Carolyn Abbate. Photograph by J.T. Miller,
©Princeton University Press.
Carolyn Abbate is among
the world’s foremost musicologists. A virtuoso practitioner of the
field’s traditional methodologies, she has also challenged their
limits, mobilizing literary theory and philosophy to provoke new
ways of thinking about music and understanding its experience. From
her earliest essays, she has questioned familiar approaches to well-known
works, reaching beyond their printed scores, their composer’s intentions,
and the technicalities of their performance, to explore the particular,
physical impact of the medium upon performer and audience alike.
Since 1984 Abbate has
been a professor of music at Princeton, where she also participates
in the University’s interdisciplinary programs for European Cultural
Studies and for Media and Modernity. In the fall of 2005 she will,
however, move to Harvard to become the first Radcliffe Alumnae Professor
at the University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies.
From the very beginning
of her career, Abbate has concentrated on opera, especially of the
late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While still an undergraduate
at Yale, she reconstructed the score of Claude Debussy’s La chute
de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher),
long regarded as unsalvageably incomplete. Her remarkable feat of
scholarship culminated in performances of the opera, first at her
alma mater in New Haven in 1977, then a year later in New York.
Two early articles,
both of which Abbate published prior to completing her doctoral
dissertation in 1984, focus on operas of Debussy and Richard Wagner.
"Tristan in the
Composition of Pelléas" examines the sequence of Debussy’s
manuscripts, allusions in his letters, and direct musical quotations,
to show how Debussy deliberately used Wagner’s opera as a model
for Pelléas et Mélisande. The connection between the two
operas reveals the complexity of the creative process, since Debussy’s
style and manner of writing are so vastly different from Wagner’s.
Abbate elaborates the relation of these otherwise unrelated works:
began, at a certain stage in its history, with the vocal line,
which determined the structure of its accompaniment. In Pelléas
the vocal line was extracted from, or laid over, an orchestral
composition. Or, to reverse the construction: Pelléas is
indeed a text spoken over an instrumental continuum, while Tristan
is a symphony in which the voice lines determine the overall structure.
Parisian 'Vénus' and the 'Paris Tannhäuser" 
also develops from scrupulous study of documentary evidence, and
again reveals an unexpected aspect of a composer’s creative practice.
Abbate shows how the manuscripts relating to the Paris version of
Tannhäuser reflect pressures on Wagner to alter his original
German work for its French production centering on the opera’s Venus
scene. The revisions show how the composer altered passages and
scenes during rehearsal in an evolutionary or improvisatory manner
unlike most of his other operas, where few changes were made after
the work entered production.
In October 1984, the
same year as her appointment to the Princeton faculty, Abbate helped
organize the Verdi-Wagner Conference at Cornell University. She
and Roger Parker subsequently edited the conference’s papers, published
as Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner.
The volume includes two of her own essays: "On
Analyzing Opera" and "Opera as Symphony: A Wagnerian Myth."
The latter questions the long-standing notion of a "symphonic" Wagner.
This "myth" arises from the presence of extended stretches of purely
orchestral music in Wagner’s operas, and it is also supported by
earlier musicological analyses, which imposed instrumental forms
on scenes, acts, and even entire works. Abbate rejects this traditional
view and its rationales, arguing instead that Wagner’s compositional
methods for setting text to achieve dramatic ends are inherently
at odds with the techniques of motivic development essential to
the article that opens the book, "On
Analyzing Opera," Abbate discusses more generally the principles
that govern her approach to opera. She proposes that operatic analysis
needs to examine the entirety of the work in all of its complexities,
not just those aspects of the piece that fit conveniently into established
‘Analyzing opera’ should
mean not only ‘analyzing music’ but simultaneously engaging, with
equal sophistication, the poetry and the drama. Analysis of opera
might also attempt to characterize the ways that music in opera
is unique; that is, to address the idiosyncrasies that set operatic
music apart from the instrumental music that have shaped our notions
Abbate pursues these
ideas in "What the Sorcerer Said,"
which considers the nature of narrative in music through an analysis
of Paul Dukas’s L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).
This apparently straightforward piece of program music is usually
explained by drawing correspondences between the program—Goethe’s
poem, Der Zauberlehrling—and themes found in the music. Abbate
shows how motivic and formal analyses fail to explain the full range
of the work’s meaning or account for all aspects of its form. By
employing literary theories of narrative to explore Dukas’s piece,
she leads the reader outside the composition—to "actual musical-historical
references, citations, and symbols."
