Music, Narrative, and Identity in Literature


Wagner_Paris_1867_1

Wagner Paris 1867 1, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

How useful is it to think of music in terms of narrative? And how does music allow writers to represent issues of identity? In light of his recently organised conference Music and Literature: Critical Polyphonies, READ interviewed Fraser Riddell on the relationship between music and literature, specifically its influence on queer identity and sexuality in fin-de-siècle literature.

What initially drew you to academic work on the relationship between music and literature?

Like many of those working on interdisciplinary research in music and literature, my training as an enthusiastic amateur musician provided an initial point of entry. I am a keen bassoonist and singer, and have been involved in orchestras and choirs (of varying standards!) for most of my life. While my academic background is primarily in literary studies, I also studied some musicology and music history as an undergraduate.

How does your research on music and literature relate to queer theory?

As an art form which was idealised as ‘non-representational’ and ‘beyond language,’ music was afforded a privileged place in articulating the ineffable, diffuse and destabilising aspects of sexual desire.

In general terms, I am interested in the ways in which musical experience has been used as a space to explore and articulate alternative subjectivities in fin-de-siècle literature. In particular, I look at the association between music and queer sexuality. While the imagined connections between music and what might be called “sexual deviance” – effeminacy, indulgent sensuousness, erotic licentiousness – have a long history, the modern sense of a “homosexual subject” that emerged in this period is peculiarly associated with “being musical”.

More interestingly, music often functions in fin-de-siècle literature as a mode of resistance for those writers who wish to reject scientific ways of conceiving the subject. If the “homosexual subject” developed in the late nineteenth century through medical, psychiatric and legal discourses, music is often portrayed as refusing the disciplinary function of such systems of ordering. As an art form which was idealised as “non-representational” and “beyond language”, music was afforded a privileged place in articulating the ineffable, diffuse and destabilising aspects of sexual desire.

What role does Richard Wagner’s music play in your research?

Wagner’s music (particularly the chromatic eroticism of Tristan und Isolde) was seen by writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Nordau as one of the defining symptoms of European decadence. Given the pathological terms in which his work was received, it is perhaps unsurprising that Wagner’s music became associated with certain pejorative aspects of queer sexuality at the fin de siècle. Part of my research explores how Wagner’s music was understood by queer writers (such as Vernon Lee, E.F. Benson and E.M. Forster) in ways that both reflected and challenged such pathologisation of Wagner’s music.

“Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie” (1910), by Arthur Rackham [Public domain] Via Flickr.

How useful is it to think of music in terms of narrative? Can ways of approaching narrative from literary studies be helpful for thinking about music?

Music clearly isn’t conventionally diegetic – as a temporal art form, there is no distance from which a narrator can comment on events. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible for musical forms to create their own internal structures in order to suggest a commentary on musical “events” as they develop.

There has certainly been a great deal of debate about music’s narrative capabilities amongst musicologists. Obviously the situation is very different for an opera or a song cycle (in which narrative content is introduced by the linguistic element) and so-called “absolute music”, such as a symphony or string quartet.

Absolute music can certainly express a sense of agency and activity – anyone who listens to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony knows that, over the course of the symphony, something has acted to overcome or resolve something. But this strikes me as very different from the narrative strategies of realist novels, for example, where social connections are made explicit through language. Beethoven’s music might evoke a way of thinking about the individual’s place in society, but it cannot describe how she negotiated a pay rise.

Music clearly isn’t conventionally diegetic – as a temporal art form, there is no distance from which a narrator can comment on events. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible for musical forms to create their own internal structures in order to suggest a commentary on musical “events” as they develop. In order to appreciate the desolation of the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, for instance, one needs to recognise the manner in which a playful theme from an earlier movement is transformed into something painfully elegiac.

An awareness of narrative structure is invaluable for approaching works of the complexity of Wagner. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, for example, the same dramatic events are narrated by different characters on a number of occasions. This can initially seem dramatically extraneous – until one realises that Wagner’s web of musical leitmotifs narrates events from a variety of dramatic perspectives. Each time a character re-narrates an event from the past, Wagner’s system of musical associations introduces a new way of understanding those events.

