Dangerous children in Strauss and Britten

Salome (Nadja Michael in David McVicar's Royal Opera House production)

I’ve recently had an article published as part of a bigger project (see also here and here) that examines Britten’s postwar interrogation of the human subject (‘Made You Look! Children in Salome and Death in Venice’. In Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Music, edited by Lucy Walker, 116–37. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2009.). This is fascinating in its focus on the role of a symbolically powerful authority – das Man in Heideggerese, or the big Other in Žižek’s Lacanian idiolect – which structures, through the language it uses, the space for individuals to create a self-identical personality.https://jpehs.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/harper-scott-2009-32.pdf

The essay explores the links between two seemingly unrelated operas as a means of situating one of Britten’s most astonishing musical statements in a longer cultural moment – an exploration of varieties of sexual expression – which began in the fin-de-siècle and has not yet run out of steam.

Both Strauss’s Salome and Britten’s Death in Venice are, among other things, sexually scandalous operas in the contexts of their times (and ours); both also incorporate surprising and morally risky characterizations of children. The striking differences in their respective musical languages are related to their literary sources, the one decadent, the other neoclassical, but both depend structurally on oppositions of tonal areas that are associated with particular characters, and more generally with solutions to the problem of operatic composition that were still, for Britten in 1973, essentially post-Wagnerian. In dramatic terms, both works focus on the effects of looking and the trope of the dance.

Thomas Mann attended the premiere of Salome in 1906 and, partly in response to it (and to his belief that Wagnerism was no longer the most viable artistic modernism) wrote Der Tod in Venedig in 1911–12. Britten’s opera intensifies Mann’s neoclassicism in its treatment of the Greek aesthetic arguments that it maps onto Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio, and modern criticism has tended to follow Britten’s emphasis. By relocating Britten’s opera in the aesthetic tradition that is its obverse, and by analyzing its handling of musical structure, this article seeks to direct attention once more onto its engagement with cultural constructions of the child in modernity, and onto the ethical complexity of operatic composition in the twentieth century.

References

  • Abbate, Carolyn. Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Ayrey, Craig. ‘Salome’s Final Monologue.’ In Richard Strauss: Salome, edited by Derrick Puffett, 109–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Brett, Philip. ‘Britten, Benjamin.’ 2001. http://www.grovemusic.com/.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: a Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.
  • Carpenter, Tethys. ‘Tonal and Dramatic Structure.’ In Richard Strauss: Salome, edited by Derrick Puffett, 88–108. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Ganz, Arthur. ‘Transformations of the Child Temptress: Mélisande, Salomé, Lulu.’ Opera Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1987): 12–20. doi:10.1093/oq/5.4.12.
  • Hepokoski, James A. ‘Fiery-Pulsed Libertine or Domestic Hero? Strauss’s Don Juan Reinvestigated.’ In Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Music, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 135–75. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.
  • ——— . ‘Framing Till Eulenspiegel.’ 19th-Century Music 30, no. 1 (2006): 4–43.doi:10.1525/ncm.2006.30.1.004.
  • ——— . ‘Structure and program in Macbeth: A proposed reading of Strauss’s first symphonic poem.’ In Richard Strauss and his world, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 67–89. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Hindley, Clifford. ‘Contemplation and Reality: a Study in Britten’s “Death in Venice”.’ Music & Letters 71, no. 4 (1990): 511–523. doi:10.1093/ml/71.4.511.
  • ——— . ‘Eros in Life and Death: Billy Budd and Death in Venice.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Britten, edited by Mervyn Cooke, 147–164. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: the Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.
  • ——— . Erotic Innocence: the Culture of Child Molesting. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Kramer, Lawrence. ‘Culture and Hermeneutics: the Salome Complex.’ Cambridge Opera Journal 2, no. 3 (1990): 269–294. doi:10.1017/S0954586700003281.
  • ——— . Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss. Berkeley, CA, and London: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Longobardi, Ruth Sara. ‘Reading Between the Lines: An Approach to the Musical and Sexual Ambiguities of Death in Venice.’ Journal of Musicology 22 (2005): 327–364.doi:10.1525/jm.2005.22.3.327.
  • Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Translated by H. W. Lowe-Porter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.
  • ——— . Der Tod in Venedig. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2007.
  • Rupprecht, Philip. Britten’s Musical Language. Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Vaget, Hans Rudolf. ‘The Spell of Salome: Thomas Mann and Richard Strauss.’ In German Literature and Music: An Aesthetic Fusion 1890–1989, edited by Claus Reschke and Howard Pollack, 39–60. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1992.
  • Whittall, Arnold. The Music of Britten and Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
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