Academic journal article Notes

Wagner's Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity

Academic journal article Notes

Wagner's Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity

Article excerpt

Wagner's Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity. By David Trippett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. [xiv, 448 p. ISBN 9781107014305. $110.] Appendices, bibliographic ref- erences, index.

David Trippett's Wagner's Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2013) explores "what cultural circumstances al- lowed Wagner to arrive at his theory of melody as a means of communication" and "what makes [Wagner's] melodies possible in the form they take" (p. 11). The project of Wagner's Melodies is to investigate the role of melody within far-reaching realms of nineteenth-century scholarship-from mu- sic theory, philosophy, politics, linguistics, and legal studies to natural and physical sciences-and demonstrate the relation- ships between these strands of discourse and Richard Wagner's aesthetic universe.

This is likely one of the first published attempts to draw connections between Wagner's aesthetics of expression and the nineteenth-century world of scientific in- quiry, and the results are fascinating. Quoting Hector Berlioz, Trippett writes in the second chapter of his book, "[Melody] is a gift of nature" (p. 70). Exploring the natural "autogenesis" of melodic inspira- tion, Trippett reveals a range of scientific measures undertaken in nineteenth-century Germany to pinpoint the physiological ori- gins of melodic cognition. Many of the sci- entific ventures that Trippett describes in this chapter and elsewhere suggest a trend toward understanding "melodic invention as a cognitive process rather than occult in- spiration," a real divergence away from the coexistent conception of melody as a result of "God's grace" (p. 78). Demonstrative of this fascination with the psychology of melodic writing was the invention of the psychograph, a machine that measured "creative inventiveness as nervous electric- ity, i.e. as literalized material thought" (p. 101). This device, among others Trippett also describes, was used mid-century as a means of probing into the question "where do melodies come from?" (p. 93).

Though Wagner sometimes seems to re- cede in Trippett's discussions of this and other broad-based issues treated through- out the book, in this section, Trippett even- tually posits that Wagner's seemingly "un- conscious creative process" was just what practitioners of the psychograph sought to understand (p. 84). Trippett also describes a special fascination among psychologists with the free, unconscious creativity es- poused by Wagner's characters in Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin; interestingly, both operas seem to thematize the funda- mental questions of melodic origins that period psychologists sought to understand (p. 93). These operas, then, according to Trippett, are somewhat "self-reflexive" in that they seem to be constructed according to this process of Wagnerian "unconscious creativity," while also narrating the method- ological elusiveness of melodic craftsman- ship (p. 93).

Trippett addresses Wagner's understand- ing of the origins of his own melodies throughout the book, but provides espe- cially novel insights on this issue in his chapter on the legal challenges the com- poser faced during his lifetime. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is Trippett's description of the nineteenth- century impression of musical plagiarism as an "un-German" act (p. 131). As Trippett demonstrates, Wagner was "subject to accu- sations of plagiarism as late as 1870" in the form of both "general imitation" and "spe- cific hackwork" (p. 131). Much of this chapter reveals the legal repercussions of such accusations, Wagner's responses to his challengers, the veracity of allegations lev- eled against the composer, and the general understanding of musical originality during Wagner's lifetime. Though the chapter is, in many respects, very thorough, the issue of the "un-Germanness" of musical plagia- rism probably deserves more attention than it receives. …

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