Wagner and the Erotic Impulseby Laurence Dreyfus
Though his image is tarnished today by unrepentant anti-Semitism, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was better known in the nineteenth century for his provocative musical eroticism. In this illuminating study of the composer and his works, Laurence Dreyfus shows how Wagner’s obsession with sexuality prefigured the composition of operas such as/b>
Though his image is tarnished today by unrepentant anti-Semitism, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was better known in the nineteenth century for his provocative musical eroticism. In this illuminating study of the composer and his works, Laurence Dreyfus shows how Wagner’s obsession with sexuality prefigured the composition of operas such as Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. Daring to represent erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of sexual desire, Wagner sparked intense reactions from figures like Baudelaire, Clara Schumann, Nietzsche, and Nordau, whose verbal tributes and censures disclose what was transmitted when music represented sex.
Wagner himself saw the cultivation of an erotic high style as central to his art, especially after devising an anti-philosophical response to Schopenhauer’s “metaphysics of sexual love.” A reluctant eroticist, Wagner masked his personal compulsion to cross-dress in pink satin and drench himself in rose perfumes while simultaneously incorporating his silk fetish and love of floral scents into his librettos. His affection for dominant females and surprising regard for homosexual love likewise enable some striking portraits in his operas. In the end, Wagner’s achievement was to have fashioned an oeuvre which explored his sexual yearnings as much as it conveyedas never beforehow music could act on erotic impulse.
The Nazis have cast a long, retrospective shadow over Wagner, but as Laurence Dreyfus argues in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, what scandalized (and delighted) 19th-century listeners to Wagner's music was not its politics but its unbridled sensuality. Dreyfus explores the aesthetic and biographical issues (including the composer's fondness for wearing women's silk lingerie) with admirable clarity, laying bare an aspect of the composer that is both central and often strangely ignored.
Even in this supposedly liberal era Wagner's detractors still wag fingers at his love-life...As this ground-breaking new study suggests, it's the erotic yearnings so central to his great works that remain arresting.
Michael Scott Rohan
[Dreyfus] has produced a scholarly yet eminently readable volume that will bewitch any opera-lover. Like a benign magicianlike Wagner himself, perhapsDreyfus conjures up a vivid array of characters and allows them to reveal their innermost thoughts through their own words and deeds. Nietzche and Schopenhauer are there, as are Baudelaire, Bulow, Heine, D'Annunzio, Thomas Mann, Krafft-Ebing and Henry James.
At this point, the only good reason to add to the mountains of Wagner scholarship is to add another peak, which is precisely what Laurence Dreyfus has done in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse...The payoff for following him through his 250-page argument is that Wagner's music sounds deeper, richer and better than ever...Dreyfus' greatest achievement, a great deal of it pioneering, is in his investigation of Wagner's eroticism in the music itself. It's the hardest kind of work a writer about music can do, and Dreyfus does it with rare insight and imagination, and in language as accessible to the interested lay reader as it would be to fellow scholars...Wagner and the Erotic Impulse tears the roof off Wagner scholarship. The artistic cosmos it finds inside is a vastly more vital and compelling place.
[Dreyfus's] persuasive contention is that this music is not only erotic to our ears and understanding, but that it was interpreted as such from the very start. Furthermore, he shows that the explicit connections of eroticism with music long predate the nineteenth century, going back at least as far as the terpsichorean tradition of the sixteenth century. Dreyfus impressively manages to argue that music can be interpreted as expressly erotic without getting himself entangled in the complexities of whether music can in general be assigned particular interpretation.
Dreyfus' book is an excellent account of what is by any measure a crucial aspect of Wagner's extraordinary art.
This is an altogether unusual portrait of the composer, one resting on a platform of brazen sexuality. Dreyfus posits Eros both as a prism through which to access Wagner's biography and oeuvre anew, and as the impulse driving the latter into existence...The hazards attendant on a study of Eros are offset by the strength of Dreyfus's argument. He elevates the erotic to a central paradigm for Wagner: its force is thematised in Tannhäuser, Tristan and Parsifal, documented throughout Wagner's writings, and substantiated by contemporary discourse, both passionate espousal and disgust. But as the author later explains, erotic impulse is also fundamental to the experience of music...Telling details are often the gems in any history, and this book is richly studded...Dreyfus's command of sources is impressive; all are newly translated, their contextual breadth forming a latter-day answer to Greenblatt's so-called new historicism...A rich study, saturated with insight, fresh perspective and delivered with panache. The virtuosity of Dreyfus's readings is often dazzling, if challenging to a more mainstream approach to Wagner...Yet Dreyfus's strategy of bringing historical voices to the fore allows him to open up broader hermeneutic horizons with ease...So thought-provoking is this study in its claims that it will surely give impetus to further scholarly work on erotics, as an historical nodal point both for Wagner reception, and perhaps for music more broadly.
Nietzsche's posthumous fragment [on the ardours of music for Tristan und Isolde] is one of many examples which Laurence Dreyfus cites in his book to prove that it wasn't Richard Wagner's broadsides against "Judaism" but rather his connection to eroticism and sexuality which enraged contemporaries. Dreyfus notes rightly that the relationships between what Nietzsche termed Wagner's "morbid sexuality," the treatment of Eros in his music dramas, and its reception at the time has thus far been treated only hesitantly in Wagner scholarship. Wagner and the Erotic Impulse tries to fill this gap, and Dreyfus, to come directly to the point, doesn't shy away from naming "the actual word for the ardours of the music in Tristan." That this musicologist (and virtuoso on the viola da gamba) who teaches at Magdalen College Oxford also exhibits a downright off-the-cuff and refreshingly irreverent handling of Wagner and the subject of eroticism is certainly surprising...That music should be able to simulate (or even stimulate) desire because it lacks an erotic object, and that by "purely musical" means should be able to represent tension, impulses, arousal and deliverance ought to enlighten every Wagner-listener. And how the tender love motive in the first scene of Die Walküre has risen to a wild mania at the end of the first act is conveyed to the listener, if not consciously, then certainly unconsciously. One can confidently subscribe to Dreyfus's conclusion that Wagner's erotics had decidedly more significant artistic consequences than did his anti-Semitism...[Dreyfus] must be credited with having treated a noteworthy theme without striking wrong notes.
- Harvard University Press
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- 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
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Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Karol Berger, Stanford University
Barry Millington, Editor of the Wagner Journal
Meet the Author
Laurence Dreyfus is Professor of Music at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Magdalen College.
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