May 3, 2013

Psychopathology in the score

Imagine a situation in which I observe the suffering of an innocent human being.  Imagine also that, while I'm at it, there is a dreamy smile on my face, my eyelids are half closed, my lips are slightly parted, my fingers gently caress the armrests of my chair, and my breathing becomes progressively heavier and more rapid.  I think it would be perfectly reasonable for you to infer that the emotional (mental) states behind my behavioral responses are those of a full-fledged psychopath whose neural circuitry for empathy is either badly miswired or entirely missing.

When it comes to observing human suffering acted out on the operatic stage, I find myself, time and gain, making the same kind  of inference about the musical mind behind Donizetti's opere serie.[1]  Whether it is cold-blooded cruelty, shocking violence, or gruesome death, the emotional commentary on such events supplied by Donizetti's music makes me feel as if I am face to face (or, perhaps, ear to ear) with a textbook case of a psychopath.  How else am I to feel when Donizetti responds to human suffering with a gently swaying major key cantabile (a dreamy smile with eyelids half closed and lips slightly parted), in which a woodwind instrument traces an arched melodic line against the gracefully inflected figurations in the strings (fingers caressing the armrests of a chair), and which is often followed by a bouncy, euphoric cabaletta (rapid heavy breathing).

Of course, some Donizetti characters suffer in the state of delirium, in which case the lovely music may be taken to reflect the character's psychological withdrawal from the grimness of his or her circumstances.  But there are also plenty of Donizetti characters who suffer and die to the same kind of music without ever losing their grip on reality.  A typical example is Edgardo's serene, major key "suicide aria" Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali at the end of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The music's emotional profile is completely at odds with the mindset of a deeply traumatized man who is convinced that his life is no longer worth living, not to mention the fact that he finishes this lovely aria with the dagger already deep in his chest. 

Because Donizetti was known to be an unusually kind and generous person, I couldn't help but wonder about the reasons behind his psychopathic "compositional behavior".[2]  My guess it that at the time when Donizetti was coming up as an operatic composer, killing an innocent character on stage was still considered a serious affront to the social and aesthetic standards of decency and propriety.  In dealing with this kind of expectations (not to mention the vigilant censors), the options available to composers of serious operas were rather limited.  One was to devise ridiculously unmotivated happy conclusions to operas which, until the final scene, unfold as if spiraling toward a catastrophe. (Donizetti had done just that in some of his early operas.)  Another option - seemingly too speculative for musicologists to bother with, but one which I think Donizetti might have pursued in his most famous serious operas - was to retain the brutal and gory elements of the story while using music as a means for keeping the audience at a considerable emotional distance from the characters on stage.  With violence and death being musically aestheticized to the point where they only squeeze the viewer's heart instead of piercing it, Donizetti might have succeeded in keeping the public comfortable, but at the cost of presenting himself as a compositional psychopath whose music is marked by a strongly felt lack of empathy for the suffering of his characters.  That Donizetti's music also radiates a great deal of charm only adds to its pathological feel because excessive charm is one characteristic shared by many psychopaths.

Although decidedly not scholarly, this way of looking at Donizetti's music offered me something that the usual formalist perspectives on music history never could: a plausible explanation of why the operatic stock of this once immensely popular composer went into a century-long decline with the arrival of Verdi's so-called mature operas.[3]  So what if Verdi used a larger orchestra, if his vocal lines were more direct (with more functional than virtuosic ornamentation), and if his arias, duets, and finales were better integrated into the overall musical momentum (significantly diminishing their role as "units" of musical construction in favor of entire scenes)?  The average opera-goer probably cares little (if at all) about such analytic matters.[4]  What he does care about is the intensity of a musico-dramatic experience; and Verdi's formal innovations would be of no significance if they were not in the service of creating music of startlingly greater emotional authenticity.  After all, a Verdi tragic character like Rigoletto is made to suffer a lot, but surely not more than Donizetti's tragic characters who get beheaded by their siblings or poisoned by their mothers.  Yet it feels as if Rigoletto's suffering is vastly greater, and it does so only because when Rigoletto suffers, the music suffers with him.  The difference between, say, Donizetti's Lucia chirping to the glass harmonica obbligato in her "mad scene" and Verdi's Rigoletto gasping and growling in horror after hearing the Duke's distant reprise of La donna è mobile is the difference between music used to suppress our normal emotional responses and music used to amplify them.

