Wagner and Mythology

It takes a lot of work on the listener’s part to understand Wagner. I’ve been trying in vain for years, but I’ve recently made a kind of breakthrough.

The catalyst was a few intense listening sessions with Tristan and Isolde. With its mythological setting, ambiguous themes, overwhelming length and dense musical chromaticism it’s not an easy task. Perseverance paid off, though, and I feel Wagner’s masterwork is now fully under my skin. I highly recommend putting some time into it.

It also helps to have some guidance (is it possible to properly understand Wagner without some sort of guide?), and for this I can’t recommend enough Roger Scruton’s Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

One of the many insights is a fascinating discussion on Wagner’s attitude to mythology – a stumbling block for many frustrated Wagnerians. Here’s a key passage:

A myth, for Wagner, is not a fable or a religious doctrine but a vehicle for human knowledge. The myth acquaints us with ourselves and our condition, using symbols and characters that give objective form to our inner compulsions. Myths are set in the hazy past, in a vanished world of chthonic forces and magniloquent deeds. But this obligatory ‘pastness’ is a heuristic device. It places the myth and its characters before recorded time and therefore in an era that is purged of history. It lifts the story out of the stream of human life and endows it with a meaning that is timeless.

Scruton claims Wagner’s use of mythology is one of the great intellectual advances of modern times, and the inspiration for Freud’s idea of mythology as ‘a dramatization of deep and hidden truths about the human psyche’.

For me this helps to explain a lot of art that incorporates aspects of mythology in this way, from WB Yeats to JRR Tolkien.

5 responses to “Wagner and Mythology”

  1. Tim, your website is kind of doing the unthinkable and getting me interested in ‘classical music’. I’m working through the violin concerto thing and enjoying it. This in itself is a revelation but I want to investigate Wagner. Aren’t there links to Nietzsche? My question is: which version of this would you recommend?

  2. Hey Martin, good on you for dipping the toe in. Wagner’s not necessarily the easy way in to classical music – he seems to be either loved or hated. But as I say above, I think he’s well worth the effort.

    For a great Tristan recording, I can personally recommend Antonio Pappano conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, on EMI, with Placido Domingo playing Tristan – buy it at Amazon UK here: http://tinyurl.com/4pt3vk.

    Also consider a recording that I haven’t yet heard but that is highly recommended by others, including the Penguin Guide to Classical Recordings, the 1966 live recording by Karl Bohm with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus – at Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/3lbsop. It’s on my wish list!

    If you want to see it performed, I recommend the DVD of a performance by James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus – http://tinyurl.com/4l63lp.

    Good luck with Tristan!

  3. Thanks for that, Tim.

    The thing that strikes me about this website is that whatever you talk about seems to me to then become incredibly interesting. This classical music thing is an unbelievable shock to me. Believe me.

    When I first read your postings on Dylan and then ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles my initial reaction was that the commentary was very dry, very Michael Gray in that it’s very learned but doesn’t necessarily tell you why that music is good or even great.

    I then read the posts again. Properly. And thought my initial response was wrong. It’s obvious which writers on Dylan you love but you’re not shackled by them…

    I will buy the ‘Ner – perhaps because of the immensity of it to a newcomer, perhaps because Bukowski loved him – and when I do I’ll get back to you.

    P.S. I did try to keep the Sergeant Peppers debate going too…

  4. Thanks so much for writing such positive comments, it’s really appreciated.

    I write these posts because it’s the best way I know of getting my head around what makes these pieces of art that we love and appreciate work so well. I realise that it can come across as academic and dry to others, but I’m so glad you’ve found value in them.

    There’s definitely more to be said on the Sgt Peppers album – so much more – so I’m steeling myself up for a counter to your last response!

  5. Hello! I’m doing some research on Wagner because I need to do a presentation on his Gotterdammerung and i wanted to talk a briefly about myth. Thank you for putting the key passage in!!!! I’ve been looking through a lot of books and journals, they say heaps but there was no concrete explanation for it, until now! This is such a life- saver! Thank you!

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