In Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the title characters conceive their union as a direct linkage between self and world, a linkage that involves a crucial short circuit, bypassing societal conventions and institutions, and echoing the nineteenth-century Germanic disdain for "Civilization" as opposed to "Culture." Facilitating this Wagnerian short circuit is a fluid musical discourse that can seem, alternately and even simultaneously, either to simulate a single consciousness, in which impressions and memory freely commingle, or to provide a deep sense of the world, bypassing surfaces to evoke a kind of world-sublime (or "world-breath," as Isolde would have it). Generally absent from Wagner's music are the correlatives of "Civilization": well-articulated forms and other markers of conventional musical types, which would disrupt the sense of musical flow essential to WagnerÕs "Gesamtkunstwelt." In this article, I trace the roots of Wagner's practice both in German Idealist thought and in Beethoven, especially as received through a totalizing mode of Beethoven reception fostered by Wagner, in which Beethoven's "voice" seems fully coextensive with his music while resonating on a deep level with the Germanic Welt. I then sketch two separately developed modes of post-Wagnerian dramatic music. I first describe how Mahler's novelistic musical discourse sometimes imposes a sense of continuity on the broken surfaces of a world through an overpowering musical "flow," a process that derives from the ways that Leitmotivs emerge from the fluid orchestral fabric of Wagner's music, but reverses the latter's sense of intrinsic embeddedness by beginning with the sounding surface of the experienced world. I then briefly lay out how and why WagnerÕs technique has proven so useful for film music and consider the ways that the overtly Wagnerian scoring of Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981) supports a particularly Wagnerian retelling of the Arthurian legends.
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