Eroticizing Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 | 4:50:00 pm

Tim Pfaff, reviews Lawrence Dreyfus' Wagner and the Erotic Impulse. He begins by quoting Dreyfus' opening remark: "Most writers have steered clear of tackling what has long been blatantly obvious – that Wagner was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representations of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love." That is, to write, and compose, about sex."

Personally, (and with arguably good reason) I find everyone who writes about Wagner discusses sex (See Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton, as a recent extended essay on this subject, or Hutcheon and Hutcheon's essay in the Cambridge Opera Journal - Death Drive: Eros and Thantos in Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde -  as just two recent examples). But perhaps that is just me

I haven't read this yet, but will order it today and review later. Should anyone be reading these ramblings - and should they have also read this book - I would be keen to hear what they made of it.



Eroticizing Wagner

At this point, the only good reason to add to the mountains of Wagner scholarship is to add another peak, which is precisely what Lawrence Dreyfus has done in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (Harvard University Press). As Dreyfus writes in his first chapter, "Echoes," "Most writers have steered clear of tackling what has long been blatantly obvious – that Wagner was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representations of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love." That is, to write, and compose, about sex.

Dreyfus tackles, and in a magnificently readable, scholarly examination of all things sexual in Wagner, delivers the goods. His book's scholarly bona fides are patent in every sentence, but what makes his writing so incisive and memorable is that Dreyfus – better known as a Bach scholar and too little known as the violist who founded the consort Phantasm – approaches his subject as a musician and a human being of rare perception and sensitivity. The payoff for following him through his 250-page argument is that Wagner's music sounds deeper, richer and better than ever.

With a Ring around the corner, the time is ripe for some ear-cleaning and looking beyond the tired controversies about Wagner's anti-Semitism, "womanizing," and general kinkiness that surface every time a new Ring is unveiled. What Dreyfus gives us is a Wagner whose well-documented anti-Semitism marked him as a "political crackpot" even in his own day – and a man whose "devotion to depictions of sexual desire was exceedingly unconventional, indeed unprecedented in the history of art."

The Wagner Dreyfus unveils was, while uninterested in sex with men, predisposed to man-love (Maenner-Liebe) in a way that would make him something of a model in today's sexual-political climate. As he writes in "Pathologies," "Wagner's obsession with sex even extends to a surprisingly positive assessment of male homosexuality."

One of Dreyfus' main points is that Wagner's view of sex was, besides far "outside outside the box," anything but doctrinaire. It was not just one thing – and appeared even more strongly in the music than in the composer's voluminous writings – and it kept transforming throughout his life, as he sought (unsuccessfully except perhaps in his operas) to escape its tortures.

Dreyfus returns the favor by writing a book as subtle and undoctrinaire as its subject. Even in his examination of the compelling extra-musical material – Wagner's love of silk and satin, perfumes (particularly rose), and the color pink (and what shade of pink); his habit of doing his most flagrant cross-dressing while composing, and in order to compose; his profound susceptibility to dominating women; and his lifelong pattern of establishing man-love friendships with both heterosexual and (Dreyfus' own preferred term) same-sexual men – Dreyfus is unflinching, even-handed, cliche-averse, and anything but sensationalist. The material he presents is amply sensational.

Read the rest here