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Curtain material

Curtain material

Whittall, Arnold

Reading opera between the lines: orchestral interludes and cultural meaning from Wagner to Berg Christopher Morris New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2002); xi, 219pp; L45. ISBN 0 521 80738 7.

Orchestral interludes in opera? Changing the scenery without loss of dramatic momentum, enabling singers to rest their voices, and audiences their eyes? What more needs to be said? Plenty, the problematising musicologist replies, especially if my reading extends from Wagner, Nietzsche and Freud to Adorno, Kristeva, Lacan, Tomlinson and Zizek. As Christopher Morris shows, there can be much intellectual stimulus in pursuing this topic in the company of these thinkers. The organisation of the narrative, which embraces Debussy, Delius, Massenet, Strauss, Pfitzner and Schreker as well as Wagner and Berg, might be too discursive for its own good, and the balance between technically– based close reading and commentary on ‘cultural meaning’ is sometimes awkwardly managed. But this is still a valuable contribution to the discussion of its subject – and might have been even more so had its focus been more firmly rooted in its generative Wagnerian soil.

In his Conclusion, Morris quotes Nietzsche: ‘biologically, modern man represents a contradiction of values; he sits between two chairs, he says Yes and No in the same breath’ (p.201). So why not explore the ways in which the ‘cultural meaning’- which implies, in part, the modernity – of Wagner’s orchestral interludes can be illuminated by reference to ideas of contradiction? Morris doesn’t rule out this strategy, and it is clear that he knows Wagner’s works well enough to be regarded as an authority on them. But problems arise partly from treating other ‘authorities’ – Adorno, Zizek – too respectfully, and from short-circuiting analysis of the Wagnerian materials from which the discussion stems.

Take what Morris calls the Gotterdammerung Trauermarsch: does this truly exemplify Adorno’s sweeping assertion that Leitmotive are ‘juxtaposed like discrete objects […] replacing continuity with a thoroughly undynamic series of moments’? And does this musical eulogy, constructing not a vulnerable, ultimately innocent hero, but ‘a figure who exceeds all doubt, all resistance’, merely throw light ‘on the contribution of the figure who delivers the eulogy, a virtual author figure who now attracts unwelcome attention’ (pp.110-11)? Is the perceived ‘exaggeration’ of the Trauermusik merely (if unintentionally) ‘alienating’, with no element of the kind of exaltation and fulfilment for the listener which has less to do with being cynically manipulated by a hysterical hypnotist – with ‘isolated passivity’, or with succumbing to the ‘herd mentality’ – and more to do with that ‘strange consolation’, emanating from personal perceptions about the ‘transfiguring potential of tragedy’, which Nietzsche himself once recognised?

The allegation that Wagner’s works conspire against their audiences is not adequately debated here, and as often as Morris approaches an account of the ‘tensions’ and ‘(unacknowledged) contradictions at the heart of the music drama’ (p.159), he retreats to the safer musicological ground of a contextualised discourse on unity and consistency (There are also overlaps with his more detailed account of ‘Nietzsche, Bayreuth and the problem of identity’ in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 127/1 (2002)). Much space is given over to assertions about what is regressive, concerned with withdrawal, in thrawl to Freudian and Lacanian obsessions, and there is too little feeling for the dialogue between opposites, for the possibility that – to put it crudely – Wagner can be felt to offer not only ‘escape from’, but also ‘advance into’. And although Morris accepts that ‘Wagner can be seen […] to construct a symbolic economy in which neither music nor language is privileged as a guarantor of meaning’ (p.173) he tends to foreclose on matters of meaning in his detailed commentaries. For him, the later stages of Siegfried comprise ‘what is ultimately a raucous, ham-fisted love scene in Wagner’s most brutal style’ (p.179): end of analysis, twisting an element of truth into the whole story.

Morris touches on much of moment, not least the dialogic tensions in Wagnerian music drama between vocal and orchestral ‘presence’ – though we have to turn to his JRMA article for an explicit Bakhtinian dimension. But by giving much more prominence to cultural than musical commentators, he leaves the consequences of raising this topic in limbo, especially when so much space is devoted to works, like Schreker’s Der Schatzgraber or Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, which might be less well-known to the reader, and also less well-regarded, than Tristan, Pelleas or Wozzeck. However interesting it is to ask the question ‘do the five hours of Tristan [with all that singing] really live up to what the prelude delivers in its superconcentrated ten minutes?’ – my answer, by the way, is ‘yes’ – even to ask it in a book of this kind suggests a pandering to the sweeping and the superficial which, while not borne out as unambiguously as it is in some of Morris’s favoured contextualisers, casts a pall over what could have been a more consistently evolving argument.

The book is more successful in suggesting a network of interacting topics and initiatives concerning Wagner and post-Wagnerian opera than in framing a well-focused debate. It will offer most to readers for whom the perspectives of its attendant philosophers and cultural commentators are the main point of interest, the material on which they have opinions (whether Wagner or other composers) secondary. My own brief commentary here has deliberately stayed with what I see as the essentials, and despite my reservations about method I found it a rewarding as well as a provocative piece of work, by a writer refreshingly willing to put his personal judgements and aesthetic reactions on the line. Dr Morris should now undertake the fully-argued account of Nietzschean perspectives on Wagner and modernity which he seems well suited to provide. But perhaps Zizek (at least) can be left out of it next time?

Arnold Whittall is Emeritus Professor of Musical Theory and Analysis at Kings College London.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2002

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