Laurence Dreyfus’ book prompts a re-assessment of Wagner and sex

Wagner and the Dirty Bits

In his 2010 book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, Oxford Professor Laurence Dreyfus discusses a topic dear to many a Wagnerian, but seldom discussed — Wagner’s overt treatment of sexual longing and the sexual act.  The book is aimed at those who, in college, played the Act II duet in Tristan to their roommates as a depiction of interrupted coitus.  Or who played their VHS of the opening ballet of the Bayreuth Tannhäuser only when their spouse was out of the room, for fear of being thought kinky.  Or who have been variously absorbed and repulsed when Siegmund nails his sister to the stage floor as the curtain rushes down.

(Not that any of this describes me, of course….)

Dreyfus divides his study into five sections.  “Echoes” addresses what might be thought of as the admission of eros to art, which Dreyfus dates to Wager’s own period.  He studies Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, and — by way of contrast — Clara Schumann, who found such revelations repellant.   In “Intentions,” Dreyfus notes that sexual activity was central to Wagner’s theatrical imagination as early as Das Liebesverbot.  Wagner is quoted often acknowledging his fierce sexuality in youth, such as this passage in discussing his early sketch of Meistersinger:

One will see that there was a possibility of my developing along two diametrically opposite lines: on the one hand there was the holy seriousness of my original sentiments — on the other a cocky inclination toward my wild sexual recklessness nourished by my lived experience.

Indeed, this may be said to be the entire narrative conceit of Tannhäuser: the artist drawn on the one hand to a life of purity and on the other to a life of orgasm.  Dreyfus argues that Wagner’s devotion to Schröder-Devrient was in large part prompted by his infatuation with her perceived sexual libertinism.

The next section, “Harmonies,” is an attempt to analyze the scores for the musical components of the erotic content of the works.  Here Dreyfus is enlightening but not ultimately convincing.  Nevertheless it is fascinating to read an essay that, in the course of 30 pages, links together the erotic obsessions of Senta, the carnality of Tannhäuser, the lust of Alberich, the erotic needs of Sieglinde, the constantly priapic disturbance of Tristan, the erotic nature of the attraction between Walter and Eva, and the violence begotten by repressed erotic desire in Klingsor, Amfortas and Parsifal.

Dreyfus’ last two sections, “Pathologies” and “Homoerotics,” are the least successful.  Wagner’s need for an environment of satins and rose perfumes, and his concerns regarding his young friend Nietzsche’s excessive self-abuse, seem entirely consistent with accepted mid-19th century expectations of social and romantic behavior.  That Wagner was tolerant of homosexual relationships among his acquaintances is perhaps progressive but not, it would seem, illuminating.  And Dreyfus makes something of a stretch when attempting to draw conclusions from the homosexuality of Ludwig or the purported homoerotic nature of the devotion expressed by Brangägne towards Isolde, or by Kurwenal towards Tristan.   Dreyfus’ musings upon the consequence of Kundry’s kiss being to drive Parsifal to homoerotically-tinged compassion for Amfortas are brief, and deservedly so.

The effect of Wagner’s music upon American women during the Guilded Age has interested me since reading Joseph Horowitz’ entertaining 1994 study, Wagner Nights: An American History.  Bryn Mawr president M. Carey Thomas is quoted as follows following a Seidl-led performance of Tristan at the Met:

 …rapturous, soaring, heavenly high, winging thro. the Empyrean, without a touch of earth, all human emotion sublimated into godlike passion & longing panting & throbbing….  I never in a public place came so near to losing my self control….

Horowitz cites many examples supporting his conclusion that, while Wagnerism in America presented the “explicit and overt face” of social conformity and admired culture, a “second face,” appealing particularly to women, presented a “hidden and more subversive” coded content of sexual liberation and eroticism acknowledged “behind closed doors.”  Particularly affecting is the spinster aunt from Nebraska in Willa Cather’s story “A Wagner Matinee,” who visited Boston and, at the end of a Wagner concert attended with her nephew, “burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly, ‘I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!'” 

This is a fascinating topic and readers are encouraged to contribute other sources for further study.

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