This application of
narratology to musical analysis sets the trajectory for Abbate’s
subsequent work, beginning with "Erik’s Dream and Tannhäuser’s Journey." This essay’s title refers to two
operatic scenes, Eric’s Dream (Act 2) from Wagner’s Der fliegende
Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and the Rome Narrative
(Act 3) from Tannhäuser. Both are narrative monologues that
interrupt the linear action of the operas to inform the listener
of events from another time. The former is a story, the latter,
a ballad, and each requires the characters to assume a different
"voice." Voice, in Abbate’s sense, is "not literally vocal performance,
but rather a sense of certain isolated and rare gestures in music,
whether vocal or non-vocal, that may be perceived as modes of subjects’
Such moments raise a
variety of critical issues. How will the audience and the characters
on stage know when a song is part of the sung drama? To whom and
for what purpose will a story recount or predict events? Abbate
discusses such issues in her first book, Unsung Voices: Opera
and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century. In chapter
five, "Wotan’s Monologue and the Morality of Narration," she examines the longest narrative in Wagner’s
Ring cycle. Wotan is the supreme teller of tales, who recites
the history of the world and predicts its future. Though orchestral
leitmotivs from previous segments of the cycle appear throughout
his monologue, the music Wotan sings is unique, standing apart from
the course and action of the opera. At the same time, Brünnhilde,
a clairvoyant sibyl with powers to hear truths inaccessible to others,
alone understands Wotan’s tale and is thereby enabled to create
her own narratives. In the final Immolation Monologue, "her transformation
is transfiguration, in which a Brünnhilde purged of her doubts toward
narrative is willing to execute the story’s closure with her own
Abbate also applies
the concepts of narrative and "voice" to another strong female character
in "Elektra’s Voice: Music and Language in Strauss’s Opera." Elektra, who dominates every
aspect of the drama and overwhelms the other characters through
the sheer sound and power of her singing voice, also dominates even
the authority of the composer himself, when she sings at the beginning
and in her concluding narrative monologue: "Ob ich nicht höre? ob
ich die Musik nicht höre? sie kommt doch aus mir heraus" ("Don’t
I hear it? Do I hear the music? The music comes from me").
Like Wotan, the music she sings becomes uniquely identified with
Although elements from
feminist criticism appear in Abbate’s writing, they are generally
not the focus of her work. However, in "Opera;
or, the Envoicing of Women," using the 1978 film, Mascara, she masterfully
analyzes the gender issues of the movie and the two operas to which
it alludes, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Christoph Gluck’s
Orfeo ed Euridice. The film depicts an operatic karaoke
club, Mr. Butterfly, where a transvestite lip-syncs the part of
Eurydice. When the masquerading transvestite is revealed to be a
man, his lover, enraged by the deception, murders him, while the
music from Salome plays in the background. The film, in conjunction
with the two operas, is a rich source for examining not only the
boundaries between women as performers or creators and the authority
of male composers, but also the gender ambiguities inherent in such
operatic conventions as castrati singers (female voices in the bodies
of men) and trouser roles (female singers dressed as men).
These issues form a
bridge from the concerns of Unsung Voices to the ideas Abbate
explores in her second book of essays, In Search of Opera.
Here the focus is on music that is inexpressible, or is never actually
heard, and she contrasts it with the corporeal aspects of opera:
the performance, the performer, staging, and interpretation. The
essays foreground "something more radical, music that literally
is not present in the work: a musical object to which, as [Abbate]
saw it, the listener is directed, without that object ever being
In the book’s opening
chapter, Abbate locates examples of such unheard and inexpressible
music in the renditions of the Orpheus legend by Monteverdi and
handling of the myth provides the perfect venue to discuss these
concepts. Orpheus sings music whose power moves the god of the underworld
to release his beloved Eurydice from death, yet despite his arias
of great beauty, the songs he sings before Pluto are not actually
staged in either Monteverdi’s nor Gluck’s opera. In both, the music
that wins Eurydice is only alluded to after he has successfully
won her back. Here the illusion of a song and its performance is
more powerful than anything that could actually be written by the
composer and performed by a singer. What is not heard becomes more
important than the music that actually is heard.
Both Gluck and Monteverdi
changed the gruesome ending of the legend where the Bacchantes,
jealous of his devotion to Eurydice, dismember Orpheus and throw
into the river his head and lyre, which are still singing and playing,
despite their severance from his body. Abbate reads the decapitation
as a metaphor, both of the separation of the composer from the performer
and of the live performer from recorded sound, that emanates, in
our age of mechanical reproduction, from the action of electronic
In the next essay of
In Search of Opera, "Magic
Flute, Nocturnal Sun,"
 Abbate offers a highly unusual interpretation of Mozart’s
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Juxtaposing the
opera to the fairy tale, "Le roi magicien" by Louis Chevalier du
Mailly, the book, Silberglöckchen, Zauberflöten by Melanie
and Rudolf Heinz, and Max Slevogt’s engravings, Die Zauberflöte:
Randzeichnungen zu Mozarts Handschrift, Abbate exposes the vagaries
of sexual identity, the opposition of human and mechanical performance,
and the pervasive struggle between light and dark.
