Friday, October 11, 2013

Wagner's Erotics

Isolde’s orgasm changed everything. – Sam Able, Opera in the Flesh

Wagner wrote music about sexual desire and fulfillment in an amount and manner that marks him as the supreme musical eroticist of all time. Laurence Dreyfus, who examines this in detail in his book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, begins his book:

To treat eroticism in music might seem an exercise in vain speculation since—tempting as it is to draw connections—most composer leave, at best, only a hazy trace in their music. Not so Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who more than anyone else in the nineteenth century made plain his relentless fixation on sexual desire, a fixation documented in private correspondence, personal diaries, published essays, and, of course, in his operas and music dramas. Wagner’s obsession with sex also sparked a remarkable reaction to his works, which, in its public parade of the issue, changed the course of music history.1

I would go farther than Dreyfus and add that it changed the course of romantic expression in the arts in general and played a crucial role in early sexual liberation movements, particularly, but not limited to, Germany. I will save this topic, however, for a later post.

Wagner’s central concern in life—philosophically, emotionally and spiritually—was romantic passion and sexual desire. He believed that the Judeo-Christian society had screwed up royally by treating sexual desire as sinful, seeing the body as something shameful, and treating artistic depictions of the the highest expression of love between two human beings, the life-creating sexual act, as offensive and depraved. Instead he thought that art should revolve around human beings—not God—and should celebrate life, the human body and, most centrally, sexual love, harking back to the Greek model.2

That said, Wagner had mixed feelings about casual sex. Every fiber of his being strived for a passionate love with a woman. He truly felt sexual expression in that context was the peak of human existence; the uniting of man and woman was, to him, “the path to salvation.”3 However, he indulged in his twenties in what he called “a cocky inclination toward a wild sexual recklessness,”4 which he seemed to have both enjoyed and felt—just like the pious Christians that he abhorred—was, in fact, wrong and, ultimately demeaning to both men and women. These sorts of loose sexual encounters seemed to have ended when he fell passionately in love with Minna, his first wife. From then on, he sought not meaningless sex, but grand romance, erotic passion. And he poured his soul into bringing this need, this yearning, out in his music. Dreyfus contends—and I don’t think there is any one who is familiar with the classical canon who would disagree— “that Wagner was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representation of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love.”5

As defined by Dreyfus, an erotic work alludes “to sexual objects and desires but stops short of arousing the spectator’s or reader’s sexual feeling.” He then defines pornography to be those works with “lurid designs and graphic methods of depiction [which] target both explicit sexual arousal and its gratification.” He then puts it another way: “The further we situate an artwork away from sexual organs, the “higher” its form of eroticism. By contrast, the more closely we approach them, the “lower” and more pornographic the effect.”6

Music, of course, is nebulous, lacking clear objects of representations. If you see Rodin’s “The Kiss,” you may or may not find it erotic, but what it represents is clear. And the same goes for an painting, novel or, to a lesser extent, a poem.

A kiss is clearly a kiss...
...but that this is one sexy piece of musicnot so easy to tell.

This ambiguity of music is what made it possible for Wagner to create very sexual music—and get away with it. No author could have written something as clearly erotic in that era without being banned. Indeed, for example, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who was to become a huge fan of Wagner in 1860—was criminally prosecuted, convicted and fined in 1857 for publishing six of the poems within the Les Fleurs du Mal collection, none of which would raise an eyebrow today.

Even though Wagner was continually representing sexual passion within his music dramas in highly erotic musical language, Dreyfus points out that Wagner’s supporters could play dumb, as “music’s freedom from clear erotic depictions permitted his early advocates to skirt around the issue, at least in their public utterances, and espouse his higher ideals and values.” Not that censors didn’t try to stop him, as “outraged critics...disclosed the frank details and named, in a kind of litany, the composer’s transgressions about decency.”7

While some critics heaped criticism on the whole of his sensual oeuvre, most of the direct fire was aimed at two places: Act 1 of Walküre and the whole of Tristan und Isolde. In many instances, it wasn’t because critics thought the music wasn’t good; instead, they thought it was too good. Seductive, the work of the devil. In the case of Walküre, Wagner manages—quite extraordinarily and audaciously—to get the audience to identify with, root for, and yes, even get aroused by the emerging sexual love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde.

The critic Gustave Stoeckel said of Act 1 of Die Walküre (read his full critique here), 

All the scene seems to tremble under the wild glow of sensual love... It is impossible to criticize while hearing it. All aesthetics, theory and morals, are chased out of one; one’s breath is bated and the beating of the heart seems to stand still, the whole soul bewitched by an irresistible power.... During the performance, all that is sensual in human nature is wrought up to its wildest acting by the alluringly tempting music.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it is! It is!

But then Stoeckel surveys the damage done:

...after the intoxicating enjoyment is over, you perceive the ethical anarchy of the whole scene, which upsets all the holy emotions of a pure soul, defies the teachings of morality and is in direct antagonism to established rules and customs. [For] the curtain closes upon a scene which offends Morality and Religion, wakes up the sleeping passions in human nature which a refined and cultivated taste must abhor and detest. The masterly treatment is all the more offensive, because of its influence upon a sensitive nature.

