Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

by Karol Berger

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Beyond Reason relates Wagner’s works to the philosophical and cultural ideas of his time, centering on the four music dramas he created in the second half of his career: Der Ring des NibelungenTristan und IsoldeDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Parsifal. Karol Berger seeks to penetrate the “secret” of large-scale form in Wagner’s music dramas and to answer those critics, most prominently Nietzsche, who condemned Wagner for his putative inability to weld small expressive gestures into larger wholes. Organized by individual opera, this is essential reading for both musicologists and Wagner experts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292758
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 552
Sales rank: 1,212,171
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Karol Berger is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Department of Music, Stanford University. His award-winning books include Musica Ficta; A Theory of Art; and Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow

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Beyond Reason

Wagner Contra Nietzsche

By Karol Berger


Copyright © 2017 Karol Berger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96613-0


The Secret of Music-Dramatic Form

Music Drama as Opera


The "secret of form" in the music dramas of Richard Wagner, a secret whose existence was announced and solution promised in the title of Alfred Lorenz's tetralogy that appeared between 1924 and 1933, remains unsolved. But if we rightly feel to be closer today to its solution than Lorenz ever got, this is surely due to Carl Dahlhaus's voluminous writings on the subject. Not that Dahlhaus himself ever offered a solution; he was far too brilliant and impatient to be interested in answering questions. His strength lay elsewhere — in an uncanny ability to identify interesting questions and in knowing how to ask them. The working out of answers he left for the most part to others. But to ask a question in the right way is to go far toward providing an answer.

A central concern in this book will be with Wagner's large-scale music-dramatic form, the shaping of complete acts and works in the post-1848 music dramas. To the best of my knowledge, Dahlhaus himself never presented a comprehensive analysis of a complete music drama or even of a complete act; his analytical observations remained focused on smaller music-dramatic units, on "poetic-musical periods" and scenes. All the same, his reconstruction of Wagner's operatic dramaturgy, I believe, offers an indispensable starting point for anyone who might want to attempt a large-scale analysis today.

The most comprehensive statement of these insights can be found in the 1971 book Wagners Konzeption des musikalischen Dramas. The ideas presented there were repeated and further developed on a number of occasions, the most important of which are another book of 1971, Richard Wagners Musikdramen, and two late statements: "The Dramaturgy of Italian Opera," first published in Italian in 1988, and "What Is a Musical Drama?" first published in English a year later. My reconstruction of Dahlhaus's thought will be based primarily on these four texts, and on the first one in particular. And it will be a reconstruction rather than a straightforward summary. Dahlhaus's thinking is too nimble-footed and mercurial, too ready to digress and follow its quarry along some obscure but promising byway, to allow for a simple summary. But there is a systematic structure hidden beneath the luxuriant overgrowth, and I shall try to bring it out into the open.


What Dahlhaus calls "dramaturgy" is not (as an English-speaking person might expect) the theory of dramatic production and performance, but something more inclusive, the theory of drama, a part of what Aristotle called "poetics": "'Dramaturgy' is to drama what 'poetics' is to poetry: it denotes the essential nature of the categories that form the basis of a drama and can be reconstructed in a dramatic theory." At a minimum, it seems to me, such a theory has to answer two questions. First, what is drama, which is to say, what are its aims? And second, what are its means and how do they serve the aims? It is by following these questions that we should be able to enter the thickets of Dahlhausian thinking without losing our way in them.

"The common definition of drama as a series of events represented onstage" is dismissed right away as "unexceptionable" but also "so banal as to be useless as a starting-point in the search for the basic difference between an ordinary play and a drama in which music is essential." Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Dahlhaus's method as he develops his conception of the Wagnerian post-1848 dramaturgy is that he proceeds by comparing and contrasting this dramaturgy with that of earlier opera (a common move) and by comparing and contrasting the dramaturgy of earlier opera with that of spoken drama (a move that is not common at all, and that may reflect Dahlhaus's eight years of experience as the dramaturg at the Deutsches Theater in Gottingen). Like Wagner, and indeed like Aristotle, Dahlhaus accepts that drama is an onstage representation of an action (a series of events) involving acting and suffering characters. But he also understands that, if he is to capture the essential differences between spoken drama and opera, on the one hand, and between both of these and music drama, on the other, he must consider the means employed by each.

