Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Ben-Hur, Tristan und Isolde, Titian

[99 Problems] Ben-Hur, Tristan und Isolde, Titian

Originally published 10 June 2010. It is the last installment I have completed. Perhaps I’ll revisit the project in the future.

Watch this before reading on.

What you see is Jessye Norman, one of the finest voices of the last hundred years, singing the “Love-death” from Richard Wagner’s music drama (really, an opera) Tristan und Isolde. Tristan was composed in the 1850’s but still confounds theorists. It is a monument of thinking long term. Wagner would set up harmonic problems in the “Prelude” and refuse to resolve them until the very end, the “Love-death” that is linked above. The video is not taken from the actual opera. If watching a production, you would see a woman die over the body of her lover. At around 5:00 in the video comes one of the most transcendent climaxes in the history of music. After 4 hours of listening to harmony that wanders nowhere, failed peaks, and long monologues, we get a face full of unbridled passion and emotion. It is loud and it is wild. I once made the claim that the Prelude was my favorite piece of music ever. It probably was at the time.

I had to take some extra time on this one since, along with the 4 hours of German opera, I had to watch Ben-Hur, also 4 hours long. Not to mention get schooled on Titian’s The Rape of Europa. All of these works are towering figures. They embody gargantuan subjects. Mythology. Passion. Faith. Religion. Love. Each of the works deserve the wildly overused term ‘epic’.

Ben-Hur competes with Gone With the Wind for most ludicrous and out of control Hollywood project pre-1970. Set against the backdrop of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, it relates the struggle of Judah Ben-Hur, played with strength and pathos by the formidable Charleton Heston of ape and Moses fame. (Conflicting ideology?) Judah is a wealthy Jew who has to deal with a bunch of loser Romans. The film becomes an archetype of the Hollywood blockbuster by using a crazy amount of sets, an endless budget, tons of extras, a hoss original score, pretty awesome visual effects, the greatest story of mankind, and a 13 minute chariot race complete with trampled Greeks. Some of this has turned off critics recently as the film continues to fall of the deep end of ‘Top 100’ lists. While it did slack off on authenticity, something we really hold dear today (I mean, really, just check out real Persian Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia), the film did not step away from engaging discussion of morality and faith.

There is a constant struggle through Ben-Hur with mythology and Judaism/Christianity. The protagonist/antagonist share a talk at the beginning that is a face-to-face matchup of Caesar v. God. By setting the story against the backdrop of Jesus’ narrative, the validity of Judeo-Christian theology is given preference. As the Jewish are venerating a God figure, the Romans worship Caesar. Jewish custom is shown to be righteous when compared with the Romans, whose mythology is made out to be foolish, even to the men who profess it. Faith saves the day for Judah many times and in the big picture we witness him turn from vengeance to forgiveness and redemption, a Christian message that aptly lines up with the Crucifixion. The final scene is a tearjerker no matter what creed you happen to believe.

In the film, evil is linked with sexuality. The director told the antagonist to play the part as if he is harboring a sexual vengeance for the protagonist. As a result, he is uneven and ruthless. His persecution of the Jews, along with the rest of the Roman legion, has strong echoes of Naziism. The anti-Semitism is rendered with Hitler salutes (though maybe the Hitler got that from the Romans?), senseless murders, and incredibly handsome marching posture. Nonetheless, this brings up an inevitable connection with Wagner and what he was all about.

Wagner was a terrible man. He was dirty and smelly and hated Jews and married his friends’ wives. The Nibelungen of Der Ring des Nibelungen are often thought to be a parody of the Jews. Only making him look worse was Hitler’s obsession with his music. All of this begs the question of how much the personality of an artist actually matters when listening to their music. After all, Tristan has been performed in Israel to a standing ovation and encores. Does it matter?

The evil sexuality from Ben-Hur can also tie in with the driving force of Tristan. Passion. Wagner was getting obsessed with Schopenhauer while writing the opera and into it was drilled the philosophy that all of our worldly suffering was because of unmet desires. As a result, he figured that we might as well just renounce all that arouses passion in us. This proves pretty difficult for Tristan and Isolde. They drink some love potion and fall in love faster than Judah and Esther in Ben-Hur. There are other psychological twists in Tristan, but sexuality remains the most overt. The music is a remarkably accurate rendering of their situation as it pulsates and swells its way to mountains of sonic tension only to back away, leaving the motion unresolved. Only at the end, in the “Love-death” do we hear the music finally fall into place in a renunciation of the world, itself.

We find the sexuality of Wagner and the mythology of Ben-Hur in Titian’s painting The Rape of Europa. There have been some problems in naming the work, some calling it the “Abduction” or “Seduction” since it wasn’t quite a “rape” in the modern sense of the word. The painting is a representation of old Greek mythology updated to Roman standards – the same Roman myth that the antagonist of Ben-Hurand the other Romans upheld. In the picture is a bull, a Jupiter that knows the Harry Potter charm to turn into animals, a bunch of people jumping around and screaming on a beach, some plump and adorable cupids, a couple fish, a gloriously ahead-of-its-time backdrop, and a famous flailing woman whose name will be used on a great continent.

The woman is a famous figure and study in pose. This painting depicts the moment where she realizes she isn’t going for a short ride, but Jupiter is taking her away forever. She looks back and is frightened, but doesn’t appear to be hysterical. She is contorted, only holding onto the bull with one hand, but seems under control. Her legs are astounding. You can see the cellulitis! Titian was obsessed with the female nude and used it anywhere he could. This can practically be considered one, even acknowledging her wrinkled and wet garment, conveniently matching but still discernible from the bull. The little cupids wipe away the terror that the painting would possess without them. Instead, they add ecstasy. Don’t leave the work without observing how beautifully Titian renders the mountainous background. The pink-orange hued sky does not collide with the horizon, but inherits it.

The beauty of Above mingles with the beauty of Below.

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