In addition to her writings
on specific musical and operatic works, Abbate has also contributed
significantly to contemporary debates about the methodology of musicology.
Her encyclopedia article on opera
summarizes the history and conceptualization of the field, sharply
differentiating it from purely musical analysis. Since opera combines
visual, verbal, and musical elements into a single art form, she
insists that analysis must take the interaction of all three aspects
fully into account. However, musicologists have historically examined
each of these factors in isolation, privileging the music as the
dominant characteristic. The two main branches of opera analysis
that emerged in the nineteenth century and flourished in the twentieth
century both take this approach. "Symbolist" analysis emphasizes
"music’s capacity to reflect emotion, dramatic events or poetic
"formalist" analysis focuses on the structural elements of musical
forms and harmonic and tonal areas. Abbate advocates an analytical
method that treats an operatic work as "polyphony" between all its
disparate aspects, where no one element dominates or is isolated.
This does not imply that equality exists between the visual, musical,
and verbal at all times, nor that those elements cannot contradict
one another, but rather that opera’s richness is found through the
interaction of all three.
Her ideas on opera analysis
are also informed by her translation of Music and Discourse
by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and, of special importance to
Abbate’s thought, Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch.
 Jankélévitch’s work is little known outside of France,
although his influence is clearly evident in the work of other French
intellectuals — philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas; theorist, Roland
Barthes; and author, Catherine Clément. He is concerned with music
as a living art — based in the actual sound, physical performance,
and first-hand response, rather than solely on the symbols of a
musical score. Nor, for Jankélévitch, can music be defined by extra-musical
stories, language, or a description of its emotional content.
This emphasis on actual
performances poses difficult issues for the field of musicology,
which has typically studied the musical work through the notated
score, or musical performance through archival documents and recordings.
Abbate takes up this topic in the rather provocative article, whose
title is derived from Jankélévitch’s writings, "Music—Drastic
Since music exists only in the present as a performed art, she questions
the effect of studying and writing about music as represented in
the score or frozen in time in a recording — mere shadows of the
real music. The actual experience of music is "drastic" rather than
"gnostic," ephemeral rather than remembered, and immediately encountered,
not retrospectively intellectualized. In the moment that the listener
perceives music, the powers of analysis and abstraction are suspended
in favor of the experience. "Music’s effects upon performers and
listeners can be devastating, physically brutal, mysterious, erotic,
moving, boring, pleasing, enervating, or uncomfortable, generally
embarrassing, subjective, and resistant to the gnostic."
Encapsulating the essence
of Abbate’s argument in this article, as with so many of her writings,
is not possible. To experience the impact of her work, readers must
engage, and then re-engage the texts themselves, stopping to pause
over passages rich in implications, and then apply her ideas and
observations when listening to music and remembering past musical
performances. Carolyn Abbate’s ideas will change our perspective,
allowing us to probe beneath surface details to hear and experience
music in its totality and to reach beyond the written score and
its performance to grasp the full significance of an artistic work.
 "Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas,"
19th Century Music 5, no. 2 (Autumn 1981): 126.
 "The Parisian Venus and the Paris Tannhäuser,"
Journal of the American Musicological Society 36, no. 1
(Spring 1983): 73-123.
 Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, eds., Analyzing
Opera: Verdi and Wagner, California Studies in 19th-Century
Music, 6 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
 "On Analyzing Opera," in Analyzing Opera: Verdi
and Wagner, p. 4.
 "What the Sorcerer Said," 19th-Century Music
12, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 227.
 "Erik’s Dream and Tannhäuser’s Journey," in Reading
Opera, ed. Arthur Groos and Roger Parker, p. 129-167 (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).
 Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative
in the Nineteenth Century, Princeton Studies in Opera (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. ix.
 Chapter 5, "Wotan’s Monologue and the Morality
of Narration," In Unsung Voices, p. 156-205.
 Chapter 6, "Brünnhilde Walks by Night," in Unsung
Voices, p. 238.
 "Elektra’s Voice: Music and Language in Strauss’s
Opera," in Richard Strauss: Elektra, ed. Derrick Puffett,
p. 107-127, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (New York: Cambridge University
 "Opera; or, The Envoicing of Women," in Musicology
and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship,
ed. Ruth A. Solie, p. 225-258 (Berkeley: University of California
 In Search of Opera, Princeton Studies
in Opera (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001),
 "Orpheus, One Last Performance," in In Search
of Opera, p. 1-54.
 "Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun," in In Search
of Opera, p. 55-106.
 The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, s.v.
 Ibid., v. 1, p. 117.
 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse:
Toward a Semiology of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).
 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable,
trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
 "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?" Critical Inquiry
30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 505-536.
Text by Jerry McBride,
Head Librarian, Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound
Stanford University Libraries ©2005.