I’ve been reading more on Wagner. Wagner And The Erotic Impulse by Laurence Dreyfus, was recommended, via Twitter, by Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker in May during the Covid-19 lockdown that was occurring in both New York and Melbourne. He posted a list of his ten favourite books on music; the first of which was Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann which I have read and enjoyed very much. It’s a remarkable in depth study of a composer; fascinating.
Ross is a committed Wagnerite and has written a book entitled Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music about which he has written here and compiled some advance reviews here. It will be published in September and received 18 out of 18 anvils in this brief review. Another book on Wagner to read – do I have the stamina?!
In making his recommendations Ross said; Having spent a decade in Wagnerland, I feel obliged to pick a Wagner book … (this) study of Wagnerian sexuality hugely influenced my own work on Wagnerism. Thus encouraged I purchased it. I love the cover; and found the contents fascinating and am going to summarise them here so that I remember them.
It was published in 2010 and so is an early e-book so layout was a bit basic and frustratingly the pictures it referenced could only be seen in the print edition. The genesis of the book was a series of public lectures in the British Library in 2003-4 which may explain the obtuse chapter headings.
It starts with Echoes looking at the early responses to the works; as he says both glowing and scathing. While Dreyfus thinks it’s been mostly avoided in the bulk of Wagner literature, he was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representations of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy and the torment of love. Think Siegmund and Sieglinde, Kundry and Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde. In suggestive scenes in other operas the music can scarcely be said to fuel an audience’s libidinal drives. Early audiences are shaken by these scenes and mostly condemn them as being base and it offensive on the part of the composer to arouse such passions. The aesthetic transgression is grave because music aroused sexual thoughts, and both the stimulus and response are out of place in an opera house. At the start of the twentieth century this explicit rendering of sex was pretty eye-opening and Dreyfus considers how it was received at the time, comparing eroticism in other arts, for example poetry and painting and noting how this aspect of music has largely been ignored in critical literature on the subject.
Baudelaire was one of the first to comment on Wagner’s erotics, being abducted and subjected to the music, and therefore a devoted fan. Nietzsche gets a mention as does a famous pacifist essayist and women’s rights advocate and lifelong Wagner admirer Malwida von Meysenbug. Lots of other contemporaneous responses are recorded. While the first tenor to sing the role of Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, denied that this caused his death at the age of 29 and just weeks after the performance in 1865, Wagner always believed it contributed. The critics had the best lines; talking of the saturnal of licentious discord , corybantic orgy, lewd caterwauling etc. A Wagnerite collected the nastiest bits and published them to great success. Clara Schumann hated both Wagner and his music.
In the second chapter, Intentions, Dreyfus considers whether Wagner knew that his work caused an intoxication with sexual desire or “sensualism” as it was referred to and maintains that while he certainly had a preoccupation with sexual love and was all for free and open sensuality Wagner was not a libertine and never claimed eroticism as one of his central achievements. He then reviews the life of the composer, which in Wagner’s own view could never be distinguished from his work. So Dreyfus considers how Wagner’s love affairs impacted on his operas – who he was infatuated with when he was writing which work for instance. He’s trawled through Wagner’s copious writings – essays, letters, diaries – to identify how Wagner’s own erotic tastes influenced his works – both in the librettos and the music. He notes the early influence of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach whose ideas on healthy sensual Love promiscuously confused sexual lust with every other kind of love: love for the great hero, empathetic love, sisterly love, parental love. A view summed up as Love is the source of all joys, but also all sorrows. This influenced Wagner’s initial poem for The Ring especially up to the second act of Siegfried which Wagner then left to compose Tristan und Isolde at which time he was under the influence of Schopenhauer.
