Wagnerian Wounds: Trauma and Wagner’s post-1849 Works

Harkcom, Tristan (2023). Wagnerian Wounds: Trauma and Wagner’s post-1849 Works. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.000168c7


In May 1849, Dresden was plunged into a brutal conflict between pro-democracy rebels and the authoritarian government. The destruction wrought by urban warfare was a tremendous shock; the Dresdner Journal wrote that it was ‘difficult to give a picture of the destruction’. Active among the revolutionary party was the composer Richard Wagner, who fled pursued by an arrest warrant when government forces retook the city. He was a witness to some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict. Wagner’s experience of the revolution had a profound effect on him, and it led him to the conception of an ‘artwork of the future’. Central to this new genre was a system of repeating musical melodies or motifs that could conjure reminiscences and forebodings on the part of the listener. This thesis argues that Wagner’s experience of the uprising was traumatic. Moreover, it argues that the system of musical motifs that Wagner theorized in the aftermath of the uprising can be understood in the light of modern theories of trauma as they are constituted in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chapter 1 investigates the historical evidence for Wagner’s encounter with trauma. Chapter 2 establishes the parallels between Wagner’s theoretical conception of motifs and psychological theories of PTSD. Chapter 4 applies this approach to an analysis of a paradigmatic example of a flashback in Götterdämmerung. Chapter 3 investigates the ways in which Wagner revisited his earlier works in order to fit with this new theoretical conception. Chapter 5 presents an analysis of the Norns’s scene in Götterdämmerung demonstrating how the motific processes at work in the scene reproduce the symptoms of PTSD. Finally, Chapter 6 concludes this Thesis by showing how even in a motific analysis that avoids interpreting Wagner’s motifs in terms of poetic meaning—in other words, in a ‘purely musical’ analysis of motifs—traumatic structures are reproduced.

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