There is nothing in the natural world, or in the inner and outer life of man, that does not find its counterpart in the all-embracing realm of tones. Music as symbol is the whole of all things…

“They who were two and divided now became one and united.”

—Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan and Isolde

erosI come before you this evening not as a Wagner scholar but as a tutor from St. John’s College and a lover of music. At St. John’s, students read and discuss works by some of the greatest minds in the Western tradition. Music has a central place in our program. Freshmen spend a year singing great choral pieces, and sophomores study the elements of music through the close examination of works by Palestrina, Bach and Mozart, to name a few. Wagner is on the program. Seniors, in their seminar classes, discuss Tristan and Isolde along with other great works by authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tristan is the signature musical work of the senior year, just as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion enjoys that distinction in the sophomore year and Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the junior.

As my title indicates, I plan to combine reflections on Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will from his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, and Wagner’s portrayal of erotic love in Tristan and Isolde. I take my cue from Nietzsche, who called Wagner’s drama “the actual opus metaphysicum of all art.”[1] What is the meaning of this pronouncement? In what sense is Wagner’s musical rendition of death-devoted love metaphysical?

It is well known that in the middle of working on his epic Ring cycle, the composer read Schopenhauer’s book at the urging of a friend and was enthralled. Wagner had found in the philosopher’s cosmic pessimism a perfect articulation of what he, Wagner, was feeling at the time and what he thought was the ultimate truth about life. The musical genius had found his philosophic muse, and the pessimistic Schopenhauer, whom Wagner called “a gift from heaven,” replaced the utopian Feuerbach as Wagner’s intellectual hero.[2] The offspring of this conversion was Tristan and Isolde.

Schopenhauer, as it turns out, had no use—and no ear—for Wagner’s chromatic harmonies. Wagner sent him a beautifully bound copy of the Ring with the inscription, “from respect and gratitude.” The grouchy philosopher was not impressed. He instructed the Swiss journalist, Franz Wille, to convey a message to his friend Wagner: “but tell him that he should stop writing music. His genius is greater as a poet. I, Schopenhauer, remain faithful to Rossini and Mozart.”[3] The response was rude but not surprising, since Schopenhauer, who played the flute (not, like Nietzsche, the piano), was a lover of diatonic catchy tunes. My concern in this talk, however, is not with personal stories but with the philosophic teaching of the one man and the Tristan music of the other. Where do the teaching of Will and the music of Eros meet, and where do they part company? What light can Schopenhauer cast on music, a phenomenon at once familiar and mysterious? And how might music and Eros reveal each other’s elusive depths?

My talk has three parts. In the first, I present Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will, with special attention to music and a few tonal events in Tristan. In the second, I turn to Wagner’s depiction of Eros and its connection with Schopenhauer. In the third, I offer a brief final reflection on Wagner’s metaphysics of Love.

Music, World and Will

The World as Will and Representation is Schopenhauer’s masterpiece. It has two volumes, the second being a further explication of the main parts and themes of the first. The principal volume is divided into four books. Thomas Mann, the greatest admirer of Schopenhauer in the twentieth century, called the book “a symphony in four movements.”[4] Mann, himself a cosmological pessimist and self-styled “musician among the poets,” was keenly sensitive to the central role that music plays in the work. In his lengthy essay on the philosopher, Mann observes that Schopenhauer, who was very musical, “celebrates music as no thinker has ever done” by making music metaphysically significant.

As its title indicates, The World as Will and Representation depicts the world as having two distinct sides or aspects. One side, representation, is the topic of Book One. As representation or Vorstellung, the world is everything that is vorgestellt, “placed before” us and made present in the daylight of consciousness. Although a more accurate rendering of the word would be “presentation,” which suggests original coming-to-presence rather than the imitation of something original, I have chosen, for the sake of ease, to keep the traditional term. Representation is the realm of perceived objects—finite determinate things that appear in space and time and interact according to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, through the relation of cause and effect. Representation is the world as a well-ordered surface.

Schopenhauer turns to the other, inner aspect of the world in Book Two. He uses terms from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: whereas representation is the world as appearance or phenomenon, will is the world as thing-in-itself or noumenon. Will, here, is not a psychic faculty and does not refer to choice. It is not my will or your will, or God’s will, since for Schopenhauer there is no God. Will is the universal force and infinite striving that underlies all things and rises to self-awareness in man. Schopenhauer calls the will “eternal becoming, endless flux” (164). As the world’s “innermost being” and “kernel” (30-31), will is the source of meaning (98-99).[5] Viewed from the standpoint of will, life is more than the perception of objects; it is also feeling and care. Objects of representation are the vessels of my care. They are meaningful and important to me in all sorts of ways. This object I desire and strive to possess; that one I avoid. This event I hope for; that one I dread. This human being I love; that one I despise. My body, for Schopenhauer, is the embodiment of my care. It is the seemingly concrete reality to which I am intimately joined and which I care about in a thousand ways. My living body reminds me that I am constantly in the condition of seeking to preserve my life and to stave off harm, pain, frustration and death. My being and my life consist in striving to be and to live. I cannot escape striving, not even when I sleep, for it is more obvious in dreams even than in waking life that representations matter to me and are the creatures of my care. Dreams are my hopes, fears, anxieties and desires made into a private movie, often a surreal one. I might be tempted to say that as a human being with a certain nature I am subject to this care. But Schopenhauer goes further. For him, I am this care, this infinite striving to be and to live as this individual with this body.

Dreams are to desire what the whole phenomenal realm is to the noumenal will. Schopenhauer reminds us repeatedly that what we call life is no more than a dream. The will is not the cause of the world, since causality operates only within the dream world of phenomena or appearances. There is no intelligible principle or creator God that is responsible for the natural order. Nature is unaccountably there, just as human beings are unaccountably there, “thrown” into existence. The will does not cause nature but objectifies itself as nature—just as our care objectifies itself in dreams. Hence the phrase, “the world as will and representation.” Will objectifies itself in a fourfold way: as inorganic nature, plant life, animal life, and human life. The self-manifestation of the will is especially noteworthy in the case of our bodily parts, which are so many ways in which the will objectifies itself: “Teeth, gullet, and intestinal canal are objectified hunger; the genitals are objectified sexual impulse; grasping hands and nimble feet correspond to the more indirect strivings of the will which they represent” (108).

