- Wagner’s Melodies: Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity by David Trippett
Wagner’s Melodies is a wide-ranging, yet detailed work that takes up one of the central issues in Wagner’s musical thinking: melody. Trippet’s dense and lengthy book is meticulously researched and the historical scholarship is seemingly exhaustive. From out of this wealth of detail, an account of Wagner’s melodic compositional activity emerges that casts him in a new light, as bound up with issues of physiology, philology, and technology. The combination is fascinating, provocative, and entirely novel in the literature. Trippett’s insights are illuminating and should appeal to both the historian and the philosopher. Indeed, the book should be of interest to anyone concerned with melody, whether working with Wagner or not.
The book opens with two chapters—“German Melody” and “Melodielehre?”—that provide a detailed history and survey of melodic theory and practice in the nineteenth century. Indeed at approximately 120 concentrated pages, these two chapters could form a stand-alone treatise on the subject. The scope of the surveyed themes is extraordinary: melodic form, ugliness, the characteristic, the nature of genius, its relation to electricity, organicism, and contemporary technological innovations like the psychograph, the componium, and the melograph all figure into the account. The book is informed by the work of Kittler here, without pursuing his particular arguments or agenda. Figures addressed go from the well-known—Kant, Schlegel, Hanslick, Hegel—to the lesser-known among nonspecialists, A.B. Marx and J.C. Lobe among them.
The next pair of chapters—“Wagner in the melodic workshop” and “Hearing Voices: Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient and the Lohengrin ‘recitatives’”—delve into Wagner’s actual practice against this backdrop of the history of melodic thinking. In chapter 3, we find Wagner entangled in charges of plagiarism as he works to distinguish himself from the melodic practice of Bellini. Trippett compares the aria themes of the two and plants the seeds for Wagner’s own quest for a national style. With the fourth chapter devoted to the singer Schröder-Devrient, the book really begins to come into its own. Here the concern is with the practice of sung melody. Trippett examines Wagner’s translations/rewritings of Glück to address the problem of musical notation and looks at Wagner’s aversion to recitative (especially in regard to the performance of Lohengrin) in the name of making room for what he considers uniquely German vocal qualities and speech patterns. Trippett convincingly pursues the connections between Wagner’s enthusiasm for Schröder-Devrient and his nationalist interests.
The final two chapters of the book—“Vowels, voices, and ‘original truth’” and “Wagner’s material expression”—delve deeper into these nationalist concerns by turning to Wagner’s idiosyncratic treatment of the origin of language and his privileging [End Page 667] of Stabreim (“alliteration”) as a way of accounting for melodic expression. Trippett scrutinizes the philological work of the Grimms, Humboldt, and Herder on German language and national identity by way of background for an appreciation of what Wagner hoped to achieve here. The detail of the treatment is revelatory for anyone who has ever puzzled over Wagner’s bizarre claims in Opera and Drama regarding the role of vowels and consonants in constituting our conception of the world around us. Trippett’s book culminates in an exploration of Wagner’s notion of “feeling” (Gefühl) and the idea that music should affect the listener viscerally, physiologically, and “materially.” For Trippett, Wagner dreamed of a science of feeling and his last chapter is a fascinating elucidation of what this could mean, complete with discussion of Helmholz, analyses of water and wave metaphors, comparisons of Goethe’s color triangle, Rapp’s vowel triangle, and Wagner’s melodic triangle, and a nod to contemporary scientific and neuroscientific theories.
The joy of Trippett’s book is that it presents a careful history of melodic thought, situates Wagner’s practical work on melody within that context, and does not shy...