According to Schopenhauer music is the most powerful of all the arts because it doesn’t reflect the unconscious Will-to-live but rather exhibits the Will itself. As he says: The sexual impulse is the most vehement of cravings, the desire of desires … accordingly, its satisfaction, corresponding to the will of everyone, is the summit and crown of anyone’s happiness, the ultimate goal of his natural endeavors, with whose attainment everything seems to him to be attained, and the missing of which everything seems to be missed. But once attained sexual passion is extinguished on enjoyment and does not satisfy the individual. According to Wagner sexual love is redemptive, leading to self recognition and self-abnegation of the Will; as Dreyfus says a Tristanesque rather than a Schopenhauerian – solution.
Having read the philosopher, thereafter Wagner is tangling in one way or another with Schopenhauer’s riveting descriptions but is not a pure disciple. According to Dreyfus Wagner’s works, including Tristan und Isolde are aesthetic not philosophical works, and in Tristan whilst he was influenced by reading Schopenhauer he turns his philosophy on its head, by showing that the complete pacification of the Will is through sexual love. So Dreyfus argues, Wagner didn’t ever completely give up on Feuerbach; until the end of his days he continued to modulate between two musico-erotic themes – the idealistic, Romantic vision of love the redeemer and the darkly obsessive vision of sex as curse. This is especially obvious in Tännhauser.
Dreyfus, being a musician, then goes on, in Harmonies, to look at how Wagner composes his erotic harmonies which, he says, are most evident in Tännhauser, Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde although also evident in other works. He compares these three works to The Flying Dutchman where Senta’s music shies away from any suggestion of the erotic. And while the anguish of the Dutchman is a forerunner of every subsequent male sufferer, his sin was apostasy rather than a carnal one. So he is yearning not for a sexual union but redemption in death gained through a woman’s fidelity. Dreyfus is very engaging writing about all this and often quite humorous as here; Sounding more like a palliative nurse administering a lethal injection than a lover sacrificing herself to the object of her infatuation, Senta ensures that de-sexualised interpretation of her madness prevails by the end of the opera.
Dreyfus spends a lot of time on Tännhauser which Wagner says was composed in a state of all-consuming and lascivious arousal! The music motives for Venus, the Sirens and the Bacchantic Rapture explore the interior feel of sexual stimulation: the shivers that accompany erotic attraction, the cooing sounds of seduction, the symptom of rising passion, the compulsive fixations, even the languishing sighs of fulfilment. This is so successful Dreyfus argues that the opera suffers as a result with audiences wanting Tanhäuser to stay with Venus rather than seek religious redemption. I didn’t like this opera much the only time I’ve seen it – maybe that’s why?!
Dreyfus argues that in early versions of The Ring Wagner is focused on Romantic love and avoids any interest in the erotic. He’s still influenced by Feuerbach when writing The Young Siegfried, an early version of Rhinegold and Die Walküre, but even so he once again becomes obsessed with sexual love. Nevertheless for all the higher beings – Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried – erotic impulses are smothered. In drafts of the scene of Brünnhilde’s awakening by Siegfried Wagner included two passionate kisses but these were later deleted; leaving us with only the chaste first kiss.
The real erotic music is to be found in Die Walküre; which Wagner wrote before reading Schopenhauer, when he was a talented if undeclared eroticist. He was at the time infatuated with Mathilde Wesendonck. He builds the growing love between the two in archly lyrical and Romantic tones and gradually eroticizes them as the music becomes more passionate, tragic and uncontrolled. When the moonlight enters the room it becomes a vertiginous array of arpeggios shimmering with ardent passion. Echoing Feuerbach, Wagner sees the world’s chief problem as a lack of Love and only an upsurge of love, specifically sexual union between a man and woman can the world redeem itself from its misery.
Dreyfus goes into great detail about the way Wagner achieves this in the music, analysing the various motives and noting their transformations and the different harmonic techniques used to move the audience. He concludes that Wagner embodies erotic frenzy by making the musical processes – lyrical utterance, rhythmic articulation, harmonic function, and hypermetrical organization – behave as if they are observably out of control, as if the music both mimetically acts out carnal desires, even imagines precise emotional reactions in a heightened state of erotic fervor. So that it is all in the music and the characters don’t have to say a direct word about what is a morally and socially unacceptable union and the audience is completely on their side.
