- Wagner’s Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity by David Trippett
David Trippett’s Wagner’s Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2013) explores “what cultural circumstances allowed Wagner to arrive at his theory of melody as a means of communication” and “what makes [Wagner’s] melodies possible in the form they take” (p. 11). The project of Wagner’s Melodies is to investigate the role of melody within far-reaching realms of nineteenth-century scholarship—from music theory, philosophy, politics, linguistics, and legal studies to natural and physical sciences—and demonstrate the relationships between these strands of discourse and Richard Wagner’s aesthetic universe.
This is likely one of the first published attempts to draw connections between Wagner’s aesthetics of expression and the nineteenth-century world of scientific inquiry, and the results are fascinating. Quoting Hector Berlioz, Trippett writes in the second chapter of his book, “[Melody] is a gift of nature” (p. 70). Exploring the natural “autogenesis” of melodic inspiration, Trippett reveals a range of scientific measures undertaken in nineteenth-century Germany to pinpoint the physiological origins of melodic cognition. Many of the scientific ventures that Trippett describes in this chapter and elsewhere suggest a trend toward understanding “melodic invention as a cognitive process rather than occult inspiration,” a real divergence away from the coexistent conception of melody as a result of “God’s grace” (p. 78). Demonstrative of this fascination with the psychology of melodic writing was the invention of the psychograph, a machine that measured “creative inventiveness as nervous electricity, i.e. as literalized material thought” (p. 101). This device, among others Trippett also describes, was used mid-century as a means of probing into the question “where do melodies come from?” (p. 93).
Though Wagner sometimes seems to recede in Trippett’s discussions of this and other broad-based issues treated throughout [End Page 708] the book, in this section, Trippett eventually posits that Wagner’s seemingly “unconscious creative process” was just what practitioners of the psychograph sought to understand (p. 84). Trippett also describes a special fascination among psychologists with the free, unconscious creativity espoused by Wagner’s characters in Die Meister singer and Lohengrin; interestingly, both operas seem to thematize the fundamental questions of melodic origins that period psychologists sought to understand (p. 93). These operas, then, according to Trippett, are somewhat “self-reflexive” in that they seem to be constructed according to this process of Wagnerian “unconscious creativity,” while also narrating the methodological elusiveness of melodic craftsmanship (p. 93).
Trippett addresses Wagner’s understanding of the origins of his own melodies throughout the book, but provides especially novel insights on this issue in his chapter on the legal challenges the composer faced during his lifetime. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is Trippett’s description of the nineteenth-century impression of musical plagiarism as an “un-German” act (p. 131). As Trippett demonstrates, Wagner was “subject to accusations of plagiarism as late as 1870” in the form of both “general imitation” and “specific hackwork” (p. 131). Much of this chapter reveals the legal repercussions of such accusations, Wagner’s responses to his challengers, the veracity of allegations leveled against the composer, and the general understanding of musical originality during Wagner’s lifetime. Though the chapter is, in many respects, very thorough, the issue of the “un-Germanness” of musical plagiarism probably deserves more attention than it receives. Beyond simply subjecting Wagner to legal action and personal humiliation, accusations of plagiarism seem to have challenged his national identity, one that he obviously quite carefully constructed over the course of his career. With respect to this issue, Trippett provides only one quotation from the Niederrheinische Musik-Zeitung—perhaps there are no more such sources to be found—that questions “how such idiocy [imitation] could arise in Germany” (p. 131).
Of course, the broad issue of national musical identity is of tremendous relevance to the entire book including this chapter...