The Vampire

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Vampire, performed on March 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov ridiculed the common impulse to find symbolic meaning, particularly of a Freudian kind, in any narrative or witnessed event. But he might have made an exception for the long-standing fascination in Western culture for vampires. Of all the manifestation of the supernatural, vampires have had the most enduring and adaptable symbolic value for the last two centuries. Without accounting for this utility, it would be difficult to understand why otherwise intelligent people would be so obsessed by what Bram Stoker called the “undead” : individuals who have been infected by like-minded individuals with a need drink blood, who rest by day in coffins, are afraid of light and (in some versions) of garlic and mirrors. They can be killed (or re-killed) only by driving a stake through their heart or by exposing them to the light of day.

The vampire stories are a clear case in which the symbolic completely trumps any literal meaning. It is possible to trace the various features of the legend to popular (and not unwarranted) fears, such as being buried alive, the mysterious powers of blood and of the moon, etc. But the development of the story through the 19th century suggests that first and foremost it is about the connection between sex and death. It reminds us that our sexual drive, when realized, forces a confrontation with our own mortality. In the Christian narrative, the loss of innocence triggers two forms of consciousness: the recognition of mortality and the recognition of desire and sexuality. In Western culture, love and death are strange but inseparable bed fellows. Therefore, love and death are not surprisingly the only subjects that make for great opera. Whatever the operatic plot may be, the potential for love and death must be present even if not realized. Despite its obvious adaptability to the worst kitsch and the silliest of teenage entertainment, the vampire story has, like opera, offered a powerful analogy to our complex responses to love and death, two of the most powerful sources of meaning in life.

Another analogy offered by the figure of the vampire, especially after Dracula, is our ambivalence toward those who are outside society, either because they possess unique qualities or because they romantically suffer from a tragic affliction. They are greeted with both desire and fear. The magnetism of the ordinary person to the vampire is an attraction to taboo-breaking freedom, deviance and dissent from the usual rules. Much like the “other,” the non-European that Europe created in fanciful tales of the East, the vampire is compelling precisely because his or her presence calls into question the vapid, oppressive rules of society. It is no wonder that the vampire’s most compelling embodiment, Dracula, was a product of the Victorian age, and that in refining his vampire, Stoker decided to displace the folktales of his native Ireland to Romania, then a remote border region next to the Turkish empire. For 19th-century Europeans who were dulled by routine and industrialized urban life, the vampire is the ultimate figure of the artist and thinker who doesn’t play by the rules and is impossible to ignore. In that respect, the dangerous vampire offered the same vicarious, passionate experience that audiences sought in the operas of Wagner, full of larger-than-life figures who suffered, created, used magic, and dared the gods. The rebellious power of the vampire is perhaps nowhere better acknowledged than by the dictator Ceausescu’s banning of Stoker’s book in Romania. The Romanian government found the novel to be insulting, but clearly a story about breaking the rules and defying conformity would not find favor with the tyrant. Incidentally, Dracula was one of the first books translated into Romanian after Ceausescu’s fall.

The most resonant and complicated taboo symbolized by the vampire, however, was and is sexuality. In earlier vampire stories such as Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Stoker’s countryman, the vampire is female, and clearly represents a familiar story about the fear of female sexuality. But later accounts often have a central male figure who may or may not have female companions trailing behind him. Scholars such as Eve Sedgwick have argued that this shift in focus to male vampires suggest that the real sexual tension in vampires stories is not between the vampire and his female victims, but between the vampire and the mortal men who defend the women. In other words, the focus of sexual fear for an implied male reader has moved from female sexuality to male sexuality. Modern readers familiar with Dracula films are often surprised to find that the novel is mostly about how the vampire invokes a deep bond between the male characters pledged to protect the nearly invisible young woman. The vampire of our opera, Lord Ruthven, is, as Thomas Grey points out in his fine notes to this concert, a relative of Don Giovanni, whose devastating attractiveness derives from his aesthetic refinement and poetic sensibilities. Ruthven-Giovanni mirrors late 18th- and early 19th-century notions of the masculine, in which aesthetic sensibility, refinement, and elegance were more important, as they were for Lord Byron, than brawny insensitivity and a disposition to warlike behavior, a distinction to the ideal of masculinity which we have inherited from the later part of the century. Marschner’s libretto also points forward particularly to Wagner in its emphasis on the relations between men. Nominally Tristan und Isolde is about the love between Tristan and King Mark’s intended bride. In order for Tristan to love Isolde he must betray King Mark, but that betrayal is made possible only by a magic potion, not Tristan’s free will. Tristan’s transgression is in his unfaithfulness to his male friend (thus the greatest music—between King Mark and Tristan—comes at the end of Act II). In today’s opera, Aubrey’s seemingly incomprehensible adherence to an oath made to Ruthven even to the point of endangering his fiancée suggests how compelling the male relationship is.

