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.