Tuesday Funnies

The New Yorker
Does this jumpsuit make me look naked?
The New Yorker
OK, before we begin, is everyone recording?
The New Yorker
Beautiful. It would look terrific in the situation room.
The New Yorker
Unfortunately, a tiny percentage of the drones are opposed to violence.
The New Yorker
Yes, the President has requested his Space Force jammies this evening.
The New Yorker

Rach 3

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

For decades, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (‘Rach 3’) has been burdened, along with the second concertos of Prokofiev and Bartók, as part of a triumvirate of ‘most difficult’ among canonic 20th century concertos. It’s also one of the most electrifying. Listening to it, we are more prone to be awestruck by the pianist’s technical skill than moved by either the depth of interpretation or a strikingly individual conception.

In this work, Rachmaninoff aspired to be worthy of the 19th century virtuoso tradition in every respect. The last of the great Romantic pianist-composers in the lineage of Chopin, Liszt and Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff also wanted, it seems, to emulate the synthesis between concerto and symphony achieved in the two piano concertos of Brahms.

Until 1996, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto was largely eclipsed by its older sibling, the famous Piano Concerto No. 2 – but the gap between the two narrowed with the release of the film Shine. The movie told the story of the Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his career for many years. ‘Rach 3’ is used powerfully on the soundtrack and the Oscar-winning success of the film ensured a new audience for this muscular, Romantic work.

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in 1909 – a full nine years after the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2. The third is grander, fuller, and more expansive in tone and style – with the soloist stretched to the very limits of their ability. The soloist whom Rachmaninoff intended to premiere the piece was his friend Josef Hofmann; curiously, though, Hofmann never actually performed it, apparently declaring that the work was not right for him.

Few musicians have successfully followed two musical disciplines with equal success but Rachmaninoff managed three: composer, conductor and pianist. The music came from his father, its nurture from his mother. Grandfather had been a good amateur pianist and a pupil of John Field; Rachmaninoff’s aristocratic father Vassili was also a good pianist. Like many land-owning families at the time, times were hard in the 1870s and, when Rachmaninoff was nine, the estate was sold, his parents separated, and he went with his mother and five siblings to live in St Petersburg. As an aristocrat, music would have been closed to him as a profession. Now, without property or income, he was free to embark seriously on the study of music, for he had clearly inherited the family talent for the piano.

After a couple of years at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Rachmaninoff entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1885 on the advice of his cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti. Under the strict regime of Zverev, Rachmaninoff quickly developed into a formidable player. He studied composition with Taneyev and Arensky, Tchaikovsky took an interest in the young man’s work and by the age of 19 he had written his First Piano Concerto and the group of Five Pieces, Op 3 (dedicated to Arensky) which include the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor, one of the most popular of all piano compositions. He found a publisher, his one-act opera Aleko made a considerable impression at its premiere in 1893 and he won the Great Gold Medal for the piano when he graduated – altogether an impressive start to a career.

Then came a profound setback. For two years he worked on the composition of his First Symphony. The premiere was a disaster: the music was derided by the critics and the performance a fiasco, poorly conducted by a drunken Glazunov. This humiliation prompted a period of severe self-doubt and depression. His confidence was boosted by an invitation to appear in London as conductor, composer and soloist (his tone-poem The Rock was given, and the by now inevitable C sharp minor Prelude), but when he returned to Moscow and tried to complete a Second Piano Concerto, his depression returned. Rachmaninoff went to consult a psychologist, Dr Dahl, and after a course of hypnosis, during which Dahl insisted that Rachmaninov would ‘start writing, and the work will be excellent’, the composer indeed was able to complete the Second Piano Concerto. It has become one of the most popular of the genre.

Rachmaninov married his cousin Natalie Satina in 1902. For the next few years he managed to conduct at the Bolshoi (1904-06), compose (if not prolifically) and appear as a soloist.

In October 1906, Rachmaninoff moved with his wife and daughter from Moscow to Dresden. He was the successful composer of two piano concertos, three operas, chamber music, works for solo piano, and several dozen important songs. He was an admired conductor and recognized as one of the great pianists of his — and any — time. Like all composers who have consuming careers as performers, Rachmaninoff found himself longing for time just to compose. The move to Dresden was an attempt to take himself out of circulation, and he chose the beautiful Saxon capital because he and his wife had become fond of it on their honeymoon four years earlier. Offers to play and conduct kept coming in and were by no means all to be denied.

Rachmaninoff decided to accept an invitation to visit the United States. He accepted the offer only after some hesitation, and then only because he hoped that the fees he was promised would allow him to realize his dream of buying an automobile. The composer never dreamt at the time that he would eventually make his home in the US and he would eventually die there. For that tour he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3. He made his American debut at a recital at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1909, went to Philadelphia to conduct the first performance in US of the Second Symphony, and on November 28, he introduced his new concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Soon after, he played it again with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, another conductor struggling for time to compose. Rachmaninoff’s very large hands certainly came in useful when performing this, the most technically challenging of all his four piano concertos.

Rachmaninoff on Gustav Mahler, who led the second performance of the Third Piano Concerto:

Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with [Arthur] Nikisch [the most celebrated conductor of the time]. He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.

His fame and the success of this visit led to his being offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He turned it down (the offer was repeated in 1918 and again declined). Then it was back to Moscow.

From 1910 to 1917 he remained there, conducting the Moscow Philharmonic concerts and composing – as well as making many foreign tours, by now world-famous. When the Revolution came, it changed his life for ever. In November 1917 he and his family left Russia for a Scandinavian tour, the catalyst that decided him to make the break rather than live under the new regime. Rachmaninov never returned to Russia again.

