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  • Opera as Case History: Freud’s Dora, Strauss’s Salome, and the Perversity of Modern Life
  • Lawrence Kramer (bio)

What is the historical relationship between psychoanalysis and music? To ask this question is tantamount to asking about the historical relationship between Freud and music, and so asked it may seem to be no question at all. Freud paid little heed to music and notoriously declared himself averse to it because he did not like to be moved without knowing why.1 Commenting on the situation in which a tune gets stuck in one’s head, he states firmly that what matters is not the tune but the words associated with it. Interestingly, he does not pause to ask what we might conclude from the capacity of music to act as a displaced form of language.2 It would thus seem that Freud was bedeviled not only by the question Was will das Weib? but also by the equally vexing Sonate, que me veux-tu?—which, within a certain longstanding tradition, is exactly the same question.

Nonetheless, scattered throughout Freud’s work there are knowledgeable references to Wagner (both Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser), Beethoven (the Ninth Symphony), Hugo Wolf, and Mozart (both Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro). In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud even recalls an incident in which he sang, sotto voce, Figaro’s impudent aria “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” as a gesture of political defiance when he came across a reactionary government minister in a Viennese train station.3 For someone so unmusical, Freud certainly knew his music, especially opera. In his biography of Freud, Peter Gay reports that Freud’s daughters recalled their father being especially fond of five operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, and Die Zauberflöte, Bizet’s Carmen, and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.4 The list is intriguing, not least because all of these operas deal with misplaced and displaced desires that threaten to run wild but at the same time feature music of great sensuous beauty, music that often tends to invoke the very desires it is supposed to sublimate. So it may be only a little bit of a stretch to say that psychoanalysis does have some historical relationship to music, in particular to the music that was classic fare in Freud’s world, but that this relationship is one that psychoanalysis, at least in the person of its founder, disavowed, or, if you will, repressed. [End Page 100]

This article is a speculation on that possibility. Its thesis, bluntly put, is that the Freudian unconscious is modeled—not exclusively, and not as a hidden secret, but almost inadvertently, almost inevitably, among other genealogies—on the music of late Romanticism, or on music as conceived by late Romanticism. One consequence would be that this music, heard with post-Freudian ears, would sound . . . Freudian. And this would be especially so with opera, in part because the genre of opera, heard after Freud, so often resembles the genre of the case history, and in part because opera depends fundamentally on the primary medium of psychoanalytic encounter, the voice. At stake in particular is the voice that in addressing another seeks to know and command itself—that self which, nonetheless, always remains its own most confounding Other.

To set these theses in motion we will need to address the medium in which they might have been channeled at the time, again linking those two nagging questions: we will need to address music via the bodies of women, and vice versa. Two women, two bodies, two cases: the young woman, barely past girlhood, who was the best and the worst of Freud’s patients, the one he called Dora; and her musical twin sister, involved, as Dora was, in a sleazy and perverted erotic triangle, the Salome of Oscar Wilde as rendered by Richard Strauss. It is only a coincidence, but an appealing one, that both women made their debut in 1905, when Freud’s case study (his first) was published and Strauss’s opera premiered.

As I have suggested elsewhere, Salome was the object of a virtual mania around the fin de siècle, so it...


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pp. 100-115
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