If Verdi's music is psychologically much healthier than Donizetti's, it is still sufficiently manipulative to keep the public entertained by all the gore and violence taking place on stage.  Perhaps some kind of delicately controlled musical balance of emotional authenticity and psychopathic detachment is absolutely necessary for an operatic tragedy to achieve great and enduring popularity with the public.  If so, then Verdi seems to have mastered this balance better than most operatic composers: the Top 50 chart of operas performed all over the world in the last five seasons lists ten(!) Verdi tragedies, five of which are in the top twenty (including the number one spot).  By contrast, this chart contains none of the critically acclaimed operatic tragedies whose music can be said to have a clean (or almost clean) bill of psychological health: Elektra, Erwartung, Wozzeck, and Die Soldaten, to mention a few. 

The received opinion on the relatively marginal status of these 20th century masterpieces is that the public is allergic to music it finds incomprehensible because of constant unresolved dissonances and absence of easily recognizable thematically and harmonically guided narratives.  But what if the public comprehends this kind of music all too well and simply resents the discomfort caused by the music's complete empathy with fear, disorientation, panic, anguish, and pain experienced by the characters on stage?  
     What if the psychopathology in the music of popular operatic tragedies is there only to satisfy our perverse attraction to observing human suffering from a mixture of psychologically normal and psychopathic points of view?  
     What if composers of operatic tragedies are ultimately applied psychologists who design stimuli of a special kind (temporally organized sounds) to give us the desired experience?  

In that case I would probably owe Donizetti an apology for calling him a "compositional psychopath".  He might have simply erred, as an applied psychologist, by adding too much psychopathology to the mix of musical stimuli, just as the 20th century composers of operatic tragedies erred by adding too little or none at all.


1.  I do not include Bellini in this discussion because his operas - with their combination of saccharine melodies,  amateurish orchestration (if arpeggiated bass accompaniments deserve to be called "orchestration" at all), and constipated dramaturgy - bore me to tears.  (And so do Chopin nocturnes, for that matter, which all sound like piano reductions of Bellini arias.)  As for Rossini,  I am in awe of his many comedies, but much of the music in his serious operas strikes me as contrived, plodding, and lifeless; and it invariably makes me think that Rossini  should have taken to heart Beethoven's insightful advice to stick to opera buffa so as not to do "violence to his nature".
     None of this is to say that Donizetti's serious operas are perfect (among the dozen or so that I know only one - Lucrezia Borgia - comes close to perfection), but only that they are far more interesting to me musically and dramatically than those penned by Bellini and Rossini.  The loss may be mine, but since I'm not a masochist, I don't write about things I don't find sufficiently interesting.

2.  I don't think that the bel canto style's commitment to writing gracefully and virtuosically for the voice made it impossible for Donizetti to give emotionally more appropriate musical responses to suffering.  After all, Mozart had already shown decades earlier that coloratura arias - e.g., the Queen of the Night's aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen - can express much darker emotions without sacrificing vocal grace or technical brilliance.  Also, some of Donzetti's orchestral preludes and interludes vouch for his ability to write music that is emotionally dark and brooding.

3.  Of course, Wagner had a lot to do with displacing the operatic works of pre-Verdi Italian composers.  But, in the present context, Wagner's fairytale operas - populated by gods, valkyries, and giants - are irrelevant because their music does not comment on the suffering of human characters.  Even Tristan and Isolde are not, strictly speaking, human characters because humans don't get to drink magic potions.

4.  In any case, the originality of Verdi's treatment of formal elements in his operas is often overstated.  Even his mature operas show significant debts to Donizetti, sometimes to the point of aping the older composer's devices.  A well-known example is the opening of Verdi's Rigoletto, in which the dark and brooding orchestral prelude suddenly dissolves into the festive din of offstage music, and which is an almost plagiaristic appropriation of the opening of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.  Many additional examples of Verdi's debt to Donizetti are discussed in Winton Dean's "Donizetti's serious operas", Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 100(1), 1973, pp.123 - 141.


sheerbol said...

OK ok, Verdi is too revered. But rather than Donizetti, how do you think Rossini has suffered, and jesus, he tried hard ...

