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Acta Psychiatr Scand 2000: 102: 310313 Printed in UK.

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Mad scenes in early 19th-century opera

Erfurth A, Hoff P. Mad scenes in early 19th-century opera. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2000: 102: 310313. # Munksgaard 2000. Objective: It is our objective to examine the phenomenon of mad scenes in bel canto opera from a modern perspective. Method: The development of psychiatry and music at the beginning of the 19th century is described. Common elements of romantic music and mental disorders are discussed. It is shown how bel canto composers represent psychiatric illness by musical means. The psychopathology depicted in a prototypical mad scene is evaluated. Results: Early romantic music is characterized by imagination, illusion and loss of structure; characteristics which can be well expressed in mad scenes. While madness (withdrawal into a utopian world) gained a certain attraction in society, clinical psychiatry increasingly focused on emotional causes of illness and on drug-induction of mental disorders. Conclusion: Mad scenes in bel canto opera can be understood as expression of an increasing interest in emotional aspects in music and society as well as in clinical psychiatry.

A. Erfurth1, P. Hoff2
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, nster and 2Department of Psychiatry University of Mu and Psychotherapy, RWTH Aachen, Germany

Key words: mental disorders; music; history r Psychiatrie und Dr Andreas Erfurth, Klinik fu lische Wilhelms-Universita t, Psychotherapie, Westfa nster, Germany Albert-Schweitzer-Str. 11, 48129 Mu Accepted for publication March 15, 2000


The rst half of the 19th century is of special importance for the conceptual history of philosophy, natural sciences and the arts. Psychiatry is necessarily closely connected with historical and conceptual developments within society (1) and, needless to say, so are the arts. Taking this parallel as a background, it might be of interest to demonstrate the mutual inuence of artistic work and psychiatry by the example of mad scenes in romantic music.

Aspects of psychiatric history

In Germany authors such as J.C.A. Heinroth (17731843) and K. Ideler (17951860) represented a point of view which was later summarized as `romantic psychiatry' (26). They opposed the rationalistic attitude of the philosophy of enlightenment (Aufkla rung). These authors focused on the individual biography of patients, especially on the development of affects (Leidenschaften), which they believed to be of major importance for the origin of mental illness. Although having many speculative ideas, romantic psychiatrists developed theoretical concepts that are still of interest today; e.g. Heinroth's hierarchical model of mental life, 310

differentiating between `instinct', `consciousness' and `super-ego', terms that are strongly reminiscent of psychoanalytical concepts discussed some decades later (79). In Britain Joseph Adams (17561818) (10), in his Treatise on the Supposed Hereditary Properties of Diseases ... Particularly in Madness (1814), argued that it was not a mental disease that was inherited but a susceptibility to disease, and that therefore prevention and cure were possible. In France the psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours (18041884) wrote Du haschich nation mentale (1845, recently translated et de l'alie and reprinted in (11)), describing, in the medical literature for the rst time, the effects of hashish and including his personal experience with drug-induced psychosis (15 years after the former medical student Hector Berlioz (12, 13) had described the effects of opium intoxication in his Symphonie fantastique). Herewith, Moreau introduced into psychiatry the idea that there is `continuity between normality and alienation' (14). Our examples might exemplify that the borders between `normal' and inevitably `abnormal' progressively softened in the view of clinical psychiatrists, facilitating the phenomenon of madness interpreted by artists `as a refuge from unbelief (as described later in this manuscript)'.

Mad scenes in early 19th-century opera From the middle of the 19th century the understanding of science in general, and especially in psychiatry, changed a great deal. Speculative approaches, referring to strong metaphysical presuppositions such as, for example, Schelling's philosophy of nature were no longer accepted as a sound epistemological basis of scientic work. To sum up (and to simplify, of course), the 19th century witnessed the transition from the speculative, subject-orientated `romantic psychiatry' to a more positivistic, object-orientated `brain psychiatry' (15, 16).
Table 2. Mad scenes after the bel canto period Arthur Sullivan Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Richard Strauss Alban Berg Igor Stravinsky 18421900 18441908 18641949 18851935 18821971 Ruddigore The Tsar's Bride Elektra Wozzeck The Rake's Progress 1885 1899 1909 1925 1951

