Presidential Lecture Series
Carolyn Abbate
Stanford Humanities Center



Carolyn Abbate
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:

Tristan evidently 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.[1]

"The Parisian 'Vénus' and the 'Paris Tannhäuser" [2] 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.[3]  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 symphonic composition.

In 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 musicological methodologies.

‘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 of analysis.[4]

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."[5]

This application of narratology to musical analysis sets the trajectory for Abbate’s subsequent work, beginning with "Erik’s Dream and Tannhäuser’s Journey."[6] 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’ enunciations."[7]

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,"[8] 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 death."[9]

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."[10]  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 her character.

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,"[11] 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 revealed."[12]

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 Gluck.[13]  Their 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 circuits.

In the next essay of In Search of Opera, "Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun," [14] 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 analysis [15] 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 images,"[16] while "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[17] and, of special importance to Abbate’s thought, Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch. [18] 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 or Gnostic?"[19] 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."[20]

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.




[1] "Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas," 19th Century Music 5, no. 2 (Autumn 1981): 126.

[2] "The Parisian Venus and the Paris Tannhäuser," Journal of the American Musicological Society 36, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 73-123.

[3] Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, eds., Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, California Studies in 19th-Century Music, 6 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[4] "On Analyzing Opera," in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, p. 4.

[5] "What the Sorcerer Said," 19th-Century Music 12, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 227.

[6] "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).

[7] Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century, Princeton Studies in Opera (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. ix.

[8] Chapter 5, "Wotan’s Monologue and the Morality of Narration," In Unsung Voices, p. 156-205.

[9] Chapter 6, "Brünnhilde Walks by Night," in Unsung Voices, p. 238.

[10] "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 Press, 1989).

[11] "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 Press, 1993).

[12] In Search of Opera, Princeton Studies in Opera (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. vii.

[13] "Orpheus, One Last Performance," in In Search of Opera, p. 1-54.

[14] "Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun," in In Search of Opera, p. 55-106.

[15] The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, s.v. "Analysis."

[16] Ibid., v. 1, p. 117.

[17] Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[18] Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[19] "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?" Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 505-536.

[20] Ibid., p. 514.


Text by Jerry McBride,
Head Librarian, Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound
Stanford University Libraries ©2005.


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