Bryan Magee. 1978. The Tristan Chord New York: Henry Holt and Company. 398 pp.

To get a trivial negative out of the way first, Bryan Magee takes delight in correcting many misconceptions folk have of Wagner; it becomes a minor flaw of this indispensable book that he is so easily diverted towards shooting down in flames those who misunderstand Wagner, especially those who pontificate from a state of ignorance.

The young Wagner had an impeccable cv as a left wing radical Marxist, hanging out with Bakunin, manned the barricades, exiled to Switzerland, lived in poverty (which hasn’t stopped his reputation being kidnapped by those of opposite political persuasion). And during this period wrote his first operas, and at an age even Mozart would have found precocious.

Philosophically Wagner turned from anarchists, especially Proudhon to Hegelians especially Feuerbach (philosophical materialism; gods don’t create humans, humans create gods), then finally to Kant and especially Schopenhauer. In contrast, despite close association, according to Magee Marxism (dialectic of perpetual change; property is theft) and Nietzsche (too young) influenced Wagner hardly at all.

The chapter The Philosophy of Schopenhauer is as good a summary as one could want of Schopenhauer (and Kant). And as short - 20 pages. Schopenhauer disagreed with Kant’s noumenal as a plural entity, and also rejected Kant’s causal relationship between phenomenal and noumenal. Thus for Schopenhauer phenomenal and noumenal are one entity, one reality, with the noumenon is the inner. And that music has a unique access to expression of the noumenon.

But, The Ring traverses Wagner’s discovery and adoption of these ideas. The Ring libretto dates from Wagner’s young revolutionary period, although his conversion to the philosophy of Schopenhauer caused Wagner to find new and different meaning in the work, he realised this as a new music and left the libretto unchanged. (Wagner did write, and discard, an explicit Schopehhauer ending - see p. 181.)

So the last half of The Ring, and Tristan, Mastersingers, Parsifal, are where Wagner fully reasied Shopenhauerian philosophy in the form of his highest art and Schopenhaer’s avowed most powerful medium: music. Hence the heart of the book is the chapter Metaphysics as Music, and the culmination of complete art form (opera) is for Wagner (and for Bryan Magee):

giving expression to ultimate metaphisical insight, a thoroughly possessed hilosophical vision of the totality of what there is - than which, if it is valid, nothing could go deeper. (than Parsifal, that is, p. 212; also elaboration of the Schopenhauerian expression in Parsifal, p. 273, p. 283)

Further, the title, The Tristan Chord

contains within itself not one but two dissonances, creating in the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution-but-not-resolution. It is not until we reach the opera’s closing notes that the chord finds resolution (Magee page ref missing)

The idea that the pursuit of exercise of power is incompatible with love and the capacity fo love is basic to the Ring. If one thought were to be singled out as the work’s kernel it woule have to be this. (bottom of p. 113)

On improvisation (p. 233; 236-237) the most desirable thing (says Wagner) is for a work of art to partake of those qualities - freshness, freedom - and fix them in permanent form. As he did in the rush of writing Tristan.

According to Wagner’s own words Bryan Magee notes tantalisingly that if he had lived longer his works would have been symphonies (one act symphonies, like Sibelius 7?), or maybe a Budhist-inspired opera on which Wagner had made notes throughout his life.

A handy little summary of Wagner’s life, with a narrative of compositions and philosophical turning points is hidden on pages 11-14. Nevertheless, the book darts around chronologically as Magee follows his arguments to the extent that a chronology would be handy. Here is mine (not all of these moments are needed for Magee’s arguments):

  • 1813 born in Leipzig
  • 1822 heard Weber conduct Der Freischütz
  • 1827 death of Beethoven
  • 1828 hears Beethoven 7th & 9th Symphonies
  • 1834 composed 1st opera Die Feen (not performed during Wagner’s life) Wagner is 20
  • 1836 completed 2nd opera Das Liebesverbot
  • 1836 first marriage, to Christine Planer (“Minna”)
  • 1837 moved to Riga
  • 1839 moved to Paris via London
  • 1840 Rienzi, 3rd opera, completed (this is the only work Wagner would have disowned, and also the only opera I’ve left after interval)
  • 1841 The Flying Dutchman completed
  • 1843 becomes Kapellmiester in Dresden
  • 1843 premiere of The Flying Dutchman
  • 1844 ?introduced to philosophy of Feuerbach
  • 1845 Tannhäuser completed
  • 1847 Lohengrin completed
  • 1848 The Ring libretto completed
  • 1848 Marx and Engels publish The Communist Manifesto
  • 1849 Dresden uprising; flees to Switzerland via Paris; poverty in Zurich
  • 1854 Das Rheingold completed
  • 1854 introduced to philosophy of Schopenhauer
  • 1856 Die Walküre completed
  • 1859 Tristan und Isolde completed
  • 1862 German ban lifted, returns to Wiesbaden
  • 1864 ascent of King Ludwig and move to Munich
  • 1865 Isolde born to Cosima and Wagner
  • 1867 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg completed
  • 1871 move to Bayreuth
  • 1871 Siegried completed
  • 1874 Götterdämmerung completed
  • 1876 Bayreuth Festspielhaus completed
  • 1882 Parsifal completed, conducts Act 3 himself
  • 1883 dies in Venice