A Book of Operas: Their Histories, Their Plots, and Their Music Part 11

Kurwenal dashes in with a sword and a shout: "Save thyself, Tristan!" the king, Melot, and courtiers at his heels. Day, symbol of all that is fatal to their love, has dawned. Tristan is silent, though Marke bewails the treachery of his nephew and his friend.

From the words of the heart-torn king we learn that he had been forced into the marriage with Isolde by the disturbed state of his kingdom, and had not consented to it until Tristan, whose purpose it was thus to quiet the jealous anger of the barons, had threatened to depart from Cornwall unless the king revoked his purpose to make him his successor, and took unto himself a wife. Tristan's answer to the sorrowful upbraidings of his royal uncle is to obtain a promise from Isolde to follow him into the "wondrous realm of night." Then, seeing that Marke does not wield the sword of retribution, he makes a feint of attacking Melot, but permits the treacherous knight to reach him with his sword. He falls wounded unto death.

The last act has been reached. The dignified, reserved knight of the first act, the impa.s.sioned lover of the second, is now a dream-haunted, longing, despairing, dying man, lying under a lime tree in the yard of his ancestral castle in Brittany, wasting his last bit of strength in feverish fancies and ardent yearnings touching Isolde. Kurwenal has sent for her. Will she come? A shepherd tells of vain watches for the sight of a sail by playing a mournful melody on his pipe:--

[Musical excerpt]

Oh, the heart-hunger of the hero! The longing! Will she never come?

The fever is consuming him, and his heated brain breeds fancies which one moment lift him above all memories of pain and the next bring him to the verge of madness. Cooling breezes waft him again toward Ireland, whose princess healed the wound struck by Morold, then ripped it up again with the avenging sword with its telltale nick. From her hands he took the drink whose poison sears his heart.

Accursed the cup and accursed the hand that brewed it! Will the shepherd never change his doleful strain? Ah, Isolde, how beautiful you are! The ship, the ship! It must be in sight. Kurwenal, have you no eyes? Isolde's ship! A merry tune bursts from the shepherd's pipe:--

[Musical excerpt]

It is the ship! What flag flies at the peak? The flag of "All's well!" Now the ship disappears behind a cliff. There the breakers are treacherous. Who is at the helm? Friend or foe? Melot's accomplice? Are you, too, a traitor, Kurwenal? Tristan's strength is unequal to the excitement of the moment. His mind becomes dazed. He hears Isolde's voice, and his wandering fancy transforms it into the torch whose extinction once summoned him to her side: "Do I hear the light?" He staggers to his feet and tears the bandages from his wound. "Ha! my blood! flow merrily now! She who opened the wound is here to heal it!" Life endures but for one embrace, one glance, one word: "Isolde!" While Isolde lies mortally stricken upon Tristan's corpse, Marke and his train arrive upon a second ship. Brangane has told the secret of the love-draught, and the king has come to unite the lovers. But his purpose is not known, and faithful Kurwenal receives his death-blow while trying to hold the castle against Marke's men. He dies at Tristan's side. Isolde, unconscious of all these happenings, sings out her broken heart, and expires.

And ere her ear might hear, her heart had heard, Nor sought she sign for witness of the word; But came and stood above him, newly dead, And felt his death upon her: and her head Bowed, as to reach the spring that slakes all drouth; And their four lips became one silent mouth. {2}


{1} "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama," by H. E. Krehbiel.

{2} Swinburne, "Tristram of Lyonesse."



A lad, hotfoot in pursuit of a wild swan which one of his arrows has pierced, finds himself in a forest glade on the side of a mountain.

