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Christopher Morris: Reading Opera Between the Lines — Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg
11 Jun 2005

MORRIS: Reading Opera Between the Lines: Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg

Interludes in opera articulate moments when the lush voices of singers and vivid spectacle of scenery and action are removed and often the curtain is drawn, and thus they span a functional gap between textless instrumental music and explicit theatrical vehicle. Although composers and analysts suggest rich and multivalent meanings for the music, those implications often escape decoding by audiences. Even the interlude titles — Zwischenspiel, entr'acte, intermezzo — suggest their intermission-like nature. As functional placeholders for scene changes and the like, the interludes are for many a cue to relax attentive listening, read synopses, and whisper with companions. Undaunted by such complexities, Morris takes up the problematic nature of operatic interludes, engaging their ambiguities with eyes wide open in an effort to enrich our understanding of these challenging bits of music.

Christopher Morris: Reading Opera Between the Lines — Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg
New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism series

Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2002

ISBN-10: 0521807387 | ISBN-13: 9780521807388

 

An introduction traces the historical development of opera interludes from seventeenth-century sinfonie, which commanded only minimal audience attention, to the nineteenth-century Wagnerian preludes and interludes, which coerced captive audiences, isolated in a darkened theater, into experiencing them fully. Along with this history Morris traces the increased dramatic focus on the orchestra, which becomes the agent of notions of interiority and the unconscious via the use of reminiscence motifs, the lessening of caesurae found in the numbers format, and idealistic unification of music with drama. Even so, he still acknowledges the tension between music "that represents a stop-gap measure (literally and figuratively) and the prominent position to which it is assigned." (8) Having provided a background for his study, he focuses in earnest on Wagner and further considers works of seven other composers (for whom Wagner's influence was impossible to ignore) ranging from the late nineteenth century (Massenet's Esclarmonde, 1889) through the first quarter of the twentieth (Berg's Wozzeck, 1925).

Carefully researched biographies and commentaries from the reception literature on each of the operas ground the critiques in the cultural milieu through which Morris filters his readings. In addition to the writings of contemporary critics and performers, Morris cycles through the important psychoanalytic and aesthetic discourses of the day, citing Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wagner, as well as more recent writings by Lacan, Kristeva, Youens, Adorno, and Abbate among others; all while maintaining a critical ear to those arguments. By returning in each chapter to these important writers, Morris aids the reader not only in grasping details of the arguments at hand but also in teasing out more transcendent themes. Helpful as this strategy is, and cushioned as it is in Morris's elegant and clear prose, this book is no casual read. That is not to say that it is anything less than enjoyable, however, for its reasoned arguments are well worth the reader's attention.

Artfully performing his analysis, Morris sets the stage by summarizing each dramatic plot, cleverly weaving surrounding music and narrative details into his larger dramatic discussion. In portraying the music of the interludes, Morris paints an impressionistic picture. "It is as if ..." begins an abundance of sentences that draw the reader into the imaginative and speculative world of his reading. Although his concerns are largely historical and cultural, Morris conscientiously grounds his "as if" propositions in analysis of musical detail supported by clear examples in the text. In the main, these analyses are thorough and well thought out. At times, though, they leave us wanting to know more about how the music does what he claims it does, even when we may completely agree with his impression of the music. He observes, for instance, that a passage from Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907) sounds "a sudden concentration of leitmotivic and modal suggestion" that "renders any individual connotations unimportant in the face of what is a flood of reflectiveness, of perspective." His next sentence asks readers to take a leap of faith: "It is as if the music's relationship to the lovers has become infused with a distance that speaks about rather than from them" (29) (Readers conditioned by Abbate's theories of operatic narrative will find his attributions of narrating voice to the interludes as being somewhat liberal.) The question of exactly how a concentration of leitmotifs, for example, can be heard to create distance, remains open.

One of Morris's larger themes negotiates the gaps between embodiment and disembodiment, between real action and fantasy, and between metaphysical and physical meaning presented in the interludes. He suggests the interludes play off the consistent preoccupation of the period with a perceived decline in music evident in its move away from the inner portrayal of subjectivity to outer sensual perception. This leads Morris to observe that "the interludes can be seen to reflect, at times quite self-consciously, on the identity of music itself, and this construction of music will often turn on the conflict between metaphysical aspirations and a musical language that is all too clearly rooted in the sensual." (12) These issues are most effectively fleshed out in his discussions of Wagner's interludes and preludes in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, in which transcendent metaphysics belies sheer physical impact. Morris's book presents a similar duality itself, conveying lofty philosophic speculations in paragraphs lushly lined with the vivid sensuousness of operatic detail.

The interaction of embodied constructions with cultural definitions of gender and sexuality dominate several of the chapters, including the discussion of Massenet's Esclarmonde (1889) and Strauss's Feuersnot (1901). These essays peruse two interludes, which enact love scenes that could not, for reasons of propriety, be staged. Morris's analysis supports discussions of changing gender roles, and notions of masculine and feminine sexual power that also continue in his chapter on Schreker's Der Schatzgräber (1920). In Schreker's love scene music, Morris hears a gap articulated between music of the female character (near, sensuous, material) and that of the male character (shimmering, distant, transcendental). But that gap proves false as the scene continues and we begin to hear that both musics are a product of male fantasy. Morris argues that the initial gap between masculine and feminine opens only in fantasy, and the music "suggests, indeed, that the gap is itself a fantasy." (158) The sheer resistance of this music to specific gender assignment allows Morris to reflect on the nature of Schreker's opera as celebrating its own falseness, and further leads him to speculate on why Schreker's operas, which followed in the Wagnerian tradition, fell out of favor.

The theme of music's false identity rings in Morris's discussion of Pfitzner's Die Rose vom Liebesgarten (1901) and Berg's Wozzeck (1925). In these essays, he examines interludes that act as eulogies for characters who have died, and thus raise questions of who it is that speaks for the dead in this instrumental music. Drawing into the discussion Wagner's Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung, he demonstrates how these interludes mimic the techniques of mass propaganda in retelling - and in so doing, revising - the life of the deceased.

Morris also discusses how interludes can construct notions of subjectivity and interiority. He examines how the interludes in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) reinforce a reading of the action as a dream-like projection of Golaud's psyche. Morris traces the influences of romantic and idealist cultural tropes on symbolist poets who influenced Debussy, particularly those notions of dreams and the unconscious. For example, he relates how Debussy smoothes out an abrupt shift of scene from Maeterlinck's play. In scoring an interlude for the change of scene, Debussy effects a much more gradual transition, which moves from the wandering bewilderment of the preceding forest music to a stately motif that will be associated with Golaud's identity as son of Arkel. In smoothing out the transition, Morris argues, Debussy creates coherence in a way that is analogous to Freud's "dream work," paralleling the secondary revision of unconscious "latent" content into its "manifest," dream-as-remembered content. Morris argues convincingly that we hear Debussy's revision as an action of Golaud's psyche and we hear other more raw and fragmentary music as repressed material.

All in all, Morris achieves the goal of Cambridge's New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism series: "to create a greater presence for music in the ongoing discourse among the human sciences." He accomplishes this goal by engaging a broad range of cross-disciplinary voices in a critique that enriches our notions of how music helps us tell stories, not only about operatic characters, but about ourselves as well.

Dr. Shersten Johnson
University of St. Thomas

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