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Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde

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A tale of forbidden love and inevitable death, the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde recounts the story of two lovers unknowingly drinking a magic potion and ultimately dying in one another's arms. While critics have lauded Wagner's Tristan and Isolde for the originality and subtlety of the music, they have denounced the drama as a "mere trifle"—a rendering of Wagner's forbidden love for Matilde Wesendonck, the wife of a banker who supported him during his exile in Switzerland.

Death-Devoted Heart explodes this established interpretation, proving the drama to be more than just a sublimation of the composer's love for Wesendonck or a wistful romantic dream. Scruton boldly attests that Tristan and Isolde has profound religious meaning and remains as relevant today as it was to Wagner's contemporaries. He also offers keen insight into the nature of erotic love, the sacred qualities of human passion, and the peculiar place of the erotic in our culture. His argument touches on the nature of tragedy, the significance of ritual sacrifice, and the meaning of redemption, providing a fresh interpretation of Wagner's masterpiece. Roger Scruton has written an original and provocative account of Wagner's music drama, which blends philosophy, criticism, and musicology in order to show the work's importance in the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For those who wish to wrestle with religious and philosophical interpretations, Scruton provides ample grist and excellent analysis of the story and music."- The Opera Journal

"This is possibly the best book ever written about Tristan und Isolde from the dramatic as well as the musical point of view. Scruton does not leave a historical stone unturned without dusting and exposing it to the sunlight of his extraordinary power of synthesis. And his musical analysis is phenomenal. Even if you do not read music it has plenty to grab your attention. I would buy it just for the chapter on chivalry and courtly love, for instance, in which Scruton's clairy of narration and research put many other writers to shame.... A book the reader does not want to put down."—Eduardo Benarroch

"A wide-ranging analysis of Richard Wagner's influential tribute to romantic love, by a noted philosopher and social critic.... Scruton's status as an unusually accomplished polymath is apparent throughout Death-Devoted Heart, as he moves easily from topic to topic, discussing such figures as Geoffrey Chaucer, Arthur Schopenhauer, Plato, Chretien de Troyes, and Claude Levi-Strauss with equal aplomb." — Magill's Literary Annual 2005

"Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart is an elegant, erudite exploration attempting to make the operagoer 'get' this piece and, by extension, Wagner's intent in all of his Gesamtkunstwerk ventures. Scruton shows us that traditional dismissals of Tristan's brief plot as Wagner's self-therapy in the wake of a frustrated love affair miss the point...Scruton is more interested in our understanding the philosophical substrate...devoting chapters to Wagner's conceptions of love, sacrifice and redemption, and ritual."—Books & Culture

"Scruton has prepared his brief with care. Medieval chivalric romance, Kantian ethics, anthropological mythography, and musicological close-work propel his sinuous but lucid argument...Death-Devoted Heart is a breathtaking book."—First Things

"If you're going to disagree with Nietzsche, Plato and Schopenhauer, you'd best have your own house in order. Roger Scruton certainly does."—Opera News

"Fascinating book, conveying his ideas so effectively he almost makes us hear the music...Scruton is full of engaging subtleties...written with his customary clarity and concision."—The Sunday Telegraph

"Impressive new book...this distinguished, characteristically contentious book sets a standard of Wagnerian commentary which it would be a great relief to see other writers attempting to follow."—The Spectator

"Roger Scruton's book is a deep and daunting study of the most important single composition in Western music, Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde...Scruton's examination is highly original and delves into aspects which have seldom been explored so rigorously."—The Independent

"Scruton's new book, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," connects the opera in an informative way with sex and religion and shows how many primitive religions associate sex with God. Scruton also examines the drama in this opera in interesting ways and notes how Wagner wanted the medieval setting of this opera to be taken very seriously." The Opera Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195166910
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/18/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Lexile: 1440L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Scruton is a well-known writer, philosopher, journalist, and a former professor of philosophy. He has written more than thirty books on aesthetics, culture, and politics.

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Table of Contents

1 Wagner and Religion 3
2 The Story of Tristan 15
3 Wagner's Treatment of the Story 35
4 The Music of Tristan 75
5 The Philosophy of Love 119
6 Tragedy and Sacrifice 161
7 Love, Death, and Redemption 177
Epilogue: From Romance to Ritual 195
App Table of Motives 199
Notes 209
Selected Bibliography 225
Index 233
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