The obvious debt that Strauss's operas owe to Wagner often led early critics to view their conspicuous lack of spiritual depth as an unintentional failure. Recent commentators such as Charles Youmans, Leon Botstein, and Michael Walter have rightly characterized this feature as a conscious Nietzschean strategy calculated to avoid or ironize metaphysical tropes. Following the critique of the concept of “secularization” by Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, however, I wish to complicate this newer interpretation by arguing that Strauss's operas do not represent the point in music history when German music threw off its pretentions to Kunstreligion, but mark yet another point of “re-sacralization”—a term I borrow from Simon Critchley's Faith of the Faithless (2012).
The Wagner-indebted music in Arabella (1933)—an opera given much less critical attention than it deserves—certainly never gestures toward any transcendent truth beyond the physical confines of what is presented. Nevertheless, I argue, a sacred economy still operates in the opera whereby certain aspects of the immanent stage-world are figured as “sacred” and others as “profane.” It is possible to trace the influence of the operas Tannhäuser and Parsifal on Arabella, specifically in the harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral techniques Wagner used to mark certain suprahuman forces as possessing a transcendent aura. The music of Arabella uses moderated versions of these techniques to redistribute the same sacred status onto different aspects of material and psychological reality.