Intersections Study Day

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09:00–10:50 Session 1. Wagnerisms

Tristan Harcom, Open University,

Wagner’s traumatic undoing: Interdisciplinarity through the lens of Wagner’s motifs

In May 1849, Dresden was plunged into a brutal week-long conflict between pro-democracy rebels and the authoritarian government. Houses were demolished, buildings were flecked with bullet holes, and the old opera house was left as a burnt-out shell. Active among the revolutionary party was the composer Richard Wagner, who fled, pursued by an arrest warrant, when government forces retook the city. Wagner’s experience of the revolution had a traumatic effect on him, but it was also the source of new creative inspiration. In the wake of this experience, Wagner embarked on a programme of theoretical writing in which he attempted to recast the genre of opera in interdisciplinary terms. This new Gesamtkunstwerk—total or unified artwork—would ‘gather up each branch of art to use it as a mean, and in some sense to undo it for the common aim of all’. Central to this new artform was Wagner’s conception of ‘motifs’, a musical-poetic device with the power to express meaning and to recall or forebode past and future action in the drama. In this presentation, I will explore the ways in which Wagner’s interdisciplinary whole undoes its constituent parts, and I will draw parallels between this artistic conception of interdisciplinarity and the interdisciplinary analytical tools that I devised during my PhD in order to analyse Wagner’s motifs as the musical expression of his traumatic experience.

Tristan Harcom is in the final stages of completing his PhD at the Open University, where he was funded through the AHRC’s CHASE DTP. His dissertation, ‘Wagnerian wounds: Trauma and Wagner’s post-1849 works’, supervised by Dr Robert Samuels and Dr Ben Winters, investigates Richard Wagner’s traumatic experience of revolution in 1849 and its echoes in Wagner’s artworks. During his PhD he was awarded the Research Students’ Bursary of the Dresden Trust to undertake archival work in Dresden and the audience prize at the Wagner Society’s Young Lecturer Competition for his lecture ‘“Remembrances and forebodings”: Traumatic memory in the life and works of Richard Wagner’. Previously, his master’s research, supervised by Dr Mark Berry, focused on the semiotics of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.


The Didone Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC)
under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme,
Grant agreement No. 788986.