Curtain Material

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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Curtain Material


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Reading opera between the lines: orchestral interludes and cultural meaning from Wagner to Berg Christopher Morris New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2002); xi, 219pp; L45. ISBN 0 521 80738 7.

Orchestral interludes in opera? Changing the scenery without loss of dramatic momentum, enabling singers to rest their voices, and audiences their eyes? What more needs to be said? Plenty, the problematising musicologist replies, especially if my reading extends from Wagner, Nietzsche and Freud to Adorno, Kristeva, Lacan, Tomlinson and Zizek. As Christopher Morris shows, there can be much intellectual stimulus in pursuing this topic in the company of these thinkers. The organisation of the narrative, which embraces Debussy, Delius, Massenet, Strauss, Pfitzner and Schreker as well as Wagner and Berg, might be too discursive for its own good, and the balance between technically-- based close reading and commentary on 'cultural meaning' is sometimes awkwardly managed. But this is still a valuable contribution to the discussion of its subject - and might have been even more so had its focus been more firmly rooted in its generative Wagnerian soil.

In his Conclusion, Morris quotes Nietzsche: 'biologically, modern man represents a contradiction of values; he sits between two chairs, he says Yes and No in the same breath' (p.201). So why not explore the ways in which the 'cultural meaning'- which implies, in part, the modernity - of Wagner's orchestral interludes can be illuminated by reference to ideas of contradiction? Morris doesn't rule out this strategy, and it is clear that he knows Wagner's works well enough to be regarded as an authority on them. But problems arise partly from treating other 'authorities' - Adorno, Zizek - too respectfully, and from short-circuiting analysis of the Wagnerian materials from which the discussion stems.

Take what Morris calls the Gotterdammerung Trauermarsch: does this truly exemplify Adorno's sweeping assertion that Leitmotive are 'juxtaposed like discrete objects [...] replacing continuity with a thoroughly undynamic series of moments'? And does this musical eulogy, constructing not a vulnerable, ultimately innocent hero, but 'a figure who exceeds all doubt, all resistance', merely throw light 'on the contribution of the figure who delivers the eulogy, a virtual author figure who now attracts unwelcome attention' (pp.110-11)? Is the perceived 'exaggeration' of the Trauermusik merely (if unintentionally) 'alienating', with no element of the kind of exaltation and fulfilment for the listener which has less to do with being cynically manipulated by a hysterical hypnotist - with 'isolated passivity', or with succumbing to the 'herd mentality' - and more to do with that 'strange consolation', emanating from personal perceptions about the 'transfiguring potential of tragedy', which Nietzsche himself once recognised?

The allegation that Wagner's works conspire against their audiences is not adequately debated here, and as often as Morris approaches an account of the 'tensions' and '(unacknowledged) contradictions at the heart of the music drama' (p.159), he retreats to the safer musicological ground of a contextualised discourse on unity and consistency (There are also overlaps with his more detailed account of 'Nietzsche, Bayreuth and the problem of identity' in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 127/1 (2002)).

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