When he eventually settled on America as his base, he arrived with very little money. He changed career and turned himself into a full-time concert pianist. This involved an extraordinary amount of work – he had a small repertoire compared with most pianists – but, by specialising in the sort of music the public wanted to hear (Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and, of course, his own compositions), he made a sensational success. His career as a conductor evaporated (although he carried out many engagements) and he wrote comparatively little music after he left Russia. Instead, he became known as one of the greatest pianists in history.

He bought a house on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland – his grandmother’s house on the banks of the River Volchov had engendered a lifelong love of rivers and boats – and made annual tours of Europe. In 1935 he decided to make New York his home, later settling in Los Angeles. His home there was an exact replica, down to the food and drink, of the home he had left in Moscow. Composition gradually became more and more difficult for him but he continued to play in public until a month before his death from cancer, a few weeks after becoming an American citizen. He was buried in the Kensico Cemetery in New York.

In all his works for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninoff invented arresting beginnings. In the First and Fourth concertos he is aggressive, outright combative. The Second emerges from a famous series of groping, tolling chords. In the first measures of the Third Concerto we find a quality we do not usually associate with Rachmaninoff — simplicity. For two measures, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and muted strings set up a pulse against which the piano sings a long and quiet melody, the two hands in unison, as in a piano duet by Schubert. It is a lovely inspiration, that melody unfolding in subtle variation, just a few notes being continuously redisposed rhythmically. Once only, to the extent of a single eighth note, the melody exceeds the range of an octave; most of it stays within a fifth, and that narrowness of gamut contributes to our sense that this is profoundly and unmistakably Russian. Rachmaninoff told the musicologist Joseph Yasser that the theme had come to him “ready‑made” and had in effect “written itself”, an impression and observation not at all inconsistent with Yasser’s later discovery of a close relationship to a Russian liturgical chant, Thy Tomb, O Savior, Soldiers Guarding.

The accompaniment cost Rachmaninoff considerable thought and trouble. He was thinking, he told Yasser, of the sound of piano with orchestra, of singing the melody on the piano “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” What he found invites, for precision and delicacy, comparison with the workmanship in Mozart’s concertos. The accompaniment does indeed not muffle the singing, but even while exquisitely tactful, it is absolutely “specific” — full of character, the fragmentary utterances of the violins now anticipating, now echoing the pianist’s song, the woodwinds sometimes and with utmost gentleness reinforcing the bass or joining the piano in a few notes of its melody.

Such a conjunction of integration and contrast is characteristic of this concerto. The second theme, for example, is first suggested as a kind of twitch in a few wind instruments behind delicate piano passage-work before its formal arrival is prepared by a mini-cadenza and an expansive preparatory gesture in the orchestra. When it does appear, Rachmaninoff presents it in two different guises — first as a dialogue of orchestra and piano, then as a lyric melody. The further progress of the movement abounds in felicities and ingenuities, sharply imagined and elegantly executed. After a thunderous climax, a touching intervention of winds, and a spacious subsidence, the opening music appears again. The leisurely singing of the melody leads with extraordinary compressions to a final page in which fragments of themes ghost by in a startling amalgam of epigram and dream.

“Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this Adagio, though it is in fact upbeat to a still more expansive finale. But the Intermezzo itself is all adventure and event, not least the piano’s disruptive entrance, which wrenches the music away to new and distant harmonic ground. What ensues is a series of variations, broken up by a feather-light waltz that perhaps represents Rachmaninoff’s memory of a similar interruption in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The clarinet‑and‑bassoon melody of the waltz is closely cousin to the concerto’s principal theme, and if one could scrutinize the piano’s dizzying figuration through a time-retarding device, one could detect that it too is made of diminutions of the same material.

When the Intermezzo gives explosive birth to the Finale, we are again in a torrent of virtuosity and invention. Here, too, the second theme gets a double presentation, first in harmonic outline, solidly packed piano chords against drumming strings, then — in a contrasting key, even — as a beautifully scored impassioned melody for the piano. After that, Rachmaninoff gives us the surprise of a series of variations on what pretends to be a new idea, but is in fact issue of a union between the first movement’s second theme and the beginning of the Finale. In the course of this episode, the concerto’s very first melody makes an unobtrusive, slightly varied reappearance in violas and cellos. That it is once again varied is characteristic, for the idea of repetition as instant variation has been implicit since the first unfolding of that opening melody. Now this idea has become an important part of the means at Rachmaninoff’s disposal as he faces the task of integrating a work laid out on an uncommonly large scale.

The Third Concerto offers an immense challenge to stamina and endurance, the orchestral passages that frame the Intermezzo being the soloist’s only moments of respite. Few pianists would agree with Rachmaninoff’s own estimate that the Third Concerto is “more comfortable” than the Second. Moreover, to a degree truly uncommon for a concerto in the big Romantic bravura tradition, Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to blend, accompany, and listen.

Little bears are very excited to be at the Perth Concert Hall to hear Cédric Tiberghien play ‘Rach 3’ with WASO. They want to compare notes 🙂 Cédric Tiberghien is a French classical pianist of formidable accomplishment with astonishingly agile fingers!

‘Rach 3’ for two hands and orchestra…


Last month little bears listened to ‘Rach 3’ for four hands…

David Helfgott and Rhodri Clarke, Perth Concert Hall, 20 July 2018

David Helfgott was a child prodigy whose career was cut short by schizophrenia; after a decade off the rails, he was saved by the love of a good woman, and was taught not only how to live with his disorder, but also how – with astute management – to turn it to financial advantage.

