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Reviewed by:
  • Wagner and the Erotic Impulse
  • Holly Watkins (bio)
Wagner and the Erotic Impulse. By Laurence Dreyfus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 288 pp.

Left to your own devices one evening, you feel a little restless and think to quell the feeling with music. Perhaps you sit down at the piano with a well-thumbed vocal score, or, if you live in more recent times, you drop a CD into your player or scroll through your mp3 files. In any case, you find something special. From the very beginning, you hear melodic lines intertwining amongst each other, even caressing one another; you are pulled along with the ebb and flow of harmonic expectations and thwarted arrivals; you shiver, you take a breath, you exhale; you feel the restlessness you'd hoped to quell surge up more violently; and then . . . well, dear reader, who knows what you do then. What you don't do is tell anyone about it. Or, if you are (like me) prone to Hoffmannesque effusions, [End Page 153] you might change the subject and start raving about music transporting you to the realm of spirits.

If you've had these experiences while listening to Wagner, Laurence Dreyfus can assure you that you are not alone—or that you wouldn't have been alone in the nineteenth century, when you might have felt these things in the public setting of the opera house. Among those bedazzled by Wagner's music, Charles Baudelaire felt "penetrated, invaded, a truly sensual voluptuousness" (21); Friedrich Nietzsche felt "every nerve . . . a-twitch" and a "lasting sense of ecstasy" (23); Hans von Bülow felt a "rapture" in which he was "seized with the sublimity and force of genius" (30). Those disgusted by Wagner were perhaps even more eloquent: the composer's critics decried his music's "lewd caterwauling," its "wild frenzy of lust," and its appeal to "hysterical wenches and nervously effeminate men" (34-35). Representing an earlier, more decorous era, Clara Schumann deemed Tristan "the most repulsive thing I have ever seen or heard in my life," and she equated it with "a sickness, which rips the heart in pieces out of the body, and which the music sensualizes with the most loathsome sonorities" (38). Dreyfus concludes that whether Wagner's auditors loved him or hated him, they had no trouble discerning the erotic overtones of his music.

And so Wagner and the Erotic Impulse sets out to combat an apparent scholarly unwillingness to confront the erotic in Wagner's operas. Despite a literature whose sheer weight tests the mettle of many a library shelf, historical and analytical accounts of Wagner too often ignore the "blatantly obvious" connections between Wagner's music and sex (2). In short, Dreyfus complains, music scholars have ignored the degree to which "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" (2). This is not in itself a new claim: with a nod to Peter Conrad, Slavoj Žižek claims that "it is only with Wagner that the musical texture itself becomes directly sexualized."1 Dreyfus's more historically grounded approach to the matter takes his readers on a delightful romp through nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Wagner reception, and he calls on an ensemble of witnesses whose candor makes the concerns of present-day Wagner studies look very dry indeed. Focusing on early responses to Wagner rather than current musicological literature (which he virtually ignores, for better or worse), Dreyfus explores such erotically tinged topics as Wagner's unconventional dressing habits, his attitude(s) toward homosexuality, homoerotic aspects of the operas, and concerns about the sexual pathology of the composer and his music. The result is a book almost embarrassingly fun to read—though one that, by Dreyfus's own admission (44), raises more questions about music, sexuality, and eroticism than it answers. [End Page 154]

In the first chapter, "Echoes," Dreyfus lays the groundwork for his study of Wagner's musical erotics. He expresses frustration with the idea that erotic experiences may have changed too much for scholars to draw reliable conclusions about the representation of sex...


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pp. 153-159
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