between love and power that is a central subject of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876; The Ring of the Nibelungs), Scruton has also won acclaim as a philosopher, journalist, broadcaster, editor, and champion of rural agriculture.

Scruton's status as an unusually accomplished polymath is apparent throughout Death-Devoted Heart, as he moves easily from topic to topic, discussing such figures as Geoffrey Chaucer, Arthur Schopenhauer, Plato, Chrétien de Troyes, and Claude Lévi-Strauss with equal aplomb. Scruton is as versed in the complexities of voice-leading—the ways in which a composer has tones move and progress through time so as to produce appropriate harmonies and skillful transitions—in nineteenth century opera as he is in the development of the Upanishads in ancient India. Such a breadth of mastery is invaluable in dissecting Tristan and Isolde, a work that is based on a medieval legend, steeped in the Romantic view of the world, laden with Eastern philosophical perspectives, and highly innovative for its time, anticipating the rich chromaticism and atonalism that would characterize so much of twentieth century music.

Death-Devoted Heart is divided into seven chapters, followed by an epilogue which links Tristan and Isolde to modernist trends in music and literature, and an appendix, which identifies forty-six of the opera's major musicals. The first chapter explores the nature of myth in general and examines the ways in which an understanding of myth can help clarify Wagner's purposes inTristan and Isolde. Scruton argues that myth embodies what the author terms the “as if” of experience. “We live as if we could make that final sacrifice, as if we could free ourselves, through some absolute and peremptory self-command, from the original mistake. This “as if” permeates our daily thoughts and feelings, and reconciles us to each other and the world.”

The mythic element of Tristan and Isolde, therefore, arises from setting impossibly high standards for human society and allowing people to experience the world as if they were capable of devoting themselves to perfect love, as if they were able to make the supreme sacrifice for the object of their passion, and as if those sublime feelings of devotion would never fade over time or lapse because they must live in an imperfect world.

The importance of this mythic aspect to Tristan and Isolde, Scruton suggests, is the antidote that it can provide to the despair and nihilism present in so much of the modern world. “Modern people believe that they are animals, parts of the natural order, bound by laws tying them to the material forces that govern everything. They believe that the gods are their invention, and that death is exactly what it seems. Their world has been disenchanted and their illusions destroyed.” One of the important contributions of works like Tristan and Isolde, therefore, is that they help the modern world rediscover a belief that enchantment is possible and that desirable illusions—the sort of illusions which give life its beauty, meaning, and unique preciousness—can be restored.

At a performance...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)