Sex and Branding: Wagner’s Other Leitmotifs


Wagner as Atlas

Laurence Dreyfus: Wagner and the Erotic Impulse; & Nicholas Vazsonyi: Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand

By Wes Blomster*

Given the incredible extent of the Wagner literature, someone must by now have written on coitus interruptus in this operatic cosmos. For – in view of the centrality of the erotic impulse in his operas and their long identification with sexual desire – it is surprising that almost none of Wagner's love-stricken characters "make out" on stage.

Wotan's philandering, of course, is legendary, but that was all pre-Rheingold. It's only those incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde who actually consummate their relationship within an opera. (In a more innocent age the two rushed off into the woods at the end of Act One of Walküre; today's directors have them rolling on the floor before the curtain falls.)

It's this shortfall – if that's what it is – that fascinates Laurence Dreyfus in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (London/Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Xvi & 266 pp. $27.95). The Oxford professor is a Bach scholar, cellist and leader of the viol consort Phantasm. In his new book, he makes clear that nothing in Wagner is as simple as it seems on the surface. His characters might be driven by the erotic impulse, but they largely fail to make the most of it.

And that, in turn, makes it even more fascinating that so many Wagner fans find some kind of sexual satisfaction – or sublimation – in his music.

Dreyfus' title might suggest giggling titillation prompted by new revelations from the Master's private life. Happily, however, the author enters Wagner's bedroom only to comment on the silk and satin underwear that was so essential to the composer's well-being. (The boudoir, it seems, fairly dripped rose oil, and there is a hint of cross-dressing.)

And although several of Wagner's letters to his milliner – the "Putzmacherin-Briefe" – were published in the 1860s when his fame was at relatively low ebb, the world took little notice of them.

But this superb and original book is far more than a study in lingerie.

Not only has Dreyfus done his homework with admirable thoroughness, but he also brings decades of opera experience – including an early summer of Bayreuth rehearsals – to his study.

He knows Wagner's libretti, scores, the immense verbal product and the critical literature that they have produced. And he draws upon it all without a hint of pedantry.

Indeed, one is amused by the number of subtle chuckles that one experiences while reading about a world pathetically poor in humor. (One recalls the wag who called Pfitzner's Palestrina "Parsifal without the jokes.") 

Dreyfus sets the scene with an opening chapter of "Echoes," reflections on erotics – Dreyfus uses the word erotics much as he uses the word politics – in Wagner, reaching from Baudelaire and Nietzsche to Clara Schumann and Thomas Mann. (Worthy of note is Clara's disgust with Tristan – although she stuck it out, wanting to know how it ended.) 

From there he moves to "Intentions," a chapter especially valuable for its insight into Wagner's reading of Schopenhauer that makes the necessary distinction between philosophy and music. 

"Harmonies" delves into the "meat" of the Wagnerian oeuvre from Holländer to Parsifal. Dreyfus points out that in the early work it is only loser Erik who shows any sign of true erotic desire, while the title figure "steers clear of Eros," and Senta's seeming infatuation is the product of an overwrought imagination. Well done is Dreyfus' "Tour of the Venusberg" that stresses Wagner's divergence from the sources of the story. 

In "Pathologies," the author focuses attention on Wagner's conviction that Nietzsche was doing himself in with masturbation. And it's here that Dreyfus gives an account of Jews who were Wagner enthusiasts. Ed: What does doing himself in mean, and how do the Jews fit in here?

Within the context of Israel's enduring Wagner-Verbot, it is astonishing to read that as a prelude to the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899, father of the movement Theodor Herzl chose the Tannhaüser Overture. And it's significant that Dreyfus includes here Otto Weininger, a Viennese of some talent who claimed to have overcome his "effeminacy" – i.e. homosexuality – through his devotion to Wagner and the experience of Parsifal in Bayreuth. (Although Weininger's Sex and Character was a best-seller on into the 1920s, he then remained unknown until Günter Grass reintroduced him to the world in his 1962 novel Dog Years. In 1903, aged 23, Weininger shot himself in the room in Schwartzspaninerstraße in which Beethoven had died.)

In "Homoerotics," the final chapter of the book, Dreyfus faces this sensitive topic with head-on objectivity, pointing not only to what he calls the growing obsession of homosexuals with Wagner's operas, but also to the composer's tolerance of homosexuals in the family circle. (The leanings of only son Siegfried are not relevant to the study.) 

One can only marvel at the Victorian excesses of Wagner's verbal exchanges with troubled King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Was there more here than met the curious eye of the day, or was it rather that Wagner knew a good thing when he had it? After all, he responded to Ludwig's "My ardent loved one!" with "Affectionate, blessed, divine Friend!"

For straight-laced Henry James, of course, Wagner and the Wagnerians were too much. 

Dreyfus emphasizes that only toward the end of Wagner's life did medicine begin to concern itself with human sexuality.

Krafft-Ebbing published Psychopathia sexualis in 1893, and the Freudian tsunami was just picking up speed.

Wagner, dealing with matters not then openly discussed, had a firm finger on problems largely without resolution still today.

"Wagner stumbled on truths that celebrate the human condition," Dreyfus concludes – truths we love to hear repeated over and over again. For when thoughts of Eros no longer plague us, we might as well stop listening to music altogether." Ed: When does internal quote resume?

Dreyfus hardly needed to note that Wagner lived at a time when – on the heels of the Death of God – music became Ersatz for organized religion. Ed: a substitute for? And is it Nietzsche's "death of God"?

The biography is a guide to further reading. Musical examples are included in an Appendix. Ed: Bibliography?


Also interesting is Nicholas Vazsonyi's Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand (Cambridge, 2010; 234 pp. $90.06).

Vazsonyi, on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and editor of the 2003 Wagner's Meistersinger: Performance, History, Representation, studies the composer's exploitation of every means at his disposal – autobiography, newspaper articles, letters and the operas themselves – to build his reputation as Beethoven's heir, the greatest living German musician and master of the music of the future.

Vazsonyi can only wonder at what Wagner, an early by-product of the culture industry, would have achieved with modern tools of marketing.

*Wes Blomster, a retired professor of German literature, has been an active free-lance critic for over 30 years. At home in Boulder, Colorado, he travels widely and writes for several venues.