- Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner by Adrian Daub
Historians who study the forms and expressions that sexuality has taken in the arts will find much of interest in this analysis of the operas of Richard Wagner and his German successors. Adrian Daub, a musicologist and historian of philosophy, argues that Richard Wagner made the sexual power of love the unifying musical and thematic force in his great music dramas and the basis for his theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), an achievement that the next generation of opera composers could not sustain. Some composers, including Richard Strauss, attempted to replicate Wagner’s dramatic and musical vision but failed. The inability to realize Wagner’s aesthetic project was not simply because Wagner’s genius was, as his acolytes tended to say, sui generis but because the conceptions of love and sexuality on which Wagner built his operas evolved into modern forms that could no longer serve as the foundation of a seamless integration of music and drama.
In Der fliegende Hollander, Tristan und Isolde, and Das Ring der Nibelungen, Wagner drew upon German romantic and idealist thinkers and poets of the first decades of the nineteenth century to shape his central conception of love and sex as the forces that joined two individuals into one harmonious being. This conception was more than a theory of love; it was a metaphysical belief that sexual love was a redeeming force that had the power to end the ruinous individualism and alienation introduced into [End Page 323] human societies by capitalism, of which the commerce of arranged marriage was a prominent feature. Freed from such considerations, individuals could follow their own amorous inclinations to form unions based on procreative love. This belief was also the basis for Wagner’s musical aesthetic, in which music and text expressed together love’s power to overcome all obstacles in a kind of transcendence that could outlast life itself.
Wagner’s Ring operas juxtapose genealogies of loveless, greedy, sterile giants (Nibelungs) alongside the races of gods and men (the Valsungs), who offend against the ordinary rules of coupling but whose capacity for love and fertile union sustains their lineage. As portrayed in Wagner’s soaring harmonies, human love is a kind of fate that does not depend on character or circumstance but sweeps all before it.
Following Wagner’s death in 1883, his works continued to be performed in Bayreuth and elsewhere, but his profound influence on later generations of composers spawned dozens of operas that attempted in varying degrees to replicate the form and themes of the Meister. The names of some of these composers are largely forgotten today: Alexander von Zemlinsky, Eugen d’Albert, Franz Schreker, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wagner’s own son Siegfried, and, in the earliest stage of his career, Richard Strauss. They were popular in their day but treated Wagner’s great theme of sexual love in a way that was more of their own times than of his. Their work reflected not only new currents of thinking about love but also the practices and experience of modern marriage. They also experienced what Daub characterizes as the “anxiety of influence” on men all too aware of Wagner’s influence but desirous of striking out on their own in a kind of Oedipal rebellion.
Daub analyzes several of these post-Wagnerian opera plots in considerable detail. He demonstrates that in these operas love and desire are portrayed as stemming from individual character, not some fatal, unconscious force. Marriages, indeed unions of all kinds, are fraught with conflict, much of it on account of sexual incompatibility or mutual misperceptions. Indeed, erotic impulses become with many of Wagner’s successors something unnatural and suspect in themselves; Franz Schreker, a prolific composer of “couple” operas, was called “the Magnus Hirschfeld of the opera world.” In his operas, desire drives people apart more frequently than joining them together. Wagner’s great heroes and heroines, whose subjectivities were erased in...