Aspects of musical history

In musical history the rst half of the 19th century was characterized by the transition from the classical into the early romantic period. From a sociological point of view musical life adapted to the new bourgeois societies; music had a new function as bourgeois entertainment as opposed to most early 18th century music, which was commissioned by the nobility or the church (17, 18). Composers could develop a more subjective, more experimental musical style. On the other hand, their success often correlated with their capacity to adapt to the taste and the novelty-seeking of their growing audiences. Especially in Italy, opera became a form of popular entertainment, strongly linked to commercial success (18) and very much resembling the role of cinema in the 20th century (19). In the early 19th century it became popular to include mad scenes into operatic libretti. Table 1 gives an overview on mad scenes from bel canto operas. Table 2 shows that there were also some mad scenes in later operas (e.g. a parody of a mad scene in Sullivan's Ruddigore and a few mad scenes in 20th century expressionism) as there were also a few examples from the 18th century, namely in Georg Friedrich Ha ndel's Orlando (1733) and Giovanni Paisiello's Nina o sia La pazza per amore (1789) but compared to the bel canto period, mad scenes are included into the plot far less often.
Table 1. Famous mad scenes in bel canto opera Vincenzo Bellini 18011835 Il Pirata La Sonnambula I Puritani Anna Bolena Lucia di Lammermoor Linda di Chamonix Macbeth toile du Nord L'E Dinorah Hamlet 1827 1831 1835 1830 1835 1842 1847 1854 1859 1868

Conventional (especially German) musicology has often described the early 19th century as a period of decline: while the classical period with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven was understood to be marking a highlight in the history of music, early 19th century composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann were considered to be of lesser importance compared to those from the late romantic period (e.g. Brahms and Bruckner). As opposed to this, French authors traditionally have a high opinion of the early romantic period (20). In his book The Romantic Generation (21) the American musicologist Charles Rosen shed new light on the romantic experience in music, arguing convincingly in favour of early romantic composers. (Rosen's work will be used in the following to describe some characteristics of the early romantic period.) Rosen describes the years between 1820 and 1850 as a period of musical progress, search and invention, followed by the late romantic period, an era of restauration and of the revival of classical forms.

Common elements in romantic music and mental illness

Gaetano Donizetti


Giuseppe Verdi Giacomo Meyerbeer Ambroise Thomas

18131901 17911864 18111896

Romantic art can be considered as `anticlassical' art as it develops away from structure and form: its focus is on the moment. Artists such as Schumann, Schlegel and Novalis are the most important exponents of this aspect of romantic art. Loss of structure as, e.g. in Schumann's third Piano Trio or his Violin Concerto are not simply a consequence of Schumann's mental illness (22), but can be interpreted as a logical development of his musical style. The aim of early romantic music is not the organic connection of musical material as in Haydn or Mozart, but the highest possible autonomy of solitary material. Rosen (21) points out that Friedrich Schlegel compared his fragments to a hedgehog, describing forms that are clearly separated and `protected' from each other, rather than being connected. Nevertheless, Schlegel acknowledged that this separation was risky: `It is equally fatal to have a system and not to have a system. One must try to combine them' (21). [Es ist gleich to dlich fu r den Geist, ein System zu haben und keins zu haben. Er 311

Erfurth and Hoff wird sich also wohl entschlieen mu ssen, beides zu verbinden. Athenaeum Fragmente, 1798 (23).] Thus, in early romantic music both loss of structure and lack of integration of different stimuli can be found, two aspects that also characterize mental illness. Illusions can be described as a third common element, as in romantic music we may `delude ourselves into thinking we have heard things which cannot have reached our ears (21)'. As example, Rosen chooses the climax of the nale of Beethoven's Opus 111 (Piano Sonata in C Minor): the culminating Bb is inaudible before it is resolved, but the composer `causes us to imagine as actually existing what is only implied' (21). change quickly between high and low notes, the harmony can abruptly and suddenly change (including several changes between major and minor tonalities), while excessive coloratura is used to represent a vocality freed from the constraints of lyrics. Apart from loss of structure, other characteristics of mad scenes are the use of high pitch (as if the singer wanted to escape the physiological range of expression) and the accompaniment of the `prima donna' by instruments considered to be soft and feeble such as ute, cor anglais or glass harmonica (as in the original version of Lucia di Lammermoor).

