Monday, December 15, 2014


That resurrection is a miracle: a recording from 1948, mind you!


This recording is a miracle over time.

We must keep in mind it was a live recording done in 1948 with the means of the time and no intention whatsoever to make it a commercial venture. Sixty-eight years later that recording was taken out of archives, re-mastered with modern digital technology but technicians could not really clean up the humming behind the music, the recording kept the stage noises, or at least some of them and the recording power of microphones in 1948 were not what modern microphones can produce, particularly with high pitched voices that sound slightly shrill. But all that being said it will enable us to understand we actually have here a prodigious recording that is literally walking out of its grave.

What’s more the libretto is available in its 1947 copyrighted version which will provide you with a surprise because the “7. Bild” of the third part describing the burial of the two lovers and the growing bramble that joins their tombs over a chapel standing between them is absent from the recording without my being able to say if it is a modern cut or if the scene was not included in the Salzburg production. With these two “tools” we can try to evaluate the quality of this work in German, but I will not compare it to the original French recording with Frank Martin playing the piano forte that is practically only available on the Internet, though it was last produced in France in 2009 by Opéra de Lyon, and a recording exists with Sandrine Piau (2007) and another with Il Cantori in New York (2013).

The very first remark is about the story itself. Three acts centering on three episodes of the story adapted from Joseph Bédier’s version (1900). The first act is on the ship taking Isot to Cornwall and it contains the episode of the drinking of the philter. The philter is served by mistake by a young female servant who was not aware of the particularity of the drink. The philter is systematically associated with love and death, which is striking in German because love is feminine and death is masculine. The act ends with Tristan’s declaration: “Komme denn der Tod.” (So let death come! My translation) and the final sentence “. . . verloren sie sich an die Liebe.“ (they lost themselves in love, my translation) The music is of course dramatizing this contrastive association of antagonistic terms that reflect the antagonistic alliance of a man and a woman that put upside down the relation that should exist between them. Tristan had summarized this situation in the fourth scene when he had set up three antagonistic pairs, addressing his uncle in his own mind:

“Ah! What am I thinking? Isot is your wife and I am your vassal; Isot is your wife and I am your son; Isot is your wife and she can never love me.” (My translation)

The second act is centered on the Morois Forest episode and more specifically the moment when King Mark discovers the lovers sleeping one afternoon, fully dressed and with Tristan’s naked sword between them, a symbol of corporal and carnal separation. King Mark at first wants to kill them but then realizes that they must be carnally pure. Then the act moves to Tristan’s realization of the epiphany the King went through by leaving his own sword behind. Then Isot goes through a similar realization when she contemplates the king’s golden ring he left on her finger. Both, without any mention of the three year duration of the potency of the philter, come to realizing they have to find a solution and the monk Ogrin is brought back into their consciousness. This second act is quite different from Wagner’s who centered his on the King catching the two lovers in the act itself. Here the emphasis is set on the apparent purity of the lovers, on the forgiveness and generosity on the side of the king and on the repentance and desire to repair their evil act on the side of the lovers. This sets a very strong emphasis on the Christian side of the tale and in fact shows that the tale is not about old Celtic mythology but on how old Celtic mythology can be, was Christianized. This second act goes that way.

The third act goes even further since there is no sin any more. We are beyond that sinful phase, the repentance, the absolution and forgiveness. But in his last fight Tristan got poisoned and he calls for Isot, through Kaherdin, for her to cure him or at least for him to see her a last time before dying. This is very Christian in thought both ways: a good Christian must help his or her suffering fellow Christians and when a good Christian dies he or she has to say good bye to his or her friends and relatives and these have to bless him or her into death. Note though the traditional tale in general and this version in particular in this last episode does not bring a priest for extreme unction, the anointing of the sick and dying.

Yet several references to God can be found that reveals a Christian vision of God and not any reference to some Celtic divinity or vision of death: “Gott will nicht, dass . . . ” (God doesn’t want that. . . , my translation) says Isot. And again “Wenn Gott es will . . . “ (si dieu le veut. . ., my translation). The conception of God here is the existence of only one God, which is of course in contradiction with the polytheism of the Celts. And again she says: “Gott gebe us. . . “ (let God give us. . ., my translation) which is a prayer to God which is once again not possible within a non-Christian polytheistic context. She will before dying actually pray to God: “. . . betete zu Gott.” (. . . prayed God. My translation) Tristan is by far referring less to God, and yet when he dies the repeats three times: “Isot, Geliebte!” (Iseult Beloved, my translation) and the rendering of these three binary phrases with a pause between each pair and between each term in each pair makes the whole sequence sound like a perfect Solomon’s number in the purest way the Middle Ages used it as a sign of wisdom and contact with God’s wisdom, God’s cup pouring his wisdom in man’s cup, alternating the three points of God’s cup with the three points of man’s cup as follows A – B – A – B – A – B. We find such a form in Romanesque architecture and other religious expression, paintings, poetry, etc. Some like Philippe Walter insist on the Celtic dimension of the ternary structure but the musical rendering of this ternary structure shows it has completely been Christianized. And that is true of the old tale too that always gives this moment and this triple call. And on the fourth one Tristan dies just like Christ’s death is symbolized by the number four.

