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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Opera, narrative, and the modernist crisis of historical subjectivity Lee, Sherry Denise


The concept of a crisis of subjective identity and its expression in modernist artworks of the fin-de-siècle and early twentieth century is central to this study of narrative in operas by Franz Schreker (1878-1934) and Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942). Focused on modernist operatic expressions of subjectivity in crisis, this project explores and expands ideas of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), starting from his assertion that modern works of art should be dialectical expressions of the crisis of the individual subject alienated within the instrumental mechanisms of modern society. This study examines individual narrative and musical expressions of marginal subjectivity from several perspectives, including Adorno's musical aesthetics, Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalytical concepts, and literary and gender-based theories. The study begins by mapping out a constellation of concepts that figure in the discussion to follow: Adorno's critical theory of authentic expression in modern music; philosophical and psychoanalytical concepts of subjectivity; and the narrative thread running through historical, theoretical, and literary concerns of this project. In the main portion of the dissertation, Adorno's 1959 essays on Schreker and Zemlinsky serve as points of departure for discussions of four operas: Schreker's "Der ferne Klang" (1912) and "Die Gezeichneten" (1918), with libretti by the composer, and Zemlinsky's "Eine florentinische Tragödie" (1917) and "Der Zwerg" (1921), both based on texts by Oscar Wilde. Adorno criticized Schreker for composing sensually alluring yet technically deficient works that sought to escape rather than authentically express the modernist human condition. This project examines and elucidates Adorno's case against Schreker, focusing on his criticism of Schreker's central idea of sound, and defends the critical quality of Schreker's artistic conception, reinterpreting the Schrekerian sound through close readings of the operatic narratives. Adorno praised Zemlinsky's eclectic compositional style for its expressivity and socio-historical authenticity; yet he dismissed both Wildean operas, considering their libretti dramatically flawed. However, the present reading finds the subtle psychosexual implications of Wilde's texts suggestive for re-hearing the musical relationships in both operas, in terms of the issues of subjective crisis they explore. The dissertation concludes by addressing questions of historicity raised by Adorno's discussion of the historical fate of both composers.

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