A `case report' Which form of madness is the romantic composer interested in?

`Cowper came to me and said: ... You retain health and yet are as mad as any of all ... mad as a refuge from unbelief'. With this example from William Blake (1819), Rosen (21) points out that madness can be interpreted by the romantic artist as a refuge `from what was felt as the monotonous and unsatisfying rationality of the modern scientic and philosophic movement'. Madness gained a certain attraction in society, particularly among artists, which provides an additional explanation for the popularity of operatic mad scenes. (It is tragic that several early romantic composers indeed became mentally ill in their nal years, e.g. Donizetti (24, 25), Paganini (26), Schumann (22) and Smetana (27).) Most mad scenes from the bel-canto period deal with the conict between a sorrounding characterized by indifferent rationality where brute force, authority and aspiration specify the conduct of the protagonists and a life space where freedom and affection can develop. In many cases the heroine of the opera (the `prima donna', almost always a soprano) breaks down because of the conict between these worlds, becomes mentally ill and escapes into a mysteriously removed `refuge'.

Musical means of early romantic composers to describe psychiatric disorder

Most musical elements used can be described as leading to loss of structure and deconstruction of form. Rosen's (21) analysis of the mad scene from Bellini's I Puritani describes some of these deconstructing elements, namely dissonance, postponement of notes as well as alternating distribution of melody on singer and orchestra. In the famous mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor more elements can be found: the soprano is asked to 312

The description of the mad scene of Vincenzo Bellini's Il pirata shall serve as an example of the theoretical considerations discussed above. This scene from the 25-year-old Vincenzo Bellini is the oldest of all bel canto mad scenes and can therefore be perceived as a prototype for all future mad scenes. The young heroine, Imogene, is in love with Gualtiero, a pirate. Trying (in vain) to save the life of her father she marries against her conviction the rival of the beloved pirate. Later, she is accused of adultery by her husband and abandoned by her lover. Eventually her lover, the pirate, kills Imogene's husband. The scene and aria of Imogene `Oh! S'io potessi ... Col sorriso d'innocenza ... ' begins with the heroine asking her son to pray for paternal forgiveness for her (a measured andante sostenuto with a typically long Bellinian melody with ornamented variations); when brass fanfares and the choir announce that the pirate has been condemned to death for his crime, Imogene goes mad. She has the optical hallucination of seeing the scaffold set up for the decapitation of her ... vedete ... il palco funesto per lui lover (`La s'innalzo'). In a dramatic cabaletta bursting into virtuoso coloraturas, Imogene calls on the sun to veil itself to avoid this terrible sight (`Oh, sole! Ti vela di tenebre oscure ... '). She believes to see the blood owing already (`ma il sangue gia gronda ... '); she feels the blood covering her with anguish and distress (`ma tutta m'innonda d'angoscia, d'affanno ... '). Finally, the dispairing heroine has the mood-congruent delusion that she '). With this climax the will die (`d'orrore morro whole opera ends.


Imogene's mad scene is the prototype of belcanto mad scenes (including Lucia di Lammermoor's) and

Mad scenes in early 19th-century opera describes a psychosis in a young woman who was previously healthy and emotionally stable. Psychosis is characterized by imagination, illusion and loss of structure and developed after a cascade of negative live events. This concept parallels the idea of `romantic psychiatrists' on the development of affects as origin of mental illness; it also parallels Adams' idea of susceptibility to disease, an idea that is near to modern vulnerabilitystress models of psychiatric disorder (28). According to DSM-IV (29), Imogene's madness can be diagnosed as a brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors (F23.81); according to European concepts her disorder can e de lirante' (30, 31) or also be described as `bouffe `psychogenic psychosis' (32, 33). Mad scenes in bel canto opera can be understood as an expression of an increasing interest in emotional aspects in the rst half of the 19th century. The sensation-seeking of the growing audiences and the commercial success of operas with mad scenes intensied the interest of early romantic composers in the phenomenon of alienation and madness. In the following period of restoration in music and of positivism in psychiatry the background for the further use in opera of mad scenes is irrevocably lost. Only in the early 20th century and with expressionism superseding the late romantic period can singular mad scenes be found in operas such as Elektra (Hofmannsthal/Strauss), la mode. without developing into a phenomenon a
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