Roger Scruton's book is a deep and daunting study of the most important single composition in Western music, Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Scruton believes that only Bach's St Matthew Passion is Tristan's equal among musical masterpieces. Some of us might want to add The Marriage of Figaro or a Josquin Mass to this shortlist, but music-lovers and musicologists, Wagnerites and Wagner-haters, identify Tristan as the greatest crisis point in composition since the 12th-century School of Paris.
Tristan's intense chromatisising may not have corroded the diatonic system irresistibly: Scruton shows the opera is still a tonal work. But without Wagner's pioneering extension of melody, harmony and rhythm, the achievements of Debussy, Schönberg and the Dodecophonic composers, even of today's "pick-and-mix" opportunists, could hardly have come about.
More has been written about Wagner and especially Tristan than perhaps any other opera. Yet Scruton's examination is highly original and delves into aspects which have seldom been explored so rigorously. His approach is threefold - close attention to the libretto, detailed analysis of the score and, probably most importantly, an opening-out of Wagner's philosophical world-view, of which Tristan is the most complete artistic expression.
Its text has always presented difficulties to English-speakers. In her diaries, Cosima Wagner records Richard reading Shakespeare's plays to his family, once remarking that this supreme artist would have been ever greater if he had written in German and not in that barbarous tongue, English. The short lines, ejaculatory syntax and wide-stretching vowels of Wagner's German are well designed for singing, but almost defy translation. Several passages, including some of the love scene of Act Two and the final Liebestod, seem to be composed as a species of ululating vocalise, though with a sonic concern for consonants.
Scruton has bothered to read the book of the opera for its drama, and finds it accurately and skilfully assembled. He refutes any suggestion of longueurs, noticing how much of the complicated detail of the original story derived from Gottfried of Strasbourg is included in the sung dialogue.
Opera-goers who complain that little appears to happen on stage are missing the enormous amount that develops in verbal exchanges. It is not a case of music carrying the action forward, but of words and music combining to embody the drama. As Scruton explains, music exhibits "will" directly.
That "will" is from the philosopher Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation, one of the entrances into Scruton's elaborate discussion of the "death-devoted heart"; of the study of erotic love as a purification of a story once besmirched by medievalism; and of the realms of Day and Night - the one symbolised by King Marke and the world of chivalry, the other by Isolde's quenching of the torch when the lovers are alone, awaiting the return of the royal hunting party.
Scruton's general thesis offers few hostages to readers, like myself, not drawn to philosophy. Nevertheless, his emphasis fits the experience of the music. Tristan is not an opera about sexual longing alone, but an expedition into the cosmos of love, renunciation and redemption. Scruton's argument is equipped with many insights about the power of music to suggest more than itself. A leitmotif, he writes, is a fragment of music with a memory; the pent-up anxiety with which the opera begins is finally heard to contain the serene redemption with which it ends. In fact, everything flows from the initial chord of Tristan, as it hungers for resolution; and, like Racine, Wagner makes passion move with the orderliness of syntax.
In New Year Letter, WH Auden, tracing the European crisis of self-loathing, writes:
The genius of the loud Steam Age,
Loud Wagner put it on the stage.
Scruton would regard such frivolity with distaste, but Auden's couplet reminds us that Tristan is a masterpiece conceived for the theatre that only comes fully alive on the stage. Scruton's readers, while marvelling at his seriousness, should have the music in their ears and some images of a performance fixed in their minds.
Peter Porter's latest collection of poetry is 'Max is Missing' (Picador)
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