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Leitmotiv and Memory in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung

April 16, 2011 - 8:00 am

Leitmotif and Memory in Götterdämmerung:   Siegfried and the potion –– In his talk, Professor Grey will be applying the ideas from new fields of music cognition and perception to both our understanding of Wagner’s leitmotifs as well as the way they can be said to function within the “consciousness” of characters in the operas.

Thomas Grey is a Professor of Musicology, and by courtesy, German Studies at Stanford University. 

Recalling Brünnhilde: Leitmotif and Musical Memory in Götterdämmerung
In Act 1 of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung the hero, Siegfried, is given a potion that induces a highly selective form of amnesia (“that he has ever set eyes on a woman before”).  In Act 3, an antidote is administered by the villain Hagen, causing Siegfried to confess, unwittingly, to adultery and perjury and hence to justify his death at Hagen’s hands. On the face of it, this is merely one of the more awkward plot contrivances Wagner adopted from his medieval sources.  As deployed in Wagner’s version of the story, however, the motif of Siegfried’s loss and recovery of memory provokes some fundamental questions about Wagner’s influential system of musical signification, his so-called leitmotifs.  This paper looks at what these episodes tell us about the leitmotif as a mnemonic device –– with regard to the listener’s perception of musical and dramatic structure as well as what can be inferred about the dramatic characters’ ontological awareness of themselves and their surroundings.  How might traditional modes of musical analysis and interpretations of Wagner’s drama engage with contemporary theories of musical cognition and perception?  What does leitmotif have to tell us about the role of memory in the construction of musical meaning in formal, semiotic, or other cognitive terms?   

Professor Grey received his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. Special fields: Wagner, 19th-century opera, history of musical aesthetics and criticism, Romantic music and visual culture. Author of Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts, 1995. Editor and co-author of Richard Wagner: The Flying Dutchman, 2000, and Cambridge Companion to Wagner, forthcoming. Articles and reviews in JAMS, 19th Century Music, Music Library Association Notes, Current Musicology, Opera Quarterly, Cambridge Opera Journal, Beethoven Forum, Wagner, 19th-Century Studies; Analyzing Opera, 1989; Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism, 1996; The Arts Entwined (2000); Music and German Identity, 2001; The Don Giovanni Moment (2005); International Dictionary of Opera, Revised New Grove Dictionary, and ENO Opera Handbooks. Chapters contributed to The Wagner Compendium, 1992; The Mendelssohn Companion, 2001; Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, 2003; Cambridge History of 19th Century Music; New History Of German Literature; and Cambridge Opera Handbooks: Tristan und Isolde, forthcoming. Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American Musicological Society (1999-2001). Editorial/advisory board: Cambridge Opera Journal, Nineteenth-Century Music Review, Wagner Spectrum.

Parking on-site $3.50 per hour  (max $15) or the $5 UCSF lot  or  street parking 

From the East Bay:  BART to Embarcadero and transfer to the MUNI #1 California line 





April 16, 2011
8:00 am

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