The vampire story can invoke such possibilities and offer tantalizing alternatives to staid, acceptable European mores, but in the end, those mores and the rules of society must prevail, and so the vampire must die. But he has shown that he will always return. He has been embraced as an enduring image in popular culture over generations, especially in cinema and television. This may explain why he has not been seen more in operas like this one, where he perfectly embodies so many of the themes and symbols so cherished in operatic stories. Today’s opera is a tribute to the imagination and literary gifts that flourished in the early 19th century. He is too much a favorite of the most puerile media—from Dracula to Count Chocula. But who can tell? Perish the thought, but perhaps someday we may see an operatic treatment of The Twilight Saga.

Music and the Romantic Vampire

By Thomas Grey

Written for the concert The Vampire, performed on March 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

While the vampire as a figure of folklore or legend goes back to ancient times and can be traced around the globe, the modern literary vampire was born in the company of Doctor Frankenstein’s monster on the shores of Lake Geneva in the early summer of 1816. A clutch of vacationing English Romantics—including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and his young fiancée Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—passed some days of that notoriously wet season reading German “ghost stories” and, at Byron’s suggestion, inventing new ones of their own. Two years later, Mary Shelley published her Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, and a year after that Byron’s physician John Polidori produced a novella, The Vampyre (London, 1819), developed from a prose fragment his celebrated patron had published directly following the gathering in Switzerland. More to the point, however, Polidori’s aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven, derived his charismatic powers of fascination from the model of Lord Byron himself. Polidori’s anonymously published tale was immediately and persistently attributed to Byron, and his vampire’s travels between the mountains of Greece and the salons of London society clearly evoked the highly publicized activities of the famous poet.

Heinrich Marschner’s 1827 opera Der Vampyr thus rode the crest of a wave of vampire enthusiasm inspired by Polidori’s tale and the cult of Lord Byron throughout Europe. Popular vampire melodramas sprang up instantly in England and France. The resourceful playwright and impresario James Robinson Planché (the librettist for Weber’s Oberon in 1826) produced The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1820, adapted from a melodrama by Charles Nodier and two others that had appeared in Paris less than two months earlier. (It is symptomatic of the “vampiric” nature of the popular stage in this period that Planché would be re-adapting the same material yet again, in the form of Marschner’s opera, for the London stage in 1829.) Closely modeled on these two vampire melodramas, in turn, was a “romantic drama in three acts” by one Heinrich Ludwig Ritter, Der Vampyr, oder die Todten-Braut (“The Vampire, or the Bride of the Dead”), borrowing their fanciful dream-prologue set in Fingal’s Cave and the attribution of the source story to the stylish Lord Byron. When Marschner discussed the idea of turning the German drama into a libretto with his new brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, in 1826, the time was clearly ripe for the Byronic vampire to make an entrance on the operatic stage.

Marschner’s operatic version of the Byronic vampire, Lord Ruthven, looks back to Mozart’s Don Giovanni on one hand, and forward to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman on the other. The character that Marschner’s librettist, Wohlbrück, adapted from the popular stage vampires of the day is clearly related to the aristocratic libertine of the Don Juan type: a serial seducer who must, in the end, be punished for his reckless ways. Ruthven’s three female victims in the course of the opera can even be identified with those of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. The high-born, unyielding Malvina, Ruthven’s principal victim whom he seeks to marry and destroy, is the Donna Anna figure. His first conquest, Janthe (the name is a relic of Byron’s Greek setting) is a willing, deluded victim of somewhat lesser social status, comparable to Donna Elvira; like Elvira, she considers herself betrothed to the seducer. The peasant-girl Emmy, seduced in the midst of her own wedding preparations, is a slightly sentimentalized counterpart to Zerlina. In the Act 2 trio “Ihr wollt mich nur beschämen” her fiancé, George, is forced to look on, powerless and frustrated, as Ruthven presses himself on Emmy, recalling the plight of Masetto in the first-act finale of Mozart’s opera.

