Saturday, April 20, 2013

"Are they all fools or am I a fool?"

From Clara Schumann's diary entry dated September 8, 1875
We went to Tristan und Isolde this evening. It is the most repulsive thing I ever saw or heard in my life. To have to sit through a while evening watching, listening to such love-lunacy till every feeling of decency was outraged, and to see not only the audience but the musicians delighted with it was--I may well say--the saddest experience of my whole artistic career. I held out till the end, as I wished to have heard it all. Neither of them does anything but sleep and sing during the second act, and the while of act III--quite forty minutes--Tristan occupies in dying--and they call that dramatic!!! Levi says Wagner is a better musician than Gluck. . . Are they all fools or am I a fool? The subject seems to me so wretched: a love-madness brought about by a potion--how is it possible to take the slightest interest in the lovers? It is not emotion, it is a disease, and they tear their hearts out of their bodies, while the music expresses it all in the most repulsive manner. I could go on lamenting over it for ever, and exclaiming against it.

[from The Composer as Listener, edited (and I imagine translated) by Irving Kolodin.]


Lisa Hirsch said...

What can one say? On this point, she was wrong.

Elaine Fine said...

It could have been a lousy performance, or, more likely, Clara Schumann was a lot more rigid in matters of the heart than we would like to believe she was. It's not really a matter of being right or wrong. I run into conflicting reactions to pieces of music and to performances all the time. And these strong reactions often come from people who are excellent, experienced, and knowledgable people.

As I recall, Clara Schumann didn't like Liszt either. I imagine she had her reasons.

Lisa Hirsch said...

What she says about the opera - thinking it's about love brought about by a potion - indicates that she just did not understand what is going on in Tristan, which is that Tristan and Isolde are already in love, and they can express it only because they think they are about to die. The rest of the opera is about pursuing that death (among other things).

I have no problem with anyone hating the opera, but she just doesn't understand it and apparently is not going to make much effort to understand either the music or the libretto. And boy howdy, do I think her assessment is wrong.

Elaine Fine said...

I love Tristan, and am certainly not defending Clara Schumann's position. I just found her diary entry about it interesting and worth sharing.

Pauline Viardot was also not impressed with the opera. I recall, though, that she impressed Wagner quite a bit when she was able to sing through the part of Isolde at sight, but it didn't do much for her.

I find that over time I dislike Wagner more and more as a person, and I admire him more and more as a composer. Go figure.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Fair enough! Especially the part of disliking Wagner more as person and admiring him more as a composer. :)

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Just as a data point from someone in the peanut gallery when it comes to classical music, I was struck by the phrase, "the music expresses it all in the most repulsive manner". The seeming lack of a tonal center and all the transgressive harmonies can induce in me a physical reaction that feels like incipient nausea. Somewhere I once saw someone else describe their reaction to Wagner in similar terms, so I'm not the only one, though certainly in a tiny minority. I understand the importance of Wagner - but for me that "repulsive" visceral reaction trumps everything else.

Elaine Fine said...

Part of Wagner's strength as a composer is that he is able to provoke visceral reactions, for better or for worse!