That the main means employed by spoken drama is language, and that that employed by opera is music, is obvious. Less obvious, and crucial, is Dahlhaus's next step. The main discursive form of modern spoken drama, he claims (taking his clue primarily from Peter Szondi's 1956 Theorie des modernen Dramas), is dialogue: "The medium of modern drama, as it developed since the sixteenth century, is the dialogue. And dialogue, as the carrier of form, tends to be exclusive. Epic and contemplative moments, which were constitutive for the ancient and medieval theater ..., were eliminated from drama" And similarly: "The medium and the sole formal principle of modern drama since the Renaissance is dialogue. ... The goal of dramatic dialogue is a moment of decision when a character becomes aware of his moral autonomy and acts according to his inner motivation" Since the late sixteenth century, modern spoken drama develops its action, a series of events in each of which one situation is changed into another, primarily by means of a dialogue in which the participating characters come to decisions concerning how they will act. Other discursive forms, such as the monologue or the chorus, forms that might introduce contemplative or epic components, are either absent or marginal; in any case more often than not monologues are in effect interior dialogues designed to allow the character to arrive at a decision.

In opera, a dramatic type that developed simultaneously with modern spoken drama ("opera came into the existence at the same time as the drama of the modern era — the drama of Shakespeare and Racine"), the principal means are both language and music and Dahlhaus never tires to remind us that, contrary to popular misrepresentations, the Wagnerian reform of the early 1850s did not envisage putting the music in the service of the words, but rather putting it, along with the words, in the service of the drama: "The text, the poem, is — just like the music — understood by Wagner as a means of the drama, not as its essence." But if in theory both the language and the music are to serve the drama, in operatic practice, in singing, the music overwhelms the language and becomes the opera's principal and defining means. "When, therefore, we speak of 'musical dramaturgy' — dramaturgy that makes use of musical means — we should refer only to the function of music in the creation of a drama. ... Music does not alight from somewhere outside upon a drama that already has an independent existence, but rather ... the music alone creates the drama, which is that drama of a special kind." Moreover, the main discursive form of opera is not one that would correspond to the dialogue of the spoken drama, that is, recitative dialogue, but rather one corresponding to the spoken monologue, the aria. What is central in the spoken drama is marginal in the opera, and vice versa. The predominant forms of operatic discourse are the "closed" forms of "melody" (primarily the aria but also others, such as the duet and the ensemble), not the "open" form of "declamation" (the recitative). Conflict between characters is expressed in a configuration of arias, not in dialogue:

The emphasis has shifted from dialogue, where it lies in a play (which expresses conflict in arguments), to a configuration of monologues in which the affects, as the underlying structure of the drama taking place among the characters, are made musically manifest. ... If modern European spoken drama ... rests on the premise that everything important which happens between people can be expressed through speech, then opera ... has at its core a profound distrust of language. It is not arguments exchanged in recitatives, but affects expressed in arias — i.e., in soliloquies — that reveal the true substance of relationships between characters in a musical drama. ... Presenting a configuration of characters in a drama of affects is the stylistic principle opera imposes on the action represented, just as expressing human conflicts in dialogue is the stylistic principle of a play.

The different means and discursive forms emphasized, respectively, by the spoken drama (speaking, dialogue) and opera (singing, aria) are correlated with the difference of the essential features of what gets represented in them — correlated, since it would be hard, and perhaps unnecessary, to decide what is the cause and what the effect in this case. Speaking is a medium of reflection that allows the characters to connect the experienced present with the recollected past and anticipated future, and a dialogue involves at least two such reflective characters. Hence a spoken play emphasizes external action (what happens between individual characters) and its protagonists are reflective in the sense that they relate the present moment to the past and the future: one acts on motives deriving from the remembered past, attempting to change the presently experienced situation into an anticipated future one. Singing, on the other hand, and in particular the solo aria, is a medium of self-expression that allows the character to vent his presently experienced affect without connecting it to the past or the future. Hence an opera emphasizes internal passion, what happens not between individual characters but within this individual character who remains unreflective, that is, imprisoned in the present, and passive, that is, interested not in acting but in passionate self-expression. Thus, Dahlhaus argues:

[In opera] the stress falls on the scenic-musical moment which is fulfilled by itself and therefore encloses a lyrical aspect. Any given situation is unreflectively experienced in its presence, rather than interpreted on the basis of the relationships that link it with the past and the future. And it seems that the difference with drama is rooted in the nature of music ...: The musical tone, just as the affect that it expresses, is "fettered to the sensuous present," so that what went on before and what is still to come pale in significance. Paradoxically speaking, the decisive moments of the action in opera are those when the action stops and is suspended. ... The musical-scenic present is not a function of the dramatic aim-directed process that transcends them, but the reverse, the process is a function of the self-sufficient present.

The correlation of the difference in the way time is handled in drama and in opera with the difference between the dominant medium of each is repeatedly emphasized by Dahlhaus: "If, in a play, emphasis lies less on what is happening at the present moment than on the relations to past and future that generate the dialectics of the moment, it is because of the primacy of speech over scenic elements. ... In opera, conversely, the focus on the present moment has to do with music's affinity to the scenic." And again:

In spoken drama, ... a large ... part of the action is usually unseen. The language of the dialogue adds other meanings to what is shown onstage and these may be remote in both space and time. Music, by contrast, is tied to the place in which it occurs and relates to the moment in which it belongs. ... Singing is the essence of operatic music, expressing as it does the present moment ...; and the musical present manifested in it is simultaneously the scenic present. Melodic expression, unlike verbal expression, does not reach beyond the present moment but exists entirely in the given situation; it isolates that situation and lifts it out of its context, so that what has gone before recedes into oblivion with no thought given to the consequences which will follow the particular moment.

In short (table 1), the spoken drama centers on action (dynamic change of situation), and opera on passion (static expression of affects released by the situation). The protagonist of the former relates his present to the past and future, and the protagonist of the latter remains imprisoned in the present. This contrast is correlated with (that is, it is either the cause or the effect of) the contrast between the means and discursive forms emphasized in each type of drama — spoken dialogue and sung aria, respectively. While Dahlhaus's view of opera as centering on passion and aria rather than on action and recitative is something of a commonplace, the second component of his analysis — the observation that opera, unlike spoken drama, emphasizes the present moment at the expense of its connections with the past and future — is highly original. As we shall see, it is crucially important for his understanding of Wagner's dramaturgy.


"The name 'music drama,'" writes Dahlhaus, "seems to have established itself in the 1860s as a designation for what was specific to Wagner's works that one ... did not want to classify as operas." The Wagnerian music drama, Dahlhaus implies, can be understood only with reference to the contrast between spoken drama and opera: it is a new dramatic type that falls somewhere in between the two older ones. The music drama aspires to the condition of the spoken drama, without wanting or being able to give up entirely on its operatic heritage and musical means — that is, on being, precisely, a music drama:

Wagner proceeds in an ambiguous fashion. While the intention to realize drama musically as a dialogue-drama is unmistakable, the subterranean operatic tradition remains paramount. ... On the one hand, music drama confers on dialogue the rights that were reserved for it in the modern spoken drama, but not in opera; and the epic-contemplative parts, chorus and monologue, are pushed back. ... On the other hand, however, the dialogic structure of music drama that was Wagner's aim is not infrequently endangered by relicts of compositional technique deriving from operatic tradition from which he did not emancipate himself as completely as he believed.