Boom said...


Rossini's fate for a century after his death is a special embarrassment for music history. The one of those most responsible for the scorn heaped on Rossini-the-composer was Verdi himself. In 1871 he declared (in a letter to Count Arrivabene) that the cavatinas in "Il Barbiere", "La gazza ladra" and "Semiramide" are

>> not melodies, and not even good music <<

And this ridiculous judgment comes from a composer whose countless operas written before 1850 are - in my opinion - borderline trash (dramatically) and pompously loud monotony (musically).

Tassilo said...

Your comments on Donizetti and opera in general have left me erstaunt, dear Boom. Suffice it to say, Italian audiences in Donizetti’s lifetime (and still today) most certainly did not experience the music in Donizetti’s operas as a distancing device insulating them from the horrors and passions unfolding onstage. On the contrary, they perceived in Donizetti’s music a new more direct and intense form of lyric expression, a form of expression that depended on an abandonment of much of the formality characteristic of the unfolding of the conventional forms in Rossini’s serious operas.

Around 1900 Bernard Shaw wrote that listeners could no longer believe that Mozart’s music could be so powerful because it was so pretty. They were in the same position as the listener who dismisses Italian opera as no more than pretty tunes. For the listener well inside of Donizetti’s language, on the other hand, the final movement for the soprano from Maria de Rudenz, to take one example, is no mere pretty tune but heartbreaking in its pathos. Nor does a composer have to write in a minor key for the listeners who speak the language to perceive the music as sad or otherwise pathetic, and Maria’s death scene is written in a major key. Donizetti’s solutions often strike me as ingenuous but never as passionless.

I won’t attempt a defense of Bellini, whose greatest opera, Norma, was adored by Chopin, Delacroix, and Wagner, among others, but quote somebody else’s.

Charles Rosen on Bellini

[Technical discussion of some of the declamatory writing in Bellini and Bellini’s technique for spinning out extremely long melodies snipped as well as a brief mention of Wagner’s indebtedness to Bellini, the final movement from Norma being a principal source of the formal techniques embodied in the Liebestod.]

One of the major problems in opera from its inception almost ceases to exist in the finest works of Bellini: the problem of action in music. Bellini does not solve the problem but ignores or evades it. The music of Norma, for example, even the choruses like the procession of the Druids and call to war, are a succession of arrested states of feeling, lyric and intense. They exist in musical time but seem to have little to do with dramatic time or time of action. To a certain extent this is necessarily true of all opera, where action momentarily ceases to exist as musical form fulfills itself, but rarely does the realization of dramatic incident in music descend so close to zero as it does in Bellini. This is not because his prose is incompetent, but because the poetic moments are rendered with a passion so much greater that it makes the dramatic frame that surrounds them seem unimportant. Even in a passage of such ferocity as Norma’s announcement of vengeance, “In mia man alfin tu sei,” the lyricism overpowers any sense of dramatic development. That is why so little seems to happen in Norma, and almost all of that in the final act. It is like a play by Racine, Bérénice above all, in which the action is implicit in the expression of feeling and passion. In a sense, that was the ideal operatic style of the early nineteenth century, and Bellini’s elegiac melody could not be reproduced—except of course by Chopin. Both Wagner and Verdi were profoundly influenced by him, but they achieved a fusion of lyric expression and drama on very different terms from those laid down by Bellini. His work was not a dead end but an isolated monument.

Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Harvard University Press, 1995), 637, 639


Boom said...

Your comment, dear Tassilo, as many earlier ones, makes me regret that you don't run a blog of your own. I would be an enthusiastic reader (one of many, I am sure).

Now, how the mid-19th century Italian public might have experienced Donizetti serious operas may not say much against my perception of the music. The Italian public (at least in that period) was considered relatively unsophisticated in musical matters. Mendelssohn and Berlioz (among others) had expressed a good deal of contempt for the Italian musical taste - the taste which valued comfortable digestion of the musico-dramatic material over deeper aesthetic values.
I think that, as a composer who knew the music of Mozart and Beethoven very well, Donizetti was far from ignorant about the dramatic potential of minor keys, dissonances, and rhythmic angularity. At the same time, he also was acutely aware of the Italian public's expectations, and his letters often show extreme preoccupation with questions about what would keep the public happy. And he knew that Don Giovanni and Fidelio were not the kind of operas with which an Italian composer could pay his bills.
Hence my conjecture that he might have deliberately watered down his music's emotional commentary on the tragic events in his serious operas.