Some of the reviews of his concerts are scathing, but it seemed perverse not to be kind, for behind his weird mannerisms lay poetry in his playing of his favourite music, though somewhat erratically. Critics, especially in the US and UK, killjoys that they are, have dissected his technical shortcomings. Tim Page, the classical-music critic of the Washington Post, wrote of Helfgott’s American debut, in Boston, “A disturbed man who can barely play the piano is suddenly the hottest person in classical music.” Helfgott’s publicists have deftly used such critical pans as a foil; the elite carps, the public adores… Conventional performers seem glumly correct; Helfgott is loose, dreamy, exuberant.

He suffers from behavioural tics like constant vocalizing; the entire concert is accompanied by humming. The reality is that if a member of the audience did this, they would be promptly escorted out of the concert hall. I have seen it happen. Illness is no excuse.

Helfgott rose to the virtuoso challenge of three big Liszt pieces, pausing only to bestow kisses on adoring members of the audience, most of whom, it’s safe to assume, were devotees of the film. The second half of the concert was a two-piano arrangement with Rhodri Clarke of Rach 3. That also allows for astute management of Helfgott’s condition on stage, left to his own devices he might well still be playing encores at 3am. Rhodri Clarke gently escorts him off the stage and puts an end to the concert.

This was the first time we saw David Helfgott in concert. It is unlikely we will attend another one of this concerts. Still, it was impossible not to be touched by his determination and courage, especially when it came unburdened by hype or unrealistic expectations. If he can now make a living playing his favourite works for audiences of attentive devotees, it is a happier ending than anyone might once have scripted.

Little bears have their own special arrangement of ‘Rach 3’ for four paws 🙂

The Opera That Changed Music: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On the eve of the 20th century, Alma Mahler wrote in her diary that ‘only one opera exists in the whole world: my Tristan’. A quarter of a century earlier, Clara Schumann had described Wagner’s opera, premiered in 1865, as ‘the most disgusting thing I have ever seen or heard in my life’. She wrote further: ‘To be forced to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not only the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted – that is the saddest thing I have ever experienced in my artistic life… During the second act the two of them sleep and sing; through the whole last act – for fully 40 minutes – Tristan dies (so that’s what he was doing!). And that they call dramatic!!!’ Brahms, meanwhile, claimed that looking at the score put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Elgar, however, when he first heard the Liebestod in 1883 (the climactic end of the opera, as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body), wrote in his concert programme: ‘I shall never forget this’; when he received a vocal score of the work for his 36th birthday he was fully effusive: ‘This Book contains the Height,’ he wrote inside, ‘the Depth, – the Breadth, – the Sweetness, – the Sorrow, – the Best and the whole for the Best of This world and the Next.’ After attending a performance at Covent Garden in 1933, Benjamin Britten reported in his diary: ‘Dwarfs every other creation save perhaps [Beethoven’s] Ninth. The glorious shape of the whole, the perfect orchestration: sublime idea of it and the gigantic realisation of the idea. He is master of us all.’ Grieg, a lifelong admirer of Wagner, if not an uncritical one, couldn’t contain his mirth when his friend Björnstjene Björnson, by contrast, described the opera in a letter to him as ‘the most enormous depravity I have ever seen or heard, but in its own crazy way it is so overwhelming that one is deadened by it as by a drug’. Björnson continued rather less delicately: ‘Even more immoral…than the plot is this seasick music that destroys all sense of structure in its quest for tonal colour. In the end, one just becomes a glob of slime on an ocean shore!’

Just these few choice quotations suggest that no opera, or even musical work – at least before the 20th century – has inspired such visceral and varied reactions as the ‘sublimely morbid, consuming and magical work’ that, according to Thomas Mann, was Tristan und Isolde. Friedrich Nietzsche famously called it the ‘true opus metaphysicum of all art’, writing elsewhere that ‘I am still looking for a work with as dangerous a fascination, with as terrible and sweet an infinity as Tristan – I look through the arts in vain’. On first seeing a score of the Prelude, the philosopher – in what might serve as a warning for anyone setting out to write about the work – reported: ‘I simply cannot bring myself to remain critically aloof from this music; every nerve in me is a-twitch, and it has been a long time since I had such a lasting sense of ecstasy.’

Wagner’s operas have not featured much on the Perth opera scene. There was a fully staged version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Perth in 2006, which we thankfully missed. As part of their 90th anniversary celebrations, WASO staged a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. In the enduring battle between opera administrations in Australia (“Nobody wants to sit through Wagner”) and the opera-going public (Wagnerian devotees and those who’d like to know what it’s like), this was a win for the latter.

Tristan und Isolde has little action, so there is little need for props, costumes and extraneous effects. It is so rooted in orchestral playing and singing for its success, that a concert performance is a perfectly reasonable choice. The most significant theatrical element otherwise might be said to be the acting chops of the singers.

We knew what it’s like to sit through Wagner, having survived the Ring Cycle in Vienna in 2009. Fully recovered from that experience, I decided to have another go at sitting through Wagner, Tristan und Isolde this time. Little bears told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to do that on my own 🙂 Even the wondrous cor anglais solo in the opening of Act 3, played by Leanne Glover, wasn’t enough to convince them to attend. So full house and no bear in sight in the almost acoustically perfect Perth Concert Hall 🙂

The only bears present were hiding on stage 🙂

One reason to attend is the singers, WASO got together quite a stunning international cast.

