Volupté: Vernon Lee, Richard Wagner, and Dame Edna Everage

Matrimonial Harmonics: ‘Will you marry me darling?’ ‘No.’

My article on Vernon Lee (1856-1935) has been published in Volupté: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies. Provocatively entitled ‘Lying Down or Standing Up for Music’, it examines ideas about ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’ in Lee’s final work, Music and its Lovers (1932). That might seem a tepid subject, but Lee’s book actually tackles an ancient debate about music’s ability to awaken sexual desire (there’s a coy nod to this in the title’s ‘Lovers’).

In the article, I discuss Richard Wagner’s operas, which Lee likens to an orgasm, and the work of the theorist Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), who also believed Wagner’s operas encouraged an unholy marriage of bodies (symbolized in the emotional union of words and music in an operatic text).

A largely forgotten figure now, except to musical historians and theorists, Hanslick maintained that music should have nothing to do with emotion. Indeed, musical feeling was pathological, hysterical, diseased. The goal of music was not to release the passions (which is what theatres did) but to edify the intellect. A musical performance in a concert hall, he claimed, was about encouraging a noble form of aesthetic response, an appreciation of the ‘bright god of intellectual beauty’. Lee agreed with this position, having studied Hanslick’s ideas in detail, and in the article, I show examples of her annotations to his writings and demonstrate how these – alongside her violent views on Wagner – shaped her own work.

Would Vernon Lee have approved of Dame Edna? Hanslick, certainly not

Talking of disreputable theatres, this gives me the opportunity of mentioning my own first edition of Music and its Lovers, which was once owned by Dame Edna Everage, or rather her creator, the recently deceased Barry Humphries. Humphries was a noted bibliophile and was particularly interested in the literature of Decadence.

To read the article, click below:

‘Lying Down or Standing Up for Music: Hearing and Listening in Vernon Lee’s Music and its Lovers‘ by Michael Craske

Categories: music

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