Schopenhauer’s Influence on Tristan & Isolde – A Lou Review

written 03-30-2015

There seemed to have been ‘something in the air’, as it were, during the 19th century in what we now call Germany; simply put, the intellectual and artistic achievements of this period should be regarded, in my opinion, as one of the most extraordinary periods of cultural flourishing ever. The philosophical world, for example, was still reeling in the wake of the behemoth of the 18th century: Immanuel Kant. The resulting figures that would carry the torch of German philosophy included none other than the all-encompassing Friedrich Nietzsche and one of his major early influences, though less encompassing during his time, Arthur Schopenhauer. Meanwhile, the world of what is often improperly and narrowly referred to or defined as ‘classical’ or ‘romantic’ music was virtually completely dominated by German composers. Firstly, there are the ‘big three’ of the first wave of classical composers; namely, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and of course the figure often also associated with the beginning of the romantic period, Ludwig van Beethoven. There were also a plethora of other composers following, for the most part, that same distinctly Italian and Viennese tradition, such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Despite their tradition being rooted in Italian musical tradition, it’s no secret that German and Austrian-born composers essentially ruled music.

There was, however, the inescapable colossus of 19th century music: Richard Wagner, who, rather than follow the tradition of the composers that had come before him, attempted to start his own distinctly German musical tradition. Needless to say, all of these figures were, for the most part, contemporaries in their respective mediums, and therefore inevitably certain influence was shared – given by some and taken by others. What is more intriguing, however, is the influence that crossed the boundary between the mediums of philosophy and music themselves. Famously, proponents of Richard Wagner, including Wagner himself, claim immense influence from the work of Schopenhauer – specifically Schopenhauer’s masterpiece The World as Will and Representation and its influence on Wagner’s mature operas. I will therefore attempt to detail the Wagner’s appropriation, or as some would say misappropriation, of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Furthermore I will also attempt to point out any legitimate similarities, contradictions or notions that seem only half-grasped from Schopenhauer’s other philosophical ideas, specifically regarding denial of the will-to-live, on the part of Wagner during his creation of Tristan und Isolde.

Great art, Schopenhauer maintains, is only possibly producible by a genius, and not simply by those who are trained or taught. Only the genius alone is capable of a pure moment of aesthetic contemplation while the ordinary person, while they must also have the ability on some basic level in order to enjoy art, is nevertheless not nearly as capable as the genius or the artist in this regard (these two terms – genius and artist – are rather synonymous for Schopenhauer). The Schopenhauerian genius is almost burdened in a sense by their ability – they are thought of as so obsessively (almost psychotically) focused on aesthetic contemplation that they often neglect their own personal well-being. Someone like Beethoven or especially Van Gogh exemplify this idea of the Schopenhauerian genius. His thoughts on art are also, needless to say, closely related to the over-arching theme of his philosophy – the denial of the will-to-live. Art and the aesthetic contemplation of that art provide one of the only sources of relief and momentary escape from the suffering and futility of life. Indeed, art is the great motivator; it provides impetus for living a life of the denial of the will-to-live.

Music plays a uniquely important role compared to that of the other arts according to Schopenhauer. Music is different than the other arts in the sense that, as previously discussed, art and aesthetic contemplation of art provides insight into the Ideas of things, which exist in the realm of Ideas – the realm between that of particulars (phenomena) and that of the will (noumena). Music, unlike these arts, is not a mere representation. It does not provide glimpses or insights into the realm of the Ideas but rather it is purely from the realm of the will – the realm of the thing-in-itself. Music is often understood as a (universal) language and rightly so; Schopenhauerian music is a direct translation of the Will into the language of music. All worldly conceptualizations are jettisoned in favour of getting to the true meaning of things. As Singh says in the section on music in Schopenhauer: A Guide for the Perplexed:

“Thus music as an art exposes not a specific or subjective sorrow, horror and gaiety but gives us a taste of what sorrow, horror and gaiety are like in their essences as part and parcel of the will to live… (music) reproduces the will’s upswings and downswings in a way that we can immediately relate to, but cannot fully explain.” (Singh 2010).

It is no surprise why a man like Wagner, a particularly nationalist and elitist composer of what he considered true German music, would be attached to (and, I imagine, more than flattered by) the philosophy of a man who held in such high regard the affairs of people such as himself. There is no doubt in my mind that the other aspects of Schopenhauer’s philosophy – particularly the atheistic, cynical and pessimistic notions – were also attractive to someone like Wagner, who was obviously a product of his very nihilistic time. And Wagner’s Schopenhauerian influence was not simply interpreted a posteriori, but rather Wagner was a self-proclaimed advocate of Schopenhauerian philosophy. For example, here is an excerpt from Wagner’s autobiography where he explicitly agrees with Schopenhauer’s specific evaluation of the superiority of music compared to the other arts, on the subject of a musical theme:

“How much more significant does such a theme appear than any spoken thought! Schopenhauer is right; music is a world in itself, the other arts only express a world.” (Brener, 2014).

There are many other interesting, entertainingly peculiar and idiosyncratic entries from both of the autobiographies of the Wagner’s’ which detail all manner of references to Schopenhauer; whether it be Cosima Wagner’s detailing of various ‘bad’ days or nights which had often included Richard being upset due to an acquaintance disagreeing with Schopenhauer in discourse, or Richard himself simply identifying the various brilliances of Schopenhauerian thought – and how it lead him to a mid-life crisis – followed by his near-worshipping of Schopenhauer. Either way, it is clear that the man was an admitted Schopenhauerian; the way in which Schopenhauer’s philosophy was translated into Romantic opera, however, was not as clear as Wagner is generally considered to have ‘half-grasped’ some of his hero’s most important ideas.

