Wagnerian Aesthetics 101

What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.


  1. I’m not sure that I fully understand what the danger is here. Is it that Wagner’s music can sway people’s emotions in a way that allows influential people to lead the masses to do terrible things? If that’s the case, wouldn’t all affecting music be dangerous? Maybe that’s the point though and Wagner’s just a convenient example.

    This reminds me of going with my ex to see her father play in a praise and worship band. People would get so amped at these events and, as a non-believer, I always wondered how much of it had to do with God and how much of it had to do with the general effects of music. Obviously, I was on the general effects of music side even for the simple fact that these same people would not get nearly this excited at their regular prayer services. If it was God touching them, why did he not touch them as much in church? My point being, to me it seemed like music was an easy way to persuade people towards a particular idea because it evoked vague feelings of joy and excitement that had no concrete idea attached to them until someone decided to say that it was all about Jesus. Suddenly, everyone could agree on what those feelings they had were but that same person could have said that what they were feeling came from anything and they would have all followed along just as easily. Of course, maybe it’s all moot and God really digs hiding in music more than anywhere else.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Josh. I think you nail it when you say that this is potential danger a feature of all music, and that Wagner just happens to be a great example of the phenomenon. Fears around the penetrative, contagious power of music are quite ancient in a wide variety of cultures, from the Greeks to early Confucianism.

    It’s really interesting that you should bring up worship music at church, because I had a very similar experience in an Evangelical “mega-church” type establishment a number of years ago. It surprised me how central music was to the service; in fact, a band actually shared the stage with the pastor, and music was freely interpollated throughout. (So were elaborate visual elements.) The music, along with the pastor’s style and language, were clearly meant to appeal to the emotions, and I kept thinking: would this even be possible without music? Would a massive room of people feel this sense of community, of love, of Godly presence, without music there to facilitate the affect? Augustine wrote of the danger of music to distract people from the scripture with its sensuous surface. He also understood that the “sensuous surface” was precisely what made it powerful.

    I believe that the music in my particular church-going experience served the positive, benign function of unifying a massive community and filling them with joy. But it’s not hard to imagine what else music could do in a scenario that starts out the same as this one. What if, after thousands of souls have been transported by the music, the pastor starts talking about gays/communists/Muslims/socialists (pick your “undesirables”). That unifying emotion could turn in an instant to exclusionary zeal. Or hate.

    Suppose for an instant that we believe music has REAL powers to influence the world for the good. It’s fair to say that many people believe this. (Zappa used to refute this premise: after all, if music changed us for the good, we’d all love each other, since most songs are about love.) Wouldn’t it also follow, if music has this type of influence, that it could be used for the negative as well? There’s the level of straight-up propaganda here, using music to influence the masses. But there’s also the trickier issue of the pollution of an individual through music. The examples of music being equated to dangerous, contaminating dirt and its social analog are too numerous to list. It’ll be an interesting issue to keep on the table as we get into the cruel 20th century.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s