Abstract

““Aura””——configured as an interplay of preservation and loss or——to quote the first version of Walter Benjamin's famous artwork essay——as an ““interweaving of space and time””——is central not only to sound recording, but also to the musical dramaturgy of Wagner's final work. This article examines ways in which this unusual alignment affected early (pre-1948) recordings of Parsifal. The potential contradictions implicit in the concept of aura are nowhere more strikingly revealed than in these early recordings. On one hand, they foreground the problems of reducing complex and lengthy works to easily recorded excerpts or arrangements. In this quasi-Adornian reading, early sound recordings of Parsifal manifest the inexorable power of the culture industry to undermine the authentic work of art. And yet sound recording can also be seen as the fruit of a different impulse, the impulse toward a fully transcendent work of art, the realization of the ““invisible theater”” for which Wagner himself supposedly yearned. Indeed, Parsifal (even more than Wagner's other works) was recorded primarily as a symphonic work, divested of what Adorno so tellingly called the ““phony hoopla”” of operatic production. Early sound recording of Parsifal thus amplifies the conflict between materialism and transcendence that forms the ideological substratum of the plot. This conflict manifests itself in the ““resistance”” that Parsifal offers up to the process of recording, a resistance that is ironically most audible precisely during the age in which the recordings themselves are most ““imperfect.”” It is in these traces of resistance, I will argue, that we may imagine the aura of Wagner's final work.

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