The Chronicle Review

In Wagner, So Much More Than Heaving Bosoms

Michael Latz, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Richard Wagner's Parsifal was performed in Stuttgart this year. A new book says too few critics have acknowledged how masterfully the composer summoned up sensuality and sexuality.
November 28, 2010

In the most acclaimed of the operas and so-called music dramas of Richard Wagner, hefty figures from Germanic legend and myth grapple in torrid romances of mythic proportions.

Bosoms heave, all over the place—no audience member, and no Wagner critic, has ever been in doubt about that.

But Laurence Dreyfus says something more happens, too: As the bosoms rise, loins swell right along with them. Too few critics have acknowledged how masterfully the composer summoned up sensuality and sexuality, Dreyfus writes in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (Harvard University Press).

In his view, that was among the composer's greatest contributions to music—in fact, to modernity. "Wagner's devotion to depictions of sexual desire was exceedingly unconventional, indeed unprecedented in the history of art," writes Dreyfus, a professor of music at the University of Oxford. He attributes to Wagner (1813-1883) a vast musical palette, profound psychological insight, and an aesthetic sensibility of stunning refinement—Wagner's many champions would nod, his many detractors scoff—and says those gifts allowed the composer to generate "extended representations of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love"—"erotics far advanced on anything that preceded him in music."

Dreyfus has unusual qualifications for his foray into the passionate and crowded world of Wagner scholarship. Raised and trained in cello and composition in the United States before continuing his studies with great accomplishment in Europe, he is most noted for his interpretations—both scholarly and musical—of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and the English "consort" (court-ensemble) composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. His 1996 book, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, also from Harvard, won an award for best book in musicology from the American Musicological Society in 1997.

Like many a devotee, Dreyfus admits to a long infatuation with Wagner. As an undergraduate, he heard a recording of Götterdämmerung, last of the four parts of Wagner's mammoth The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, and took to collecting Wagner recordings, scores, and books. He also began attending every Wagner performance he could at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, and while a young faculty member at Yale University attended the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany.

By phone from London, Dreyfus wryly notes: "I don't play Wagner, alas, but I think I probably play English consort music in a Wagnerian way. There's definitely an erotics to making music, particularly chamber music, and I'm very interested in that side of things."

Setting about writing his Wagner book, he quickly discovered that the "explicit erotic charge" that the operas provoke figured prominently in their earliest reception. He contends that that response—from audience members and from fellow luminaries of dawning European modernism—can still cast light where scholars have too often declined to look for it.

Charles Baudelaire was an ardent Wagnerian. Hearing Tristan und Isolde elicited from him breathlessness, sighs, joys, torments, and finally, he wrote, "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."

Of course, not all 19th-century Europeans were given to acknowledging so much arousal. Friedrich Nietzsche made himself the chief denunciator of Wagner's eroticism, his "sickness" deserving moral castigation, while other critics considered him a diseased decadent and tarred him with slanders reserved for effeminacy and "Jewishness."

Mind, says Dreyfus: Nietzsche also hailed various of Wagner's works; in Parsifal he found a "synthesis of emotional states, with such acuity and insight that it slices into the soul as with a knife." Tristan und Isolde was "the real opus metaphysicum of all art," said the exacting and eventually mad philosopher.

More commonly, in Wagner's own day, audiences took well his treatment of erotic matters; it drew less censure, for example, than the ogling of ballerinas' bodies, which raised suspicions of hands-on patronage.

Whether approved or not, Wagner was set on capturing the character and variety of sexual arousal in human affairs, says Dreyfus. His interest was not lurid, voyeuristic, or morbid, but human: alert equally to desire, joy, longing, torment, and despair. "What is most remarkable in Wagner's erotics are precisely those aspects that are universal," Dreyfus believes.

But contemplation of the carnal could also overwhelm Wagner, Dreyfus notes. Even though, in his estimation, Wagner "knew exactly what he was doing," he was exhausted—who isn't?—by the unrelenting body blows of the "exhilaration of ... desires, the hope of sex as a panacea for one's ills, the cruel ways sexual desires can torment, or the wish to rise above them."