The identity of will and meaning shows why music is metaphysically significant. For Schopenhauer, music, especially melody, “speaks not of things but simply of weal and woe as being for the will the sole realities.”[6] From the standpoint of the will, being is meaning. Music is unique among the arts because it depicts the inner world of care, or rather the world as care. Music is pure meaning apart from all objectivity. It is the artful, intuition-based revelation of the world heart. That is why music is not an elitist who speaks only to her learned inner circle but rather the “universal language” that is “instantly understood by everyone,” intuitively and without the aid of concepts (256).

To exist as a human being is to be, for Schopenhauer, an egocentric individual afflicted with insatiable desire; in particular, sexual desire. To be is to be subject to what he calls “the miserable pressure of the will” (196). In the third act of Wagner’s drama, Tristan suffers this pressure at great length. It is the living hell into which the love potion, or rather Love itself, has thrust him. The will, as I noted earlier, is infinite striving—striving with no ultimate good or end. Moments of contentment and joy appear, to be sure, but only as passing tones, ripples in a sea of frustration, ennui and renewed desire. To live is to suffer. Schopenhauer here reveals the hard edge of his pessimism and “tragic sense of life.” He cites approvingly poets like Calderón who define original sin as “the guilt of existence itself” and affirm that it would be better never to have been born.[7] Viewed in this light, death becomes a positive good—the correction of an error. It is, as Schopenhauer puts it, “the great opportunity no longer to be I” (vol. 2, 507). Wagner’s lovers in Act 2 give musical utterance to this longing for non-individuality.

Schopenhauer’s recurring image of life as suffering is the wheel of Ixion. Ixion was King of the Lapiths. After being shown hospitality by Zeus, he lusted after Hera and tried to seduce her. For this attempted outrage Zeus bound Ixion on a wheel of fire and consigned him to Tartarus. Only once did the wheel of torment stop—when Orpheus descended to the Underworld and charmed its inhabitants with his song.[8] This relief from suffering, for Schopenhauer, is the psychic therapy that all fine art offers, in particular the art of music. Music represents the will as thing-in-itself, meaning apart from all things, words and pictures. But music also gives us momentary relief from the fiery wheel on which we are bound, the wheel of infinite longing. In music, as in all aesthetic contemplation, we are no longer self-interested individuals but “pure, will-less subject[s] of knowing,” subjects who are “lost in the object” (209). In art, as Schopenhauer puts it, “[w]e celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still” (196).

The third part of Schopenhauer’s book is devoted to the arts, which are beyond the principle of sufficient reason. This is evident in music where tones, though tightly connected, have no causal relation to each other. The opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, does not cause the second.[9] A stranger to causality and deduction, art is the intuitive apprehension of the Ideas, which Schopenhauer takes from Plato. The Ideas are the eternal archetypes of nature—Mineral, Plant, Animal, and Human.[10] The human Ideas are the universals of experience, as we find them depicted, for example, in the plays of Shakespeare.[11] Art is therapeutic because, as the aesthetic contemplation of universal Ideas, art detaches us from the particular objects of our care. To behold the sufferings of Oedipus or Lear is precisely to be taken away from our own.

Art, however, is not an enduring release from Ixion’s wheel and offers only “occasional consolation” (267). The fourth part of Schopenhauer’s book takes us from the artist to the saint, who alone is truly happy—if we can call resignation happiness. The saint has neutralized the will to be and to live through the knowledge that objects of care are nothing but illusion (451). Thanks to this enlightenment, he needs no artworks. The pacification of the will makes the saint good. In the obliteration of his ego, he is released from private suffering—in particular from erotic longing—and free to feel compassion for the suffering of other human beings and even for that of animals (372).

Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music appears in Volume One of his book and again in Volume Two. These chapters contain the most fascinating discussions of music one will ever read. They are an attempt to identify music as a source of truth, indeed the deepest truth: “The composer reveals the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a magnetic somnambulist gives information about things of which she has no conception when she is awake” (260). Music reveals the world as thing-in-itself, as will. It is, as Schopenhauer puts it, “an unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know it is philosophizing” (264).

Dissonance in music is the phenomenal representation of will as tension. It is the sounding analogue of desire, longing and the erotic in general. Dissonance yearns for its resolution as desire yearns for its consummation. The suspension is a good example of how dissonance works in music. In a suspension, two lines or voices start out in consonance but then produce dissonance when one of the voices moves while the other holds. A resolution then follows. Here is how Schopenhauer puts it: “[Suspension] is a dissonance delaying the final consonance that is with certainty awaited; in this way the longing for it is strengthened, and its appearance affords greater satisfaction. This is clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the will which is enhanced through delay.”[12]

The term “analogue” is important here. The suspension is not the image or likeness of a specific desire that is eventually gratified but rather a tonal event that communicates, in a purely musical way, a universal truth about the will. When Schopenhauer says that music is the universal language, he is not being poetic. He means that although tones are not words, they function intuitively in the same way that words function conceptually—not as likenesses of the things they signify but as symbols, bearers of universal meaning. In music, this meaning is directly perceived rather than inferred. Listening to music is non-verbal symbol-recognition.

