Academic journal article Notes

Wagner and the Erotic Impulse

Academic journal article Notes

Wagner and the Erotic Impulse

Article excerpt

Wagner and the Erotic Impulse. By Laurence Dreyfus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. [xvi, 266 p. ISBN 9780674018815. $27.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

No body of musical works demands a biographical understanding of their power and meaning more than that of Richard Wagner. More to the point, no composer is more vilified in musicological writings for his personal failings than Wagner. Scholars have attempted to find other composers worthy of such negative assessment. Susan McClary's infamous reading of Beethoven's masculine rage, Stravinsky's admiration for Mussolini, and the complicity of certain Russian composers with Stalin have all been raised as serious concerns but none of those accusations (as well founded as many of them may be) seem to stick. Wagner casts a darker shadow. At least since Friedrich Nietzsche's repeated attacks on Wagner's character and artistic integrity, the "Case of Wagner" has remained open. Yet criticizing Wagner is not the same as dismissing him. Even Nietzsche was deeply ambivalent when it came to judging him. Wagner, for Nietzsche, was a sickness, but one that a strong person must suffer and overcome. Wagner remains a problem for musicology because, despite his caustic personality, many of us are still ineluctably drawn to his music. As Father Owen Lee implies in the secondary title of his famous book, we are torn between the Terrible Man and His Truthful Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). Laurence Dreyfus's Wagner and the Erotic Impulse represents both the advantages and the pitfalls to a bio graphically driven approach to Wagner's music.

Dreyfus's introduction provides a bit of biographical justification for the author's own interest in Wagner. Excluded from an informal Wagner club while attending Juilliard because he lacked sufficient familiarity with the various leitmotifs, Dreyfus became fascinated by the composer and subsequently entranced by his music. Shortly thereafter, he found himself at Yeshiva University writing a paper that posited Wagner as a precursor to the Nazis. Listening once again to Tristan und Isolde convinced him that he had been too hasty to pass judgment. When he expressed his second thoughts in an afterword to the paper, his professor chastised him for not sticking to a single point of view (p. x). Dreyfus claims that this book attempts to satisfy his former professor by sticking to a coherent argument. Almost immediately, however, the coherence of the argument falls apart. This is not to say that Wagner and the Erotic Impulse fails in all of its attempts to make sense of Wagner's erotics, but Dreyfus allows himself too many digressions, compiles anecdotes in place of arguments, and, despite all of his avowed intentions, indulges in rather prudish dismissals of Wagner's understanding of sexuality.

Dreyfus divides his book into five chapters. Chapter 1, "Echoes," attempts to convince the reader that Wagner "was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representations of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love" (p. 2). He supports this contention by investigating various contemporary reports of reactions to Wagner's music. Indeed some of the quotations from writers such as critic and later first Yale Professor of Music Gustave Stoeckel (who finds himself intoxicated by the Siegmund-Sieglinde duet while the music plays, only to feel guilty for that enjoyment of incest when the music ends), Charles Baudelaire (who claims to have allowed the music to "penetrate, invade" him with a "truly sensual voluptuousness"), and Clara Schumann (who finds Tristan "repulsive") are striking and wonderfully salacious. However, haunting Dreyfus's account is a rather infelicitous (and unhistorical) comparison with previous composers: "If one thinks of suggestive scenes in, say, Poppea, Dido, Don Giovanni, Le Comte Ory, Norma, or La Traviata, the dramatic effect depends on listeners' belief in a character's libido, though the music can scarcely be said to fuel an audience's libidinal drives" (p. …

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