Notes on Wesendonk-Lieder

Specifications

These pieces were entered in step-time from a piano score and quasi-orchestrated for the Roland Sound Canvass using the Cakewalk Sequencer. The words are presented best in one-line-deep lyrics-windows for the original German and the line-by-line English translation.

The original pieces were composed for piano and voice but, unlike the songs of Schubert for example, they are not really for piano. Orchestrations by Mottl were commonly played by small string orchestras in Wagner's time. There is a 1950 recording with Leopold Stokowski and Eileen Farrell which is particularly fine. As they are studies of "Tristan und Isolde", an orchestrator can refer to the tonalities found therein. I find it somewhat surprising that in these pieces, the use of simple standard midi patches (mostly "String Ensemble which I often find ineffective elsewhere) manages to suggest as much Wagnerian effect as it does. To achieve this effect, the files must be played with a middle level or better sound bank. The tremolo in "Schmerzen" is certainly not what it should be. Also, much is lost in the vocal line, not only by not having a soprano voice, but also for lack of the much-needed subtle pitch-bends of singers. The crude pitch-bend of simple midi controllers is not useful. Perhaps users out there would care to do a little tweaking. We will obtain and make available a sampled voice-patch sooner or later. Please send any clearly successful results back via E-mail.

Background

Richard Wagner's output was most prodigious in every aspect of scope, but not in quantity. Of significant works, we have only 11 fully characteristic operas and two other works. These are the "Siefried Idyll", which was a surprise serenade for his true love Cosima Liszt Von Bulow Wagner, and the five settings of poems by Mathilda Wesendonck, the other and earlier major love. The first of these, of course, relates to "Siegfried", the composition of which was resumed and completed in the mid-1860's and is a direct distillation of that work for small chamber orchestra.

The Wesendonk group was somewhat similarly related to "Tristan und Isolde" of about ten years earlier, more specifically, 1857-58. These songs are more independent of the inspiration-opera than is the Idyll, but nevertheless cannot be fully appreciated without some experience of the mighty "Tristan" and also of the philosophic outlook of that work. In a sense, the words of these songs are like an expository preface of those concepts.

A true Wagnerian, such as myself, revels in the emotional and - if I may say, atavistic - power of Wagner's ability to make manifest cosmic forces. You must feel it, not just intellectualize it. These songs provide a great opportunity to discourse on the Schopenhaueran and pre-Freudean convolutions of "Tristan" and Wagner's vision of this most vital phase of his artistic maturity. I'll pass on this opportunity, as there are many shelves of material already out there. Suffice it to say that "Tristan" and these five songs have something to do with a yearning to disconnect from burdensom and superficial reality and obligations (represented by the cold day and present life), and a longing for the soul's return to its true communal home (represented by nurturing night and mystic dreams and love).

I would like to interject here a claim I make most emphatically. Richard Wagner is by far the greatest of all librettists. I happen to think he is the greatest of all Opera composers also, but the first statement is even easier to defend in a debate than the second. Also, there are no dull moments in a Wagner Opera when you are fully aware of the meaning of the moment. Those who state otherwise, and there are legions of them, are weak in their ability to engage left brain intellect and right brain atavism simultaneously. These are of course fighting words, perhaps out of place in this essay of background. Any response will be noted, and maybe eventually we will institute on the page forums for such dicussions that might arise.

The circumstances of the composition of these songs and of Tristan are most fascinating. The number of chintzy biographies and commentaries about Wagner outnumber the balanced ones considerably, and you can just about rely on them all to blow this important episode out of proportion. In the most miniscule nutshell I can manage, the crux of it all is this: In 1848, the 35 year old public figure Wagner was firmly left-wing and quite active in the famous insurrections of that time. As a result, he was exiled not only from his native Saxony, where he chanced to be residing at the time, but also from all the other German states. This exile was in effect for about a decade and he resided mostly in either Zurich or Venice during this period. Although his four launched operas were doing increasingly well and producing royalties in Germany, he was in less than good shape financially. As his ready money (never considerable) declined, his artistic vision soared. He embarked on the music to the "Ring of the Niebelungen", got as far as two acts of Siegried, and shelved it. There was no conceivable way of producing this cataclysm. His chief financial backer during this period was the wealthy financier Otto Wesendonck, of Zurich, Switzerland, who was also his sometime host and neighbor. But for history, the chief serendipity was Otto's wife Mathilda. She bacame Wagner's first soul mate, a woman of high intellect. He had his legal mate, Minna?, in tow at the time. She was not a woman of high intellect, and was most unsuited for Wagner, as he was for her. They both endured their trying vagabond marriage for something like twenty years.

The nature of this affair in Switzerland is one of the great focal points of biographical sleuthing. I have not read my Newman for 40 years so I've forgotten the details. The most important question about it has been much phrased, i.e. "did Wagner write "Tristan Und Isolde" because he was in love with Mathilda, or was he in love with Mathilda because he was writing Tristan?" In any case, such an affair not in line with 19th century morality, and when our genius went even more outside of convention in the capturing of the heart - and more significantly - the hand of Cosima Von Bulow a decade later, he was stamped in legend as a stupendous womanizer. I see it differently, in that he was exceedingly true to his pedestrian wife for very long, while the other women benefited from their relationship, while the two loyal retainers Wesendonck and von Bulow, remained loyal. Von Bulow, however, was truly deceived and hurt, but the importance to art of the alliance of the formidable, long lived Cosima (1837-1930) to Wagner (1813-1883) was of vast importance to the world. Again the chemistry of "Tristan" was at work when Cosima entered permanently, because the Herculean task of first producing the incredibly revolutionary Opera was undertaken by the three - von Bulow being the only conductor besides the master himself capable of bringing it off - under the most trying conditions artistically, civically, and domiestically in Munich in the mid 1860s.

This particular triangle was the item of items and has been well researched. So it would appear that the premesis of "Tristan", that of worldly honor being overwhelmed by the mysterious forces of the soul of another magnitude entirely is an echo of the situation between Richard and Mathilda in Zurich circa 1856-58. This would all be so much trivia were it not for the fact that you and I can actually taste the flavor and force of these forces by listening to the music and following the words of "Tristan und Isolde" and of these five songs via Mathilda Wesendonck.


Robert Ellis Crawford - November 1996
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