Music as tension or force flourishes in the tradition of modern tonal harmony. This tradition reaches from Bach and Handel, through Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, up to Brahms and Wagner. It experienced a rebirth in the last century in the form of neo-Romanticism, which was a reaction against the twelve-tone music of Schoenberg. Tonal music, as opposed to the mode-inspired music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, exhibits a play of forces—tonal dynamism. This music is friendly to the language of will, for will is tension. The musicologist Heinrich Schenker applied this very term to music: Tonwille, the will of the tones. In tonal harmony, tension is not confined to isolated events, like the suspension, but pervades the whole of a musical work and constitutes its unity. “Tonal” refers to the rule of a single tone, the tonic or keynote, to which all the other tones in a tonal work point or, as some prefer to say, the centrality of the tonic triad, the I-chord. These tensions compose the major scale and cause it to sound like a journey with clearly defined stages and a predetermined end: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.[13] Tension is especially urgent in degree 7, which strives toward 8, as desire craves satisfaction. Degree 4 tends, less urgently, down to 3. Together, degrees 4 and 7 produce the dissonant interval of the tritone. This is the best example of directed tension in music, since the tritone, when combined with degree 5 in the bass, makes up the dominant seventh chord, which points to the tonic triad and so fixes the music in a key. Thanks to their dynamic relations, which operate at many levels, tones and the triads they form generate musical wholes through the artful prolongation and eventual resolution of their will-like tension.

Wagner’s Tristan takes full advantage of musical tension as a symbol of Eros and Will. Indeed, tension here is thematic. The opera highlights extreme chromaticism, constant unresolved cadences and the deceptive shifting of tonal centers. These phenomena form the tonal analogue of Eros as infinite longing. As others have noted, Wagner’s opera pushes tonal harmony and musical tension to the absolute limit and extends the striving of tones over the course of several hours in what seems like one unbroken arc.[14] The opening phrase of the Prelude, with its famous “Tristan chord” resolving to a dominant-seventh chord, is perhaps the most powerful evocation of tension-as-desire in all of music. The phrase sets up a cadence (or rather musical period) that is not completed until the very end of the opera, when the crashing waves of the orchestra overwhelm the transfigured Isolde before settling into the blissful, post-climactic froth of B major.[15] Richard Strauss attached this final cadence in B major to the opening A minor phrase of the Prelude to reveal in brief the harmonic arc of the whole opera.[16] In Schopenhauerian terms, the immense prolongation of tonal tension in Tristan is the noumenal interior of the lovers’ prolonged phenomenal eroticism. More cautiously stated, it is the analogical, symbolic representation of that interior. The universal undying truth of the story is not in the death-bound lovers but in the tones.[17]

The central teaching of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music is that music is “a copy [Abbild] of the will itself,” not of the Ideas of the will, as in tragedy (257). The notion of music as copy is problematic, since there can be no copy of something utterly indeterminate and therefore uncopiable. How can music, with all its intricate detail, be a picture or copy of the will, which Nietzsche rightly called “the unaesthetic in itself”?[18] But for now let us go with the flow of Schopenhauer’s theory. All the arts, for him, objectify the will, but the non-musical arts do so “only indirectly.” They present universality through the medium of things, whether the Parthenon or the character of Cordelia. Music, by contrast, makes no such appeal and represents the world’s pure subjectivity—the world as process or flux.

By music Schopenhauer means “the sacred, mysterious, profound language of tones.”[19] This signals the primacy of what Wagner was the first to call “absolute music” and we now call instrumental music.[20] For Schopenhauer, music as the language of tones captures the Absolute through non-visual representations. It is the will “speaking” to us through the medium of composers, who are the will’s symbolists, somnambulists and high priests. Because tones are meaningful all by themselves, Schopenhauer can make the astonishing claim that music, in passing over the Ideas and everything phenomenal, “to a certain extent, could still exist even if there were no world at all” (257). The reason is that music, in negating the world as thing, contains that world from the perspective of its deepest interior, its heart. Schopenhauer states this with maximum concision in another work: “Music is the melody to which the world is the text.”[21] In other words, tones all by themselves represent the indwelling, immortal spirit of the world. If we imagined the phenomenal world as a staged opera, or a movie, then the orchestral parts would stand to this world as inner to outer, essence to appearance, truth to seeming. As I observed earlier in the case of Tristan, the real drama, the world-process in its universal truth, would be taking place not in what we see but in what we hear. It would be a drama of tones.

But although music transcends the world of things, it is also deeply connected with that world. The four parts of a string quartet or chorus capture in symbolic form the four natural grades of the will’s self-objectification. The bass part is the analogue of inorganic nature, the tenor and alto parts of plant and animal, respectively. As for the soprano or melody Schopenhauer writes: “in the melody, in the high singing, principal voice, leading the whole and progressing with unrestrained freedom, in the uninterrupted significant connexion of one thought from beginning to end, and expressing a whole, I recognize the highest grade of the will’s objectification, the intellectual life and endeavour of man” (259). Melody, the mythos and symbol of human life, “relates the story of the intellectually enlightened will, the copy or impression whereof in actual life is the series of its deeds.” But melody also goes beyond outward deeds, since it relates “the most secret history [my emphasis] of the intellectually enlightened will, portrays every agitation, every effort, every movement of the will” (259). Even death finds its correlate in the world of tones. Death in music occurs in modulation, where a key-change “entirely abolishes the connection with what went before” (261).[22]

To sum up, there is nothing in the natural world, or in the inner and outer life of man, that does not find its counterpart in the all-embracing realm of tones. Music as symbol is the whole of all things. In Schopenhauer’s words, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will” (262-3). Music, if it could speak, would be perfectly justified in proclaiming what Tristan and Isolde say at a climactic moment of their duet in Act 2: “I myself am the world.”

