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  • Modernism and Opera ed. by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith
  • Joseph Nelson (bio)
Modernism and Opera. Edited by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 378 pp. Hardcover $45.00.

Opera has since its beginnings in the late sixteenth century continually struggled between the traditional and the modern. One sees this argument arise alongside tensions between alternating methods of communicating truth or meaning. Thus, we see opera reborn a number of times as new generations abandoned the compositional conventions of the past and breathed new life into the art form. This bears out in recurring debates between the “ancient” and the “modern” ever since the birth of the art form in the early seventeenth century. While the arrival of twentieth-century modernism signals a rejection of bourgeois fetishism for holdovers of the fading ancient régime, itself arising out of intellectual and cultural institutions supported by a bourgeois class, its move away from the dominance of harmony outlined by the composer and music theorist Rameau in the eighteenth century signaled a tectonic shift. [End Page e-20]

In this new collection of essays, Modernism and Opera, Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith undertake an ambitious project of defining opera as a modernist art form and in doing so demonstrate the inherent inconsistencies in modernism. While compiling a collection that one might see as a genealogy of a sort, perhaps even a postmodernist approach to history, they have curated a book that is as expansive in its scope as it is excellent in its content. While one can point to numerous examples of operas that are modernist either in music, such as Debussy’s Pelleas et Mèlisande, or structure, John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, fewer musicologists have argued that the operatic medium itself was instrumental in the development of modernism in intellectual and literary life. Beginning with Richard Wagner, the editors show how composers and their literary partners grappled with the effects on aesthetics and musical life at the turn of the twentieth century. Though the problems of canonicity and a greater focus on pre-1945 works impose some limits to the volume’s potential in scholarly discourses and usefulness in the classroom, it goes far to dissolve the overt biases of the lingering centrality of formal analysis in music history classrooms.

The editors have organized the essays via a loose chronology while attentive to the differing focuses on modernist forms, philosophical foundations, politics, and regional origin. Though primarily focused on major canonical composers, skewing slightly toward those of the German canon, it balances between French, German, Austrian, and British composers. Accompanying this diversity then is a variety of musical modernisms from the structuralism of Schoenberg to the Neoclassicism of Stravinsky, and the incorporation of pastoral folk music to evoke nationalism. Concurrently, one will find plenty for literary students and scholars to bite into. Particularly well represented is Theodor Adorno, the critical thinker most prolific in writing about music. One also sees a diverse set of authors from Comparative Literature, Humanities, German Studies, and Musicology departments. Each essay includes plenty of citations displaying the diverse texts with which these authors grapple. Though a few chapters include an amount of technical musical language some may find difficult, all have content easily accessible to those with little or no musical training.

The collection begins with Richard Wagner (1813–1883), a typical starting point when studying musical modernism. Wagner’s importance to the history of opera, and Western classical music generally, cannot be overstated. In this chapter, Matthew Wilson Smith examines the role of Kundry in the nascent modernism of Parsifal (1882). He writes that Kundry’s hysteria represents a point of tension in the Wagnerian narrative of transcendence inherent to the tension between spirit and matter. [End Page e-21]

The second chapter looks at Claude Debussy (1862–1918). Perhaps the most important figure in French modernist music, Debussy represents a radical break from Romantic music and experiments in alternate tonalities and a loosening of teleological structures. In this chapter, Daniel Albright shows how Debussy translates the Beckett-like aesthetic of Maeterlinck’s libretto into a musical style with its antitheatricality. In particular, the...


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