When he came to composing Tristan und Isolde interrupting The Ring to do so, Wagner had completed his deep reading of Schopenhauer. What he found there was a view of love as fearful torment. He intended this opera to be an “ecstatic expression” of the “essential traits” found in Schopenhauer which as Dreyfus says is very different from a poetic and musical recasting of a coherent philosophical position. The density of the eroticism in this opera is revealed by the scarcity of passages unconnected to some inner view of sexual love. Dreyfus notes that the Tristan chord that comes at the beginning of the opera, a rising four-note chromatic motive (often called Desire), has come to be recognized as a quintessential emblem of mimetic sexual desire. Dreyfus goes into great detail about the actual musical notes in this work half diminished chords, minor thirds, major thirds, inverted chords, antepenultimate chords, chords of dominant preparation, French sixth and diminished seventh and so on that is way over my head! What Wagner has done with the Tristan chord is revolutionary in musical terms and Dreyfus argues it is probably due to his then current reading of Schopenhauer.
The erotic nature of the work, described by Wagner as yearning unappeasable, desire forever born anew, thirsting, languishing; commences in the Prelude about which Wagner wrote, for the Paris concerts in 1860 (this is so good I repeat it, as Dreyfus does, in full):
insatiable yearning swelling upwards in a long articulated breath, from the most timid confession, most tender attraction, through anxious sighs, hopes, fears, moans and wishes, joys and torments until the mightiest blast, the most violent effort to find the rupture which unlocks for the boundlessly craving heart the path into the sea of unending sexual bliss. In vain Swooning the heart sinks back so as to languish in yearning …until the final wilting, an inkling dawns on the interrupted glance achieving the highest bliss: the bliss of dying, of being no more of the final release into that wondrous realm, from which we strayed the furthest, where we strive to penetrate with the most vehement force. Do we call it Death? Or is it the nocturnal world of miracles, from which, as the legend informs us, an ivy and a vine once grew upwards on the grave of Tristan and Isolde in the most ardent embrace.
Dreyfus has a bit of fun with this, asking: who undergoes the torments described, who experiences the mightiest blast and who or what wilts gaining an inkling of bliss? Wagner must have expected listeners to recognise the euphemism of a sexual climax … the music encourages that view. He goes through the music of the Prelude in detail identifying motives depicting Desire, Grief, The Glance, Insatiable Yearning, Timid Confession. The love music in Act II is heard as a lengthier depiction of unfulfilled desire with new motives strewn with the yearning Tristan chord; Cursing of the Day, Hymn to the Night. We move from Isolde’s passionate impatience and Tristan’s entrance to frenzied orchestra playing to a somnolent mode of gentle caresses – caused by the extreme exhaustion of the thwarting of so much unfulfilled desire. It is vital to the theme of unfulfilled desire that the sexual act is not seen on stage although Melot indicates to King Mark that the lovers have been caught in flagrante selicto.
Moving on to Götterdämmerung, Wagner infused this last opera in The Ring, written almost twenty years previously, with a Tristanesque idiom. It invigorates the poem and deepens the musical characterizations of the characters, all of whom now express thoughts colored by an erotic undertone. All of the symbols of evil and temptation, immoral power, death and fate and erotic passion and frenzy are merged with the one perverse chord that now embraces them all. This demonstrates a firm belief in the seepage of Desire into every area of human life. Except that here, at the very end of the Immolation scene Wagner offers an imagined solution; instead of endlessly resolving to nowhere, the Tristan chord is now demoted to a functional half-diminished chord that anticipates a punctuating cadence at final rest.
This rang true to me as in the past I’ve discussed The Ring with musicians who’ve played it and they describe the experience the final scene in Siegfried onwards, as a muscular contest between singers and orchestra with conductors struggling to bring the music into balance between the two. You certainly feel the music surge in great waves from then on.