Eros Unbound

The story of Tristan and Isolde goes back to the twelfth century. Among the several versions that survive the best known is that of Gottfried von Strassburg, whose poem Richard Wagner used as the basis of his opera.[23] In his far-ranging book, Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont asserts that Wagner “completed” the Tristan myth by transposing it into its proper domain—music. “Music alone,” Rougemont writes, “could utter the unutterable, and music forced the final secret of Tristan.”[24] The secret, which up to now had been concealed by medieval courtliness and diverting adventures, is that Eros is a terrible, not-be-sentimentalized god (or in this case goddess) who inflicts horrible suffering, the pain of separation and, above all, a longing for death.[25]

Wagner’s Prelude tends to support Rougemont’s view. In his program notes to the concert version of Tristan, which paired the Prelude and Finale, Wagner left no doubt that the Prelude, which he called Liebestod, was meant to capture the endless torment of Love: “longing, longing unquenchable, desire forever renewing itself, craving and languishing; one sole redemption: death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking.”[26] The Transfiguration music of the Finale offers “blessed fulfillment” for Isolde but not for Tristan, who is love’s tormented victim and who dies, as it were, without a moment of grace.

The Prelude, and by extension the whole opera, begins with a musical moan: a hushed woe-filled rising minor sixth played by the cellos. The phrase to which it belongs is sometimes called the Liebestrank or love potion motif. In his first complete sketch of the Prelude’s opening seventeen-measure unit, Wagner used, rather than the sixth from A to F, a tritone from B to F.[27] The tritone conveys the extreme tension of the erotic will, but it lacks the moodiness of the minor interval and mutes to some extent the shock of the Tristan chord, which contains this same tritone. Wagner must have realized that the sixth was better suited to Schopenhauerian gloom and to what the opening of his opera musically and dramatically required. The haunted sound of this sixth is love’s dark longing rising out of the depths of the soul. It is the felt onset and intimation of what Isolde calls the böse Ferne or “evil distance” that separates lovers. But the sixth also has a cosmological meaning. In mythic terms, it is the infinitely sad emergence of the phenomenal world out of the depths of the Will. At the very moment that the cellos complete their phrase on a G-sharp (the raised seventh of A minor), bassoons, clarinets, English horns, and oboes join the cellos to form the Tristan chord. Sounded mostly by wind instruments, the chord is the first breath of the newborn world of things, the burst of the World Spirit into Baudelaire’s brumeuse existence, gloomy existence. World and Woe come on the scene together. In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner puts forth this very connection between the opening of Tristan and the Buddhist story of creation as the primordial “troubling” of the originally cloudless heaven.[28]

Having mentioned the famous Liebestod, I hasten to point out that the notion of a Love-Death stands in sharp opposition to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of sexual love, according to which love is only the will to life. Being “in love,” for Schopenhauer, is no more than a ruse that the will employs to propagate the species.[29] Wagner, by rejecting this cynical reduction of sexual love to the physiological, saves the phenomenon and experience of Eros as a relation of spirits rather than mere bodies.

Wagner pared down Gottfried’s story to its bare essentials, all the better to focus on the inner drama of the lovers’ emotions and metaphysical flights. Wagner writes the following about the composition of Tristan: “Here, in perfect trustfulness, I plunged into the inner depths of soul events and from out this inmost center of the world I fearlessly built up its outer form.”[30] Wagner’s devotion to interiority and the wordless music of Eros is no doubt why he chose to call his opera not a music drama but more simply a Handlung or action, thereby distinguishing it from his more spectacular works that depict outward deeds and events. This fierce focus on inner movement—the raw subjectivity of feeling—lifts the story of the lovers out of its medieval setting and puts it beyond time and place in the realm of eternal universal truth.

Wagner neatly divides the drama into three acts. Rougemont calls them, respectively, “initiation, passion, fatal fulfillment.”[31] We begin in medias res, as Tristan, King Mark’s most trusted knight, is conveying Isolde from her native Ireland to Cornwall as Mark’s bride-to-be. Other elements of the story—the death of Morold, Isolde’s betrothed, at the hands of Tristan, her nursing the wounded Tristan back to health when he comes to her disguised as Tantris, and the fatal “glance” that begets Love—are not dramatized but recollected by the lovers. Knight and Lady drink the potion and proceed to express in passionate, death-devoted terms the love that was already burning within them. Back in Cornwall, while Mark and his knights are on a hunting party, the lovers meet, in defiance of the urgent warnings of Brangäne, Isolde’s lady in waiting. The lovers indulge in a long, Dionysian outpouring of their love-death passion but are discovered by Mark, who has been informed of the affair by the jealous Melot. Tristan provokes Melot to fight and practically throws himself on Melot’s sword, whereupon the wounded Tristan, accompanied by his servant-friend Kurvenal, flees to his native Kareol in Brittany, where he suffers from his physical wound and from the wound of erotic longing in the absence of the beloved. Upon news of Isolde’s approaching ship, Tristan, in a fit of delirious excitement, rips the bandage from his wound and eventually dies in Isolde’s arms. When Mark and Melot come on the scene, Kurvenal attacks and kills Melot but is in turn killed by Mark’s defenders. Brangäne informs Isolde that Mark now knows about the potion and has come to forgive all and to give Isolde to Tristan in marriage. But Isolde is beyond all this. As she gazes on Tristan’s face in rapture, she follows her lover to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country.” Isolde does not merely die: She is transfigured, made radiant, as she sinks on Tristan’s body, breathes her final breath and experiences the world, mystically, as music.

In Wagner’s version of the story, as opposed to Gottfried’s, the lovers never physically consummate their love-passion. The lovers are chaste, like the Night that protects them. When a “climax” occurs for each of the lovers, it is in the absence of the beloved and takes place not so much in the bodily world as in the act of leaving it.[32] Wagner’s lovers forego the trivial transitory pleasures of sex for the final rush of self-immolation. This, death, is what their love-passion seeks. By preventing the lovers from engaging in sex, Wagner preserves Eros as infinite striving with only one release. The absence of physical completion also points to the radical purity that the lovers are ultimately seeking. This purity, this catharsis or purification, is freedom from bodily, worldly taint and from the principle and prison of individuation.[33]

Wagner’s drama is framed, significantly, by two sea voyages, two transitions or transports involving Isolde. In his writings, Wagner often uses the image of the sea to describe harmony as the movement of chords. Harmony, for him, interprets and completes melody by giving it emotional depth.[34] Harmony, Wagner’s musical strong point, is the realm of feeling, the primordial undercurrent and ocean of the Unconscious.