It is worth noting that there are a few moments in Donizetti tragedies where one can hear what might have been had Donizetti given his musical talent complete freedom of expression. One example is the few bars in the finale of "Roberto Devereux", where the orchestra comments on Elizabetta's state of mind right after she heard the cannon shot (announcing the beheading of her lover). As she spits at Sara the words "Tu, perversa... tu perversa... tu soltanto lo spingesti nell'avello...", Donizetti's string writing is, to my ear, as blood-chilling as anything found in Don Giovanni or Rigoletto. And the last 15 minutes or so of "Lucrezia Borgia" - right after the bell tolled and the boys realized that their wine was poisoned - contain as much heart-piercing anguish and despair (in 19th century terms) as the D-minor orchestral interlude at the end of Wozzeck.

As for Bellini, if one were to defend his operas, one would do well not to mention the approving opinions of other composers, especially Chopin! Chopin was a great composer and he adored Bellini's music, true. But Chopin also loathed Beethoven's music, and in one of his letters he gushed over Meyerbeer's vulgar and trashy "Robert le Diable" as if he had just witnessed a performance of Don Giovanni for the first time. Needless to say, the aesthetic insight of Chopin's critical judgments seems to be in inverse proportion to his greatness as a composer.

With Wagner's opinion of Bellini matters are more complicated, but not by much. Wagner also admired some of the music in Rossini's serious operas, suggesting to the older composer that (crashing bores like) "Mose in Egitto" or "Maometo II" contain "music of the future". But such backhanded compliments are far from expressions of admiration for the operas as complete musico-dramatic works of art. I think Wagner's attitude toward Bellini was much the same. He may have liked the daring of Bellini's "infinite melodies" (and echoed this approach to melody in Isolde's Liebestod), but I doubt he thought much of Bellini's operas as complete works of art.

[continued in the next comment]

Boom said...

This brings me to your quote from Rosen’s book. Sure, Wagner was influenced by Bellini (in a way I mentioned above), but he also was greatly influenced by Meyerbeer's grand operas. The latter, however, he detested like snakes in the bathtub. The moral, at least to my mind, is that a source of influence need not be a subject of admiration. Had Bellini been Jewish (like Meyerbeer), Wagner probably would have found time and energy to spell out in print why Bellini operas are bad for art.

In any case, it is obvious from Rosen's writing that he readily admits the comatose musico-dramatic character of Bellini's operas. What he tries to do, as I read him, is to convince us that despite being a bad opera in some conventional sense of the genre, "Norma" offers significant musical rewards if approached on its own terms, as a sui generis immune to the standards of judgment applied to other operas. I certainly agree with the implied half of Rosen's point: that Bellini operas - as musico-dramatic works for the stage - are numbingly boring. Our disagreement is about the other half - musical rewards - which I find lacking for listeners who are not interested exclusively in vocal display. In other words, those who are most rewarded by Bellini's music as the singers (sopranos primarily) because his "infinite melodies" are fantastic vehicles for displaying one's vocal mastery. The rest of us, however, have to suffer - especially conductors who, unlike members of the audience, cannot afford the luxury of falling asleep or walking out.

It takes a very musicianly bel canto soprano to admit this aspect of Bellini's music, and I would like to end my response with a quote from a 2012 interview given by the young Russian-born and German-trained soprano Olga Peretyatko (whose recent performances of bel canto roles in Pesaro, Amsterdam, and Lausanne show her to possess not only a uniquely expressive and seductive voice, but also superlative musicianship; she is scheduled to make her Met debut next spring):

"Bellini is a bit dangerous in this sense: It can be so annoying, no, not annoying, boring. It can be very boring for the orchestra; for them, it’s just three hours of oom ta ta, oom ta ta. Bellini can be very boring. You [the singer] have to bring your whole soul into it. You should be very present on stage, bring energy into the orchestra. You should fill this with emotion or it doesn’t make any sense." (May 17, 2012 interview in following her debut with New Jersey Symphony)