Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music

By Michael P. Steinberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
MINOR MODERNISMS

I sat at night in violent pain on a bench. Opposite me
on another two girls sat down. They seemed to want to
discuss something in confidence and began to whisper.
Nobody except me was nearby and I should not have un-
derstood their Italian however loud it had been. But now
I could not resist the feeling, in face of this unmotivated
whispering in a language inaccessible to me, that a cool
dressing was being applied to the painful place.1


Music Trauma, or, Is There Life after Wagner?

In the introduction I suggested that the mutuality of form and ideology in Wagner produced a crisis of musical integrity. For Wagner, musical purity equals cultural purity. Music drama becomes the guarantor of the German absolute, of that style of German national assertion at once triumphalist and anxious in the years around 1870. Through the subtlety of his aesthetic and psychological inventions, Wagner may himself undermine the strength and consistency of his own doctrinal claims. The claims, however, remain intact. Moreover, they remain intact simultaneously as aesthetic and political claims. For this reason it strikes me as counterhistorical to separate Wagner's aesthetic and political tenets and practices.2

In this chapter, I will chart efforts to recover operatic integrity after Wagner. These efforts, and my analysis of them, both respect and adhere to the

1 Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street,” in “One-Way Street” and Other Writings, trans. Edmund
Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1979), pp. 94–95.

2 This position reflects my disagreement with Lydia Goehr's treatment of Wagner in her inter-
esting study The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1998). For example, in a passage that represents her
general position well, Goehr suggests that Wagner “went profoundly wrong whenever he filled in
the ideal of the purely human with, say, substantively anti-Jewish content. But … the same
formal view could also have been filled in differently” (p. 130). I would argue that the assertion
of purity—whether posited by Wagner or by his interpreters in his name or in his defense—places
into jeopardy any specific representation through which it is “filled in.” In other words, the fact
that Wagner's separation of the human and the Jewish was conflicted and often contradictory, as
I argued in the preceding chapter, does not mitigate the basic violence of the separation.

-193-

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