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Wagner's Melodies
Aesthetics and Materialism in German Musical Identity


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  • Date Published: August 2016
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316618233

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About the Authors
  • Since the 1840s, critics have lambasted Wagner for lacking the ability to compose melody. But for him, melody was fundamental - 'music's only form'. This incongruity testifies to the surprising difficulties during the nineteenth century of conceptualizing melody. Despite its indispensable place in opera, contemporary theorists were unable even to agree on a definition for it. In Wagner's Melodies, David Trippett re-examines Wagner's central aesthetic claims, placing the composer's ideas about melody in the context of the scientific discourse of his age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music's stimulation of the body and inventions for 'automatic' composition. Interweaving a rich variety of material from the history of science, music theory, music criticism, private correspondence and court reports, Trippett uncovers a new and controversial discourse that placed melody at the apex of artistic self-consciousness and generated problems of urgent dimensions for German music aesthetics.

    • The first study to link the emergence of the natural sciences and technological thinking to Wagner's aesthetics of expression
    • Interweaves a wide variety of source material from the history of science, music theory, music criticism and aesthetics, including material from private correspondence, newspapers and court reports, as well as published books
    • Translates a great many sources into English for the first time and uncovers a new, controversial discourse on melody within nineteenth-century German aesthetics
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    • Winner of the 2014 American Musicological Society Lewis Lockwood Award

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Trippett's work dispels the myth that there is nothing new to be written about Richard Wagner. He delves into uncanny underworlds of nineteenth-century thought, and shows how they underpin Wagner's compositional ideas. Nascent technologies, speculation on melody and meaning, the acoustic reality of theatrical sound - all this is woven into an account of Wagner's evolution that is both startling and illuminating. A tremendous achievement.' Carolyn Abbate, Harvard University

    'Wagner sits at the centre of a veritable spider's web in this book, where the disparate threads of a practical and theoretical discourse about melody in the nineteenth century meet. Artistic creativity and the scientific spirit are spun together in a convincing image surprisingly close to discourses about music in the twenty-first century … Among recent studies about Wagner and his world, David Trippett's is one of the few with something genuinely original to say and should be read by anybody with a serious interest in the subject.' John Deathridge, King Edward Professor of Music, King's College London

    'Melody is famously elusive and resistant to analysis. Nineteenth-century theorists, more comfortable with the quantifiable parameters of harmony and meter, shied away from it. Trippett does not. He demonstrates that melody was a matter of vital importance and critical contention for musicians in the German cultural orbit, who sought to forge a distinct musical 'voice' with melodic virtues different from those of French and Italian music. Trippett impressively guides us through a discourse of melody that was dispersed across several different kinds of writing … The book offers a much needed intellectual and cultural context for Wagner's familiar obsessions with melody, text-music relationships, and the role of the singer-actor. But it goes beyond this: through close analysis of Wagner's compositions and writings, it provides fresh insights that challenge the composer's own narrative of how he arrived at his melodic ideals.' Dana Gooley, Brown University

    'As David Trippett has argued in his outstanding book, Wagner's Melodies, an Italianate model of the normative virtues of fine musical melody - as exemplified in bel canto, notably Bellini - was supplanted and rejected by Wagner (after a period of flirtation with it) precisely because it failed to enrich, augment, and deepen the special power of German words and ideas.' Leon Botstein, The Musical Quarterly

    'Notable music book of 2013.' Alex Ross, 'The Rest is Noise' blog

    'This is likely one of the first published attempts to draw connections between Wagner's aesthetics of expression and the nineteenth-century world of scientific inquiry, and the results are fascinating … Whether readers of Trippett's volume are interested in nineteenth-century German psychology, politics, scientific thought, legal history, or simply fresh thinking on Wagner's music, his conceptions of melodic writing, and his relationships with singers, there is a great deal to be found between the pages of this exciting book.' Kirsten S. Paige, MLA Notes

    'Trippett's book is more intellectual history than musicology or music criticism … Reporting at length on the results of his research into the state of certain sciences in Wagner's time while not losing sight of the composer's own tortuous engagement with language and melody, as well as with singers (Schroeder-Devriernt) and composers (Bellini and Liszt), Trippett has no difficulty in laying bare the paradox that is the work of art as material reality.' Arnold Whittall, Gramophone