Flow and fluids are central to the drama and are always connected with transition and transformation. Even the leitmotifs here are handled more fluidly, organically, than in Wagner’s other operas and cannot, as a rule, be confined to a single meaning, since meaning here is itself fluid. The crucial fluid is, of course, the potion, which neither causes the love (as Mark mistakenly thinks at the end of the opera) nor causes the lovers to realize that they are in love (they know that already).[35] The potion, in addition to being the sacred symbol of Eros, simply allows Tristan and Isolde, who think they are drinking a death potion, to confess their love openly—to let love flow.[36] There is also the flow of Tristan’s blood in Act 3. Another crucial flow is the lovers’ desire to destroy their identities and cancel the principle of individuation—the und that separates them—so that they might flow into each other and die in each other. There is, finally, the passage from being to non-being. This is the Great Crossing—from Life, Day, and Memory to Death, Night, and Oblivion—a crossing over that Isolde interprets as a return to origin. Her metaphysical homecoming is prophesied by the song of the young sailor at the very beginning of the drama: Frisch weht der Wind/ der Heimat zu (“The wind blows fresh toward land of home.” All these instances of flux have as their metaphysical wellspring the perpetual transmutations of Eros or Will, the cosmic force none can resist.

In a well-known letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, the composer boasted of having perfected in the love duet of Act 2 his “subtlest and deepest art,” that of “transmutation or transition.”[37] Wagner achieved this largely through enharmonic modulation, where, for example, a D flat mutates into a C sharp, thereby smoothly, magically, changing the harmonic landscape, or rather seascape. Other devices include extensive use of non-diatonic or chromatic tones, unresolved cadences and the deceptive cadence, which is highlighted in the heart melting “glance” motif. Wagner’s art of transition, of which he rightly boasted, is more than a compositional technique. The seamless and deceptive harmonic flow that Wagner miraculously achieved is a metaphysical analog and symbol meant to produce in the listener the very experience of Eros as infinite striving, or, as Schopenhauer calls it, will.

In the words of Ernest Newman, “if ever there was an opera born of the spirit of music itself it is Tristan and Isolde.”[38] In this work, it seems that music, through the combined efforts of Dionysus and Apollo, has congealed to form a determinate story in word and image that constantly points beyond itself to its transcendent ground and origin—to what is always already there. We do not need to infer this transcendence. It is explicated relentlessly by Wagner’s lovers, who constantly provide sung metaphysical commentary on the wordless text of their love. The tone-obsessed character of Tristan has led some to speculate that Wagner’s drama is, in fact, a gigantic symphonic work with words attached.[39] Nietzsche, who spoke of “the shivery and sweet infinity of Tristan,”[40] wondered whether a human being “would be able to perceive the third act of Tristan and Isolde, without any aid of word and image, purely as a tremendous symphonic movement, without expiring in a spasmodic unharnessing of all the wings of the soul.”[41]

Of course, images and words are vital to Wagner’s purpose and cannot be dispensed with, not just because they shield us from the destructive power of orgiastic tones but more essentially because we need the images and words, especially the words, to provide an intelligible context for the terrifying unintelligibility of Eros. To put this simply, the Beyond, represented by tones all by themselves, must reveal itself as the Beyond of something. A good example of the need for words occurs precisely at a moment when words fail. In Act 2, at the very end of his gloomy reflection, Mark asks Tristan to make clear to the world “the inscrutable, deep and mysterious ground” of his betrayal. Tristan confesses that he cannot. But before he speaks, and in direct answer to Mark’s question, the potion motif, sounded only by winds, wells up darkly, as if from a tomb. The “answer” to Mark’s question is in the irrational realm of tones—in the wordless uncanny reality and music of Love. But we wouldn’t recognize this purely tonal response as the absolute “answer,” unless someone (in this case Mark) had asked the question in words and someone else (Tristan) had said: “It is beyond words.”

Nietzsche’s comment about the devastating emotional effect of Wagner’s Tristan music corrects a major problem in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music. For Schopenhauer, music, like all art, is a form of detached aesthetic contemplation.[42] But music also moves us, sometimes overwhelmingly. It seems paradoxical that Schopenhauer, the philosopher of feeling and will, would short-change, of all things, feeling. But his emphasis on aesthetic contemplation and corresponding neglect of feeling in musical experience become understandable in light of what music was for this Eros-tormented philosopher: solace and momentary release from Ixion’s wheel. For Wagner, the metaphysical situation is quite different. Music, for him, is emphatically the realm of feeling rather than detached contemplation. As Wagner puts it, the goal of drama, which he considered “the most perfect artwork,” is “the emotionalizing of the intellect”: “in the drama we must become knowers through the feeling.”[43] And harmony, the musical language of the Unconscious, surpasses Schopenhauer’s beloved melody, the symbol of the rational will, because harmony is the cause of feeling in music—the source of the emotive “truth” of music.

The metaphysical difference between the philosopher and the composer regarding feeling in music helps us to understand Wagner’s intention of writing to Schopenhauer in an effort to urge him to correct his metaphysics of sexual love by allowing for the possibility of redemption through feeling—through love’s rapture, which Wagner believed was the ultimate pacifier of the will.[44] One can only imagine what Schopenhauer’s response would have been to this well-intentioned advice. I would suggest, however, in Schopenhauer’s defense, that Wagner, in both his music and his theoretical writings, tends to overdo the role of feeling in music to the detriment of aesthetic contemplation, the act in which we take pleasure in the perceptive and rational aspects of music. These are stunningly present in the arias of Mozart and the polyphonic works of Bach.[45] In music, passion and perception work together. We are moved because we have perceived something, some intelligently conceived structure that is there to be heard and contemplated—whether a tonal phrase in a melody, the interplay of voices in polyphony, or a chord progression—and what we perceive moves us. If Schopenhauer is right, and on this point I think he is, then in music we are hearing tonal analogues, symbols, of that of which we ourselves are made—except that whereas Schopenhauer uses the word “will,” I would use “soul.” Music is, therefore, an occasion for insight and self-knowledge. But this knowledge comes with—if not through—an emotional impact. It was this impact that Wagner was able to produce on a grand scale.