There he meets a body of knights and esquires in attendance on a king who is suffering from a wound. The knights are a body of men whose mission it is to succor suffering innocence wherever they may find it. They dwell in a magnificent castle on the summit of the mountain, within whose walls they a.s.semble every day to contemplate and adore a miraculous vessel from which they obtain both physical and spiritual sustenance. In order to enjoy the benefits which flow from this talisman, they are required to preserve their bodies in ascetic purity. Their king has fallen from this estate and been grievously wounded in an encounter with a magician, who, having failed in his ambition to enter the order of knighthood, had built a castle over against that of the king, where, by practice of the black art and with the help of sirens and a sorceress, he seeks the ruin of the pure and celestial soldiery. In his hands is a lance which once belonged to the knights, but which he had wrested from their king and with which he had given the dolorous stroke from which the king is suffering.

The healing of the king can be wrought only by a touch of the lance which struck the wound; and this lance can be regained only by one able to withstand the sensual temptations with which the evil-minded sorcerer has surrounded himself in his magical castle. An oracle, that had spoken from a vision, which one day shone about the talisman, had said that this deliverer fool, an innocent simpleton, pity had made knowing:--

[Musical excerpt--"Durch mitleid wissend, der reine Thor, harre sein'

den ich erkor." THE ORACLE]

For this hero king and knights are waiting and longing, since neither lotions nor baths nor ointments can bring relief, though they be of the rarest potency and brought from all the ends of the earth. The lad who thus finds himself in this worshipful but woful company is himself of n.o.ble and knightly lineage. This we learn from the recital of his history, but also from the bright, incisive, militant, chivalresque music a.s.sociated with him:--

[Musical excerpt--THE SYMBOL OF PARSIFAL]

But he has been reared in a wilderness, far from courts and the inst.i.tutions of chivalry and in ignorance of the world lying beyond his forest boundaries. His father died before he was born, and his mother withheld from him all knowledge of knighthood, hoping thus to keep him for herself. One day, however, he saw a cavalcade of hors.e.m.e.n in brilliant trappings. The spectacle stirred the chivalric spirit slumbering within him; he deserted his mother, followed after the knights, and set out in quest of adventure. The mother died:--


In the domain whither his quarry had led the lad, all animals were held sacred. A knight (Gurnemanz) rebukes him for his misdeed in shooting the swan, and rue leads him to break his bow and arrows.

From a strange creature (Kundry),--

[Musical excerpt--THE PENITENT KUNDRY]

in the service of the knights, he learns of the death of his mother, who had perished for love of him and grief over his desertion. He is questioned about himself, but is singularly ignorant of everything, even of his own name. Hoping that the lad may prove to be the guileless fool to whom knowledge was to come through pity, the knight escorts him to the temple, which is the sanctuary of the talisman whose adoration is the daily occupation of the brotherhood.

They walk out of the forest and find themselves in a rocky defile of the mountain. A natural gateway opens in the face of a cliff, through which they pa.s.s, and are lost to sight for a s.p.a.ce. Then they are seen ascending a sloping pa.s.sage, and little by little the rocks lose their ruggedness and begin to take on rude architectural contours. They are walking to music which, while merely suggesting their progress and the changing natural scene in the main, ever and anon breaks into an expression of the most poignant and lacerating suffering and lamentation:--


Soon the pealing of bells is heard:--

[Musical excerpt]

and the tones blend synchronously and harmonously with the music of their march:--


At last they arrive in a mighty Byzantine hail, which loses itself upward in a lofty, vaulted dome, from which light streams downward and illumines the interior. Under the dome, within a colonnade, are two tables, each a segment of a circle. Into the hall there come in procession knights wearing red mantles on which the image of a white dove is embroidered. They chant a pious hymn as they take their places at the refectory tables:--

[Musical excerpt--"Zum letzten Liebesmahle Gerustet Tag fur Tag."