By the time Wagner had begun writing the prose draft for Tristan und Isolde (August 1857) he had already read (more like chewed) The World as Will and Representation four times in less than a year (October 1854 – around August of 1855) according to Wagner himself (Brener, 2014). It would seem as though Wagner should have a rather strong grasp on this material; and in some ways, it seems to me as though this is certainly the case. Firstly and most importantly, we have the legendary Wagnerian chords that the opera is most famous for: the ‘Tristan’ chords. Wagner is rather famous for employing a musical trick known as the augmentation and diminution of chords, and he employs this trick within many of his operas, but in Tristan they happen to serve the theme of the opera as well as reflect a Schopenhauerian notion. Basically, the augmenting and diminishing of triads (triads being the most basic chords which consist of three-notes; the musical equivalent of a primary colour) change the way the triads make us feel. They become unsettling and unstable – and in the case of Tristan – provide a sense of yearning or perhaps striving, which is very consistent with the suffering associated with the striving of the will-to-live. Specifically, the ‘Tristan chord’ is a diminished chord, because the middle note of the triad has become squashed – it has become a diminished (or flattened) fifth and it is desperately striving, not unlike the will-to-live, to resolve itself and its chord and become a perfect fifth: neither augmented nor diminished (Goodall, 2013). This is a very Schopenhauerian notion, especially so considering the near-suffering-like quality the chord has on the listener. Musicologist and composer Howard Goodall (2013) describes the musical themes in Tristan and Isolde as “yearning” – again, appropriate, considering both the influence from Schopenhauer and the subject matter of unrequited love. There are many other consistencies but it seems to me as though the influence of Schopenhauer is best exemplified through the music when considering Tristan and Isolde.

However, in the consideration of both the Schopenhauerian influence and the subject matter of the story, certain inconsistencies begin to arise. For one, and this is certainly a big one, Schopenhauer would have had issues regarding the obsession of love evident in both Tristan and Isolde. If they were truly Schopenhauerian, they would have exemplified a denial of the will-to-live and its desires rather than an affirmation of the will, as Milton Brener states:

“…the yearning of the lovers for unity with each other and continuation of their romantic and sexual love through death is contradictory to the philosopher’s ideas.” (Brener, 2014).

Another inconsistency lies with the last bit of Tristan, as Tristan lay dying and psycho-analyzed, he exclaims his happiness with life and wants to be with Isolde; specifically Tristan becomes ‘thrilled by the light’, which is rather inconsistent with Schopenhauer. Throughout the opera, the metaphors of light and darkness represent the Schopenhauerian notions of the worlds of the phenomenal and the noumenal. Up until this point, the world of darkness, the noumenal (will) realm, was the only realm the lovers could be as one – just as we are all ‘one’ as manifestations of the will-to-live. Just prior to his death and Isolde’s arrival, however, Tristan admits of his optimism and anticipation for his life with Isolde and their love together. The hero, Tristan, seemingly cures himself of his Schopenhauerian tendencies through his rather Freudian form of talk therapy or psychoanalysis: most unSchopenhauerian. It is clear that Wagner himself may not have had as comprehensive a grasp on Schopenhauer’s philosophy as he thought.

While the colossus of 19th century music himself, Richard Wagner, claims an immense amount of influence from Arthur Schopenhauer, it seems as though his grasp on the subject matter was not as thorough as it could have been. While Tristan and Isolde undoubtedly shows great influence in terms of its music, which even by today’s standards is shockingly unique, the actual story certainly misses a few important Schopenhauerian stipulations. Regardless, it is clear why someone like Wagner would have been attracted to, and would want to appropriate, the philosophy of Schopenhauer as he did, considering the immense ontological, intellectual and emotional significance placed upon art and aesthetic contemplation. Art and more specifically music are virtually the only things that make existence even remotely bearable and are essentially the ultimate human function according to Schopenhauer – there may be no other philosopher that stresses the importance of aesthetics to a greater extent. Each century has its own hall of historical figures that consists of people deemed as ‘geniuses’ or ‘renaissance men’ or something of the like. The 19th century certainly provided us with an interesting new interpretation of genius on the part of Schopenhauer and arguably even more interesting living examples of that genius. But should Wagner be considered a Schopenhauerian genius in any respect? I would say no. His biography is not particularly paralleled with that of a quintessential Schopenhauerian genius – say, Van Gogh. In a number of respects, one cannot help but be led to believe that Wagner did not fully grasp the ideas of his idol despite reading the World as Will and Representation four times before his first mature opera.



Works Cited

Brener, Milton E. “Cosima’s Diaries.” Wagner and Schopenhauer A Closer Look. Xlibris, 2014. 50. Print.

Brener, Milton E. “Tristan and Isolde.” Wagner and Schopenhauer A Closer Look. Xlibris, 2014. 54. Print.

Brener, Milton E. “Tristan and Isolde.” Wagner and Schopenhauer A Closer Look. Xlibris, 2014. 53. Print.

Goodall, Howard. “The Age of Tragedy, 1850-1890.” The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles : How Music Has Shaped Civilization. Vintage Digital, 2013. 185. Print.

Goodall, Howard. “The Age of Tragedy, 1850-1890.” The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles : How Music Has Shaped Civilization. 186. Print.

Singh, R. Raj. “Aesthetics and the Arts.” Schopenhauer a Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2010. 74. Print.


Singh, R. Raj. “Aesthetics and the Arts.” Schopenhauer a Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2010. 56-74. Print.

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