February 2, 2014

Ariadne: So... did she die? She dead, or WHAT??

Understand: I love my wife Ruth dearly. For 37 years she has tolerated my weaknesses and been a wonderful partner. She is a fabulous musician, a great mother to our daughter, a wise soul, and no mean cook in the kitchen.

However, she cannot tell jokes. Worse, she cannot even remember them. You can tell her the same joke over and over, and she'll fall for it every time. The classic example of this little problem is an anecdote Ruth often tells on herself. When she was in high school, one of her siblings told her a bizarre story about a dog; a dog whose water dish had (for some complicated reason) been temporarily filled with gasoline. Before anyone could stop it, the dog began lapping up the liquid. Immediately, the poor dog jumped back, coughing and choking, and began running around the yard in circles, over and over, running as fast as it could. After a few minutes of this, the creature slowed down, came to a stop and collapsed on the spot.

Her eyes wide with the horror of it all, Ruth asked "Did it die?"  "No," came the reply, "it ran out of gas."

HAW! Gotcha. Ruth rolled her eyes, as I'm sure you're doing right now. Pretty lame. A few days later, that same sibling was about to play the same joke on someone else, with Ruth in the room. "Don't say anything to give it away", she was warned. Again, the horrifying tale of the poor dog lapping up the gas in the water dish was told, reaching the dramatic stopping-place of the dog collapsing after running in circles.

Silence hung heavily in the air; a silence broken by Ruth: "Did it die?" she asked, her eyes wide with horror.

Ein Schönes war.....

All this is my lengthy preface before coming to grips with a fundamental question regarding Ariadne, the mythical character stuck on Naxos in the second half of Strauss's opera. In the Prologue, the Composer avers that Ariadne, who longed for Death's messenger after her lover's abandonment, does indeed die. The comedienne Zerbinetta, suddenly tasked with taking part in this operatic premiere, brushes off such nonsense, claiming that Ariadne just moves on and finds a new boyfriend.

Commentators on mythology don't exactly agree on what exactly happens to our heroine after Bacchus arrives at Naxos to sweep her off her feet. In some versions, Ariadne becomes the god's earthly wife and bears him children. This reminds us of Wagner's Siegmund, offspring of the god Wotan and an earthly woman. In other tellings, Ariadne become a goddess herself; she and Bacchus ascend to the heavens where they become stars in the universe, part of a constellation. NOTE: to Your Humble Blogger, that sounds like dead. Way dead. Put it this way: you're a star in a contellation, you're no longer watching cable TV, eating grilled cheese or taking your dog on a walk -- you know, stuff you do when you're alive.

So what are we to think? Does the Composer not understand his own story? Is he that inept? Well, that hardly seems likely. So do we have to muddle along in this confused, contradictory, semi-mystical state of vaguely tossing around words like "death" and "transformation" with no concrete conclusion?

Nope. I think I've got a good take on this. In fact, I think it's the only take.

Last week's post (available (available at this link) explored the concept of paralyzing grief; the sort of intense mourning that renders one powerless to continue life with productive energy. All of us will experience loss in our lives, be it the death of a loved one, the end of an intimate relationship, or failure in professional life. A recent documentary discloses that Mitt Romney was devasted at losing the last presidential election. Who wouldn't be, in his place?
Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne"

So we cling; we can't "let it go", to use that hideously over-worked phrase of current pop psychology. We become Ariadne, fondly singing our own personal version of "Ein Schönes war". We're stuck --- until we aren't.

When and if we do find we can look forward and not obsess with the past, it is a kind of "transformation". If this process is engineered by an outside party - a friend, a minister, a therapist, a family member, whomever - then it may be called an "allomatic transformation", as Hugo von Hofmannsthal describes Ariadne's rescue. Or perhaps we find the resolve and strenth within ourselves to captain our own ship and steer a forward-moving course. 

Either way, here's where Death enters the picture. To regain a positive outlook on life and act constructively, the part of us clinging to that which was lost must die. I can give you an example from my own life.

I used to be a fine classical pianist. I hold a Doctor of Music in piano performance and was privileged to study with such legendary artists as Jorge Bolet and John Browning, among others. The composers I most enjoyed performing were Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov. I taught college-level piano, played solo and ensemble recitals and the occasional concerto with orchestra. People thought I was pretty good, and I suppose I was. At any rate, my self-image; my very identity, was tied up with the keyboard world. I looked in the mirror and I saw a pianist.

That all ended in the summer of 2000. I played a concert in Richmond, Virginia one evening, accompanying some local singers in an outdoor concert of operatic excerpts. The next morning I couldn't get my wallet out of my pants pocket because I couldn't grip it hard enough. I couldn't play a triad on the piano, unable to make three fingers work independently. 

A few months and several examinations by neurologists later, I'd undergone surgery to remove spurs from my cervical spine. These growths, probably 30 years in the making, had interfered with nerve paths, resulting in muscle atrophy in my left hand.

My hand is better than it was, but still weak. I don't have the full range of motion of those fingers; I can't move them laterally. This, by the way, makes it impossible to make the "Live long and prosper" hand signal of Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Alas. I can play the piano, but only simple things. No more Beethoven or Rachmaninov. 

Here's what I've discovered:

There are certain piano pieces I always wanted to play, and assumed that I would get around to learning some day: some of Schubert's late sonatas; the Liszt Sonata in B Minor; other Liszt pieces such as Mephisto Waltz. I had transcribed the overture to Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman for solo piano, but hadn't gotten around to performing it as  yet. 

There were times when hearing any of this music was painful. The reality that I will never, for the rest of my life, achieve my goals as a pianist was a source of pain, regrret and a sort of mourning. My low point came when a large church in Norfolk acquired a new Steinway concert grand and invited every pianist of note in the area to participate in an inaugural recital. My wife played Ravel's Jeux d'eau. I came along to hear it as a member of the audience, but had to leave. I went outside and paced up and down the sidewalk until it was over. Self-pitying? A little, I suppose, but the emotional wound was pretty raw at that point. 

Now, more than a dozen years later, I feel oddly detached from the whole world of solo piano-playing. Keyboard performance has been replaced by other activities: I compose words and music for operas. I blog (duh). I wrote a book; people bought it. I lecture to thousands of people every year. I appear regularly on public radio stations in the region.

I'm fine. I look back on days of slave labor at the piano, those hours upon hours of drilling scales and arpeggios and dissecting difficult passages of challenging piano pieces with a kind of wonder. It seems as though someone else had gone through all that.

That part of me died.

I think that's how it works when we put away grief and move on; we allow the thing to which we were clinging to wither, die and fall away. In the case of a lost loved one; we don't stop loving them or missing them. It's not the love that dies; it's the clinging.

So the Composer was right: Ariadne did experience death - the death of her need for Theseus. It had to die before she could take pleasure in the love of Bacchus.

She's better off, right? Right.


  1. Great post, one to think over a while.

    1. Thanks! ...This opera will do that to you for sure... :)

  2. Wonderful post! and time to think over before Tuesday's performance.

  3. Excellent--and I think you are exactly right about Ariadne's "death."