Style and Technique

Richard Wagner’s music is not only a subject and a medium of expression in Mann’s “Tristan,” but also a source of the typically Mannian device of the leitmotif. Like the musical “signatures” that mark characters, objects, and ideas in Wagner’s operas, the literary leitmotif may emphasize physical traits, characterize speakers, signal deeper psychological patterns, or suggest characters’ affinities and antipathies. Mann most successfully employs it in its full, “musical” value with clusters of associations. Perhaps the most striking example here is Gabriele’s reminiscence of her youth, which Spinell embellishes to the point of factual distortion, insisting that a golden crown gleamed in her hair as she sat in the family garden in Bremen. He recalls it in this fantastic version as he “seduces” her to play the piano; he invokes the same images in his overwrought letter to Kloterjahn; and finally he torments himself with it by persisting in the use of Frau Kloterjahn’s maiden name at the loathsome sight of the Kloterjahn baby, “Gabriele Eckhof’s fat son.”

Mann assumes that his reader will recognize Wagner’s opera when he introduces it, though neither the composer nor the title is ever named. The clues come through his verbal re-creation of the music itself—its figures, motifs, orchestral voices, and dynamics—and then through quotation of Wagner’s text. This distilled evocation of the Tristan and Isolde legend,...

(The entire section is 436 words.)