The second remark I would like to make is about the music. The music is minimal as for the number of instruments and that is good because it gives to the voices and the text their full force. The piano is very often giving some kind of rhythm to the text, stressing the singing, the words whereas the other instruments create some kind of atmosphere that can change, though the range of these changes is limited; the music is more like some funeral dirge, a Tenebrae like those the French used to produce at the end of the 17th century, a genre of music that was supposed to accompany the dead person down into the vault and here this quality of the music is maintained from the beginning to the end as if the whole oratorio were such a slow descent into the grave, into death as expressed in the Prologue: “. . . and then died on the same day. Him through her and her through him.” (My translation) In this final sentence we find a structure that is Solomon’s number again but this time with another pattern: “Er durch Sie, Sie durch Ihn.” The pattern is A – B – C / C – B – A’”. The inversion of the pattern shows how we have God’s cup and man’s cup in inverted direction. The modification of the A term due to syntax even emphasizes this inversion and what’s more makes Tristan more submissive, in fact more willing to accept the end, that death, because, and the Solomonic structure emphasizes this idea, it is the only way God will forgive him and her for their sin which was clearly expressed by Tristan in the first act with another Solomonic structure of three pairs this time and with the second element of the third pair modified:

“Isot ist Euer Weib – und – ich Euer Vasall / Isot ist Euer Weib – und – ich Euer Sohn / Isot ist Euer Weib – und – kann mich niemals lieben.“

We could even see the importance of the three “und” and then we come to a strong Solomonic structure containing a structure in NINE pieces and nine is the number of Christ’s death (Christ died on the ninth hour in Jewish time counting in Christ’s time, which makes him arrested at six in the morning in out time counting). Once again it is far from carrying any “pagan” (what an outrageous term) symbolism but a deeply Christian symbolism. The tale the way we know it from Béroul onwards is the Christianization of an old Celtic polytheistic tale that implied all-powerful gods but whose intentions we cannot know and we cannot influence in anyway with prayers or repentance. These gods are not forgiving either. The only thing we can do to influence them is to sacrifice living beings to them and that meant human beings first with a slow evolution towards animals, yet in Gaul when Julius Caesar arrived there still were instances of such human sacrifices. Just this fact shows how far from that vision Tristan and Isot are bringing us. And yet they will have to die to clean up their plate completely. In other words the tale has not been Christianized completely since the sacrifice, the human sacrifice is not translated into the symbolical sacrifice of Jesus, into the symbolical Eucharist.

At this moment and in this detail we find Paul Radin in his “Primitive Man as Philosopher” where he studies the mythology of American Indians and also of many aborigines in the Pacific Ocean’s islands as well as of Eskimos and Inhuit Indians. The main idea is that death is inevitable and fate is inexorable, in which the “heroic myth and epic“ convey “the conflict [that] represented the legendary reflection of a real clash of peoples and civilizations.” (173) He even goes farther than we could hope when he says about Winnebago mythology “that death is the lot of all who sin against reality and the sense of proportion, and who involve others in their self-initiated transgression.” (207) And once again: “doom follows inevitably from the fact that what is desired is beyond human power.” (207) And one of the mythological tales he studies goes even beyond this when he says: “But the young man, too, is rewarded by resurrection as a tree.” (206) That will remind us of the bramble that grows on Tristan’s grave over the church and into Isot’s grave, and if that is not a defiant representation of a sexual act beyond death, what is? This is in fact the redemption of the death imposed by the fate of the older civilization, the Celtic civilization, a redemption that comes from the God of the new civilization because of the burial rites and the presence of a chapel between the two tombs. It is the final touch of Christianization.

You can understand why I regret the last scene of the third act is missing in this recording.

A last remark can be added on the voices and the way they are used. This oratorio is built as a long recitative with rather short interventions of particular characters. There are also several choirs, or rather the choristers are used in various compositions. That gives to the whole oratorio a strange variability as for the vocal texture and architecture. This also enables us to get into the story better because this flexibility increases the dramatic value of the voices and vocal composition. The voices are always kept retrained within some average limits of expressivity with maybe one real exception: Tristan in the last act when he is dying there is an effort to make it sound weak, deeper, more out of breath.

Altogether it is a real Christmas present to bring this recording out in November 2014.


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