Friday, 5 December 2014

Le vin herbé Frank Martin's anti Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Wagner Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House Friday, and the re-release  of the 1960 recording of Frank Martin's Le vin herbé: a good time to consider Martin's oratorio profane as an alternative to the extremes of Wagnerian excess.  Martin, a Swiss national, could hardly have been unaware of what was happening in Germany, and of the Nazi appropriation of Wagner. Le vin herbé represents a completely different antithesis to the Tristan und Isolde cult and to the aesthetic of Third Reich Bayreuth.

Martin had been reading Le roman de Tristan et Iseult, a 1900 romance by French medievalist Joseph Bédier.who based his work on early French sources of the legend, striving to "eradicate inconsistencies, anachronisms, false embellishments,and never to mix our modern conceptions with ancient forms of thought and feeling". By "modern", Bédier meant 1900, when Bayreuth's version dominated public taste. Martin's Le vin herbé is restrained, the very simplicity of its form connecting to the aesthetic of the Middle Ages.
Martin doesn't write pastiche medievalism though.  Le vin herbé is scored for chamber choir and orchestra, so the palette is clean and pure, "modern" in the sense that Martin was writing in the late 1930's, when many French and German composers used medieval subjects as metaphors for modern times. Martin  used dodecaphony to open up and refine tonality, and add subtle lustre and mystery.  The role of the choir is important. Just as in a Greek Chorus, the choir comments on events, creating distance from the frenzied fevers of the  herbal concoction which Tristan and Iseult imbibe. In a departure from medieval form, the choir sings in unison, not polyphony, so the words they sing are part of the drama rather than decoration for decoration's sake. Soloists sometimes sing alone, sometimes with the chorus, and chorus members sing solo parts. It's as if the voices emerge and retraet into background tapestry.

There are only eight instruments in the orchestra, all strings with contrabass and piano. Just as the voices emerge from the choir, solo instruments emerge from the opera at critical  moments -the contrabass and celli reinforcing  Tristan's part. The cantilenas for solo violin are exquisite, operating as an ethereal extra voice, commenting without words. The piano provides a measured counter to the fervent, passionate heartbeat when the strings surge in unison, marking the moment when Iseult and Tristan drink the potion and fall in love. Martin was working on Le Philtre before he even received a commission for the full work.

Tristan and Iseult are joined together in a drugged state, beautiful but ultimately fatal. They run off to live in the forest of Morois,where King Marke find them but spares them. Tristan escapes and after three years in a foreign land marries the evil Iseult of the White Hands. He's injured in battle  by a poison-tipped lance. Now the piano tolls like a bell, and the violin melody soars as if it were stretching across the seas in search of Iseult, mounting frenzy in the orchestra and chorus, and Iseult bursts in with a wild "Hélas ! chétive, hélas !",  the strings swirling around her turbulently.  Tristan is dead but Iseult lies down by Tristan "body to body, mouth to mouth".  We don't get a Mild und Liese, but there's some mighty fine writing for the orchestra and other voices. In an Epilogue,the choir sets out the moral of the story,  perhaps when the effects of the drug wear off, Tristan and Iseult find the true meaning of love. "Puissant-ils trouver ici consolation contre l'inconstance,  contre l'injustice, contre le dépit,  contre le pein, contre tous les maux d'amour"

Le vin Herbé is very different from Martin's larger scale works like Golgotha and Der Sturm, but it is an insight into an important but neglected period in music history. Understand Le vin herbé and you get a key into Poulenc, Honegger, Hartmann, Orff, and Braunfels.  It also connects to the literature and visual arts, including film, of the time. I discovered Frank Martin by sheer accident, hearing Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1942/3) another "medieval" piece with a modern twist.  Please read my other posts on Wagner Tristan und Isolde,  especially "More tradition than meets the eye" and THIS about the Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House. There's much more to the opera than fake medieval costumes.Think about characterization, and the characters as human beings in a dramatic setting.

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