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Precision and Soul: The Relationship between Science and Religion in the Operas Wozzeck and Arabella

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Some varieties of modernism are thought of as an attempt to re-enchant a technologized world that has lost touch with spiritual modes of being. Instead here I start from the assumption that the various reli- gious categories never went away, but just reappeared in different guises. In Wozzeck and Arabella, their authors succeeded not in re-enchantment, but in creating innovative aesthetic structures to house the new distributions of the sacred occasioned by science.

The connection of Berg’s music with science has been approached via his interest mysticism and pseudo-science. However, it is now thought that occultism was one way in which artists could absorb difficult ideas from mathematics and science. The aim here is consider Wozzeck in terms of these source ideas, rather than the second-hand version in which they were imbibed. Strauss has always been criticised for the superficiality or kitschiness of his music; recently this assessment has been up- graded to one of ‘postmodern irony’. Neither of these is satisfactory in the case of Arabella, and here I explain why. The main theoretical concerns are: (1) to escape from the relativism and constructivism of the linguistic turn, by finding ways of incorporating ‘truth’ into critical methodology; (2) to treat art not just as a semiotic system that can be interpreted, but also as an intricate bundle of affects and percepts that offers an aesthetic experience. The thesis comprises two stand-alone, although related, parts.

Part I. The first two chapters show how Büchner’s ambivalent attitude to Enlightenment rationality in the 1830s made a new kind of sense to German audiences in the 1910s, which is why Berg was moved to set the piece, and why his interpretation departs more from the Büchner original vision than is usually acknowledged. Chapter 3 uses Heidegger’s notion of ‘the mathematical’ to demonstrate how the opera defamiliarizes the scientific mode of perception that characterizes the modern mind. Chapter 4 reassesses the treatment of individual and supra-individual subjectivity in Wozzeck, showing that at moments Wozzeck is as free as contemporary science allows him to be.

Part II. The fifth and sixth chapters contend that, despite Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s well-documented differences on artistic and religious matters, their approach to metaphysics in art was surprisingly com- patible. Chapter 7 considers the operatic precedents that Strauss drew on in Arabella, particularly Tannhäuser and Parsifal, to argue that his supposedly non-metaphysical music still sets up a division between sacred and profane. Chapter 8 shows that, although Arabella looks like 1920s rom-com, it actually modelled a symbolic, mythical and ritual practice that allowed its audience to transcend the commercial representation of romance.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2013

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