This brings me to the most important respect in which Wagner and Schopenhauer part company, and to the apparent doctrinal tension within Wagner’s Tristan. Wagner’s lovers obviously do not renounce Love, as Schopenhauer would have them do. They do not go quietly into the night of asceticism but hurl themselves headlong into Love’s abyss, Tristan by tearing off his bandage to expose his wound, and Isolde by rising to an orgiastic pitch before gently descending on Tristan’s body, in effect closing the wound he had opened for her, the wound that was his agonizing Love. Isolde, Wagner’s Irish Bacchant, throws Schopenhauerian calm to the winds when she leaps to her high G sharp on the word Welt-Atem, “World-Spirit.” The lovers’ volcanic energy supports Nietzsche’s remark that Love in Tristan “is not to be interpreted as Schopenhauerian, but as Empedoclean.”[46] Empedocles was the Sicilian philosopher who leaped into Mt. Etna in order to prove that he was a god.

But Nietzsche’s remark, though apt, is too simple. The Schopenhauerian strain of Tristan, Love as curse, is not to be denied or minimized. It is the emphatic subject of Act 3, and Isolde’s Bacchic exultation comes on the scene only after we have been subjected to Tristan’s interminable love-agony. If Wagner had wanted to, he could have had the lovers die in each other’s arms at the end of Act 2 “in the spirit of early romanticism.”[47] But, inspired by Schopenhauer, he wanted a musical-metaphysical depiction of Eros as the sheer pain of endless longing.[48] Writing to Frau Wesendonck, Wagner gives the stark contrast between these two psychic modes—Tristan’s and Isolde’s—when he describes the final act of the opera as “real intermittent fever—the deepest and most unprecedented suffering and yearning, and, immediately afterward, the most unprecedented triumph and jubilation.”[49] In Wagner’s formulation, these extreme states are juxtaposed but not connected. At least one commentator regards this fact as pointing to the philosophic incoherence of Wagner’s drama.[50] Whether or not this is true, from a dramatic and experiential standpoint, Isolde’s transfiguration music in B major, though decidedly not Schopenhaurian, satisfies, and, as we have seen, it harmonically completes the opening A minor phrase of the opera.[51] Through its soaring beauty and evocation of the sea’s sublime power, Isolde’s Dionysian swan song offers emotional relief from the haunted and broken Tristan music that came before. Who would want a more logically consistent but less musically gorgeous Tristan and Isolde? The opera is unimaginable without precisely the ending that Wagner gave it.

One Little Word

What does Eros want? Isolde thinks she knows. Love’s end is the destruction of the “little word” and, which both joins and separates the lovers as individuals. Tristan and Isolde seek an intimacy more radical than mere being-with or even eternal intertwining—like that of the ivy and the vine that were said to have sprouted over the lovers’ shared tomb. Love seeks the total merging of the lovers’ separate selves. In Act 2, Tristan and Isolde exchange each other’s names and identities. Music, in its spirituality, its tonal transcendence of spatial boundaries, allows the lovers’ voices to do what their bodies cannot: merge in a musical-erotic unity. Erotic love seeks the sweet dissolution of the self, the loss of self in other and other in self: “No more Isolde!” “No more Tristan!” Love’s desire is to negate and destroy individuality, to de-create. Eros unbound is the ultimate nihilist and revolutionary.

The lovers’ desire for the destruction of the little word “and”—which is equivalent to the desire for the destruction of the whole world—lays bare the gnostic underpinning of the worldviews of both Schopenhauer and Wagner.[52] Gnosticism, familiar to most of us from the Manichean moments of Augustine’s Confessions, posits a strict dualism between Good and Evil. According to gnostic teaching, the world of determinate things, the realm of body, is evil. It is the arena of selfishness, greed, envy, love of wealth and honor, competition, hatred, war, and lies. It is also the realm of suffering, in particular erotic suffering. The underlying cause of all this evil is the principle of individuation—the visible world’s haecceity or this-ness. Night is good—indeed, it is “chaste” or virginal—because it cancels all determinateness, erases all boundaries and drowns all distinctions in the warmth of undifferentiated feeling. Night—which the poet Novalis called “the holy, the unspeakable, the secretive Night”[53]—is a metaphysical embrace and return to the womb-like origin of all things. Whereas Day divides, Night unites.

The paradox to which the gnostic metaphysics of love gives rise is that to love another erotically is to will the destruction not only of myself but also of the beloved, on whom my love feeds. I cannot, strictly speaking, rejoice in the beloved’s being any more than in my own, since all being is determinate and as such inherently evil. From Schopenhauer’s perspective, the matter is simple: When lovers adore each other’s identities, it is only because they are deluded, not because they have perceived anything intrinsically lovable or true. But for Wagner, erotic love, though dreamy, is the basis of mystic revelations or rather a call to mystic union in Death. The coveted dissolution of identity, Love’s voluptuous death wish, makes us wonder what Tristan and Isolde’s Love is love of. It seems that it is not love of the beloved, at least not primarily, but the love of Love, passion for the sake of passion, which Rougemont argues is inscribed in the Tristan myth itself.[54] This view takes us to the infernal realm of Dante’s Francesca, who is far more consumed with the love of Love than love for her adulterous lover, Paolo.[55] In the purely subjective world of Love as passion, the beloved is no more than grist for the mill of self-feeling and “a great opportunity to be no longer I.”