In the chapter titled Pathologies Dreyfus explores Wagner’s reputation for degeneracy of which his love of silk and perfume, which Dreyfus call fetishes, was considered a part. I’ve read before that he liked sumptuous silk and velvet clothing as well as expensive house-hold accoutrements but didn’t know the extent of it. Or how it influenced his music.
Wagner was first named as having a pathological condition in a widely read denunciation in 1873 in which he was accused of moral degeneration in both his use of language and his personal behaviour including his affair with Cosima von Bulow. He was accused of delusions of grandeur and moral insanity and an unnatural increase in sexual desire as evidenced by the erotic element in Tristan und Isolde where he glorifies adultery and Die Walküre where he glorifies incest.
Next came Nietzsche who having first been an admirer became increasingly vitriolic in his criticism of Wagner who he said represented the quintessence of decadence. The Wagnerian opera causes Nietzsche to break out in a disagreeable sweat as opposed to Bizet’s more agreeable Carmen which makes him feel happy, … patient, … settled. Nietzsche is particularly opposed to Wagner’s attempts to find redemption and his misunderstanding of love. He prefers Carmen which reflects the real nature of love which is the “deadly hatred of the sexes!” and where the act of murdering a gypsy constitutes the only conception of love … worthy of a philosopher”.
Dreyfus says in response to this that in not one of Wagner’s operas is a woman killed, not for any reason, never mind out of jealous love … None of his characters perpetrates violence on female characters apart from those who express “lovelessness” through some verbal abuse – Hunding, Klingsor, Siegfried disguised as Gunther – but all in the name of a misguided Love. I’m not sure that characterisation is right. There were some rapes along the way! And plenty of them die but I must admit by their own hand.
But Wagner’s view is certainly better than Nietzsche’s who thinks Wagner’s quest for redemption in love is weak and womanish and leads people into decadence. Therefore his art is sick and he, Wagner, is a neurosis. He is also effeminate and his sexuality is dangerous because it falls short of a masculine domination of its desires .. he expresses both vulnerability and unsatisfied sexual needs. Dreyfus sums it up: An apostle of strength over weakness, Nietzsche perceives a threatening frailty in musical longings not immediately gratified which is why he bears down hard in a rain of verbal blows.
The final section in this chapter looks at Wagner’s longstanding fetish for wearing and surrounding himself with soft fabrics, especially satin and silk, without which he found it difficult to compose music. Nietzsche knew all about this because he had been inveigled from time to time, when friendly with Wagner, to purchase such products. Wagner spent a fortune, mostly other peoples’ money, on pink textiles and rose scented fragrances. This first came publicly to light with the publication in June 1877, a year after the first Ring performance, of a series of letters to his Viennese milliner. These included his detailed requirements, including sketches, for pink satin dressing gowns with flounces, satin undergarments, silk quilts and upholstery and curtains and much more. He had rooms furnished completely in silk, including walls and ceilings. He also required warmth in his clothes so his pink dressing gowns were quilted. There is also evidence that he had women’s dresses made up for him. All of this was very important to his compositional process. And there are lots of references to flowers and pleasing perfumes in the works of which the most explicit are the Flower-Maidens in Parsifal.
Dreyfus then considers Wagner’s anti-semitism. He notes that during his lifetime Wagner was criticised more for his decadence – the ambiguous eroticism of his music as well as anxieties over his sexual leanings more than for anti-semitism. According to Dreyfus it was only after 1945 that anti-semitism came to dominate in portraits of Wagner. Certainly Wagner’s views were considered offensive, but this didn’t carry over into criticism of his operas. He quotes contemporaneous favourable critical responses to Parsifal from significant Jewish figures of the age and notes that Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture was chosen to accompany the opening ceremonies in Basel of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898; which symbolism was not lost of pundits of publicists. The founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl was enthusiastic about Wagner’s operas, writing of his love of Tannhäuser and believing that Wagner’s ability to mesmerize audiences eclipsed the composer’s racial prejudices altogether. Dreyfus then considers what some have seen as a link between Wagner’s alleged effeminacy and Judaism. This all seems a bit muddled and I didn’t find it very compelling. Dreyfus finally concludes; Only by dismissing a mind-set obsessed with cultural pathology can we savour Wagner’s erotics, and only by disengaging them from politics can we assess what they meant for the artistic enterprise as a whole. That seems to be at odds with his earlier contention that the works must be related back to the life.
