A Study of Form in Wagner’s Compositional Technique

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Most students of Wagner are aware of the work of Alfred Lorenz, who studiously (some might say tediously)  argued that Wagner’s compositional techniques were recognizably in bar (AAB) or bogen (ABA) form, albeit on a mammoth scale.  Many contemporary scholars consider Lorenz’ conclusions to be tortured.  This conclusion is sometimes placed in context with Lorenz’ participation in, and adoption of, authoritarian political and social trends in Germany when his studies took place (1924-33), reflecting an affinity for the imposition of form and structure where perhaps it did not exist.

Nevertheless, the assumption (promulgate by Adorno among others) that Wagner ignored the challenges of formal structure and  simply allowed motifs to flow into each other opportunistically is difficult to accept for even the amateur student of his work.  In his provocative book, Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche (Univ. California Press 2017), Karol Berger argues convincingly that the “secret form” in the Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal is to be found in detecting, within the fabic of the through-composed work, the conventional forms of opera — sung recitative to advance the action of the play, and formal aria to permit insight into a character’s emotions or psyche.

We all acknowledge that there are “arias” in these works — the Prize Song, Wintersturmme, Wotan’s Farewell, the Liebestod  — as well as enembles and chorales.  Berger analyzes the scores with the patient discipline of Lorenz, and argues that each act of each work is in fact analyzable as a series of formally structured monologues — in the form of aria, arioso or cabaletta — interspersed by sung recitative dialogue.

The result is convincing; for example, Act I of Meistersinger is outlined as a chorale followed by recitative dialogue and a terzetto; then an ensemble of apprentices followed by a three-part cantabile and cabaletta by David; then recitative dialogue leading to Pogner’s aria; then recitative dialogue leading to Walther’s aria; then an arietta by Kothner,  the trial aria by Walther, and an ensemble finale.

The real enlightenment for me, though, were the prologue and epilogue of the book, which traced the evolution of Western political and philosophical principles in a way that placed Wagner’s work in a provocative context.  The Prologue, subtitled “Beyond Autonomy,” proposes that the right starting place to set Wagner’s thinking in context is the deification of Reason as the great product of the Enlightenment.  There then came the development of a world “Beyond Reason,” which imposed qualifications such as the force of history (e.g., Marx), nationalism (e.g. self-government through Rousseau’s social contract), cultural distinction and competition (e.g., Herder and Fichte) and delusional will (e.g. Schopenhauer) to create a world entirely less simple and far less benign that the one promised by reason alone.  And, Berger observes, Wagner and Nietzsche “were among the earliest major figures to react creatively but in different ways to this new cultural configuration…. They are among the earliest of our contemporaries.”  One way in which this shared instinct expressed itself, Berger explains in this concluding chapter,  was in the two artists’ “acceptance of the metaphysical diagnosis and the rejection of the ethical remedy,” a configuration that (to me) very neatly describes the finale of Act II of Siegfried.

This is a provocative and stimulating book, for me less gripping in its musical-dramatic analysis than in its philosophical observations.  Very well worth the effort that some may find in tackling it.

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The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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