Essays on Psychoanalysis and Music, II: A musical contribution to humour

Alban Berg: Lulu (Laura Aikin, Teatro alla Scala, Milano, 2010)

Our examples, no longer anchored in lalangue´s equivocalness [i], are placed beyond the margins of those we could expect to find when dealing with the relationship of jokes to humour. With them we aim to portray some of the latter´s particular aspects.

Describing involuntary comicality (unfreiwillige Komik), Freud [ii] mentions two unlucky verses by a pedestrian poet, in which the comic effect, however unintended by her, is,fortunately, not painful.

But that is not the case we find in an episode of the opera “Moses and Aron”, by Arnold Schönberg, nor in another in the opera, “Lulu” by Alban Berg.

In both, the situation is intended to be tragical. Even more, they should represent a climax in the expression of the most calamitous misfortune and sorrow. But as known, from the sublime to ridicule the interval may prove to be a fatally reduced one, in the stage productions we had the chance to attend, laughter in the audience was inevitable.

And a suggested automatism of transformation of anxiety into laughter does not offer, to the analyst, a more satisfactory explanation than a suposed exteriorisation of the Unutterable.

As before [iii], let us turn to the descriptive, preliminary step.


Scönberg, “Moses und Aron”, Teatro Real, Madrid, 2012

1) “The Golden Calf and the Altar”, the central scene, second act of the opera “Moses and Aron”(Measures 493-496). A group of trembling old men, with walking-canes as shivering as their owners, offer the last instants of their lives to the restored sacrilegous Image. “Take them as a sacrifice“(Nehmt sie als Opfer), they beg by means of Sprechgesang. And the juxtaposition of chords B-E-G/A-D-F sharp, followed by paralell fourths in downwards motion, is almost inevitably heard as a glissando, even when there is no tie in the score. The senile characters fall down, motionless.”They have killed themselves” (Sie haben sich getötet), whisper Israel´s Seventy Elders, who witness the action, reaching an E flat in the extreme bass register.

2) ”You dogs…you..!” (Ihr Hunde…Ihr…!) cries,also in Sprechgesang, – on a C in the first place, then a third upwards – the Medical Advisor (der Medizinalrat), menacing with his walking cane the criminal couple of Lulu and the Painter, whom he has caught in flagrante delicto during the opera´s first act (Measures 211-218). His two sighs follow, likewise sliding from an F upwards, then already without any height: heart failure has struck him over a pause which puts a stop to the harp´s rhythmic ostinato (B flat-D).


Alban Berg, “Lulu”, Salzburg 2011, Patricia Petibon and Pavol Breslik

It would be pointless to mention the absurdity of operatic conventions while trying to analyse this unfortunate transformation of the authors´ intentions, which has resulted in an effect so distant and unwanted. Quite the contrary, opera is abundant in “arias with the dagger in the breast“, some of them of considerable length, where ridicule doesn´t show up at all, and where the beauty of vocal flourishing holds tight the thread of the moved audience´s jouissance .


It wouldn´t have been prevented by replacing Sprechgesang by full singing, though. The procedure, after all, is fully musical. There must be something in the scenes itself acting as a trigger.

Has it been an error of method to distinguish and compare them on the basis of the effect they produce? There are, after all, significative differences between the two episodes: in the second one, ridicule may be associated with the universal phallic degradation of the “magnificent cuckold”´s position. This predicament,according to Lacan, is the source of the comic effect in Aristophanes´ Λυσιστράτη. And in the first example, we also find the masculine emblem in its Fall, even if the jealousy topic does not exist.

We find an additional detail in Schönberg´s score. The glissando reappears, this time manifestly indicated – an octave plus a minor sixth, pianissimo – as the Four Virgin´s throats are severed by the Priests. (This is the beginning of the”orgy of destruction and suicide“, measures 822-823). Their “death whisper“does not, however, engender the aforementioned laughter. Does a mechanically repeated death wear out, or is it a simple question of age ?

Besides, are the two scenes so disturbing? Is it not absolutely trivial to laugh over the stumbling and thumping of clowns? Furthermore, no onstage semblance of death – as does the image of a beheading in a dream – fails to avoid castration efficiently.

Thus, the”reverse effect” could be related to excess and its ability to be the turning point of a transformation into an opposite. Let us remember how easily a surplus in masculinity becomes femininized, as well as how an excessive womanlihood may be awesomely heightened to the dignity of the Thing.

Freud is the first to be aware of the value of quantity at play, when he notices that a small amount produces disgust, and nothing funny [iv].

Perhaps there we are closer to the key, as both particularities are present in our examples. The Wedekind text upon which the opera by Berg is based increasingly stacks up vulgarities of all kinds. Oddly, Berg has kept them scrupulously. Freud did not think Wedekind as a literary value; he only appreciated his plays as documentary of his times, and we do not know whether he occupied the orchestra seat reserved for him for the first ,private performance of the play (which was presented only for a selected Viennese group to avoid censorship). However, none of these trivialities produces a hilarious reaction.

But in these examples they constitute a Versagung, an expectation that only meets deceit. We did not expect to find such points of feebleness in a testament. And both works have this character: Schönberg´s opus is his summae operae vitae, and Berg´s Lulu is his last composition. They should not be anything else but sublime, not even for an instant.

The two musicians have dangerously approached the extremes of human abjection, of which Art usually offers only idealized transmutations. In their enounciation both have changed a position of discourse.

Perhaps it would have been better to cover this interstice with the Freudian words”you are requested to close the eyes/an eye [v]

[i] A reference to a previous brief essay, “Dos adiciones a una improbable edición de la´Psicopatología de la vida cotidiana´ “Contexto en Psicoanálisis, No.1, Ediciones La Campana, La Plata, 1996. For a definition of “lalangue” (thetongue) see Clinical Studies, Vol 2 # 2,1996, footnote 7 page 33.

[ii]Der Witz und seine Beziehungen zum Unbewussten” G.W., Fischer, Francfort.

[iii] See Note 4.

[iv] ibid.

[v] see Freud,S.,S.E.Vol.IV,p.317-318.


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