But on what grounds would we conclude that individuality and determinateness are evil, that limits, boundaries and distances are evil, and that feeling surpasses thinking as Night eclipses Day? Does it not seem more reasonable, not just healthier, to believe that goodness consists in good order, in a cosmos rather than an abyss? Is the look of Love, the glance, not inspired by the beloved’s determinate form, which begets the desire for a keener vision, as it does for Dante in his relation to Beatrice? How could I ever want this inspiring, radiant individuality to go away, to die? And yet how could I want to preserve it without regarding “distance” as in some way good?

Listening to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is a ravishing and, I believe, important human experience. The opera contains music of incredible beauty and power, especially in its richly textured harmonies. To listen to this music, quite apart from seeing a production, is to be under a spell and to imbibe Wagner’s all-too-effective tone-potion. We listen at our peril, for in listening we are the voluptuous music of death-bound Eros. The potion that is Tristan contains much truth, terrible truth, about erotic passion. But it also prompts us, or should prompt us, to search for an antidote to the lovers’ death wish—to pursue a love that preserves rather than destroys, celebrates rather than abolishes individuality, and seeks life rather than death, clarity rather warmth alone, wakefulness rather than sleep, and reconciliation with the external world, which mixes great evil with great good.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally delivered as an address to the Wagner Society in Washington D.C (October 2016).  


[1] “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” (8), Untimely Meditations.

[2] The influence was so strong that Wagner changed the end of the Ring cycle to reflect a Schopenhauerian view of the world. Instead of a tribute to love, Brünnhilde would sing: “Grieving love’s/ profoundest suffering/ opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end.” Ultimately, however, Wagner returned to his initial idea, in which Brünnhilde’s final profession of love for Siegfried (“In bliss your wife greets you!”) balances and corrects Wotan’s grim resignation and provides the right closing note for the whole cycle. Schopenhauer was dear, but the demands of art were dearer. See Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen: A Companion, Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington.

[3] David Cartwright, Schopenhauer: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[4] “Schopenhauer,” Thomas Mann: Essays, tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter, New York: Random House, 1957, p. 283.

[5] Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the edition by E.F.J. Payne, New York: Dover, 1969.

[6] Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, tr. E.F.J. Payne, Oxford: Clarendon, 1974, p. 430.

[7] Schopenhauer quotes from Calderón’s Life Is a Dream: “For man’s greatest offence is that he has been born” (Vol. 1, 254). This is “the guilt of existence itself”—original sin. Death is, in effect, the correction of an error. Schopenhauer would say to the dying individual: “You are ceasing to be something which you would have done better never to become” (Vol. 2, p. 501).

[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses 10, 42.

[9] Schopenhauer makes this point in The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: “In just the same way, the succession of sounds in a piece of music is determined objectively, not subjectively by me the listener; but who will say that the musical notes follow one another according to the law of cause and effect?” (p. 127, tr. E.F.J. Payne, La Salle: Open Court, 1974)

[10] The Ideas for Schopenhauer differ from how Plato describes them. For Schopenhauer, the Ideas cannot be genuine beings, for that would undermine the ultimacy of the irrational will. They are no more than eternal modes or ways in which the will objectifies itself.

[11] These archetypes recall Vico’s “imaginative universals.” See The New Science of Giambattista Vico, tr. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, (Cornell NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). See Paragraphs 381 and 460.

[12] Vol. 2, 455-6. An even better instance of the connection between dissonance and will is the appoggiatura or leaning tone. This unprepared dissonance on a strong beat delays a tone of the melody and intensifies expectation. It is the perfect tonal analogue of longing. A good example occurs in Tamino’s love song in the Magic Flute. Tamino gazes on a picture of Pamina and falls in love with her. By singing in response to seeing, he moves from the world as representation to the world as will. His repeated leaning tones on the words “I feel it,” “ich fühl es,” embody the universal truth of erotic love.

[13] Victor Zuckerkandl calls these tensions dynamic qualities (The Sense of Music, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, pp. 18-28).

[14] See Carl Dahlhuas: “It is not that Wagner anticipated Schoenbergian atonality; there was never any question of his abandoning the principle of tonality, and he used to attribute emotive and symbolic significances to tonal relationships. Yet the harmonies of Tristan point the way to the dissolution of tonality, the emancipation of melody and counterpoint from preformed chordal associations” (Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 64).

[15] Strauss called this final moment of Tristan “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music” (Dieter Borchmeyer, Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 367).

[16] Reproduced in Borchmeyer, p. 367. Strauss’ reduction of the opera to its simple harmonic period lays bare the most beautiful part of Wagner’s design: the use of the minor subdominant of B major, the E minor chord that binds the opening phrase in A minor to the B major cadence at the end.

[17] “The longing of the lovers is merely objectified in the poem and plot: it is expressed directly in the music” (Elliott Zuckerman, The First Hundred Years of Wagner’s Tristan, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 17). In Kant’s terms, the words and images are the schematism of a pure concept (Critique of Pure Reason).

[18] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy. David Cartwright puts the problem very well: “Schopenhauer’s account of music ended, however, with a dissonance. Music was said to be the copy of something that cannot be copied—a mirroring of an original that cannot be reflected, a representation in tunes of that which cannot be represented” (p. 318).

[19] Payne, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, p. 432.

[20] See Wagner on Music and Drama, selected by Goldman and Sprinchorn, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, p. 171.

[21] Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, Payne, p. 430.

[22] Elliott Zuckerman applies this claim about death in music to Wagner’s drama: “If the unexpected movement into a remote key is, as Schopenhauer hyperbolically maintains, like death, then the second and third acts of Tristan represent (as they should) a continuous dying” (p. 19).

[23] The story of the doomed lovers was given a second literary life when the French medievalist, Joseph Bédier, composed his beautiful Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900).

[24] Love in the Western World, tr. Montgomery Belgion, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 218.