Thus, the reason people find Wagner dangerous is this: He screws with their own morals successfully. He creates a cognitive dissonance that they must resolve. Even the deeply religious were liable to get turned on, or at least completely drawn into Wagner’s world view, by what they considered morally wrong and completely decadent, like the critic Stoeckel.

What can I say? I love that Wagner used this very radical way to make a point that is near and dear to my heart: to decry the subjugation and institutional rape of women within a “marriage” not of their choosing.8 In any case, the music is of breath-taking beauty and passionate ecstasy and that works for me, too.

As for Tristan und Isolde, his “monument to this most beautiful of dreams”9—that is, passionate love—it is basically from start to finish centered on eros, often at a fevered pitch. Bryan Magee wrote: “I do not think there is a more erotic work in the whole of great art.”10 I concur. With this work, he threw down the gauntlet to Christian moralists, seeking to overturn centuries of sexual repression with one evening of music drama. What is great—to me at least— is that he really did move the culture forward, in a direction towards a less repressed sexuality.

His opponents did not, of course, take this challenge lightly, creating on onslaught in print that lasts to this day, though as I have pointed out in past blogs, the main charge against him has morphed from moral and sexual outrage to his anti-Semitism. The outrage at the time was real; some people were really disgusted, having never heard anything like it. Wagner’s music —like all erotics depending on your point of view—lives in the zone between eeew and oooh. I will let one speak for all those whose reacted with disgust: the pianist and composer Clara Schuman (and wife of the other composer Schuman, Robert).  After hearing Tristan in 1875 in Munich, she wrote in her diary:

It was the most repulsive thing I have ever seen or heard in my life. To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not just the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted—that is the saddest thing I have experienced in my entire artistic life.11

But enchanted many were; enchanted many new listeners still are. After first hearing it, there were many reports of people crying, fainting, and losing sleep in the thrall of it. The conductor Walter Bruno was one of them. He first saw it as an adolescent and recounts his feelings:

So there I sat in the uppermost gallery of the Berlin Opera House and from the first entry of the cello my heart contracted in spasms.... Never before had my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never before had my heart been consumed by such suffering and yearning, by such holy bliss, never before had such heavenly transfiguration transported me away from reality.... [A]fterwards I wandered aimlessly in the streets—when I got home, I recounted nothing and asked not to be questioned. My ecstasy sang further within me through half the night, and when I awoke the next morning I knew that my life had changed.12

It wasn’t quite that strong with me, but it was pretty close to that to tell you the truth.

Mark Twain, not so swayed but not outraged either, wrote: “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here.” Here is an article that describes more of the frenzy over Tristan and Isolde

Though it is erotic, it is decidedly not a hearts and flowers sort of piece, but instead concentrates on the hell of unquenched desire, which can only be resolved—to tormented Wagner—in death. As a friend who recently saw it wrote to me:  I gotta say, I don't get that opera. All this longing for death. Longing for the death of longing.” Clearly, not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you can enjoy anguished love, there is no work better in my book.

The music drama ends spectacularly with a full-on, real-time musical representation of orgasm, from the first stirrings of arousal to climax and post-coital recovery. It still blows my mind that he got away with it. It works as high art or, I can testify, like porn.

Here is a description of this remarkable piece from Sam Abel’s survey of musical sexuality, Opera in the Flesh:

Isolde’s death occurs at the moment of her musical climax. Wagner’s highly chromatic music surges in increasingly intense and heavily scored waves, building to a climactic moment of several extremely tense high notes followed by descending scales, then slowly sinking into the complete exhaustion of post-orgasmic death. Wagner’s accompanying text, though secondary to the emotional effect, highlights the musical ecstasy; it resonates with sensual language and ends with the words “hochste Lust,” highest physical pleasure. Wagner carried musical sexual discourse to the edge of literal expression, embodying the sexual act onstage disguised as death. The influence of the “leibestod” on later operatic music is pervasive, both for Wagnerian and non-Wagnerian composers, in the nineteenth century and beyond.13

Now, I know for a fact that to those ill-disposed to opera, they can’t hear it. I played it for a highly sexual friend some years back, thinking she would appreciate it, and her only comment was “I don’t enjoy listening to sopranos; they sing too high.” Fine, miss Isolde's orgasm; see if I care. But for those who want to give it a go, here are two versions, one without the singing (in case you, too, hate sopranos) and one with the singing. Close your eyes while listening and don’t think about it; just feel the music. 

The orchestral version:

Or with the singing:

If you didn’t hear it and feel it, to use Dustin Hoffman’s quote in The Graduate, you’re missing a great effect here.

