Essays on Psychoanalysis and Music, III: Two “psychoanalytic” operas

Schoenberg´s “Erwartung” at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 2012 


As analysts, we try to take our place “after Freud” [i]. Some have argued that looking for a proof of the Unconscious´ modus operandi in examples taken from Art after the Traumdeutung´s cultural impact is not a sound method.


Musicologists, music critics, art historians have savagely and pitilessly insisted in assuring the relationship of two operas,”Elektra”, by Hugo von Hofmannstahl/Richard Strauss, and”Erwartung” by Marie Pappenheim/Arnold Schönberg, with psychoanalysis. With all probability, the program notes of any opera thouse featuring any one of the two – or the booklet of a new recording – shall mention the association with the Freudian discovery.

Let us cite some examples at random :

Otto Erhardt [ii] :

Hofmannstahl… took out from the shadows of the subconscious (sic) to carry them into the light of full consciousness…; to expose the motivation of their pathological states of the soul, he sometimes used the methods of psychoanalysis´“.


Ernestine Schumann-Heinck (Klytaimnestra) and Annie Krull (Elektra), Dresden, 1909

Pola Suárez Urtubey, in her notes to the performances at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, July 1995 :

Finally, it is the epoch of Siegmund (sic) Freud, when the founder of psychoanalysis revealed in Vienna (together with Breuer) the phases of hysteria and its treatment by means of the free-association technique, as an auxiliary method of investigation of the forgotten conscience. Now it is amidst this climate that Hofmannstahl´s and Strauss “Elektra” is born “.[iii]

(In this performance, the stage director himself [iv] tried to follow this association literally, so he set the tragedy in a psychiatric institution. However, his stage production had to honor the rules of the big bourgeois pageantry, so he did not avoid neither dazzling jewels nor rich garments [v]. The contradiction blurred the original idea)

Regarding “Erwartung” , Willi Reich says [vi]: ”As an internal monologue of the only living being to appear onstage, the events bear some ressemblance with the self-uncovering patients promote during a psycho-analysis. The frequent allusions to unconscious thought that we had found in Schönberg´s previous works, allows us to draw the deduction of a certain relationship between his ideas and those of his contemporary neighbor Sigmund Freud, notwithstanding the fact that both did not know each other in person,and that Schönberg probably did not know more about Freud´s theories than any educated person of his time [vii]”.


Design by Schönberg for “Erwartung”

And Adorno: “She offers (herself) to music as a psychoanalytic patient would do. The confession of hate, jealousy and forgiveness, together with all the unconscious symbolism, are displayed in the music, which reminds us of its own right to oppose itself and compfort only during the heroine´s moment of madness. The seismographic register of the traumatic shocks becomes, at the same time, the technical law of musical form[viii].


Brigitte Pinter in “Erwartung”, Toulouse, 2010

The letter becomes a literal scene, perhaps an expressive footnote to Wiederholungszwang, in the Geneva stage production [ix], where “the psychical world of the only character is set onstage as real on one side, and to a situation where past attacks are described on the other, having an actual psychiatrist to be present amidst the scenery “.

Finally, another reviewer [x] comments the “libretto of Freudian vicinity” and its “demand for analytic interpretation”, mentioning the supposed consanguinity of the author of the text with the primeval hysteric patient, Anna O.


Apparently, all cited reviews accentuate a cloudy Zeitgeist [xi]. The common geographic site is mentioned to underline this idea.

We could precipitatedly consider the weight of the mythical Greek matrix in the case of the Strauss opera.

The first reason is insufficient to explain why these critics do not extend their considerations to other operas written about the same time. The ferocious attribution linking opera and psychoanalysis is – usually – restricted to these two.

The same applies to the second argument: no reviewer links Stravinsky´s Oedipus Rex with analysis. Here, perhaps,the composer´s hostile attitude towards the Freudian ideas has acted perhaps as a warning, anticipatedly preventing any attempt of this kind.

Let us turn to the operas themselves to see what it is about. We do not agree with a certain psychoanalytic terrorism that authorizes the use of the adjective only to those who have gone through the procedure. Neither are we inclined to approve a careless use of it. Perhaps in this point we share Freud´s irritation when writing “On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement“.

Three Women, one Woman. In both tragedies, the expression of feminine passion is set free, unbridled (but never anarchic). It could be said, perhaps altogether obviously, that they have gone “slightly mad[xii].Are these the “phases of hysteria“? Is this what has focused the critics´attention ? Hysteria was, indeed, the birthplace of psychoanalysis, but the inverse is not true. The asylum in which Oswald staged Elektra is altogether pre-Freudian.

