Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton - review by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Wagner In Love

Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde


Oxford University Press 246pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

WIELAND WAGNER, WHOSE own production of Tristan and Isolde attracts Roger Scruton’s disapproval in this superb book, described the opera as ‘the acknowledged summit and supreme crisis of Romantic music, and at the same time the gateway to the atonality of our century’. Scruton himself would not disagree with those sentiments, though he does not quote the observation. However, as he points out in his extensive and intense analysis of the work, Tristan is about much, much more than was even dreamt of in Wieland Wagner’s philosophy. For Scruton, it is a work about redemption: interestingly so, given Wagner’s own peculiar conception of religion. It is also a work about erotic love, and one that embodies currents from German philosophy. Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel and Leibniz all play their parts, and Nietzsche’s thinking is in sympathy with Tristan (it was written in 1859, too early for Fritz’s writings to have influenced its conception). The mix also includes myth of various varieties, which the author outlines, and elements of the medieval rituals of courtly love. This is no mere night at the opera.

Cynics would have two things to say about Scruton’s book. First, they would suggest that its subtitle was simply a stunt to get unwary punters inside. It isn’t. Although, as the author repeatedly stresses, there is no evidence that the lovers’ relationship was ever consummated, this is certainly an opera about sex: or, as Scruton prefers to put it in the text, ‘erotic love’. He has already written extensively on that subject elsewhere without prurience or pornographising, so his credentials are clear. The second objection would be that this philosopher is unqualified to engage in specialist musical analysis. Music critics hate interlopers. They will be disappointed to learn that Scruton is almost at his most assured when dealing with the technicalities of the score – indeed, his mastery of this aspect of musical criticism might lose some of the laymen who read him.

The book is carefully structured. As with the opera, its themes range wider than is at first apparent. In his opening remarks, Scruton says that it ‘is also an attempt to gain insight into the nature of erotic love and the peculiar place of the erotic in our culture’. For all that, he knows he cannot proceed until he has dealt with the subject of Wagner’s religion, and that is the burden of his first chapter. , He settles that Wagner was ‘a humanist of a peculiar kind, who recognised humanity’s religious need and tried to make man his own redeemer, so as to ennoble the human beyond the &vine’. This puts the composer very much in the mainstream of early nineteenth-century German thought: it is what, for example, Carlyle felt he learned from Goethe. Wagner thought the society into which he was born was ‘morally and spiritually degenerate’, and that what had once been the high ideals of the German people had been corrupted by ‘luxury, effeminacy and materialism’. He was not the last Teuton to think such thoughts, but at least he sought to reverse the trend with nothing more dangerous than music.

Myth and heroic ideals were an obvious vehicle to this end. Wagner had an inevitable cultural connection with Christianity but could not swallow it. Scruton seems to buy the notion that Wagner saw God direct, without the intermediary Jesus Christ: again, he would not be the first German intellectual to make that leap. He seeks, therefore, an unconventional means of redemption. Death itself, which is the fate that awaits both tristan and Isolde, is not enough: death can achieve redemption ‘only when part of an all-comprehending act of renunciation, inspired by lov’7. Hence the importance of the erotic in Scruton’s analysis.

The author goes on to ‘describe how the story evolved, and then to discuss in detail Wagner’s treatment of it. In some ways this chapter is the core of the book, and Scruton deals succinctly and originally with the events of the drama. It is here that his talent for musical analysis is brought to bear. Usefully, at the end of the book he presents a list of the leitmotifs – he calls them motives – and illustrates their occurrence and reoccurrence throughout the work. He is exceptionally good on the interaction between music and dialogue, and the way the composer balances them to maintain and spur on the drama. He also places the opera, its characters and their actions and attitudes within the context of Wagner’s works as a whole.

It is in this chapter that Scruton takes issue with Wieland Wagner, condemning his decision at the 1962 Bayreuth Festival to represent Isolde’s ‘final transfiguration as a kind of glorious resurrection, so that Isolde does not die but rises with outstretched arms to greet the world, not unlike a football player who has just scored the clinching goal’. The author cannot restrain himself, and his invective is rather wonderful: ‘This is one of the many ways in which producers have tried to distort, satirise, or obliterate Wagner’s message and reduce the most sublime of modern dramas to a vulgar riot.’ Scruton says this, however, by way of introducing an intensely serious point that goes to the heart of his conception of the nature of this opera: ‘the two experiences on which Wagner draws for his – emotional material – erotic love and religious sacrifice – are no longer easily available to modern audiences with- out quotation marks. By offering the quotation marks, producers imagine that they have made the rest of the experience safe for us.’ He then deals specifically with the music, and how it led the way to the twelve-tone developments of the twentieth century. He is, however, at pains to illustrate how Wagner also looked back to the traditional means of composing, including polyphony. He defines Wagner as ‘one of the great rhythmists’, a quality to which we have become insensitive because of the corrupting of our ears by the ostinato rhythms of pop music.

Then there is a chapter on the philosophy of love, which explains in full the reason for- Scruton’s-particular interpretation of the opera. Asking whether erotic love belongs to the body or the soul, and detailing the composer’s debt to Schopenhauer, the author concludes that we are so moved by the work because ‘we are brought by it into the presence of the sacred’. Erotic love has, he argues with recourse to ancient authorities, a divine origin. In another purple passage, he eviscerates Sigmund Freud for his utilitarian idea of sex, stamping on him for, in effect, finding nothing objectionable about the act of rape because of his determination to divorce feeling from the act. Wagner, on the contrary, ‘wished to isolate the sacred moment [in love], to show us that it is indeed sacred, and to reawaken in us the knowledge that the erotic is fundamental to the human condition, an aspect of our freedom, and an avenue to redemption’.

After a discussion of the nature and origins of tragedy, Scruton returns towards the end of his book to the nature of Wagner: not a believer, but not an unbeliever either. ‘He was a quasi-believer who wished to reattach the symbols of religion to their undying meaning – a meaning that had been distorted by materialist society and theological doctrine but which is as real for us as it was for medieval Christian society.’ I n many books written about Wagner one sees the danger of over-interpretation. One suspects Wagner himself would be chortling at the pretentiousness and invention in which some of his critics and admirers have engaged. Scruton’s book does not fall into this trap. One can almost hear the composer himself muttering that he has a point: for, undoubtedly, he has. Roger Scruton has not just the essential understanding of philosophy and the technical comprehension of music needed to understand and explain Tristan: he also, as a serious thinker about the cultural role of sexual desire, can cover all the points of reference contained in Wagner’s overwhelming artistic achievement. His is not a book for beginners, but it is one that can teach much even to those who think they long ago grasped the secret of this masterpiece.

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