The scheduled Isolde – Eva-Maria Westbroek, a dramatic soprano with a heavy, full soprano voice which is ideally suited to Wagnerian roles – withdrew due to illness earlier this month. Her replacement, the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, gave an extraordinarily complete portrayal, all the more remarkable given that this was only her second go at Isolde.

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Isolde

With an intriguingly girlish timbre allied to an instrument of substantial weight and steel, Barkmin’s Isolde was every bit the proud, Irish princess in the first act. It’s always a joy to hear a singer in their native tongue, and the soprano’s linguistic authority made every syllable count in the Perth Concert Hall. Although some climactic notes didn’t come quite that easily, and intonation was just shy of the mark in a few instances, Barkmin more than compensated for it with her assured dramatic instincts and innate ability to give shape and point to phrases. She also has a solid lower register and sings with a keen musicality, meaning any wishes for greater tonal refulgence were put to the side.

The first act belonged entirely to Barkmin, Isolde’s Narrative and Curse (where she describes how she was unable to slay Tristan, the man who has murdered her betrothed), a self-flagellating mixture of shame, rage and grief. The way she spits out “now I’m servant to the vassal” with a shiver of disgust will stick in your mind. A surprisingly pacy reading from Fisch helped Barkmin put her own stamp on the Liebestod – rather than an Isolde consumed by her wondrous visions, this was a deeply human account that felt frank and conversational, the beatific smile on Barkmin’s face signalling an end to grief and the discovery of joy.

Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was no slouch either. A frisson ran through the room when Stuart Skelton strode onstage, hailing the return of an Australian artist who’s had great success abroad. The tenor seems only to grow in stature with each assumption of the role, and his stage experience translated well to this concert setting – this was a considered dramatic portrayal as well as a vocally thrilling one. He achieved an easy rapport with his loyal servant, Kurwenal, and nailed the mixture of concerted aloofness and courtliness that Tristan puts on to conceal his true feelings about Isolde.

Stuart Skelton is a heldentenor – the term is commonly used to describe the tenors of leading roles in Wagner’s operas. The original meaning of heldentenor is more precise, it implies a tenor voice of great weight and sonority, particularly strong in the middle and bottom of the voice, in fact a tenor voice with some of the characteristics of a baritone. Unlike a baritone, however, is its tenorial ability to sing high. His Tristan was an unflagging, glorious lighthouse of Wagnerian singing, with inexhaustible power, vibrant resonance allied to warmth, subtlety and grace, and committed dramatic expression, with particularly beautiful singing at the end of Act 2.

Stuart Skelton, Asher Fisch and Gun-Brit Barkmin

The rest of the cast rose to the fearsome standard set by the central pair, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova’s committed Brangäne. Her lush, port-coloured mezzo was utter bliss, particularly when wielded with so much musicality and understanding of drama. Having performed the role all around the world – she appeared opposite Skelton’s Tristan in the Met’s 2016 production – Gubanova knows her stuff and it showed. Sung from the gallery, Brangäne’s warning during the lover’s tryst provoked sighs of delight from the audience, while her nuanced, eloquent portrayal made her a perfect foil for Isolde.

Asher Fisch, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Ekaterina Gubanova

Boaz Daniel is a much experienced Kurwenal. Deftly effective as Tristan’s confidante, he brought rich tone and sympathetic stage presence to the part, bringing him into clearer focus than is often seen elsewhere. His is an honest, forthright Kurwenal that plays off his Tristan well.

The Estonian bass Ain Anger was nothing short of brilliant as the wronged Marke, King of Cornwall. Naturally imposing, with oodles of presence, he showed audiences a man who has discovered an irreparable fracture in his world. His questioning of Tristan was deliberately done and performed without overt emotion, but all the more affecting for it – this is a man whose iron grip on self-discipline is the only thing left to him. Just as Tristan and Isolde experience the most human, even base emotions, so too does Marke – he is a walking embodiment of humiliation and disappointment in the second act.

The rest of the supporting cast acquitted themselves well – Angus Wood’s suitably slimy Melot, Paul O’Neill’s finely sung sailor and shepherd, and Andrew Foote’s steersman. The WASO Chorus, amplified by the St George’s Cathedral Consort provided a vigorous male chorus.

When WASO intoned the famed final B major chord of Tristan und Isolde, 5000 bars and four hours of music later, with what Richard Strauss described as the ‘the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music’, while Gun-Brit Barkmin stood with arms outstretched in rapture singing “Waves of beautiful fragrance, how they billow and sweep me away”, the final effect was totally overwhelming. The harmonic and erotic tension Wagner had spun for nearly four hours finally resolved with the richness of a pipe organ and the notes lingered ethereally in the Perth Concert Hall as Isolde died alongside her beloved Tristan.

The audience responded with an instantaneous standing ovation, a sight not often seen in Perth.

Tristan und Isolde is about longing for something you never reach. The consummation of a relationship. The resolution of a chord. The ideal performance. The next intermission!

