Music, Bacchus, and Freedom

Author: Law, Hedy

Publication details: The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body, edited by Youn Kim and Sander L. Gilman. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Abstract: Nietzsche points out in The Birth of Tragedy (1872, rev. 1886) that modern Dionysiac music began with Beethoven’s symphonic music and matured in Wagner’s music drama. Yet his account fails to explain a convention of Bacchus in pre-nineteenth-century music. This chapter provides a corrective by explaining the relationships among music, Bacchus, and freedom in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French music. With the use of Euripides’s Bacchae, the section “Bacchus and Pentheus” in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Nietzsche’s essay “The Dionysian World View,” this article relates the themes of musical deviance and political defiance, liberation and destruction, and orgy and regeneration to the ideas of positive and negative freedoms as well as freedom of action and freedom of motion. This article thus contextualizes d’Alembert’s De la liberté de la musique of 1759 by arguing that representations of Bacchus enable music and the body to construct freedom as an embodied concept.