Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Gesture, and the Bayreuth Style

Article excerpt

IN 1936, some 40 years after her debut, the celebrated Wagnerian soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenburg published a performer's guide to Tristan und Isolde.' Although now little-known, this bar-by-bar manual provides an extraordinary wealth of information on the so-called 'Bayreuth style' that held sway from the second festival (1882) until the second World War. For sheer weight of detail it far surpasses such comparable documents as the many eyewitness accounts of Wagner's rehearsal practices or of productions overseen by Cosima. Arranged throughout in two parallel columns - one for pinpointing the relevant text or music and the other for commentary - it sets out rigorous instructions for the would-be performer on blocking, actions, gestures, psychological states, and vocal production. The enterprise is underpinned by an unacknowledged assumption that the meaning of the music, in its various aspects, is self-evident. Bahr-Mildenburg's directions purport to be realisations of an unambiguous and inherently stable 'spirit of poetry and music', instantly understood by performer and audience alike. In reality, of course, her uncritical vision of the work depends upon an extravagantly complex hermeneutics, and is of interest not only for what it reveals about historical context and performance practice but also for the questions it raises on broader issues of semiotics, gesture and narratology.2 In this article I shall attempt to outline the background to Bahr-Mildenburg's interpretation of Wagner's theories and theatrical practices before undertaking an analysis of a short passage from the book. I am not so much concerned with Wagner's 'intentions' as with investigating the nature of the relationship between Bahr-Mildenburg's proposed performance gestures and Wagner's music, through the application of a number of current theories.

Although firmly entrenched within the Bayreuth performing tradition of the early 20th century, Bahr-Mildenburg claims authority for her method through a spurious appeal to authenticity, to the composer's supposed intentions. As she states at the outset, 'The Will of Richard Wagner and his laws [Gesetze] for the performance of his work became clearer to me the more I became familiar with his writings.'3 This is followed by a number of quotations from Oper und Drama that are intended to bear witness to the authenticity of her close (and, as I later suggest, cartoon-like) association of gesture and music. Yet in the text she studiously avoids any mention of the single most significant source for her manual, which must have been obvious to anyone remotely interested at the time and upon which her credibility and authority rested. At least as early as 1899, her portrayal of Isolde was widely considered to derive from the teachings of Cosima Wagner.4 From 1897 until 1914 she performed all the major soprano roles at Bayreuth under Cosima's directorship and assimilated the approved style so well that she ended up codirecting a number of productions.' The quotation from Cosima that launches Bahr-Mildenburg's book, in very small print and dated 25 December 1929, proclaims their joint aim: 'When a style is created, the battle is won. The individual talents will already have distinguished themselves. But what matters to me above all is the creation of a style.'

The style that Cosima wished to create, and Bahr-Mildenburg to record for posterity, laid claim to an unimpeachable authenticity based upon her memory of Wagner's words and intentions. It has been widely denigrated. As Barry Millington remarks, 'her determination to reproduce every gesture, every movement as she remembered it, led to uninspired, over-prescriptive stage choreography.'6 Already in 1896 GB Shaw judged the Bayreuth style of acting to be an amateurish display of tableau-vivant attitudes, 'the striking of stupid poses by singers who were often little more than "animated beer casks".'7 Cosima's injunctions were recorded by Carl Kittel, a musical assistant from 1904 and vocal coach from 1912 until 1939. …

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