Oh my God: how could I have forgotten the “Liebestod”?

Today, I was toodling around doing my errands, stocking up on tonic water for the long weekend, that kind of thing, and my iPod chose John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Very fun piece, and thrilling, and I was driving along, trying to remind myself to go pick up the laundry too, and then I began to imagine some kind of video to go with the music: a short ride starting at Battery Park in Manhattan and proceding across the continent, zooming across the plains and through the Grand Canyon, ending with a swoop up the side of the Rockies and an abrupt fall down the hills of San Francisco to a sudden stop at the Pacific Ocean. Could be a lot fun for someone with imagination and enough computing power. One of you needs to get on that.

Anyway, I was thinking about computer-generated videos for classical music, and I happened to recall early attempts at this kind of thing, back in the 80s, including one for Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde that seemed fairly accomplished at the time. (The author of that particular video seems to be Ron Hays, from a quick Google search.)

I found myself wondering whether in fact that video would appear as accomplished now. (It’s not online, alas.) What would be possible with today’s technology that could match that soaring, gorgeous sound?

That’s when it dawned on me that I did not in fact own the “Liebestod.” Wagner is a difficult proposition from any angle: either you hate him or love him (“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” smirked Mark Twain), and even if you love him, you either own whole days’ worth of his music or Top 10 compilations.

Thus it happened that I owned Solti conducting his way through the hummable bits of the Ring Cycle, but nothing from Wagner’s other works. Not a problem: that’s what iTunes is for, ne-c’est pas? After twenty minutes deliberation, I downloaded Daniel Barenboim and some French orchestra playing bits from Meistersinger and Parsifal and finally Tristan und Isolde.

I’ve been playing it all evening, this “Liebestod,” and I have to tell you that it’s one of those pieces you should not play while driving, because you risk running into something when your eyes roll back in your head.

Wagner was a damnable man, personally vile in the extreme, but heavens, what music! A simple motif expands, growing ever and ever more passionate until it effloresces into literal waves of sound, which crash against your ears again and again and again, and just when you think the music cannot take you any higher, it does, in a climax that is, not to put it too delicately, orgasmic.

You don’t even have to know the plot of the opera: Tristan goes to pick up King Mark’s new bride, Isolde. Abetted by a servant’s love potion, they fall in love on the boatride back, but she goes through with the marriage. Alas, they cannot keep their hands off each other, and he is wounded by one of Mark’s minions. Isolde stands over his body and sings this music, willing herself out of this mortal life and into a whole other, higher plane. (“Liebestod” means “Love-Death.”)

There is of course, in one irony, a new movie opening this weekend with a modified version of this story, but somehow I doubt that it’s going to end quite so transcendently.

The other irony of this post is that Birgitt Nilsson, the great Wagnerian soprano, died over Christmas; her death was announced yesterday in the Times. I also downloaded her performance of this from the 1966 Deutsche Grammophon recording, just out of curiosity; I am not one of those who own days’ worth of Wagner’s music. People, even if you don’t like opera, this piece will leave you goggle-eyed and weeping. There is an irrational ferocity in the accompaniment that Nilsson just soars above as if it were nothing, as was her wont, apparently, and when she hits that climax, she threatens to drag you into that higher plane of existence with her. Sumptuous stuff, just sumptuous.

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