Wagner was never a great one for gauging the dimensions of a project in advance. Tristan und Isolde, in contrast to the massive Ring cycle that he was in the middle of writing at the time, was supposed to be relatively small and easy to stage. The resulting opera, it’s true, has only a few lead characters and three acts, but it’s also one of the biggest workouts for singers and orchestras in all of opera. In 1863 in Vienna, attempts at a first production were abandoned after 77 rehearsals, and the work was deemed unperformable, though it finally did make the stage in 1865. For his next opera, Wagner opted to change pace with a light-hearted comedy — and produced the five-hour-long Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Nonetheless, Tristan und Isolde does indeed stand apart in the Wagner oeuvre for a certain compactness. Most of Wagner’s operas were agonized over for years; Tristan was written relatively quickly, within a span of two years. And where some of his operas sprawl, Tristan, for all of its length, is musically and dramatically unified, elegantly and symmetrically constructed. Wagner, who had long struggled to work out a theory of music drama and realize it in his operas, had finally internalized some of his techniques, enabling him to compose fluidly. He himself referred to the process of writing it as a ‘fixed improvisation’, folding the flexibility and innovation of improvisation into the more permanent framework of a written score.

Wagner called it a ‘drama in three acts’ – for all intents and purposes a paradoxical designation, given that the work is characterised precisely by the fact that remarkably little happens on the surface. In all three acts, the drama is primarily related to what has happened before the curtain rises: be it Tristan’s murder of Isolde’s bridegroom and his inauspicious mission to bring the daughter of the Irish king (whom he loves) to a former vassal of her father, and the resulting inner conflicts of the two main characters (First Act); be it the disputes that Isolde – by now the wife of King Marke – has with her maid Brangäne about the reliability of her lover’s friends (Second Act); be it the attempts of Tristan’s servant Kurwenal to alleviate the hallucinations of his feverish lord by telling him what happened since Tristan walked into the open sword of Melot, who has remained devoted to King Marke (Third Act).

Not much ‘happens’ in the opera plot-wise: Tristan and Isolde drink love potion, embark on a passionate love affair, and finally die. Most of the activity is in its ideas and in its music. It’s based on a musical hypothesis: What would happen if you wrote a work in which the chords continually shift toward resolution without ever quite getting there? This musical embodiment of the idea of insatiable yearning starts with the opening chord of the prologue, known as the ‘Tristan Chord’ (heard almost immediately in the Prelude after the cellos’ first three yearning, ambiguous notes) and itself responsible for reams and reams of musicological analysis. The four notes of the chord have been the subject of endless musicological wrangling, which has attempted to define its significance in the opera itself, as well as how it has gone on to have a life of its own, as signifier of heightened and frustrated desire and tension not only in Wagner’s later operas but in all manner of fin de siècle works, good and bad.

The tension ebbs and shifts for the entire opera, the oceanic orchestra expressing the scale of the love that is unfolding above it.

The story was compiled from medieval lays and legends, Gottfried von Strassburg’s epic 12th century poem Tristan chief among them. Wagner was becoming adept at synthesizing elements from a wide range of sources to produce his own mythology. In the Ring, he created his own pantheon of gods based on Norse epic; in Tristan, he leaves Western religion altogether. There is no mention of God in Tristan in contrast to many of Wagner’s other works, such as Tannhäuser or Parsifal.

Instead, Tristan orients itself toward the philosophy of Schopenhauer and, more obliquely, Wagner’s interest in Buddhism. The opera in fact aspires to be Schopenhauer made manifest, starting with the idea that music can express concepts beyond the ability of words. It gives narrative form to the philosopher’s idea of physical love as a manifestation of an insoluble yearning that can only find release and absolute consummation in death. As for its Buddhist overtones: one of its main tropes is the contrast between the daytime world of illusion — what most people think of as “reality” — and the night-time world of the higher spiritual plane on which the lovers dwell.

The past 153 years are littered with writers trying to express the fascination, revulsion, or both, that Tristan und Isolde inspires; for a further six years before that, we have people trying to fathom the piece either from just the score, published in 1859, or from hearing the Prelude, first performed in Prague that same year and in Paris in early 1860. Wagner sent Berlioz a copy, but even he was left scratching his head by the ‘strange’ first page: ‘I have yet to discover the least idea of what the author wishes to do,’ he wrote. Even today, Tristan remains a work that can inspire fierce devotion or baffled resistance: it eludes clear definition and explanation and encourages intemperate hyperbole at every turn. Maybe Michael Tanner’s thought-provoking description is one of the best: ‘Along with Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ he writes, ‘it is one of the two greatest religious works of our culture.’ Even though there is no mention of God in Tristan!

Strauss was a day shy of his first birthday when his father, Franz, played the horn at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865. The staging of the opera, six years after its completion, was enabled by King Ludwig II, who had intervened decisively in Wagner’s life the previous year, offering him apparently endless funds (welcome) allied to advice and well-meaning interventions (less welcome). Wagner’s attempt to get the work performed at his own instigation proved fruitless: it famously went through 77 rehearsals at the Hofoper in Vienna in 1863 before the orchestra declared it unplayable. The premiere of the work itself, delayed by a month much to the delight of the hostile elements in Munich, might be counted a modest success. The title-roles were taken by the husband-and-wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the former an artist who Wagner admired perhaps above any other singer he worked with.

That the tenor died a matter of weeks after the event, however, only contributed to the legends that surrounded the new work: not only was it incomprehensible and morally reprehensible and dangerous, its detractors noted, it was also literally dangerous. Felix Mottl suffered a heart attack on 21 June 1911 while conducting his 100th performance of Tristan in Munich. He was taken to a hospital where he died 11 days later on 2 July, aged 54. Joseph Keilberth died in Munich in 1968 after collapsing while conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in exactly the same place as Felix Mottl was similarly fatally stricken in 1911. Another fun fact, Salvador Dalí died while listening to his favourite recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The moral dubiousness of the opera was, and to a large extent still is, underlined by the biographical circumstances of the work’s composition and earlier history, a series of hardly innocent facts to which no one was afraid to add additional untruths. Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck in the 1850s, while he was being hosted in Zurich by Mathilde’s wealthy husband (and now usually believed to have remained unconsummated), had inspired the composition. Wagner’s relationship with Cosima, meanwhile, had begun in earnest in 1863 and produced a daughter, Isolde, born exactly two months before the opera was premiered under the baton of Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow was still Cosima’s husband at the time, and the little girl was given his surname, but no one was fooled.