    'Trippett tackles a fundamental paradox of music (and art) historiography: works of music are material reality, real products of a historical context, and yet, by virtue of their status as 'art', irreducible to that material reality … [His] materialist remodeling of Wagner is startlingly original … [and provides a] deeply intellectual investigation into Wagner's 'sonorous melodies' … This book should … be read by anyone with a serious interest in Wagner's sound.' The Wagner Journal

    'David Trippett has uncovered a well of untapped research potential in this book by focusing on the aesthetic and scientific contexts into which Wagner, and more specifically his theories of melody, fit … a consistently stimulating and revelatory read.' Brio

    'Just when you thought that there can't be anything more to say about Wagner comes the freshest, most learned and imaginative study in years … Despite the book's enormous discursive scope, it makes time for sharp cinematic close-ups, so that the reader often feels he or she is standing behind the composer's shoulder. And the camera frequently pans out to reveal the bigger picture of the nineteenth-century debate between idealism and materialism … It is extraordinary how often a bit of arcana can light up conventional wisdom and deliver galvanic jolts of insight and pleasure to the reader, as when property law illuminates Wagner's anxiety of melodic influence, or pre-Edisonian experiments in voice recording shed light on Wagner's struggles to notate recitatives in Lohengrin … There is no gainsaying the brilliance of Trippett's book: it is as audacious in design as it is formidable in execution. As an essay in historical hermeneutics, it is one of the most dramatic breakthrough texts since [Gary] Tomlinson's Music in Renaissance Magic.' Michael Spitzer, Nineteenth-Century Music Review

    '[An] often captivating and fascinating attempt to provide fresh insights into Richard Wagner's compositional practices and aesthetics productions … [Wagner's Melodies] combines wide-ranging and detailed scholarly reconstructions of some of the cultural contexts that framed the production and reception of Wagner's works in nineteenth-century Germany, with an intensely detailed, sometimes speculative intellectual analysis of the ways in which such re-framings hint at hidden layers of meaning in the aesthetic works themselves … Trippett's dogged perseverance in pursuing specific threads in these discursive webs … [is] fascinating and make[s] the book a diverting and absorbing read.' John E. Toews, British Journal of Aesthetics

    '[A]n account of Wagner's melodic compositional activity emerges that casts him in a new light, as bound up with issues of physiology, philology, and technology. The combination is fascinating, provocative, and entirely novel in the literature. Trippett's insights are illuminating and should appeal to both the historian and the philosopher … Wagner's Melodies is an exhaustively documented and historically grounded work of theoretical provocation, sure to become a standard in the field.' Andrew J. Mitchell, German Studies Review

    'Thoroughly original … Trippett reconstructs a polyphonic, virtual dialogue between diverse disciplines, from physics via chemistry to medicine, in which Wagner appears as a virtual rather than real participant, though one to be taken seriously … The book is an enormously illuminating study of discursive contexts from Wagner's theory and practice that reveals the intriguing proximity of Wagner's experiments to the materialist epistemology of contemporary natural science.' Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, translated from Wagnerspectrum

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    Product details

    • Date Published: August 2016
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316618233
    • length: 464 pages
    • dimensions: 245 x 170 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.76kg
    • contains: 21 b/w illus. 17 music examples
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. German melody
    2. Melodielehre?
    3. Wagner in the melodic workshop
    4. Hearing voices: Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient and the Lohengrin 'Recitatives'
    5. Vowels, voices, and 'original truth'
    6. Wagner's material expression
    Excursus: Bellini's Sinnlichkeit and Wagner's Italy.

  • Author

    David Trippett, University of Cambridge
    David Trippett is a Lecturer in Music at the University of Cambridge. His work on Wagner's music and reception, the history of aesthetics and theories of technology has appeared in various journals including 19th-Century Music, the Journal of Musicology, Musiktheorie, the Cambridge Opera Journal and The Musical Quarterly, and has earned him the Alfred Einstein award of the American Musicological Society. He has also edited and translated texts in music history, including most recently Carl Stumpf's The Origins of Music (2012), and he performs regularly as a collaborative pianist, having given concerts throughout Europe and on both coasts of the USA.


    • Winner of the 2014 American Musicological Society Lewis Lockwood Award

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