- After Wagner:Gilliam and Daub
The Black feminist poet-critic-activist Audre Lorde wrote that “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.”1 Two new books on German opera in the decades after Wagner tell stories about post-Wagnerian composers attempting to create the tools they would need to occupy, remodel, abandon, or dismantle the house they inherited from the Master of Bayreuth. Bryan Gilliam’s Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera (Cambridge, 2014) borrows Richard Strauss’s own image of Wagner as a mountain that stood in his path when he first set out to compose operas. Rather than scale the peak, Strauss quipped to Stefan Zweig, he had “solved the problem by making a detour” around it.2 Strauss, Gilliam’s analysis suggests, moved out of Wagner’s house early in his operatic career. Adrian Daub’s Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner (Chicago, 2013) similarly conceives of Wagner as a looming presence, standing behind younger artists and casting a forty-year shadow over their creative independence. Franz Schreker, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Eugen D’Albert, Franz Schmidt, and Siegfried Wagner were among those who remained in Richard Wagner’s house and turned its architecture to their purposes. Daub’s metaphor of the shadow further evokes the dark sides of Wagner’s art, the focus on night, transgression, madness, and the death-drive attached to love and erotic impulses.
Each book thus situates a set of early-twentieth-century German operas in their creative context, but defines that context differently. Gilliam analyzes Strauss’s operas in the context of the composer’s biography, and particularly his collaboration with librettists—a familiar approach from Mozart and Verdi studies. Daub’s context, by contrast, is the philosophical tradition and the history of ideas. Where Gilliam traces the composer’s thought, intentions, and decisions as recorded in correspondence and other writings, Daub places operas in the context of nineteenth-century German philosophies of agency, the self, love, the erotic, and marriage. On opera aesthetics, he relies on Wagner’s writings and on contemporary critics and philosophers of music, notably Paul Bekker and Adorno. His selection criteria are also more idiosyncratic, as he chooses works composed between 1894 and 1925 that respond directly to the Wagnerian preoccupations with eroticism, marriage, kinship and inheritance, and unification of the arts. (An epilogue on Kurt Weill [End Page 308] extends the time period forward to 1943.) Because the selection is thematic rather than chronological, and because the repertoire is so obscure, the reader does not really get a sense of how representative the selected works are, or what he left out, or how works he chose not to discuss would impact his argument. (There are some odd omissions: for example, Salome is absent from Daub’s chapter on “Erotic Acoustics,” although its distant [off-stage] sounds as a focus of erotic obsession and madness have been well covered by Abbate and Kramer, and although Schreker himself credited the study of Salome for his ability to complete Der ferne Klang in 1909, after several years at a compositional impasse on the project.) Few readers will have the repertoire knowledge to ask Daub: why did you choose this work and omit that one, how did you define your set?
The books overlap almost exactly as to time frame: the earliest post-Wagnerian work that each author discusses is Strauss’s Guntram of 1894, and all but one of the works Daub discusses were composed during Strauss’s lifetime. Given this overlap, it is striking that the two books treat almost no operas in common. Again, Daub treats his selected works from 1894 to 1925 thematically rather than chronologically. After an introduction and a first chapter on Wagner’s Siegfried, the chapter on decadence and ugly dwarves in operas after Siegfried, focused on Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (1922), precedes one on voice and voicelessness in Strauss’s Guntram (1894). Discussions of four operas by Franz Schreker (Die Gezeichneten, Geburtstag der Infantin, Der ferne Klang, and Irrelohe) are distributed across three non-consecutive chapters. The thematic organization does produce several...