Wagner was disconsolate, depressed by the uncomprehending reactions of the public, but Tristan had at least been unleashed on the world, although it would wait another nine years for a second staging, in Weimar. After Liszt saw it there in 1875 he wrote to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein: ‘One felt overwhelmed, ravished, and enraptured all at the same time – in several places one could only weep!’ He added: ‘After so poignant a work I do not know what will be left for our opera composers to do.’ So how did Tristan change opera? Certainly for composers producing operas there was a difficulty of stepping out of Wagner’s shadow, and that of Tristan, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that even while at work on Turandot well over half a century after that Munich premiere, Puccini felt the pressure. He reportedly picked up his score of Tristan, before swiftly putting it back down, exclaiming: ‘Enough of this music! We’re mandolinists, amateurs: woe to him who gets caught by it! This tremendous music destroys one and renders one incapable of composing any more!’

Tristan also changed forever what opera could be expected to do, and how it was to be performed. The expectations on the singers are unprecedented, and still to this day Tristans, in particular, seem rarely to be judged by how good they are. The greatest, it seems, are those whose inevitable shortfall in realising Wagner’s unrealistic demands – one is reminded of Wagner’s promise to his publisher that the work would be easy to stage and economically favourable – is the least. In terms of staging, it certainly became clear at the premiere that King Ludwig’s penchant for pseudo-medieval costumes and decorations – given concrete form in the Disney-esque folly of his castle at Neuschwanstein – was fundamentally ill-suited to a work which, according to the German critic Paul Bekker, put ‘sounds not people’ on the stage. Ever since Alfred Roller started to introduce expressionistic touches to his famous designs for Mahler’s 1903 Vienna Opera staging, productions have moved increasingly into the realm of ‘suggestion’ rather than ‘illusion’, to borrow the distinction by the Swiss stage designer and theorist Adolphe Appia. One could spend a lifetime watching Tristan in the opera house today without seeing so much as a ship or castle on the stage.

Quiz Night

Ever wondered if you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut?

With four rounds, this quiz is a combination of various NASA aptitude tests. It will examine your knowledge of physics, test your logic, and then ask you how you’d react when faced with various life or death scenarios. There’s also a NASA general knowledge round at the end.

Give it a go and see if you could make it as an astronaut, or if you should keep your feet firmly planted on planet Earth.

Round one: physics!

If an object is in motion, what kind of energy does it possess?

What does the “C” stand for in this famous equation E = mc2 ?
Speed of light!

What cannot happen to energy?
It cannot be destroyed!

What is a nebula?
A cloud of dust and gas!

Isabelle, that’s not how a quiz works! You don’t ask the questions and then answer them yourself.

But I know all the answers!

Look, you can have dessert first!


Ok bearyone, round two: logic.

Planet : Mars  –  Fabric : ?

  • Flexible
  • Denim
  • Trousers

Infancy is to nursery, as adolescence is to?

  • Youth
  • High school
  • Teenager

Threatening : Growl  –  ? : Rainbow

  • Weather
  • Omnious
  • Colourful

Medicine : Illness

  • Law : Anarchy
  • Hunger : Thirst
  • Love: Treason

Round three: psychological screening.

You discover a fire on board the space station. What’s the FIRST thing that you do?

  • Grab your oxygen mask
  • Call Mission Control
  • Try to extinguish the fire
  • Sound the alarm and leave

You’re trapped in a lift with 10 strangers. People are starting to get panicked. What should you do?

  • See if you can work out a logical way to get everyone out the lift
  • Close your eyes and stay calm – help is coming
  • Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed
  • Start screaming. Loud.

During a mission to the Moon, you and your crew crash land 200 miles away from the mother ship. You have to walk there. Apart from your oxygen tank, what’s the MOST IMPORTANT thing to take with you?

  • A box of matches
  • Signal flares
  • 20 litres of water
  • First-aid kit

You’ve discovered alien life on Mars, and brought a sample back to the ship. What should you do next?

  • Send it back down to Earth so it can be tested in a laboratory
  • Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew
  • Immediately begin tests
  • Call Mission Control

Round four: NASA general knowledge.

Which NASA space shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all the astronauts on board?

  • Explorer
  • Challenger
  • Galileo
  • Saturn V

Which was the first Apollo mission to successfully land on the Moon?

  • Apollo 10
  • Apollo 11
  • Apollo 12
  • Apollo 13

What is NASA’s motto?

  • For tomorrow’s future
  • To infinity and beyond
  • For the benefit of all
  • Onwards and upwards

How many astronauts can live on the International Space Station at once?

  • 6
  • 10
  • 15
  • 20

I’ll just finish this 🙂

Looks like pizza and no dessert, bearyone…

How did you go? Are you joining the bears and Buzz on the ISS? 🙂

Buzz Lightyear on the ISS

Answers: Denim; High School; Colourful; Law : Anarchy; Sound the alarm and leave; Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed; 20 litres of water; Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew; Challenger; Apollo 11; For the benefit of all; 6.