In your recently organised conference, Critical Polyphonies, you looked at the ways in which the study of literature can inform the study of music, and vice versa. Did the conference change the way you think about your work at all?

Yes, one of the great aspects of the conference was the wide variety of critical perspectives we heard from – scholars from animal studies to medical humanities all engaging with the different ways in which music functions in literary texts. The conference made me think more about what truly interdisciplinary research in music and literature should look like. Where a literary work alludes to a musical one, formal musical analysis might be able to help us think better about what that literary text is doing and how it is doing it. For example, thinking about the formal structure of Beethoven’s late string quartets might be a useful way of developing our thinking about Eliot’s patterning of consciousness in Four Quartets.

Operas have a visual medium for expression through the spectacle of the stage. Do you examine the theatrical aspects of the opera in your research?

There’s a danger when writing about opera of focussing solely on the musical score and the libretto, and neglecting important elements of theatrical realisation that can significantly alter the way in which a work is understood.

Yes, it’s important to think about opera in performance. There’s a danger when writing about opera of focussing solely on the musical score and the libretto, and neglecting important elements of theatrical realisation that can significantly alter the way in which a work is understood. Mozart’s character Don Giovanni, for example, has been conceived in radically different ways by opera directors – from a charming ladies’ man to a manipulative misogynist. Obviously, much of this could be extrapolated from the score – but where the emphasis lies ultimately comes down to aspects of individual performance.

More prosaically, it can also be useful to think about the performance of music from a historical perspective. I was recently working to contextualise some allusions to Lieder by Schubert in a text attributed to Oscar Wilde. The text in question is set in the Queen’s Hall in 1890s London. By reviewing historical concert programmes from this venue in the archive I was able to glean a sense of Wilde’s (possible) concert-going experience – which pieces were these songs coupled with, how were they translated into English, how were they mediated through programme notes?

E.M. Forster argues that art is genuine when it sheds the identity of its creator, achieving anonymity through its genuineness. What are your thoughts on this criticism? Should the personal lives of composers such as Schubert and Beethoven be discussed alongside the music?

E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (oil on canvas, 1920 NPG 4698) © National Portrait Gallery, London.

E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (oil on canvas, 1920,
NPG 4698) © National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under CC-BY-NC-ND licence.

I think what Forster is really taking issue with here is the way in which insistent biographical readings can distract from proper engagement with an artwork itself – and to the extent that this is the case, then a little anonymity might be liberating. Fortunately, I think we are long past the point at which one needs to trawl through a three-volume biography, the collected diaries and the complete letters of an author before daring to engage critically with their work. But it would be churlish to suggest that biographical context can never be of value – perhaps as a starting point for an analysis that leads far beyond the author’s own times or intentions. The idea of art only being truly genuine if it effaces its authorship strikes me as a classic piece of modernist posturing, though – could any of Forster’s own novels truly be said to pass such a test?

It’s curious that Forster’s assertion – “all literature tends towards a condition of anonymity” – seems to echo Walter Pater’s notion that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. Pater’s idea of music is of something inherently abstract: it is purely an expression of form and doesn’t represent anything but itself. Much of the work undertaken in critical musicology in the last twenty years has been about debunking this myth of music as somehow separate from the world, of being only “about” itself. This isn’t the same thing as advocating simplistic biographical readings, but rather about using biography to think about what music does. With Schubert, we might replace the question: “Did Schubert write this song because he was in love?” with “How can our knowledge of Schubert’s relationships help us think about how his music performs certain models of masculinity?”

Gustav-Mahler-1906

Gustav Mahler (1906), by Theo Zasche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Who is your favourite musical superhero and why?

As a singer with the London Philharmonic Choir, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the world’s top conductors. Sir Mark Elder stands out as being the most inspiring: astounding attention to detail, superb sense of dramatic shape and always a pleasure to work with. And he’s also a bassoonist!

You can watch Fraser’s recent performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas with the London Philharmonic Choir at the BBC Proms on iPlayer here.

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