Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Music According to Benedict: "Tristan and Isolde: Prelude" by Wagner

"Tristan and Isolde with the Potion" J.W. Waterhouse

"Prelude to Tristan and Isolde" - Richard Wagner
"Yes,  it's widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, notable for Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension... But it just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Reminds me of the best of Beethoven and Mozart and the best of what's to come in Strauss and Rachmaninoff. So, a milestone as well as a gut wrencher. The recording of this one that I'm currently wearing out is the BBC Orchestra's."
- Benedict Cumberbatch, Top Tunes, Two Paddocks 

There are so many types of music that we just "like" without much consideration. Your mind takes in a changing musical landscape - from your morning alarm with dance tracks, your commute playlist with indie hits, sounds of summer on weekends -  and maybe coffeehouse tunes in the evening before you go to bed. (Throw in a few guilty pleasure tracks that NO ONE is supposed to see in your smartphone - just because you need them.)

You know what you like.

All of those genres I listed are pretty easy go-to tracks, depending on where you are and what you're doing. Maybe you heard the music in Starbucks or you remember a concert from college. You find music that matches your mood and go with it. You change the station if it doesn't work.

Classical music? Opera? For most of us, it doesn't work quite that way. I think we have definite ideas about both:

  • It's elitist. 
  • It's expensive.
  • It's for the elderly.
  • It requires education before enjoyment. 

When I heard about opera or classical music as a child, I thought of public radio playing either in my eye doctor's waiting room or in the historic homes on manicured boulevards where homeowners tended to their silver-streaked hair or luxury sedan in the drive. With that preconception came the belief that conversation about that music involved spending more money, dressing up for a night at the "theater", studying music history, understanding genres and terminology - and being able to identify composers as if playing a symphonic "Name That Tune."


Who decided that? We enjoy contemporary songs with lyrics we can't understand, technology that alters a voice beyond recognition, and remixes that defy explanation. There isn't a pre-listening quiz nor post-concert exam - and a credit report isn't required to be approved to like any musical genre. Who determined that symphonic music couldn't move us as much as a ballad from a romantic comedy or a break-up song from a singer/songwriter?

Perhaps we did.

Yes, theater tickets do cost money, but there are usually discount prices for students and seniors, and, occasionally, programs and events for people in their 20s and 30s and newcomers to classical music.

If you want to brush up on your Schubert or learn more about Liszt, you can search online for resources and information, even sign up for online classes offered by Coursera, for example. I liked the informal approach taken by advice website, Primer, "How to Talk About Classical Music," - just keep in mind this lifestyle site's mission: "A Guy's Post-College Guide to Growing Up."

Cumberbatch's contemporary and retro song choices are usually ones we're quick to recognize and appreciate, and, I believe fans like classical music more in part to Cumberbatch's longtime friendship with pianist, entrepreneur, philanthropist (and new author James Rhodes. This selection is a natural progression, although you could get either get lost in the information available about Richard Wagner ("Wagner scholars" are referenced online) or you can just shake your head and step away, saying, "Nope. Not for me."

So. What am I going to do? Let you decide.

When it comes to this selection from Two Paddocks, what you might want to know is that this is part of an opera based on a tragic love story, and it became a BIG deal. Wagner's life also had its own share of drama if you check out this timeline. He was a busy, busy man.

If you want to learn how this opera came to be, and more about Wagner, I liked the University of Texas site: https://www.utexas.edu/courses/tristan/index.html which includes so much to explore. One of my favorite passages about the Prelude includes this explanation from the composer:
Wagner writes of the Prelude that there is “henceforth no end to the yearning, longing, rapture, and misery of love: world, power, fame, honor, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship, scattered like an insubstantial dream; one thing alone left living: longing, longing unquenchable, desire forever renewing itself, craving and languishing; one sole redemption: death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking!” 
An explanation of the "Tristan Chord" is provided, as well as the "Tristan" motive. (Did I mention Wagner became a very, very BIG deal?) Vincent Vargas' description:
"Tristan und Isolde was the most complex opera written at the time and it remains one of the most intricate works in the canon. Born out of the composer's new theories of composition, fueled by his love for Mathilde von Wesendonck, the beautiful wife of a wealthy silk merchant of Zurich who helped Wagner through one of his many financial crises, and deeply influenced by the dark, pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The work became the pinnacle of the Romantic movement, and at the same time, its ultimate challenge. As composer Richard Strauss wrote: "Tristan und Isolde marked the end of all romanticism. Here the yearning of the entire 19th century is gathered in one focal point." Tristan und Isolde is a turning point not only in opera, but in western art and music. Leave it to Wagner to bring a movement to its zenith and then destroy it."
Oh, one other thing: the opera is FIVE HOURS long. FIVE. There's a well-written Guardian article that tells you how impressed a first date might be - and beautifully describes how Wagner's music, composed from 1857-1859, echoes this tale of adulterous love - and, yes, tragedy, from the 12th century.

You know what, though? You don't need to do all that right now. You can click the links, search the sites and take in as much or as little as you want, but all you need to do now?

Just listen. This is a BBC version (which Benedict mentioned he was "wearing out."

To me, it really is moving, beautiful - and timeless - and I don't need to know more than that.


Spoiler alert:

(Benedict Cumberbatch is an eloquent, erudite, educated man, but perhaps doesn't always express opinions that are, shall we say, uniquely his own:

I waited to write about this particular selection in part because of Benedict Cumberbatch's first sentence in the description provided to Two Paddocks. Oh, it covered all the bases in terms of telling you about the importance of the work, but it just sounded a little, well, elitist. Posh. Snobbish. I linked to definitions because the terminology isn't commonly used in conversation. In fact, it wasn't until Benedict wrote about his physical reaction to the song that he sounded like the music lover we've observed in other interviews.

Well, it turns out there may be a very good reason:

This is the Wikipedia entry for "Tristan und Isolde" I scanned as I prepared to get into the nuts and bolts of researching Richard Wagner. You can read the entry, taking time to note the second paragraph:
"Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertoire, Tristan was notable for Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension."

Look familiar? If not, go back to the top of this post, then come back.

It seems finding a way to describe Wagner's composition effectively and efficiently made this particular statement rather popular: a Google search of the phrase "Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension" will return over 176,000 results - in less than one second.

So, Benedict isn't alone - and that's why his description of this choice perfectly illustrates the challenge of talking about classical music. People don't always know what to say, and there is almost always pressure to sound like you KNOW enough to speak conversationally and intelligently about, well, a series of dots, dashes, ovals and lines on paper read by people who make sounds with various instruments while watching a guy up front wave his arms about.

Let's just listen - without judgment. Music of all genres is meant to be a universal language, if we take the time to interpret it for ourselves.

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