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The Myriad Aspects of Wagner’s Eroticism


When I first saw the title of Laurence Dreyfus’s lecture“Wagner, Munich, and the Erotic Impulse,” I assumed at once that he would be concentrating on Tristan und Isolde, the opera that packed more sheer erotic juice into each phrase from the opening bar to the final curtain than any other in the history of the medium.  But in fact, last Tuesday evening at Goethe Institut-Boston, Dreyfus ranged far more widely than that, dealing with many aspects of Wagner’s work and with the presence of erotic sentiments and means of expression throughout the composer’s work and life. This is just as well, because already a half-century ago Elliott Zuckerman anticipated the 1865 centennial of Tristan with a book, The First Hundred Years of Wagner’s Tristan, that treated that opera’s wide-ranging cultural influence as reflected by Nietzsche, French Symbolist poets, and composers influenced by them, and later writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and Thomas Mann.

An American and American-trained musicologist who is now professor of Music at Oxford University and a fellow of Magdalen College, Dreyfus, both widened and narrowed the scope of his topic — widened by dealing with Wagnerian works from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, narrowed by concentrating on the erotic milieu in Munich, where Tristan was first performed and where it generated a significant cultural afterlife.

The lecture was, in a sense, a précis of his newest book, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (Harvard), which is newly out in paperback and was available for purchase at the event. Dreyfus emphasizes the significance of the erotic in Wagner’s work, and not only his frequently-discussed invention of female characters who are, in one way or another, subservient to the men in their lives. Senta, who gives her life to save the Flying Dutchman from his eternal wandering, is the first, but there are others whose undying devotion can save a male character (Tannhäuser) or whose failure to do so can bring on disaster (Lohengrin). Of course some of the male-female relationships in Wagner transcended the bounds of propriety in serious ways; the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, for one. Dreyfus noted that in an early draft of Die Walküre, Wagner had Wotan, the father of the twins, actually present and observing the sexual encounter of his offspring that occurs just as the curtain falls at the end of Act I. The seduction of Parsifal by Kundry, who is set to destroy his purity and thereby prevent him from conquering Klingsor, is yet another example.

But quite beyond the male/female relationship, there are other sensuous, even erotic aspects to Wagner’s work and his life. He was notorious for wishing to be dressed in what most people, even then, regarded as “feminine” clothing, with outfits made of silk and satin, down to the underwear and the house slippers. Wagner’s budget for such luxurious items, paid for by King Ludwig of Bavaria, was enormous; when copies of some of the orders he sent to his tailor were published by unfriendly journalists, he was considerably embarrassed.

And throughout Wagner’s life and work there was a strong thread of homoeroticism, not necessarily sexual (such things are rarely certain unless explicitly acknowledged), but certainly emotional, sometimes profoundly so. This is most evident in Wagner’s relationship with the young King Ludwig, who was only 19 when he ascended the throne.  The young King immediately took steps to call Wagner to his court in Munich and essentially place at the composer’s disposal his own financial resources, both for means of living and for producing several still-unheard operas. Just as Wagner loved his women and his dogs to be faithful and obedient, he reveled in a circle of young male admirers, beginning with the King but extending much further.

Dreyfus noted that Wagner was an inveterate essayist who expressed himself on almost every possible topic of the day, many of them artistic, but also social and political. Of these, the most notorious by far are his anti-Semitic writings, which had continued to darken his reputation, particularly owing to the uses to which the ideas were put to after his death.

In discussing responses to Wagner of Nietzsche, Shaw, and Thomas Mann in particular, but also the effect on later artistic movements and those responding to them, Dreyfus maintains that Wagner’s emphasis on the erotic was, in the long run, more powerful and exercised a greater influence than his political and anti-Semitic views. Though Dreyfus did not mention the historian Peter Gay in his talk, Wagner’s role in the growth of “the bourgeois experience” from Victoria to Freud that Gay traced in five volumes was certainly in my mind; Gay’s first two volumes dealing with “The Education of the Senses” and “The Tender Passion”) can hardly be denied.

Laurence Dreyfus divided his talk into two parts separated by a Wagnerian musical interlude. Duo-pianists Philip Liston-Kraft and Daniel Weiser played three examples, not intended as illustrations to the talk but nonetheless offering material in sound related to Wagner’s world and his music. The first, Huldigungsmarsch, was a march of homage that Wagner wrote in honor of the young King Ludwig. This piece is almost completely unknown and, truth to tell, it has little in common with Wagner’s greatest works, but the thematic materials and sonorities, even in a piano performance, were certainly characteristic of mid-period Wagner, suggesting here and there that element of homoeroticism that Dreyfus discussed.

The other two examples were far better known, indeed, two of the most frequently heard works expressing aspects of Wagner’s erotic impulse, one marital, the other extra-marital. The latter was, of course, the closing section of Tristan und Isolde, which the world knows today as the “Liebestod,” but which Wagner preferred to call the “transfiguration.” Even without Isolde’s singing, the aching harmonies, endlessly resolving to yet another dissonant, unfinished chord, until the final musical orgasm the grounds all the tensions of the opera, makes an ineluctable erotic effect. The second example, gentler and more “chaste,” was the final part of the Siegfried Idyll, which Wagner wrote as a birthday present for Cosima, blending it with nursery songs (she had just presented him with a son) and materials that he used in Siegfried — which happened to be the infant’s name. Though of course we normally hear these works with the full colors of the orchestra, Weiser and Liston-Kraft gave stirring, full-hearted performances that brought Wagner’s spirit into the room.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1999.

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