The king, whom the lad had seen in the glade, is borne in on a litter, before him a veiled shrine containing the mystical cup which is the object of the ceremonious worship. It is the duty of the king to unveil the talisman and hold it up to the adoration of the knights. He is conveyed to a raised couch and the shrine is placed before him. His sufferings of mind and body are so poignant that he would liever die than perform his office; but the voice of his father (t.i.turel), who had built the sanctuary, established the order of knighthood, and now lives on in his grave sustained by the sight of the talisman, admonishes the king of his duty. At length he consents to perform the function imposed upon him by his office. He raises himself painfully upon his couch. The attendants remove the covering from the shrine and disclose an antique crystal vessel which they reverently place before the lamentable king. Boys' voices come wafted down from the highest height of the dome, singing a formula of consecration: "Take ye my body, take my blood in token of our love":--

[Musical excerpt--THE LOVE-FEAST FORMULA]

A dazzling ray of light flashes down from above and falls into the cup, which now glows with a reddish purple l.u.s.tre and sheds a soft radiance around. The knights have sunk upon their knees. The king lifts the luminous chalice, moves it gently from side to side, and thus blesses the bread and wine provided for the refection of the knights. Meanwhile, celestial voices proclaim the words of the oracle to musical strains that are pregnant with mysterious suggestion.

Another choir st.u.r.dily, firmly, ecstatically hymns the power of faith:--

[Musical excerpt--THE SYMBOL OF FAITH]

and, at the end, an impressive antiphon, starting with the knights, ascends higher and higher, and, calling in gradually the voices of invisible singers in the middle height, becomes metamorphosed into an angelic canticle as it takes its flight to the summit. It is the voice of aspiration, the musical symbol of the talisman which directs the thoughts and desires of its worshippers ever upward:--


The lad disappoints his guide. He understands nothing of the solemn happenings which he has witnessed, nor does he ask their meaning, though his own heart had been lacerated with pain at sight of the king's sufferings. He is driven from the sanctuary with contumely.

He wanders forth in quest of further adventures and enters the magical garden surrounding the castle of the sorcerer. A number of knights who are sent against him he puts to rout. Now the magician summons lovely women, clad in the habiliments of flowers, to seduce him with their charms:--


They sing and play about him with winsome wheedlings and cajoleries, with insinuating blandishments and dainty flatteries, with pretty petulancies and delectable quarrellings:--

[Musical excerpt--"Komm, Komm, holder Knabe," THE SEDUCTIVE SONG OF THE FLOWER MAIDENS]

But they fail of their purpose, as does also an unwilling siren whom the magician invokes with powerful conjurations. It is Kundry, who is half Magdalen, half wicked sorceress, a messenger in the service of the pious knights, and as such hideous of aspect; a tool in the hands of the magician, and as such supernaturally beautiful. It was to her charms that the suffering king had yielded. To win the youth she tells him the story of his mother's death and gives to him her last message and--a kiss! At the touch of her impure lips a flood of pa.s.sion, hitherto unfelt, pours through the veins of the lad, and in its surge comes understanding of the suffering and woe which he had witnessed in the castle on the mountain. Also a sense of his own remissness. Compa.s.sionate pity brings enlightenment; and he thrusts back the woman who is seeking to destroy him. Finding that the wiles of his tool have availed him naught, the wicked magician himself appears to give battle, for he, too, knows the oracle and fears the coming of the king's deliverer and the loss of the weapon which he hopes will yet enable him to achieve the mystical talisman. He hurls the lance at the youth, but it remains suspended in midair. The lad seizes it, makes the sign of the cross, speaks some words of exorcism, and garden, castle, damsels--all the works of enchantment disappear.

Now the young hero is conscious of a mission. He must find again the abode of the knights and their ailing king, and bring to them surcease of suffering. After long and grievous wanderings he is again directed to the castle. Grief and despair have overwhelmed the knights, whose king, unable longer to endure the torture in which he has lived, has definitively refused to perform his holy office. In consequence, his father, no longer the recipient of supernatural sustenance, has died, and the king longs to follow him. The hero touches the wound in the side of the king with the sacred spear, ends his dolors, and is hailed as king in his place. The temptress, who has followed him as a penitent, freed from a curse which had rested upon her for ages, goes to a blissful and eternal rest.

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