One in a Trillion

Every single speck of sky visible from Earth contains a galaxy. So take a look at the night sky tonight and know that although you can’t see them, no matter where you look, the sky is packed with galaxies.

The number of galaxies scattered throughout the universe is beyond imagination. An analysis of images from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there are roughly two trillion galaxies populating space — ten times previous estimates.

Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field Image (NASA)

The analysis uses mathematical models to estimate the number of both visible and hidden galaxies in snapshots like Hubble’s famous Deep Field image. The models suggest that only about ten percent of galaxies in the universe are observable from Earth. That means our current technology misses about 90 percent of what’s out there, including trillions of galaxies, each with tens or hundreds of billions of stars.

This does not mean that the universe is ten times bigger than we thought or that there are tens times the amount of stars. It means those stars are divvied up into many more galaxies than we previously believed.

Researchers have also found that about 13 billion years ago, when the universe began, galaxies were both smaller and roughly ten times more dense than just a few billion years later. This means that over time, galaxies merged with one another creating larger and more complex systems, confirmation of something known as the top-down formation of the universe.

Our own Milky Way galaxy is on schedule to collide with Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years. While the collision of two galaxies might conjure up images of mass devastation, the event will be largely imperceptible to our descendants, if any are still around. (They will have had to find another home: By that time, the increasing luminosity of our sun will have rendered Earth uninhabitable.) Galaxies are mostly empty space, so almost no stars or planets will actually collide. Nonetheless, the Milky Way as we know it will cease to exist. Initially, the two galaxies will slide past each other and draw apart until gravity hits the brakes and pulls them back together. As Andromeda and the Milky Way merge, both will lose their disk-like structure, forming a single elliptical galaxy that some astronomers have dubbed “Milkomeda”.

Our nearest large neighbor galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy. (Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Andromeda has already eaten up M32p. Andromeda, the Milky Way and M32p, three spiral galaxies in the Local Group, a family of about 50 galaxies in a region of space about 10 light-years across, swirled away near each other, sucking up matter and other smaller galaxies. But one day, Andromeda got so hungry that she crashed into M32p, gobbling her up and ripping her to shreds, leaving a trail of cosmic guts behind. As Andromeda and the Milky Way are roughly the same size, the Milky Way will have a fighting chance at coming out on top when galaxy spirals finally tangle.

The oldest galaxy ever spotted by Hubble is GN-z11, located 13.4 billion light years away. That means that the galaxy existed just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is astonishingly old, but it’s exciting for another reason: its brightness. Scientists didn’t realize that such large, starry galaxies existed so far in the past. They hope to keep studying similar galaxies both with Hubble and with the super-powered James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2021. According to NASA, while Hubble is able to see “toddler galaxies” the Webb’s infrared will allow it to see “baby galaxies”.

GN-z11, the “newest” old galaxy discovered by Hubble. (NASA/ESA)

Scientists calculated the distance to GN-z11 by measuring its redshift. As objects get farther and farther away, the visible light they emit stretches out and shifts more toward the red side of the spectrum. Researchers use these changes in the light’s wavelength relative to what the light would be for a stationary source to figure out how far away the galaxy is — all based on Edwin Hubble’s theory that the universe is expanding at a constant rate.

A 2015 image from the Hubble space telescope, highlighting some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. (ESA/NASA)
Galaxy SPT0615-JD is 13.3 billion years old (NASA/ESA/STScI/B. Salmon)

To peer through a telescope is to look back in time. The light reaching the lens has taken millions or even billions of years to travel through the vastness of space, which means every image is a snapshot of the distant past. And NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is a glorious time traveler, spotting galaxies over 13 billion years old that formed around when the universe began.

An Astronomer’s Paradise

The Milky Way and moon illuminate a lone tree in the Atacama Desert, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Chile is an astronomer’s paradise. The country is justly famous for its lush valleys and snowcapped volcanoes, but its most striking scenery may be overhead. It is home to some of the finest places on Earth to enjoy the beauty of the starry sky. If there’s one country in the world that really deserves stellar status, it’s Chile.

If you live in a city, you probably don’t notice the night sky at all. Yes, the moon is visible at times, and maybe you can see a bright planet like Venus every now and then, but that’s about it. Most people are hard-pressed to recognize even the most familiar constellations, and they’ve never seen the Milky Way.

Not so in Chile. A narrow strip of land, 4,300 kilometers long and 350 kilometers at its widest point, Chile is tucked between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. It stretches from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the stark granite formations of the Torres del Paine National Park in the south. Large parts of Chile are sparsely populated, and light pollution from cities is hardly a problem. Moreover, the northern part of the country, because of its dry desert atmosphere, experiences more than 200 cloudless nights each year. Even more important to stargazers, Chile provides a clear view of the spectacular southern sky, which is largely invisible from countries north of the Equator.

A lagoon reflects the Milky Way in Atacama, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Long before European astronomers first charted the unknown constellations below the Equator, just over 400 years ago, the indigenous people of Latin America knew the southern sky by heart. Sometimes their buildings and villages were aligned with the heavens, and they used the motions of the sun, the moon and the stars to keep track of time. Their night sky was so brilliant that they even could recognize “dark constellations” — pitch-black, sinuous dust clouds silhouetted against the silvery glow of the Milky Way.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Western astronomers were drawn to Chile, in a quest for the best possible sites to build Southern Hemisphere observatories. Americans and Europeans alike explored the mountainous regions east of the port of La Serena, a few hundred kilometers north of the country’s capital, Santiago. Horseback expeditions lasting for many days — back then, there were no roads in this remote part of the world — took them to the summits of mountains like Cerro Tololo, Cerro La Silla and Cerro Las Campanas, where they set up their equipment to monitor humidity (or lack thereof), sky brightness and atmospheric transparency.