The final chapter, Homoerotics, considers Wagner’s surprising regard for same-sexual love; which also surfaces in his operas. Wagner was friends with many men and women who lived openly in same sex relationships; this in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He notes how Parsifal in particular was viewed as sympathetic to homosexuality.
Overall he contends that Wagner was also accepting of same sex relationships as well as deep friendships between men. Dreyfus then considers in detail the relationship between Wagner and his great protector King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This includes extracts from the passionate letters the King wrote to the composer and Wagner’s responses that were more muted in tone and passion but equally crammed with pretentious prose. Nevertheless he suggests Wagner was infatuated with the young King as indicated by a public poem dedicated to Ludwig that was published in 1864. Even allowing for poetic hyperbole Dreyfus finds that the correspondence between the two leaves an extraordinary impression of infatuated friendship.
However Wagner’s tolerance did not extend to the acceptance of carnal sodomy or pederasty. Their homoerotics – those of the Greeks – must be sharply distinguished from our homoerotics, and in this statement one can most likely detect the perfectly understandable line Wagner drew between his awareness of classical same-sex love and his own configuration of Freundesliebe.
Brangäne and Kurwenal are given as examples of same-sex lovers in Wagner’s work. Brangäne is in love with Isolde – her life has only a single goal, the happiness of her mistress. The motive Brangäne’s Consolation reflects the idea of sexless homoerotic love. Kurwenal is in love with Tristan even to the extent of being prepared to die for him and the music that accompanies his death is rich in erotic allusions. Similarly King Marke loves Tristan and according to Dreyfus this partnership is certainly the greatest of Wagner’s homoerotic companions. He then moves to a briefer but still detailed analysis of the homoerotic in Parsifal.
In his Epilogue Dreyfus argues; it is clear that Wagner’s devotion to depictions of sexual desire was exceedingly unconventional, indeed unprecedented in the history of art. Wagner was aware that sexual arousal is everywhere and takes a variety of forms; that its allure is often irresistible, and demands truthful artistic representations. Dreyfus goes on; what is most remarkable in Wagner’s erotics are precisely those aspects that are universal.
At the age of 74, in 1949, Thomas Mann wrote; the second act of Tristan I now find, with its metaphysical web of ecstasy, is for young people who don’t know much about their own sexuality. But when I recently listened to the First Act again, I was completely overwhelmed … All the same I couldn’t bear a complete Tristan any more.
Having just seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 1999 production starring Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen I know how he feels. The design by Jürgen Rose was stark which I loved. I agree totally with the description on the Met website: It strips away the usual visual ballast to reveal the searing emotional truth at its core. The lighting was like a James Tyrell’s artwork. Beautiful. You get a sense of it in this picture. This is how we saw the two lovers for nearly the whole duration of Act Two; in silhouette and largely immobile. Letting the music work its magic. It was, as Thomas Mann suggests, emotionally exhausting. Reneé Pape was terrific as King Marke as was Katarina Dalayman as Brangäne. Their interpretations of these roles certainly supports Dreyfus’ theory as described above. We saw both of these singers in the Met’s 2013 production of Parsifal where they performed the roles of Guernemaz and Kundry respectively. See here for my blog on that opera.
Dreyfus concludes this entertaining and original book; Perhaps the day will even come when erotic dissonances are outdated, though I tend to doubt it. Far more likely is that Wagner stumbled upon truths that celebrate the human condition, truths we lover to hear repeated over and over again. For when thoughts of Eros no longer plague us, we might as well stop listening to music altogether.