|Richard and Siegfried Wagner - father & son - outside the laundromat in High St, Northcote. Looking anything but awkward with one another in this photo, though there's plenty of dirt in this family history.|
Difficult father-son relationships abound in literature.
The basis of Paul Morel’s troubled relationship with his father Walter in D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is Walter’s abhorrent behaviour: he is coarse, hard-drinking and abusive. Understandably, Paul harbours contempt for him. Yet, Walter is also affable and in places reveals a gentle side. When Paul is laid up with an attack of bronchitis, Walter checks in on him nightly in spite of Paul’s apparent unease and rejection:
On retiring to bed, the father would come into the sickroom. He was always very gentle if anyone were ill. But he disturbed the atmosphere for the boy.Walter’s straightforward concern and tender enquiry after his son is touching. While I empathise with Paul’s antagonism, I can’t help but find Walter sympathetic.
‘Are ter asleep, my darlin’?’ Morel asked softly.
‘No; is my mother comin’?’
‘She’s just finishin’ foldin’ the clothes. Do you want anything?’ Morel rarely ‘thee’d’ his son.
‘I don’t want nothing. But how long will she be?’
‘Not long, my duckie.’
The father waited undecidedly on the hearthrug for a moment or two. He felt his son did not want him…
He loitered about indefinitely. The boy began to get feverish with irritation. His father’s presence seemed to aggravate all his sick impatience. At last Morel, after having stood looking at his son awhile, said softly:
‘Good-night, my darling.’
‘Good-night,’ Paul replied, turning round in relief to be alone. (Chapter IV)
In contrast, it is hard to have any sympathy for David Waring in Forrest Reid’s novel Following Darkness. The fraught relationship he has with his son Peter can be attributed to the distinct temperaments of father and son. Oblivious to Peter’s nature and his metaphysical concerns, David’s clueless parenting is instead driven by an anxiety over his son’s religious and moral life. Uneasy in his father’s presence in general, Peter is especially uncomfortable with his father’s puritanical views:
It was quite impossible for him to make me religious. For one thing, it was not in my nature. It was not so much that I disbelieved what I was taught of religion, as that these instructions aroused in me an implacable antagonism. I did not like the notion of an all-seeing God, for instance. Imperfectly grasped, this conception represented to my mind a kind of tyranny, a kind of espionage, which I strongly resented.Peter’s inherent inexorability and resentment at a controlling scrutiny impels him to distance himself from his father’s influence towards a personal freedom and authenticity:
Very quickly I became more emancipated as I began to think things out for myself…
The practical ethics of religion, that I should simply be good and encourage in myself a variety of Christian virtues – that kind of thing did not interest me in the least. As a matter of fact, I possessed singularly few of these virtues. It is true that I detested any kind of meanness or cruelty, that I was truthful, straightforward, and, in certain directions, loving and gentle enough; but I was egotistical, proud, and ludicrously self-conscious, quick tempered, flying into violent passions for very little, and, above all, I had a stubbornness nothing could move. (Chapter II)Perhaps in part because Reid was only interested in depicting boyhood and adolescence and not maturity and also because Reid understands that sometimes there’s just no fixing painfully awkward relationships, father and son ultimately remain estranged in his novel.
Thanks to a simple but fundamental agreement on religion (and a shared taste for VB), my own awkward relationship with my father has been spared total rupture. My father says there are two types of people in this world: those who believe in religion and smart people. We’re in complete agreement here. No doubt he would also be more sympathetic towards Walter Morel than to David Waring.
Where we part ways, however, is in our taste in music. My father has no time for vocal contortionists. To prevent any further uneasiness between us, I won’t reveal to him my recent interest in opera – or music drama more accurately, and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde specifically. I’m new to this type of music. Peter Waring’s response to his first opera and preference for the work of Wagner best describes my own:
I had become lost in this appealing melodrama…[the] music had an almost hypnotic effect upon me, for I had never heard it till now…It was all utterly new to me; it thrilled me…
I went to the opera every night that week…and save in the case of “Tannhäuser,” and of “Lohengrin,” I was disappointed. (Chapters XXIV & XXV).Opera, it seems, is also replete with awkward father-son relationships. Apparently, there is a ceaseless recurrence of father-son conflicts in Wagner’s work (to look forward to). For the moment, I can only comment on Tristan und Isolde. In Act II, Scene III, King Marke discovers that his wife Isolde and his nephew Tristan have become lovers. The breach in the father/son-like relationship between Marke and Tristan is bitter. Unaware of the true cause of Tristan and Isolde’s all consuming love (the pair have accidentally drunk from the same love potion) Marke is bewildered by their betrayal. At the end of his reproach, Marke asks Tristan to account for his deceit:
Die kein Elend sühnt,
warum mir diese Schmach?
furchtbar tief geheimnißvollen Grund,
wer macht der Welt ihn kund?
Why this dishonour
for which no misery can atone?
Who will make known to the world
the inscrutable, deep,
The University of Texas notes and the The Met Opera notes are helpful here: “The first three measures of Tristan und Isolde presents one of the most famous openings in all of opera and contains the most talked about chord in all of music, a chord rich in content and at the same time ambiguous…[The chord] is actually two motifs. The first one, played by the cellos in the upper register, is known as the “Sorrow” or “Grief” [or “Longing”] motif:
Its continuation is played by the oboes, doubled by the English horn and supported harmonically by two clarinets and two bassoons. …This second motif is called “Desire”...The so-called “Tristan chord”, at the beginning of the second measure is a dissonant harmonic cluster, plunging the listener into an unstable, neurotic world…”
I came to Wagner’s opera indirectly after reading Gottfried von Strassburg’s compelling version of the story of Tristan and Isolde on which Wagner’s work itself is largely based. As a newcomer to this genre, I’m glad I followed the advice of Matthew Boyden in The Rough Guide to Opera and started with the 1973 Böhm/Jourdan Theatre Antique d'Orange production featuring John Vickers as Tristan and Birgit Nilsson as Isolde. Despite the lo-fi sound quality and the unsteady camera work, it’s an unforgettable experience. The amazing setting of the ancient Roman theatre, together with Vickers’ emotionally anguished interpretation of Tristan and Nilsson’s “steam whistle soprano” make up for the technical flaws.
This clip from Act II, Scene III at the end of King Marke’s reproach begins with the Tristan Chord. Tristan’s conflicting loyalty and overwhelming guilt eventually gives way to his death wish. Isolde agrees to follow him. What began at the opening of Act II as a lovers’ tryst ends with the pledge of a death tryst – the Liebestod which occurs at the end of the opera.
Wagner's music and Vickers’ performance floor me every time:
I’ve also got the 1983 Barenboim/Ponnelle Bayreuth and the 2007 Bělohlávek/Lehnhoff Glyndebourne productions to watch as well as the 1966 Böhm, 1952 Furtwängler and the 1972 von Karajan recordings I’m listening to. So it may be some time before I move on to Wagner’s other work. (But probably not as long as it would take me to get tickets to see a performance at Bayreuth – waiting time is between 5 and 10 years.)