Afterlives of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle

A Preview of My MLA 2017 Paper

In May 1968 and the months following it, France experienced widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. I adopt the term “afterlives” from Kristin Ross (2002) to refer to how the legacy of May 1968 was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain during the 1970s in France. These afterlives were apparent not only in concert music – as documented by Eric Drott (2011) – but also in opera stagings, in particular of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The theme of Wagner the revolutionary – Wagner’s participation in the Dresden Uprising of 1848/9 and the revolutionary content of his works – was especially conducive to assessments of current events and memories of the 1968 events.

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The final scene of Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung. Workers watch as Valhalla burns to the ground.

Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. Chéreau experimented with collective theater and bringing theater to local schools and factories in Sartrouville. On May 13, 1968, Boulez gave a lecture (“Where Are We Now?“) in Saint-Etienne that proposed sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France.

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. Many former radicals disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general, as exemplified by the New Philosophers. Chéreau and Boulez were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. In spite of their desire to forget the past, both Chéreau and Boulez adopt ideas and themes of the May 1968 period in the Bayreuth centennial Ring. (For further background information on the Bayreuth centennial Ring, see my previous blog post.) Chéreau’s critique of Wotan as a metaphor for an oppressive state is in keeping with the anti-authoritarian impulse of the 1968 years. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of discovering a new musical language and establishing a research center outside of the traditional concert system.

(My MLA 2017 paper is entitled “Visions of Wagner and Memories of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle” and will take place on Thursday, January 5 at 5:15-6:30pm, Franklin 12, Philadelphia Marriott. See the abstract here.)

(This blog post and conference paper are based on Chapters One, Three, and Four of my dissertation. The material is under copyright. All rights reserved.)