Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Eroticizing Wagner


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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.

An 1877 Leipzig cartoon, "Atlas in Music," printed in conjunction with an exposé of Wagner's cross-dressing.

When he lays out the non-musical content, such as in "Fetishism and Cross-dressing," you can tell Dreyfus is serving up the best of the documentary evidence he has unearthed, and that he has certified that it is true as well as savory. We learn, for example, that Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the term "transvestite," did so in a book an entire chapter of which is devoted to Wagner's superficial effeminacy and not at all superficial transvestitism.

Even so, Dreyfus' greatest achievement, a great deal of it pioneering, is in his investigation of Wagner's eroticism in the music itself. It's the hardest kind of work a writer about music can do, and Dreyfus does it with rare insight and imagination, and in language as accessible to the interested lay reader as it would be to fellow scholars. His writing about the "Tristan chord" is the most penetrating and evocative since Michael Steinberg's, and he traces its effects beyond Tristan und Isolde, calling Kundry's kiss in the second act of Parsifal "a palimpsest overlaying the Tristan chord. In fact, Wagner situates the Kiss on the very same pitches which, over and over again in Tristan, have proclaimed his theme of insatiable yearning."

Still, it's not for nothing that Dreyfus' final chapter is on "Homoerotics." His analysis of the role erotic if not copulative relationships with men played throughout Wagner's life builds to this observation: "It may or may not be relevant that, of these Friends close to Wagner at the end of his life, three were either born or identified themselves as Jews – and at least three, Joukowsky [a painter who designed the sets for the first Parsifal], the King of Bavaria, and Levi [who conducted the first Parsifal and many subsequent ones], engaged in homophile relationships with men, though none of them seems to have desired a sexual relationship with Wagner!"

My sole regret is that in his discussion of The Ring, Dreyfus (though for clearly stated reasons) writes only a few paragraphs on the final scene of Siegfried, that so-called "love duet" that is one of the great erotic nervous breakdowns in opera. But his writing about that sexually seething first act of Die Walkuere more than compensates.

Wagner and the Erotic Impulse tears the roof off Wagner scholarship. The artistic cosmos it finds inside is a vastly more vital and compelling place.

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