Karol Berger (Stanford): Richard Wagner and the Law


Richard Wagner was often on the wrong side of the law. But it is not Wagner's biography that will be my concern here. Rather, I would like to consider the prominent role played by law in one of the composer's central works, the four-evening music-dramatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, for which Wagner wrote the text between 1848 and 1852 and the music between 1853 and 1874.
The allegory of Wagner's Ring is a story of "the twilight of the gods," the end of the old regime that has ruled the world until now, so that it might be replaced by something better. The old regime has locked in a life-and-death struggle two competing powers: the traditional political power of the aristocratic pleasure- and beauty-loving elite of mountain-heights gods led by Wotan, power resting on legal and constitutional arrangements that have been accumulating since the beginning of history and that limit the elite's freedom of action, and the more recent, modern economic power of the capital accumulated by the new financial elite of plutocrats like the subterranean dwarf Alberich who forswears the sensuous beauty and pleasure of love for the sake of single-minded acquisition of wealth, power resting on nothing more than naked economic domination that allows Alberich to enslave and ruthlessly exploit the toiling proletariat of his Nibelung brethren. In my paper I'll explore the intellectual sources of Wagner's diagnosis of the ills plaguing modernity, of his prescription for how these ills might be healed, and of his vision of what might replace the modern order, a vision of a post-political and post-legal world.
Prof. Dr. Karol Berger

Curriculum Vitae

Karol Berger is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts at the Department of Music, as well as an affiliated faculty at the Department of German Studies, and an affiliated researcher at the Europe Center at Stanford University. A native of Poland, he has lived in the U.S. since 1968, received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1975 and has taught at Stanford since 1982. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference Center, and Stanford Humanities Center. In 2011-12 he has been the EURIAS Senior Fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna. In 2005-2006, he was the Robert Lehman Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. He is a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and an honorary member of the American Musicological Society. His Musica Ficta received the 1988 Otto Kinkeldey Award of the American Musicological Society, and his Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow the 2008 Marjorie Weston Emerson Award of the Mozart Society of America. In 2011 he received the Glarean Prize from the Swiss Musicological Society.

Selected Publications

  • Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987; paperback 2004).
  • A Theory of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; paperback 2002; also available in the Oxford Scholarship Online philosophy series). Polish translation: Potega smaku. Teoria sztuki, trans. Anna Tenczynska (Gdansk: slowo/obraz terytoria, 2008).
  • Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007; paperback 2008).