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  • Offenbach's Bouffonnerie, Wagner's Rêverie:The Materiality and Politics of the Ineffable in Second Empire Paris
  • Peter Mondelli (bio)

To speak of music as ineffable is to invoke a prevalent musical ideology, one that has understandably come under critical pressure in recent scholarship. Yet we ought to be able to acknowledge the ineffable as ideologically true—as a construction crucial to the insights and appreciations of many musicians and listeners—while simultaneously recognizing that it is not an inherent musical truth.1 To that end, I propose that we reframe the ineffable as a contingent ideology: a powerful force within certain historical and cultural circumstances, but by no means the only option. In this article, I offer a case study in the history of the contingency of musical ineffability. More specifically, I suggest ways in which this ideology was a by-product of the material culture of the nineteenth century. My purposefully mismatched pair of examples comes from Second Empire Paris.2 I see in the bouffonnerie of Jacques Offenbach and the rêverie inspired by Richard Wagner two expressions of a single cultural trope: that sound (including musical sound) is in itself nonsensical, and that it can be read in ways that resist established patterns of meanings. Bouffonnerie and rêverie both result from reading music against the grain of widely recognized interpretive norms. Offenbach's operettas invited listeners to rethink standardized musical associations; Richard Wagner's music similarly inspired the most fervent reactions in those critics like Charles Baudelaire who resisted the familiar interpretive tropes of Parisian opera and sought to understand these music dramas in new terms. In both cases, the ineffable emerges from a failure of an interpretive norm, thus placing the experience of music "beyond language"—which is to say, beyond the prevailing mechanisms for reading and understand music. There was, as we will see, a political component to such subversive readings. Yet the underlying assumption of music as legible text depends on the presence of interpretive norms. And the prevalence of these norms depends, in turn, on the media that convey them.3 Thus, the stronger the material presence of texts that establish interpretive codes, the stronger the force of the ineffable becomes as a resistance to those codes. [End Page 134] Ineffability, then, is deeply tied to a historical phenomenon: the rise of a text-based culture in nineteenth-century European cities.4 It is through this material transformation that ineffability became a viable ideology, and remains compelling to so many today.

Nonsense on the Boulevard des Italiens

Shortly after attending a performance of Jacques Offenbach's La Barbe bleu at the Théâtre des Variétés, Jules Vallès wrote: "We have descended from the heights of solemn, empty art into the realm of joyous bouffonnerie. Bravo!"5 The year was 1866: the Second Empire was at its most decadent, and Vallès was among its most outspoken critics. An anticapitalist, pro-Republican journalist, he here co-opts the irreverence and frivolity of operetta to stand in opposition to the pompous, grandiose aesthetics of the regime he despised. "We have had our fill of gravitas and morality! Our thanks to those who have added generous handfuls of gaiety to counterbalance these scales."6

Vallès's politicized assessment of operetta was hardly novel. The genre was often interpreted as a forum for political critique during the mid-nineteenth century. Even its birth was coercive: it emerged as an absurd way to work around the equally absurd rules for licensing theaters in France.7 In the 1850s, for example, Les Folies Nouvelles was only permitted to produce one-act pieces with two characters, a restriction that Offenbach's librettist Florimand Hervé once avoided by adding a corpse as a third character. Nor was there anything new, in a broader sense, about the politicization of operatic works. The relationship between opera and politics in France is as old as the genre itself. What was radically different about this relationship starting in the mid-nineteenth century was the nature of mediation, of how politics entered into this aesthetic domain.

In the case of Second Empire operetta, politics was cultivated...


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