I do not have any good nights” Klytaimnestra complains before Elektra (Her exalted daughter´s raving is self-contained within a ¾ measure rythm); “do you not know any remedy for dreams?” But she does not narrate any single dream: instead, she only gives words to the overflowing anxiety that suspends time for her. And her daughter, after listening to her carefully, does not offer any other solution than death, the most extreme of them all…


Susan Bullock (Elektra) and Jane Henschel (Klytaimnestra), Royal Opera House, 2008


Agnes Baltsa (Klytaimnestra) and Nadine Secunde (Elektra), Budapest, 2007

As for the Woman in Erwartung, anxiety is no simple affair: pulses constantly change – from ¾ to 4/4,  2/4 at the 10th measure, etc. Syncopes and irregular values make even these figures ambiguous, lest say anything about intervals…

But which is the value of the “intimate journal made public” as the critics say?  When Rudolf Reitler, during one of the original meetings of the Wednesday Vienna Society [xiii], puts forward the argument that the writing of “intimate diaries” may be “psychic unloading“, Freud immediately replies that “these productions may also be at the service of repression”: in fact the essential is usually left out. That is why Lacan, in his notes to the Wedekind discussion [xiv] points out: “c’est pour cela que je n’errerai pas plus longtemps à suivre à Vienne,dans le groupe de Freud,l es gens qui déchiffrent à l’envers les signes…”

Therefore, it may not be there where psychoanalysis might be found. Its paradoxical place may question us again and again. This is the subject we aim to describe when we present these examples. If we have failed to detect any specificity, at least, perhaps, we have tried to detail our role as object a regarding art creations which, in their own success, are their own interpretation (and what they conceal may be held to be their failure). Having reached this conclusion, we could retain Adorno´s idea  that the composer creates a musical form out of his Demons (and set aside his indecision as to which is the destiny of Madness): has the philosopher not rightly [xv] approached the spot where the signifier touches the Body ?

[i] Pontalis, J. B.”Après Freud“, René Julliard, Paris, 1965

[ii]Richard Strauss,his life and his work” Ricordi, Buenos Aires, 1950

[iii] A further, more recent example by Monika Behr, n a review of the stage production by Niels-Peter Rudolph (Nürnberg,12-14-1995), ”Besides, (the director) refers to Freud: this is neither new nor witty at all. At best it proves irritating: Chrysothemis, while dreaming about her self-realisation as a woman, is allowed to open up her legs exceedinglyOpernwelt, Erhard Friedrich Verlag, Seelze, Nr. 1, January 1996

[iv]  Roberto Oswald

[v] Only Orestes – perhaps on account of his reticence – wore a hidden straightjacket under his peplum, which was revealed during the αναγνώριση scene.

[vi] ”Arnold Schönberg oder der konservative Revolutionär”, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich, 1974.

[vii] In a similar context, quoting Schönberg´s Harmonielehre (“the artist´s creation is of the nature of the drive – Triebhaft – ; consciousness has but little influence on it”), Eberhard Freitag writes :”Confrontation with the problem of the Unconscious found its sediment in the words and the music of the mono-drama Erwartung op.17”.(“Arnold Schönberg in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, Rohwolt, Hamburg, 1973)

[viii]Philosophie der neuen Musik“, as cited above.

[ix] Directed by Robert Lepage, withRebecca Blankenship, 7-3-1995; review by Clemens Högl (our underlining), Opernwelt, Erhard Friedrich Verlag, Seelze,No. 5, 1995)

[x] Wolfram Goertz, ”Delusions in dreams and everyday life”, OW, No. 5, 1995. Marie Pappenheim was a dermatologist and was married to the neurologist H.Frischauf; Karl Kraus published some of her poems in Die Fackel. See H.H.Stuckenschmidt, “Schönberg; biography, context, works“, Alianza, Madrid, 1991

[xi] Indeed, this resource is of little epistemological worth. Its value may improve with help provided by an archaeology of science (see Foucault,M. : L´Archéologie du Savoir ). Freud was aware of this: ¨Das Genie ist bekanntlich unbegreiflich und unverantwortlich, und darum soll man es nicht eher zur Erklärung anrufen, als bis jede andere Lösung versagt hat“. S.Freud,¨Der Mann Moses¨, G. W., Fischer, Frankfurt.

[xii] Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the first Klytemnestra, complained over the difficulties of the score with precisely this term (“We were a bunch of mad women: not even for money would I go over the same ordeal again“). See Panofsky, W.,”Richard Strauss”, Alianza, Madrid, 1988.

[xiii] 13-2-1907

[xiv]L’éveil du printempsOrnicar ? No. 39, Paris, Navarin, 1986

[xv] Paul Laurent-Assoun has precisely descibed the particular use of Freudian concepts by the Frankfurt school. The results are such that a psychoanalyst cannot accept this use without some ambivalence: ”la psychanalyse…doit être conçue comme l’une des composantes de la boîte à outils critique, ni plus – ce qui signifie que Freud n’ est pas abordé comme promoteur d’une rationalité sui generis – , ni moins – ce que signifie que l’Ecole de Francfort a reconnu son apport au champ du savoirL’Ecole de Francfort, PUF, Paris, 1987


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