Notes 60.1 (2003) 187-189
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Reading Opera between the Lines: Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg. By Christopher Morris. (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [xi, 219 p. ISBN 0-521-80738-7. $60.00.] Music examples, bibliography, index.
Who can forget his or her first experience of Bayreuth? Hearing the incomparable Hildegard Behrens on a hot July day almost twenty years ago at a Generalprobe for Siegfried remains etched in my memory (that and Wolfgang Wagner rising to berate angrily an insensitive audience for sniggering at a clearly indisposed Manfred Jung!). In this latest addition to the Cambridge University Press series New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism, Christopher Morris considers the influence of the Bayreuth experience and the seduction of the audience into what is practically a "total immersion of the senses, leaving [End Page 187] the spectator bereft of any normal resistance" (pp. 161- 62). Mixing traditional analytical tools with a broad sweep across much critical discourse, Morris probes deep into the particular subject of this monograph, namely orchestral interludes and their imminent cultural meaning, and locates within these formal sections of selected Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian operas disembodied and highly subjective music at its most intense.
After a brief historical overview of the history, function, and development of the genre of the orchestral interlude in opera over the centuries, from its entr'acte origins to its organic place in the Wagnerian music dramas, Morris discusses readings of specific orchestral interludes written between 1850 and 1922 by Wagner, Frederick Delius, Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Hans Pfitzner, Alban Berg, and Franz Schreker. Morris considers their nondiagetic role "in promoting illusion and identification, their participation in the construction of music's identity, and the interaction of that construction with issues of gender and sexuality" as "a means of coming to terms with the ideological roots of this ambiguous invisible theatre" (p. 16). While drawing on a range of psychoanalytical and philosophical writings, from Sigmund Freud to Theodor Adorno, Morris applies Jacques Lacan's characterization of regression as a "reduction of the symbolic to the imaginary" to explain the mode of behavior which Bayreuth and Wagner's music promotes (p. 162). Also, within the context of a contemporaneous cultural decadence, he questions "to what extent ... the interlude's resistance to the performing body—the absence of the singers and the concealment of the orchestra—[is] reflected in or contradicted by the orchestral music, by the body in the music" (p. 12), suggesting that "the interludes potentially represent critical battlegrounds in which the perception of musical decline confronts the metaphysics of music and the legacy of a symphonic tradition which is supposed to have been preserved in opera" (p. 13). Morris makes the heady claim that "the orchestral interlude proves to be representative of profound and far-reaching cultural phenomena that exceed mere style history" (p. 204) stating that "the fact that they can unleash experiences so Other to the staged action and stand apart so clearly from its visual and verbal means, yet remain so utterly integrated into the total experience, testifies to the post-Wagnerian desire for all-embracing illusion" (p. 205).
Beginning with the "Walk to the Paradise Garden" interlude from Delius's fin-de-siècle opera A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901 —the date of the first performance is given), Morris proceeds in chapter 2 (rather coyly subtitled "What the Conductor Saw"—the preceding Delius chapter is dubbed "A Walk on the Wild Side") to present a detailed and convincing reading of the explicit sexual ideology inherent in love scenes in orchestral interludes from act 2 of Massenet's Esclarmonde (1889) and Strauss's crudely satirical single-act Feuersnot (1901). Here "the repositioning of female sexuality [emerges] in terms of something enticing and ultimately empowering to the male" (p. 67) and the orchestra is exploited "to make known the unknowable, to speak the unspeakable" (p. 66). A close Freudian and semiotic reading of some of the many interludes in...