Written By Mary Byrne

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde:  Prelude

The artist whose art is very good but whose behaviour is very bad is headline news today.  The same controversy has raged around Richard Wagner for much of the last two centuries.  Of course, Wagner’s times were different and Wagner was nothing it not a man of his times.  That his music was used as propaganda by 20th-century regimes was out of his control.  Whether we accept Wagner’s music at face-value or ask it to bear our knowledge of his rampant nationalism, his fervent anti-Semitism, and his single-minded obsession with his own art, it is a personal conversation that most of us will undertake at some point.  Whatever the decision, however, most will concede, that Wagner’s music is a sonic experience unlike anything anyone else has achieved.

Richard Wagner conceived his music for the theatre, although it can stand on its own on the concert stage, and brought it about from weathered experience.  He discovered much of his story material early in his artistic career.  For example, his daring sea escape under cover of darkness from his first miserable posting in Riga laid the foundations of The Flying Dutchman.  His fledgling library included copies of the Lohengrin and Parsifal sagas, the poems of the Meistersinger Hans Sachs, and a copy of Gottfried von Strassburg’s medieval romance Tristan.  School study of Greek tragedy led him to envision music as part of a gesamtkunstwerk – a synthesis of all the arts including music, word, drama, architecture, sculpture and stagecraft.

Tristan und Isolde caused a sensation at its premier.  The story revolves around Tristan and Isolde, who, taken unaware, fall in love as a result of a magic potion.  She, of course, is promised to another; and clearly this story will end poorly for everyone involved.  What caused the sensation, however, was not Wagner’s plot based partly on his alleged affair with a married woman, or the fact that he would soon run off with the wife of the man who conducted the premiere, or the rapturous final scene that concludes the drama.  What caused all the fuss was a particular chord in the prelude. The so-called “Tristan Chord” is the first chord you hear.  Four notes from the cello rise and descend.  On the last cello-note the oboe begins a rising four-note figure.  At the join between the two phrases is an utterly unprepared chord – ripe with dissonance – that fails in its attempt at resolution.  Isn’t that the whole story in a nutshell?  Two besotted lovers, caught in a situation they can’t control and can’t get out of.  It is one of Wagner’s most potent and compact dramatic gestures.  From this kernel, he spins the full tragic tale from opening of this Prelude to the drama’s climactic close.


 Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, op. 105

Despite the fact that he would live another three decades, Jean Sibelius was near the end of his compositional career when he wrote the Symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 105 in 1924.  By midlife many things had sapped his creative energies:  depression, alcoholism, and a strong desire for solitude being chief among them.  He had worn the mantle of Finland’s artistic voice uneasily.  In his youth he positioned himself for the role, throwing off his Swedish language – the language of Finland’s elite in the 19th century – and reading deeply into the sagas and heritage of the common Finn.  But once he had achieved it, the price was too dear:  too much time in the public eye, and pressures to produce a new Finnish classic with every work.

The seventh symphony was written almost concurrently with the fifth and the sixth.  For many years Sibelius forecast an eighth, but it never amounted to anything.  For the Symphony no. 7 he chose a single movement structure that makes it more of a fantasia than a symphony.  Many have tried to analyse the work as a compressed symphony with all its constituent parts; but Sibelius himself discouraged attempted analysis, saying that it would be like “touching fragile butterfly wings.”  So, what are we to expect?  The work is in C major, which in musical symbolism stands for light, heaven, enlightenment and transfiguration.  While the beginning is nominally in C major, and the ending is definitely in C major, and most of the structural highpoints – especially the stupendous trombone theme – are in C major, this music has virtually no C major brightness.  It is restless, troubled, and on the edge of stridency for most of its length.  Where there is respite, it is short lived.   In short, the work is almost squeezed and compacted to get maximum intensity in the shortest measure of time.  If the piece were longer, or if this were the first or last of several movements, it would be too much.  As it stands, however, the music is gripping from the first accumulating notes to its shockingly abrupt end.


Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Lohengrin:  Act 3

Lohengrin comes from a much earlier point in Wagner’s artistic thinking than does Tristan.  It was a turbulent and lusty time for Wagner, and one in which he found himself occasionally in the depths of depression and contemplating suicide.  He was still trying to find himself in a time of rapid social change and the old sagas appealed to him.  As such, the opera still shows traces of Grand Opera – spectacle, crowd scenes, and a measure of magic – with both recitative and aria, albeit integrated in a single texture.

The story is about the Grail knight, Lohengrin, who is heaven-sent under the condition of total anonymity to be the champion for Elsa, who herself stands accused of murdering her younger brother and heir to the kingdom, Gottfried.  Lohengrin is successful in the challenge.  He and Elsa fall in love, and she vows never to ask about his origin.  Yet, the machinations of those around them contrive to bring down Elsa by compelling her to break her oath.

When we arrive at act three the wedding has taken place.  After a noble introduction Lohengrin and Elsa are ushered to their bridal chamber:  the music is iconic.  Here, the bride and groom have their first quiet moments together as a couple.  Many tender words are spoken, but soon Elsa begins to ask the question – first circuitously – what is your name?  Lohengrin is dismayed and begs her to stop.  When she becomes direct, her oath is broken.  Before leaving the chamber, he kills one of those who have been sent to kill him on his wedding night.

The act continues on the same plain near a river where the opera begins:  here King Heinrich and his attendants gather forces.  Phenomenal brass fanfares gather the assembly of troops and courtiers.  The ill-fated couple appears:  Lohengrin exposes Elsa’s broken oath and prepares to reveal his identity.  To the most sensitive music, Lohengrin describes the Grail realm.  All are struck by the magnitude of this declaration, and Elsa realizes the price she will pay:  Lohengrin is lost to her.  A swan appears along the river, drawn by exquisitely delicate music.  Lohengrin reveals that the swan is actually the transformation of Gottfried, who was thought slain.  The heir is returned to human form and to his rightful place.  Lohengrin boards his boat, now pulled by doves.  As he disappears in the distance, Elsa crumples lifeless to the ground.