Ji Yeon Lee

Ernst Kurth’s Climax Theory and its Application to Wagner Analysis

Ernst Kurth is generally known in North America for his account of Wagnerian chromatic harmony through the ideological lens of contemporary energetics and Schopenhauerian philosophy. Work by Patrick McCreless (1983) and Lee Rothfarb (1989; 1991) are standard in Kurth scholarship; more recently, Daphne Tan’s dissertation on Kurth’s Musikpsychologie (2013) illuminated Kurth’s harmonic system as part of the field of psychology. The present paper concerns further Kurth discourse regarding dynamism, but aims to expand it as analytical methodology: I consider the climax techniques investigated in Bruckner (1925) and their application to analysis of Wagner’s operas. Although Kurth’s discussion centers on Bruckner’s symphonies, the suggested climax techniques transfer naturally to Wagner’s operas, due to the two composers’ contemporaneity and prominent use of such shared compositional idioms as chromatic harmony and continuous melodic waves. 

In the first part of the paper, I establish a theoretical foundation by categorizing and systematizing Kurth’s climax devices. Kurth broadly covers the parameters of tension increase and abatement; I will position these parameters within each phase of the tension teleology, while exploring how to contextualize the climax system as a whole and coherent entity. The next part demonstrates the effective applicability of these parameters as an analytical tool; techniques including repetition, sequence, pitch motion, rhythmic diminution, dynamic change, silence and interruption, and brass instrumentation will be employed to decode the climax process in Tristan and the Ring Cycle.
Through this theoretical and analytical study, I will argue that Kurth’s climax theory offers considerable insight into the construction of Wagner’s dynamic quality, which engenders fluidity and mobility in the context of ‘musical prose’ (‘Musikalisches Prosa’).