[25] “In writing Tristan, Wagner transgressed the taboo. He said everything—admitted everything, not only in the words of his poem, but still more in the notes of his score. He sang of the Darkness of the dissolution of forms and beings, of the release of desire, of desire become anathema, and of the tremendously plaintive and blessed twilit glory of the spirit after it had been rescued at the price of a fatal wound inflicted on the body” (Rougemont, p. 228).

[26] Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan and Isolde, ed. Robert Bailey, New York: Norton Critical Scores, 1985, p. 47.

[27] Bailey, p. 131.

[28] See Ernest Newman, p. 208.

[29] “nature can attain her end only by implanting in the individual a certain delusion, and by virtue of this, that which in truth is merely a good thing for the species seems to him to be a good thing for himself, so that he serves the species, whereas he is under the delusion that he is serving himself” (Vol. 2, p. 538).

[30] Wagner On Music and Drama, p. 270.

[31] Rougemont, p. 229.

[32] “Of the two sexual climaxes that are unmistakably depicted in the orchestra, one is interrupted by the entry of Kurvenal on an unnamable discord, and the other occurs after Tristan has been dead for twenty minutes” (Zuckerman, p. 22).

[33] Rougemont emphasizes the influence on medieval courtly love of the gnostic heresy known as Catharism (from the Greek adjective katharos, clean or pure). According to the Catharists, who adopted the Persian-Manichean dualism of Good and Evil, the material world was the work of Satan rather than God (p. 79). Rougemont sees Catharism at work in Wagner’s Tristan, whose second act “is the passion song of souls imprisoned in material forms” (p. 229).

[34] “The sounding out of the harmony to a melody is the first thing that fully persuades the feeling as to the emotional content of that melody, which otherwise would leave to it something undetermined” (Wagner on Music and Drama, p. 214). In the very first sentence of his book on Wagner’s Tristan, Ernst Kurth, a devotee of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will, writes: “Harmonies are reflexes from the Unconscious” (Romantic Harmony and its Crisis in Wagner’s Tristan, Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag, 1920).

[35] Tristan makes this clear in Act 2: “The frightful drink with the torment it gave, I myself—I myself brewed it!”

[36] See Borchmeyer, p. 338. As Dahlhaus writes, “unlike the fatal potion in Götterdämmerung it [the potion in Tristan] changes nothing but simply brings into the open something which already exists but has not previously been admitted” (p. 51).

[37] Wagner on Music and Drama, pp. 212-213. “No less than Tristan, Parsifal is governed by Wagner’s ‘art of transition’” (Dahlhaus, p. 152).

[38] The Wagner Operas, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949, p. 196.

[39] Newman writes: “the bulk of the opera would make an organic musical whole if played through by the orchestra without the voices” (p. 202).

[40] Ecce Homo 6.

[41] The Birth of Tragedy 21.

[42] Commenting on Schopenhauer’s remark that in real life as opposed to listening to music “we are the vibrating string that is stretched and plucked,” Julian Young writes: “Whatever…the differences between music and life, in musical experience, too, we are the ‘vibrating string.’ What leads Schopenhauer into this phenomenological mistake is, I think, his restriction of his account of the relation between music and emotion to the language of ‘representation’” (The Philosophies of Richard Wagner, Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2014, p. 82).

[43] On Music and Drama, pp. 188-89.

[44] See Borchmeyer, pp. 365-366. Wagner started his unfinished letter by telling Schopenhauer why he wanted to persuade him of the redemptive potential of sexual love: “You alone give me the material of the concepts through which my views become communicable along philosophical lines” (quoted Curt von Westernhagen in his Wagner: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, vol. 1, p. 254).

[45] In keeping with Nietzsche’s criticism of “infinite melody,” Elliott Zuckerman writes: “Wagner deprives one of the intellectual pleasures of music—a pleasure, Nietzsche might have added, for which there is no substitute in the recognition and tracing of leitmotifs” (p. 78).

[46] Quoted in Borchmeyer, p. 366.

[47] Geck, p. 239: “[Wagner] needed the third act to articulate his thoughts on the ‘curse of love’ to which he refers in one of his sketches for the later libretto.”

[48] On this point, see Martin Geck, who cites Ernst Bloch’s opinion that Isolde’s “beatific transfiguration” is nothing more than “a concession to the world of the theater” (Richard Wagner: A Life in Music, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 239). According to Geck, Wagner started out intending to write a monument to the love-happiness he confessed to Liszt he had never experienced and only later decided to dwell on love’s extreme torment (p. 233).

[49] Quoted in Geck, p. 240.

[50] “…although Tristan and Isolde cannot be salvaged as a coherent philosophical work, we are under no obligation to rescue it in this way. Unlike the Ring, the fascination it exudes rests not on the depiction of a baleful system but on an underlying message we would do best not to examine too closely” (Geck, p. 244).

[51] Newman says something similar about the concert version of Tristan: “The selection from Tristan known in the concert room as the Prelude and Liebestod…makes an admirably rounded whole, musically and psychologically” (204).

[52] According to Rougemont, Gnosticism is inherent in Gottfried’s original tale: “Tristan is far more profoundly and indisputably Manichean than the Divine Comedy is Thomist” (p. 135). For a full discussion of Gnosticism, see Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. Especially interesting is the Epilogue: Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism.

[53] Hymns to the Night 1.

[54] “…Tristan did not love Iseult for herself, but only on account of the love of Love of which her beauty gave him the image. He, however, did not know this, and his passion was naïve and strong” (p. 223). “…Tristan is not in love with Iseult, but with love itself…[Iseult] is but a lovely pretext” (p. 309) “Let us remember, however, that the passion of love is at bottom narcissism, the lovers’ self-magnification, far more than it is a relation with the beloved” (p. 260). See also Zuckerman on this point: “The lovers, in short, are in love not with each other but with love itself. Their quest is not for transitory fulfillment but for the obstacles that prolong passion—ultimately for the final obstacle, death, which is paradoxically the only permanent fulfillment” (p. 24).

[55] Inferno 5. Tristan is among the “carnal sinners who subjected reason to desire” (l. 67).

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