The aspiration to the condition of spoken drama means that an attempt had to be made to shift the point of gravity from monologues to dialogue, that is, from arias to recitative. But for this shift of the point of gravity to be effective, it was not enough simply to phase out or attenuate the arias; rather, the recitative dialogue had to become musically more emphatic, more substantial and interesting, more weighty. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, it would not do simply to make the recitative more like aria, to transform the recitative dialogue into something akin to a duet. The closed forms of vocal melody — the aria, the duet — tend to isolate the present from the past and future, and this isolation was precisely what the music drama wanted to overcome. Thus, what was needed was a new way to compose the recitative, a way that would preserve its "open" declamatory character and yet make it musically more substantial, and, most important, put these new musical means at the service of the drama: it is on them primarily that the burden of binding the present with its past and future was to rest. Indeed, in an entry in her Diary on January 12, 1873, Cosima Wagner noted her husband's remark: "'That is my real innovation: that I have incorporated dialogue into opera, and not just as recitative.'"

This new way of composing recitative dialogue Wagner found by examining and adapting the developmental discourse of the Beethovenian symphony. In a nutshell, his solution was to leave the style of the vocal lines in principle intact (the declamation was pushed in the arioso direction already in the Romantic operas of the 1840s) and to concentrate the musical and dramatic interest on the developing variation of the accompanying orchestral discourse based on motives of reminiscence and anticipation — on the Leitmotivtechnik that provided a present moment with a recollected past and expected future. Wagner's aim, says Dahlhaus, was "to create a rapprochement between the arioso-declamatory style of vocal melody and the expressive and allegorical motivic writing for orchestra" And the main point of the latter was not merely to provide the orchestral discourse with melodic substance and interest, but to accomplish by musical means what in a spoken drama was accomplished by means of language:

The symphonic style in Wagner is the foundation of a leitmotivic technique which forms a counter-instance to the predominance ... of the musical and scenic present. Leitmotifs, which dramaturgically nearly always function as reminiscence motifs, link the present moment, the visible event, with earlier events or with ideas whose origins lie in the pre-history. However, the delineation of a second, unseen action ... belongs ... to the dramaturgy of the spoken genre.


Excerpted from Beyond Reason by Karol Berger. Copyright © 2017 Karol Berger. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Prologue: Beyond Autonomy
The Uncanny Grace: A Gloss on Kleist’s Marionettes
Beyond Reason
Religion, the Enlightenment, the Counter-Enlightenment: The New Configuration

part one
1. The Secret of Music-Dramatic Form: Music Drama as Opera
2. Der Ring des Nibelungen: The Anarchist Utopia
Das Rheingold: The Fall
Die Walküre: How One Becomes Human
 Act 1: Becoming Wagner
 Act 2: Becoming Brünnhilde
 Act 3: Waiting for the Hero
Siegfried: How One Becomes a Hero
 Act 1: Getting the Sword
 Act 2: Using It
 Act 3: The Awakening
Götterdämmerung: The Apocalypse
 Prologue: The Past and the Future
 Act 1: The Entrapment 1
 Act 2: The Entrapment 2
 Act 3: Death and Transfiguration
 The Myth of Revolution

part two
3. Tristan und Isolde: The Erotic Utopia
 The Lyrical Axis
 The Narrative Axis
 The Orchestral Strand
 The Music-Dramatic Form
 The Myth of Will
4. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Politics after Tristan
 Act 1: The Knight’s Failure
 Act 2: The Clerk’s Failure
 Act 3, Part 1: A Lesson in Poetics
 Act 3, Part 2: The Shoemaker’s Triumph
 The Myth of Nation
5. Parsifal: Ethics after Tristan
 The Communion Sequences of Acts 1 and 3
 The Monologues of Acts 1 and 3
 Act 2: The Kiss of Self-Knowledge
 The Music-Dramatic Form
 Eros and Agape
 The Myth of Redemption
 Epilogue: Wagner contra Nietzsche
 Wagner and Nietzsche: A History of the Relationship
 Becoming Nietzsche
 Nietzsche contra Wagner, Wagner contra Nietzsche

Appendix 1. Das Rheingold: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 2. Die Walküre: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 3. Siegfried: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 4. Götterdämmerung: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 5. Tristan und Isolde: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 6. Die Meistersinger: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Appendix 7. Parsifal: The Music-Dramatic Plan
Abbreviations Used in Notes
Works Consulted


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