Before long, astronomers from American institutions and from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) erected observatories in the middle of nowhere. These outposts experienced their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but many of the telescopes are still up and running. European astronomers use the 3.6-meter telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory to search for planets orbiting stars other than the sun. A dedicated 570-megapixel camera attached to the four-meter Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory is charting dark matter and dark energy—two mysterious components of the universe that no one really understands.

The European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, just after sunset (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

If you’re star trekking in Chile, it’s good to know that most professional observatories are open for tourists one day each week, usually on Saturdays. Check out their schedules in advance to prevent disappointment — the drive from La Serena to La Silla may take almost two hours, and the curvy mountain roads can be treacherous. Also, dress warm (it can be extremely windy on the summits), wear sunglasses and apply loads of sunblock.

Most professional observatories are open to visitors only during daytime hours. If you’re after a nighttime experience, the region east of La Serena — especially Valle de Elqui — is also home to a growing number of tourist observatories. The oldest is Mamalluca Observatory, some ten kilometers northwest of the town of Vicuña, which opened in 1998. Here amateur astronomers give tours and introductory lectures, and guides point out the constellations and let visitors gaze at stars and planets through a number of small telescopes. Everyone can marvel at the view of star clusters and nebulae through the observatory’s 30-centimeter telescope.

Mamalluca Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Barbara Boensch/imageBROKER/Corbis)
The Antennae Galaxies are seen in this image made from the parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array) project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert, October 2011. ALMA is the world’s largest and highest—at 5,000 meters—ground-based astronomical observatory. (© HO/Reuters/Corbis)

You can look through a 63 centimeter telescope at Pangue Observatory, located fifteen kilometers south of Vicuña. At Pangue, astronomy aficionados and astrophotographers can set up their own equipment or lease the observatory’s instruments. Farther south, near the town of Andacollo, is Collowara Observatory, one of the newest tourist facilities in the region. And south of La Serena, on the Combarbalá plain, is Cruz del Sur Observatory, equipped with a number of powerful modern telescopes. Most observatories offer return trips to hotels in Pisco Elqui, Vicuña or Ovalle. Tours can be booked online or through travel agents in town.

The Collowara Observatory in Andacollo, Chile, is a tourist observatory. (© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis)

The night sky displays the glorious constellations of Scorpio and the Southern Cross, the star-studded Milky Way with its many star clusters and nebulae, and of course the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (two companion galaxies to our own Milky Way). Using today’s digital equipment, all of this can be captured on camera. Little wonder that professional astrophotographers have fallen in love with Chile. Some of them have the privilege of being designated photo ambassadors by ESO: They get nighttime access to observatories, and their work is promoted on the ESO website. Hmmm….

The exterior of the telescope dome at the Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena, Chile, as night falls. Its 250 centimeter telescope is visible inside. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
The Milky Way hangs in the sky over the Chilean Death Valley in the Atacama Desert. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Every traveler to Chile interested in what’s beyond our home planet should visit — and photograph — the country’s Norte Grande region. It’s a surrealistic world of arid deserts, endless salt flats, colorful lagoons, geothermal activity and imposing volcanoes. East of the harbor town of Antofagasta, the Atacama Desert looks like a Martian landscape. In fact, this is where planetary scientists tested the early prototypes of their Mars rovers. The alien quality of the terrain makes you feel as if you’re hiking on a forbidding yet magnificent planet orbiting a distant star.

Atacama Desert

Other than the poles, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Deserts are sometimes defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250mm of rain in a year – the Atacama receives less than 1mm each year. As a result it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution.

Atacama is one of the world’s foremost stargazing centres, with three major international observatories taking advantage of its clean air and huge night skies.

At 2,635 meters above the sea level, at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), one of the foremost professional astronomical observatories in the world, astronomers enjoy the serene spectacle of sunset above the Pacific Ocean before they switch on the four huge 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes, which are equipped with high-tech cameras and spectrographs that help them unravel the mysteries of the universe. And yes, even this temple of ground-based astronomy is open to visitors only on Saturdays.

ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) is the latest addition to Chile’s professional astronomical facilities. It’s one of the highest (altitude: 5000 meters) and largest ground-based observatories in the world, with 66 antennas, most of them 12 meters across. The actual observatory, at the Llano de Chajnantor, some 50 kilometers southeast of San Pedro, is not open to tourists, but on weekends, trips are organized to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility (OSF), where you can visit the control room and take a look at antennas that have been brought down for maintenance. On clear days the OSF offers stunning views of nearby volcanoes and over the Salar de Atacama salt flat.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile

For professional astronomers, Chile will remain the window to the universe for many years to come. On Cerro Las Campanas, plans are in place to build the Giant Magellan Telescope (planned completion 2025), featuring six 8.4-meter mirrors on a single mount. Meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory has chosen Cerro Armazonas, close to Paranal, as the site for the future Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) (planned completion 2024). This monster instrument — which would be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope ever built — will have a 39-meter mirror consisting of hundreds of individual hexagonal segments. It is expected to revolutionize astronomy, and it may be able to detect oxygen and methane — signs of potential life — in the atmospheres of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars.

Ian Shelton stands by a telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory. Shelton discovered Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (immediately to the right of the telescope) with this telescope. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)

Little bears are off to pack…