Wagner's Melodies

By Whittall, Arnold | Gramophone, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Wagner's Melodies


Whittall, Arnold, Gramophone


Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity

By David Trippett

Cambridge University Press, HB, 460pp, 70 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-107-01430-5

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David Trippett's main tide might seem to promise the kind of comprehensive discussion of thematic materials that readers already familiar with Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights (1949) or FE Kirby's Wagner's Themes (2004) might welcome; especially if, in prioritising 'melody', the book's narrative were to offer provocative and unhackneyed comparisons between Wagner and those more obviously tuneful contemporary composers of opera Berlioz, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Verdi.

To say you like Wagner mainly for his tunes invites the ridicule invariably meted out to those who have allegedly failed to appreciate what really matters about his most characteristic and challenging works. Trippett steers well clear of such knockabout criticism, and the second part of his title, Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity, flags up the prospect of something a good deal more ambitious and unconventional than Newman or Kirby have offered. His aim is not to lead you from the foursquare vocal lines of Wagner's youthful operas to the leitmotif-riddled 'musical prose' of the music dramas. Rather, according to the blurb, he proposes to 'place the composer's ideas about melody in the context of the scientific discourse of his age'. And although the blurb also claims that Trippett has succeeded in uncovering 'a new and controversial discourse that placed melody at the apex of artistic self-consciousness', the text seems less than wholeheartedly committed to showing how what is at 'the apex' relates to other materials, not least to harmony. Even if, as he reminds us, Wagner thought of form as 'an expansion of melody', it is possible that Trippett sees the analysis of techniques of musical 'expansion' as adequately covered in the existing literature.

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Trippett's book is more intellectual history than musicology or music criticism, with Wagner regularly ceding the centre ground to broader and even more elusive topics whose principal effect is to underline how different--even (by modern standards) primitive--mid-19th-century science could be. Wagner's Melodies is therefore very different from Thomas Grey's Wagner's Musical Prose, Texts and Contexts (CUP: 1995), to which it acts in some respects as a critical continuation. …

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