He was also aware that his contemporaries would tolerate only so much heaving. With all that, says Dreyfus, Wagner "must be classed as a reluctant if obsessive eroticist."

Dreyfus explains, in an interview: "There's a great artistic honesty there. But while sometimes there is a very wanton side to him, engaged with this feverish sense of desire that he knows all about, at other times he's frightened by it." Late in life, he censored in his diaries some of the more blatantly overt references to his own intentions (and proclivities; about which, see below), lest those be misconstrued: "He was not a pornographer, in any sense," says Dreyfus. "He was always trying to imagine some ideal representations of desires."

Rendering those into music was a tall order, one that no previous composer had so seriously undertaken. And yet Wagner could and did make use of resources within 19th-century art music that aided his project. In one long chapter, Dreyfus demonstrates (musical nonspecialists may pause at the terminology but will get the gist) how, for example, Wagner summoned up intertwining bodies through melodic combinations and invertible counterpoint, suggested gender or bodily position through high and low instruments and their tessituras, and enacted sexual climaxes through tonal closure and percussive explosions.

No wonder audiences emerge from Wagner's lengthy, welling operas bushed and craving a smoke.

Dreyfus's reading resonates with others of recent times, although he certainly detects more eroticism than any other. Thomas S. Grey, a professor of music and German studies at Stanford University and a highly respected Wagner expert, praises Dreyfus's book: "A high level of erudition has been applied lightly," he says, in arguing for the centrality of human sexuality to Wagner's dramatic themes and characters and "above all the psychological-expressive language of the music."

And in Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (Oxford University Press, 2003), Roger Scruton, an always galvanizing commentator on diverse issues, acclaims the "resacralizing" of "a desacralized world" that Wagner attempted in Tristan's evocation of a consuming but redeeming erotic passion.

Reviewing Scruton's book in the Times Literary Supplement, the fiction writer and critic Lucy Beckett noted that at the time Wagner wrote the work, revolutionary hopes had been dashed and Christianity had lost its luster for most intellectuals, so "the elevation of the erotic to the one attainable meaning of life was not uncommon."

For Dreyfus, however, Wagner scholarship has failed in frankness about his works' sensuality. Dreyfus considers it too prudish, too removed even from the processes and emotions of music making. He writes: "What we mustn't do is switch off our own erotic sensibilities when responding to art—a syndrome that, depressingly, appears far too often in academic discourse. As soon as we do so, we impoverish aesthetic experience and deprive ourselves of the blindingly obvious."

Yes, he allows in an interview, "it does seem silly now, to most people, to consider as erotic an opera populated by sometimes overweight singers on stage using very large vibrato. But I think it needs to be recognized that so many people are drawn into Wagner's world and are able to imagine that their own private desires are somehow getting played out there, in a very specific way, more in the orchestra than in the actual action."

Of course, he says, one fact of Wagner's life today obscures all aspects of his work: his odious anti-Semitism. His denigrations of Jews, and his heroic Germanic themes, made him the composer Hitler nominated as his favorite, so that since World War II, many music patrons presume, as Dreyfus puts it, "that he somehow helped to lay the foundations for Nazi horrors."

Says Dreyfus: "As someone who's a proud Jew myself, and someone who considers myself a Wagnerian, I've had to make sense of this for myself. ... One stops judging an individual in a crude way but tries to have a more nuanced sense of someone in as full a historical context as possible."

He says that is how it is with Wagner's oddness, too: with his cross-dressing, and his fetish for pink-satin undergarments—ladies'—and rose-scented perfumes, all of which he enveloped himself in for creative flow.

The first exposé of Wagner's predilections came in 1877, before his death. Also known, by then, was his practice of surrounding himself late in life with homophilic if not homosexual young men, whom he welcomed as idolators rather than as active sexual partners.

For the attentive audience member and critic, perfume, cross-dressing, and homophilia surface in Wagner's works, too, says Dreyfus. All things considered, it's no wonder, he says, that all books about Wagner are acts of love, hate, or "a strange mixture of the two." Best, he concludes, to "give this rather important artist some space just to be himself in all his various sides."

For, as he writes in his book, "as knowledge about the human heart isn't noticeably improving all the time, Wagner and the 19th century may have something to teach us."