Sexual repression, of course, never stopped men. They just created two categories—virgins and whores—and married the one, and used the other. And, while not the industry it is today, men could find porn in various forms if they wanted it. It was women who were particularly victimized, their lives circumscribed, by the sexual mores of the time. And it was women—and another victimized group, gay people—who particularly responded to Wagner’s erotics. In Joseph Horowitzs survey of Wagnermania in fin-de-siècle America, Wagner Nights, he puts it this way about the women who flocked to performances: 

The bad effects of husband and bedroom were silenced by a musical-dramatical orgasm as explicit and complete as any mortal intercourse. And Isolde’s second-act duet with Tristan—their clandestine Love-Night, shutting out the world, beckoning dissolution—was a secret pact, a shared conspiracy with Wagner.... For the moment, the parlor spinet, the neurasthenia of the bedroom, were banished and forgotten. The Wagner pilgrims were addicted, body and soul.14

Wagner was the then-alternative to the chick-flick or the paperback romance. While romance novels were being written in that era, nothing existed that was close to Wagner’s romantic, erotic pull. His music was a revelation to women who were starved for the full sensuality that they had long been denied.

Willa Cather, an enthusiastic Wagnerian, for one wrote of one of these women in her poignant short story, Wagner Matinée. It is written through the eyes of the womans dispassionate nephew. You can read it here.

I will be writing more about Wagner’s effects on sexual mores in a later post. For now, if you want to sample some of Wagners erotic music, I have put some some examples of my favorites below. They are put in chronological order, but if you are only going to try one, watch—rather, listen—to the Leibestod above.  In any case, I don't recommend listening to them all in one sitting as that would be like eating way too much of really rich dessert. 

Here is a clip from Tannhäuser:


Now to me, Elizabeth is just bursting with sexual energy; she wants to jump Tannhäuser's bones the second he hits that hall. What is funny to me is that most discussions about eroticism in Tannhäuser center on the Venusberg Bacchanal scene, which is fine but doesn’t feel erotic to my tastes unless the choreography is done particularly well. The fact is, I don’t like orgies. That said, here is a clip that is mildly titillating:

I will take Elizabeth’s ecstatic song of repressed but-ready-to-burst love over Venusberg any day.

The Ring has two long erotic sequences. One is the first act of Walküre (ignoring the music of the brute, Hunding). The music is just gorgeous and, often, ecstatic. You can listen to the whole act here - a concert version.

Or just a segment of some of that ecstasy here: 


The next erotic sequence in the Ring is the scene of Brünnhildes sexual awaking in the last act of Siegfried. It’s a marvelous piece of psychological insight into any woman’s sexual awakening, not just a former goddess. The whole scene goes on for 30 minutes; here is just the end when Siegfried is trying hard to convince Brünnhilde to let her fear go and embrace him as a lover (but no subtitles).  I think you can tell he succeeds.

The morning after their passion (in the first scene of Götterdämmerung), the music is equally good, if taken down just a notch in intensity. It starts with a beautiful orchestral piece in which with the lover’s are intertwined via higher and lower instruments echoing and then overlapping each other, becoming one. Then the singers enter to give a night-after recap about their new-found love (and then continues to Siegfried's Rhine Journey): 

As for Tristan und Isolde, the second act “love duet” is about thirty minutes of music, but this clip is the finale.  It is the concert version so it ends with an actual climax. In the opera, there is no such thing—the lovers never consummate their passion—as they are caught at a very inconvenient moment (at timing 7:50 here). This music is very similar to, but different from, the Liebestod. Lyrics aren’t really needed; let’s just say they are confirming that they are one, and they are the entire world:

If you watch these clips and are unmoved, Wagner is not for you, that is for sure. But if you respond as I do, welcome to Wagnerland.

End Notes

1 Dreyfus, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, 1
2 Magee, Tristan's Chord, 93
3 Millington and Spencer, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 432
4 as quoted in Dreyfus, 52
5 Ibid., 2
6 Ibid., 9-10 – all quotes in paragraph
7 Ibid., 12 – all quotes in paragraph
8 If you don't know the plot, Siegliende and Siegmund are the siblings.  When Siegliende was young she was forced to marry the brutish Hunding.  She's is escaping this fate with her brother. The principal point Wagner was trying to make was that forced marriage—marriage without the women’s desire—was a worse outrage than consensual love of any stripe could possibly be. Women existed as the property of a man in Europe during his time; yes, they were “free” to say no in most cases, but since there were very few alternatives for women, most had to marry—and families all but forced them into it in many cases—no matter what their own feelings. There were no real choices for women until the modern era. Wagner wasn’t advocating incest; he was advocating that only a freely-chosen marriage of love was legitimate, no matter what the law said. This point still needs to be made, as many women are still not free to make their own choice in much of the world today. Wagner cared about this to, literally, his dying day. The article he was working on at the time of his death is here, in which he reiterates the point he made decades before in this scene (and in others).
9 Selected Letters, 323
10 Magee, 36
11 as quoted in Dreyfus, 37
12 as quote in Dreyfus, 5
13 Abel, Sam, Opera in the Flesh, 94
14 Horowitz, Joseph, Wagner Nights, 214


  1. You have hit all the nails on the head - I love your blog. It has made me so happy - even happier than I was to have come round to Wagner in my 80th year, in a very big truly magically life-changing way, after many wasted years scorning him. To have all my thoughts confirmed by your pieces has been the crowning glory. THANKS and please go on and on.

    1. Thanks! I think I am mostly writing for myself, but it is nice that there are a few folks out there!