This article examines the musical, literary, and theatrical practice of a group of early German modernists — above all Richard Strauss and Frank Wedekind. All of them turn to dance, its unmediated physicality, and its erotic charge to articulate a response to Richard Wagner's theatrical project, specifically the concept of the total work of art. Although Wagner had included a few ballet numbers in his mature operas, he treated the form (and the number as such) as a threat to a specifically operatic plenitude of sensuous meaning—dance, he feared, threatened to dance music and drama right off the stage. I argue that this allowed certain post-Wagnerians to interrogate Wagner's aesthetic through the category of obscenity — the dancer who, by dint of her brute physicality, could disturb and misalign theatrical spectacle became an important figure in their art. After a planned collaboration on a number of ballets came to naught, Strauss and Wedekind each turned to their native media to stage and interrogate balletic forms: Strauss through the medium-scrambling Dance of the Seven Veils in Salomé, Wedekind by inserting his ballet drafts into a strange novella, Minehaha, Or on the Bodily Education of Young Girls. Strauss's collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which was to prove far more consequential and productive than the one with Wedekind, likewise began with an abortive ballet draft, and again came to reflect on dance's role in other media (opera and theater, in this case). Their reflections on the role of dance in operatic and theatrical spectacle find their expression in Elektra's final dance, which turns on its head the mysterious persuasiveness that Wagner had feared in dance and that Wedekind and Strauss had used to such effect in Salomé: a dance so expressive no one is moved by it.
The Ob-Scene of the Total Work of Art: Frank Wedekind, Richard Strauss, and the Spectacle of Dance
Adrian Daub is associate professor of German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of Tristan's Shadow: The Total Work of Art after Wagner (Chicago UP, 2013) and Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth Century Culture (Oxford UP, 2014).
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Adrian Daub; The Ob-Scene of the Total Work of Art: Frank Wedekind, Richard Strauss, and the Spectacle of Dance. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2016; 39 (3): 272–289. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2016.39.3.272
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