Ruthven is, like Don Giovanni, a baritone “anti-hero” capable of suave, lyrical seduction and energetic ensemble singing. But our first introduction to the character, in his solo recitative and aria in Act 1 (“Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag! … Ha! Welche Lust!”), immediately reveals the inner demon, singing of his thirst for the blood of young maidens against a roiling D minor accompaniment suffused with chromatic descending lines, low trombone chords, and screeching piccolos. A later key moment of self-revelation, the “grand scene” with the tenor protagonist, Aubry, in Act 2 (“Wohl, du zwingst mich zum Verbrechen”), brings Ruthven closer to the musical-dramatic orbit of Wagner’s Dutchman as he threatens Aubry with his own fate—to destroy “whomever on earth is dearest to you”—should Aubry fail to keep his oath of silence regarding Ruthven’s vampiric identity. (A brief echo of the agitated C minor theme from the overture to Der Freischütz toward the end of this fraught encounter reminds us of another close musical-dramatic relative, Weber’s Caspar, who also seeks to extend a diabolical pact at the expense of innocent victims.)

Wagner’s Dutchman shares the pale, mesmerizing countenance of the Byronic vampire, though unlike Ruthven, he longs not for an extended lease on his “undead” existence, but a final release from it. Ruthven, like Don Juan/Don Giovanni, seeks only the continued renewal of earthly pleasures. His duets with his weaker, non-noble victims Janthe and Emmy draw principally on a pleasurable, post-Mozartian Biedermeier melos laced with a lightly sensual melodic chromaticism deriving, like that of Marschner’s contemporary Louis Spohr, from the example of Mozart. But each of these duets, like the Ruthven-Emmy-George trio in Act 2, moves toward a faster-tempo concluding movement that reveals through some harmonic or melodic means the underlying demonic identity and intentions of the vampire. The duet in which Ruthven eventually seduces Emmy to her perdition (“Leise dort zur fernen Laube”) is essentially, in both its text and music, a translation of the famous duettino from Don Giovanni, “Là ci darem’ la mano,” into the language of Romantic opera. In Marschner’s duet, A major becomes A minor, strings are augmented with a trombone obbligato, and Giovanni’s gentle chromatic persuasions a ratcheted into a higher gear. Ruthven’s signature chromatic descent informs the brief A major conclusion, which dissolves into an ominous whisper in the minor mode in the coda. The carousing villagers who provide comic relief before the denouement in Act 2 remind us of the mixture of comedy and high drama which had recommended Don Giovanni to the Romantic taste. But the hearty “village” tone of their drinking song, no less than the polyphonic textures of the following ensemble, bring us closer to the world of the Norwegian sailors in Wagner’s Dutchman.

That Marschner’s Romantic variations on classical and early Romantic models (Mozart and Weber) were not without influence on Richard Wagner we know from the fact that Wagner collaborated on a production of Der Vampyr with his brother, Albert, a tenor, actor, and theater manager, during his early operatic apprenticeship in the town of Würzburg in 1833. (Wagner’s new, extended conclusion for Aubry’s aria “Wie ein schöner Frühlingsmorgen” is featured in the present performance of Marschner’s score.)

The aristocratic pedigree of the early Romantic vampire is another sign of his roots in the late ancien régime. It is not difficult to see his vampirism as a thinly veiled critique of feudal privilege: the economic exploitation of the peasant class and the sexual exploitation of lower- or middle-class female virtue, as in Don Giovanni’s or Count Almaviva’s exercise of the notorious droit du seigneur. The predatory aristocrat of the revolutionary imagination fed off the life forces of the “third estate” in the form of its labor and moral virtue. The model for later, modern vampires in the title character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is still a “count,” it is true, but he has become an exotic outsider, a bloodless relic from the distant past, preserved, like the quaint folk customs and superstitions of his countrymen, only in the remote mountains of Transylvania. (There is perhaps still a Wagnerian element to the modern vampire, as a dangerous yet compelling intruder from an alien sphere.) After more than two centuries of cultural migrations and resurrections in all different mediums, the vampire has become one of our most potent mythic tropes. Heinrich Marschner’s Lord Ruthven constitutes a fascinating operatic link between origins of the figure in early Romantic fiction and melodrama and the ubiquitous presence of the vampire in the mythology of modern popular culture.

Dr. Grey is Professor of Musicology at Stanford University. He is the author of Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts.