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  • “Indulging in Romance with Wagner”:Tristan in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) makes extensive use of music from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. The deployment of cues in this film is analyzed against the backdrop of the director’s earlier output, in particular Epidemic, which has recourse to Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser.

To me it is just extremely irritating when you see a film and then the director tries to force your ways to feel a film by means of the music. You just listen to the music and you realize that the way you feel, your idea of the film are just forced to you [sic]. I am like oh fuck! I want to see it in my own way. But this is going be very different in this film. We are using Wagner in Melancholia. It is all very romantic.1

Melancholia, a film released in 2011 by the controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, has polarized critical and popular opinion alike.2 Musically speaking, the most noteworthy feature is the pervasive presence of cues from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde on the soundtrack, an aspect of the film that has also met with very mixed responses. Writing in the Washington Post, Tim Page noted that “teaming a new film with Tristan . . . was an audacious decision . . . yet, after all, it works.” In contrast, the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross dismissed the use of Wagner’s music in the film for “manag[ing] to be at once clumsy, unoriginal and perverse.”3 On one level, these judgments are colored by the authors’ very different attitudes toward the film itself, which reflect their personal aesthetic preferences. However, the fact that two such respected writers can differ so profoundly suggests that there is something enigmatic about this film and its musico-visual synthesis. Even the director himself seems unsure about Melancholia: he confessed in one interview, “I may have made a film I don’t like,” a highly uncharacteristic avowal for one who claimed: “I’m usually madly in love with everything I do. I’m probably the most self-satisfied director you’ll ever meet.” While von Trier acknowledged that the process of uniting the film and the soundtrack was “one of the most pleasurable things I’ve done in a long time,4 to another journalist he claimed not to be able to tell where the boundary lay between “indulging in romance with Wagner” and “just . . . turning trivial.”5 In the statement quoted in the epigraph, he objects in principle to the manipulation of the film viewer’s emotional experience by means of music, and yet he firmly excludes the music-saturated Melancholia from this criticism.

My purpose in this article is to explore in detail the relationship between the musical and the visual narratives in Melancholia by determining how the source material has been excerpted and by analyzing why these excerpts have been deployed where they have been in the narrative. Von Trier’s segmentation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture in an earlier film, the 1987 feature Epidemic, will be studied for comparison purposes. Although the soundtracks of [End Page 38] Epidemic and Melancholia result from very similar procedures, I argue that they have very different relationships with the visual aspects of the respective films. It will be shown that the director’s use of Wagner is more multidimensional than has generally been recognized, which may lead to a new appreciation for his achievements in Melancholia.

Kindred Spirits

There are some intriguing similarities between von Trier and Wagner, considered as men and as artists. Both have acquired widespread notoriety through their anti-Semitic remarks, which in von Trier’s case led to his being declared persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. Both had reason to be unsure about their parentage, and at one point believed or suspected they were of Jewish stock. Wagner’s mother, Johanna Wagner, married the actor Ludwig Geyer less than a year after her husband Carl Friedrich Wagner died, and young Richard (who was about 15 months old when his mother remarried) used the surname Geyer until he was fourteen. Much later in life, Wagner was shown some letters his mother had written to Geyer, which caused him to wonder whether the possibly Jewish Geyer might not be his natural father.6 Von Trier, on the other hand, grew up as the son of the Jewish Ulf Trier, and it was only at the age of thirty-three that he learned from his dying mother that he was biologically not Ulf ’s son. She had in fact deliberately conceived him with her employer, who was related to the Danish-German composers Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann, Niels Gade, and other musicians, “out of her desire for a child with ‘artistic genes.’”7 At the Cannes press conference, he commented drily on how his sense of identity shifted as a result: “I thought I was a Jew for a long time. I was very happy being a Jew. . . . I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found that I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some pleasure.”8

While their artistic outputs are necessarily very different, both men shared the urge to reform their respective art forms through formal aesthetic programs. Wagner was active as a propagandist and pamphleteer throughout his adult life, and in a series of writings from 1849–51, he laid out his theories about a new union of the arts of poetry, music, and dance (or stage movement, more broadly). This Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) was put forward to counteract what he saw as abuses in the opera of his day: excessive focus on the singer, the neglect of the dramatic component, the undue commercialization of the art, etc. Nearly a century and a half later, von Trier became one of the founding members of the Dogme 95 movement, which aimed to reform contemporary cinematic practices.9 Together with Thomas Vinterberg, von Trier came up with ten rules for filmmakers (the so-called Vow of Chastity): these required inter alia on-location shooting, hand-held cameras and color film, and forbade “superficial” action (including murders or weapons), stories set other than in the here-and-now, and any extra props not found in the scene.10 Both the director and the composer frequently contradicted their theoretical precepts in their later practice. In spite of his insistence that music should be a means to a dramatic end, in Wagner’s later stage works music unquestionably is the most important element, and banned entities such as duets, ensembles, and choruses return.11 Von Trier’s later films only conform sporadically with Dogme precepts. In particular, rule no. 2, which only permits music that is heard within the scene (diegetic music, in other words) is broken more often than not in von Trier’s later oeuvre, and never more flagrantly than [End Page 39] in Melancholia, which makes extensive use of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde.

Epidemic and the Tannhäuser Overture

Von Trier’s artistic engagement with Wagner long antedates Melancholia; in fact, it began with his debut feature film, The Element of Crime (1984). He shot this film without taking sound so that he could have the “music of Wagner blasted at full volume from the loudspeakers on the set, in order to infuse cast and crew with the right spirit of things,” a practice reminiscent of movie making during the era of silent film.12 The music in question was selections from Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.13 The director found this “very beneficial to the atmosphere, [which] is any case very domineering. It’s a Wagnerian milieu.”14 Some years later, Von Trier had a brush with that most domineering of Wagnerian milieux, Bayreuth, when he was invited by Wolfgang Wagner (the composer’s grandson) to direct a Ring cycle at the festival. Commenting on the surprise appointment, John Rockwell noted that von Trier had a “rich if deeply buried sympathy to Wagner,” and pointed out some interesting parallels between Wagner’s operas and the director’s then most recent works, the Golden Heart trilogy, in which he “mines the emotion of film as a replacement for the emotion of music.”15 Von Trier’s subsequent withdrawal meant that his aspiration—“I have just decided that to film Wagner; that would be the ultimate goal of my life. The Ring cycle. I could die happy.”—remained unfulfilled (a situation that has not changed at the time of writing).16

It was in von Trier’s second film, Epidemic (1987), that Wagner first became an audible presence in his oeuvre, with excerpts from the Overture to Tannhäuser used throughout the finished film. This makes it a useful precedent for Melancholia, although in terms of visual style, the two films could hardly be more different. Epidemic is a deeply self-reflexive film about two screenwriters conceiving and writing the script for a film entitled “Epidemic.” Von Trier appears on screen as himself, as does Niels Vørsel, who cowrote the screenplay (see Figure 1).17 The film alternates between scenes of them researching and writing their film scenario in a five-day blitz, interspersed with scenes from the film they’re in the process of writing. This film-within-the-film is about an idealistic doctor named Mesmer (also played by von Trier) who leaves a quarantined zone to assist victims of a fatal epidemic. These different filmic realities and levels will be identified as the writers’ scenes and the doctor’s scenes, respectively. In what is described in a voice-over as a “fateful coincidence,” a real-life epidemic was brewing in the writers’ world during the creation of the script, and this breaks out during the final dinner party at which they unveil their film scenario for their financial backer.

Figure 1. Epidemic (1987): Lars von Trier (left), Niels Vørsel (right).
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Figure 1.

Epidemic (1987): Lars von Trier (left), Niels Vørsel (right).

In one scene, the two writers helpfully discuss the deployment of music in their embryonic scenario. A timeline is painted along two walls of the apartment, and von Trier’s character inserts the cryptic annotation “WAG TANN” above an early point in the projected film. He then explains [End Page 40] to his coauthor: “Well these bacteria which are moving closer—and which we refer to constantly—ought to be accompanied by strains of Wagner. The overture to Tannhäuser. In the beginning he’s an idealist. So if we write ‘Ideal’ in the beginning . . . Not a bad idea.”18

This intrafilmic explanation is somewhat ambiguous: does Wagner’s music signal the approach of the pestilence, or conversely the idealism of the doctor? There are eleven cues that draw on the Overture to Tannhäuser, specifically the parts that use the Pilgrims’ Chorus theme (for details as to the exact excerpts used, see Figure 3). In the Overture, this theme is initially subdued, but on later appearances it is sometimes loud and domineering, and both quiet and triumphant versions find their way into Epidemic. In the film, all but the first and last of these cues are found in the doctor’s scenes and often fade in when he has taken a decisive action, such as resolving to leave the quarantined zone to help others (Cue 4). The longest cue is found at the most overtly heroic moment, when the doctor begins his mission of mercy by being towed along just above the ground by a helicopter (Cue 5). The musical excerpt here traces a crescendo-decrescendo contour: it starts quietly, builds to a loud and decisive statement of the theme, and then backs off again. The entry of the fortissimo theme has been deliberately coordinated with the moment when the doctor steps off the winch into a grassy swamp.

In such scenes there would appear to be a fairly straightforward link between the grandeur of the music and heroic deeds of the doctor. However, the idea that the music simply underwrites heroism is problematized when the writers in the film discuss the ending of their scenario. Von Trier clarifies that it is the doctor himself who is the carrier and spreader of the disease. Thus the heroic acts that the majority of the Overture excerpts accompany and sustain are ultimately shown to be destructive. Retrospectively, the music can be recognized as a tool for conveying this cosmic irony. The viewer might interpret the turn of events as a coded warning of the dangers of idealism, while the musically sophisticated audience member might wonder if a subtle commentary is being offered on the destructive capacities of Wagner’s music more generally (Adorno, for instance, noted a damning link: “self praise and pomp— features of Wagner’s entire output and the emblems of Fascism”).19 The link between Wagner’s music and catastrophe will be revisited in the discussion of Melancholia.

The fact that the doctor is the cause rather than the cure is only one of the ironies that the film explores and ultimately is less memorable than the outbreak of a real epidemic in the writers’ world coincident with the completion of their script. The disaster to come is explained within the first ten minutes: the screen shows the word EPIDEMIC being written on a manual typewriter, after which the camera tracks through an empty but disordered apartment (rucked table cloth, blood smears on the wall), and a voice-over reveals the burgeoning coincidence and anticipates the ending.20 This is also the first occasion on which any music from the Tannhäuser Overture is used. Here the main theme is avoided in favor of a more fluid developmental sequence (Cue 1).21 Five days later, the fatal dinner party is held. The bridge between the two worlds is a medium who is placed under a trance by a hypnotist and asked to describe the plague-ridden horrors of the script. She gradually becomes hysterical, leaps onto the table and, in what seems like psychosomatic transference, develops the fatal plague pustules on her neck. Another character then discovers lesions on his hand, and a third starts vomiting blood. As the camera pans across the scene of carnage (the same as was shown [End Page 41] earlier but now peopled with the dying), the concluding apotheosis of the Pilgrims’ theme is heard, its assurance in stark contrast to the visuals (Cue 11).22 Were this music to have been coordinated with the triumphant ending of a classic-era Hollywood film, it might well have been “unheard,” to use Claudia Gorbman’s famous descriptor: here, the very discrepancy between the affirmatory aural presence and the horrific scene renders the music’s function as ironic commentary unmissible.23 The end-title music (“Epidemic/We All Fall Down”) desacralizes the Overture in a very different fashion by employing the harmonies of bars 1–24 as the basis for a pop song, complete with rhythm section.24

In Epidemic, therefore, von Trier both utilizes and undercuts the traditional matching of music’s expressive function to the visual action. This might lead one to speculate on the attitude von Trier bears toward his source material. Admittedly, as Linda Badley has pointed out, this is a risky enterprise “when Trier’s image is so overtly self-constructed and publicly staged, and when contradicting previous statements is integral to his game.”25 His interview comments on Wagner’s music may appear to be negative: the use of “Wagnerian” and “domineering” as synonyms in his description of The Element of Crime was cited above, and his declared reason for employing Wagner’s music in Epidemic was, “Because it’s very bombastic music. To me it perfectly corresponds to film music.”26 Such pronouncements should surely not be taken as evidence of any sort of underlying distaste: this postmodern provocateur leavens his discourse with layers of irony and, in any case, has expressed a fondness for the unquestionably bombastic designs of the Nazi architect Albert Speer.27 The fact that he has repeatedly had recourse to Wagner’s music over more than a quarter of a century indicates that this music has been a powerful artistic stimulus for him. After he learned of his German origins, he felt motivated to explore this national artistic-intellectual tradition further, but his Wagnerism predates this. In a 2011 interview conducted shortly before the release of Melancholia, he said: “I always found Nietzsche interesting and now I’m reading Thomas Mann. The Germans have always influenced me. . . . I have always flirted a bit with the good Herr Wagner, and in Antichrist we inched towards a kind of German Romantic painting. Indeed, sturm und drang [sic] and everything that followed.”28

Melancholia and Wagnerian Romanticism

While von Trier was certainly acquainted with Wagner’s music firsthand, his specific choice of the Tristan Prelude for Melancholia and his understanding of it may have been mediated by a literary work, one written by an author famous for his temporal expansions and thematic leitmotifs. “Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time has a 30-page discussion of what is the greatest work of art of all time. Proust reaches the conclusion that it’s the overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, so that’s what we pour all over this film, pushing it for all it’s got.”29 Although nothing in the seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu exactly resembles this, von Trier is most probably alluding to a passage in volume 5, The Captive (La Prisonnière), in which the narrator plays through Tristan on the piano prior to attending a concert where excerpts from the opera will be performed.30 There are undoubted similarities between the novelist’s description of leitmotif technique in Tristan and the way in which von Trier used his Tristan excerpts in his film: “I contemplated once more those insistent, fleeting themes which visit an act, recede only to return again and again, and, sometimes distant, [End Page 42] dormant, almost detached, are at other moments, while remaining vague, so pressing and so close, so internal, so organic, so visceral, that they seem like the reprise not so much of a musical motif as of an attack of neuralgia.”31

There are several ways in which the use of Tannhäuser in Epidemic foreshadows the use of Tristan in Melancholia. One obvious but important point of similarity is that von Trier went for nonvocal portions from the two operas. Presumably he wished to avoid the semantic specificity of texted music in favor of the emotional pluripotency of purely instrumental music. The amount of Wagner’s music heard in Melancholia is far higher than in Epidemic, although the patterns of their distribution are similar (see Figure 2). If one includes Melancholia’s ending credits, which utilize the 4-minute Prelude to Act III of Tristan, 29 minutes of this 130-minute film are taken up with cues from Wagner’s opera (see Figure 3, below) compared with a total of 9 minutes in Epidemic.32 Admittedly the later film is considerably longer, but even allowing for this, Wagner’s music accompanies proportionately more of the screen action (22.4 percent vs. 8.8 percent). In an interview, von Trier noted that he hadn’t used as much music in a film since his debut feature, The Element of Crime, “but here we wallow in it.”33

However, sheer quantity only tells part of the story. Tristan was endemic to the very conception of Melancholia, as von Trier explained:

Very early on in the project I chose the music from Wagner, which is [sic] the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. That is not what you would consider melancholic music. That is what you would call romantic music. That has kind of somehow turned the whole thing into a very romantic film also in the images and stuff, it is highly romantic.34

Figure 2. Layout of Wagnerian cues in Epidemic (top) and Melancholia (bottom).
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Figure 2.

Layout of Wagnerian cues in Epidemic (top) and Melancholia (bottom).

The director claimed to have mixed feelings about the result: “ [The film] consists of a lot of over-the-top clichés and an aesthetic that I would distance myself from under [End Page 43] any other circumstances. . . . It reminds me of those Luchino Visconti films I always enjoyed that were like whipped cream on top of whipped cream. I went overboard, blasting Richard Wagner.”35 (In another place, he described this “cream on cream” as a “woman’s film.”36) In comparison to the black-and-white graininess of Epidemic, the “polished surfaces” and colored cinematography of Melancholia are indeed visually lush, with only the use of handheld cameras providing an obvious link to the aesthetic of the Dogme years. There are two main plot elements in the film: one is the story of Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), who suffers from melancholia (severely debilitating depression), and her caring, normal sister, Claire (Charolotte Gainsbourg). However, running alongside the arc of their relationship is a cosmic event: the approach of a new planet, also called Melancholia, which is supposed to pass near to the earth but instead collides with it at the very end. In the face of the approaching catastrophe, Justine is roused from her depressive torpor, while Claire turns out to be the one unable to cope.37

The suitability of Wagner’s music for this scenario has been questioned by Alex Ross, who feels that “von Trier’s aestheticized vision of the end of the world . . . buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist,” something Ross vehemently refutes.38 Although von Trier regards the sisters’ character development in a pressurized setting and not the planetary collision itself as the core of his film, he has been quoted as saying that “the only redeeming factor about [the film], you might say, is that the world ends” (by “redeeming” is meant that the cataclysm helps Melancholia to evade the “aesthetic of American mainstream films” that he affects to despise).39 Nonetheless, Ross’s criticism is itself open to challenge: Von Trier’s decision to use Tristan did not necessarily stem from a perceived similarity in aesthetic between the operatic prelude and the trajectory of the film then in development; but even if it had, this might not be a misreading of Wagner.

First, the notion that von Trier found in Wagner’s music the sonic equivalent of his cataclysmic scenario is not supported by any of his comments on the music. The remark quoted above about Tristan’s “romantic” qualities being in opposition to the “melancholic” aspects of the story suggests that for the director the character of the music and the essence of the plot had different emotional resonances. Elsewhere, he said that “[a] melancholic longing must be as emotional as it gets,” and the Tristan Prelude is famously intended to express (in the words of its creator) “insatiable longing.”40 This suggests that von Trier co-opted this piece for its undeniable intensity, rather than because he heard in it a sonic doomsday scenario. As such, it would fit with the kind of development Royal S. Brown describes in cinema sound after 1960, where “excerpts from [nondiegetic] classical music compositions that replace the original film score no longer function purely as backing for key emotional situations, but rather exist as a kind of parallel emotional/ aesthetic universe.”41

We have seen in Epidemic that von Trier paired some of Wagner’s most celebratory music with scenes of total devastation, so the use of Tristan as the planet is destroyed does not necessarily imply that the director sees Wagner’s Prelude as expressive of catastrophe. But even if this were the case, if von Trier’s “[desire] to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism” led him to find some underlying resonance between Wagner’s music and his apocalyptic scenario, would this really be as perverse as Ross claims?42 Wagner certainly does not shy away from final catastrophes: all but one of his ten mature operas ends with at least one death, and in the final cataclysm [End Page 44] of Götterdämmerung, the conclusion to his monumental Ring cycle, the entire world of the gods is consumed in flames (an inconvenient fact Ross tries to explain away). It is true that even in this last case there is a strongly redemptive dimension to the seemingly destructive deeds of the heroine, Brünnhilde: past wrongs have been righted and the implication is that a new world can come into being now that the corrupt old order has been swept away. The outcome of Melancholia is apparently more bleak: as the clairvoyant Justine informs her sister, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it. All I know is life on earth is evil. Life is only on earth, and not for long.” However, there is an undeniable similarity between Justine and the lovers in Tristan, who yearn for “the boundless realm of endless night,” where they will know only “endless, godlike all-forgetting.” Justine also has overtones of another Wagnerian figure, the prophetic earth goddess Erda in the Ring who solemnly proclaims the downfall of the gods: “Alles was ist, endet” (all that exists, will perish).

Ultimately, how exactly von Trier saw the relationship between the character of the music and the story he was telling is of secondary importance to the fact that in the finished film, the music seems to work in sync with the images: few would argue that it functions as an “anempathetic” presence in the way that the Tannhäuser Overture obviously did at the end of Epidemic. Mike Cormack has drawn attention to “the ambiguity and indeed, lack of fixed meaning in much non-vocal classical music, and how that ambiguity is increased when the music is extracted from its original context.”43 The emotional potency of the Tristan Prelude, in its original context representing erotic desire, is retained and retrained to other ends through the process Gorbman describes as the “mutual implication” of the music-image and music-narrative relationships.44

Music vs. Image (1): Wagner Subordinated

Moving beyond the overall suitability of the music to the plot, other critics had problems with the mechanics of how Wagner’s Prelude is used. Although most complaints focussed on the excerpting process, there was also some controversy about the alterations to Wagner’s orchestration undertaken by von Trier’s sound designer, Kristian Eidnes Andersen. One change involved having “a soloist dub over the cello section to provide a more unified sound and to ‘get more into the emotions.’”45 Why a single instrument might be thought to further this effect more than the complete section is unclear, although the idea of a solo string instrument conveying a character’s subjectivity has a long prehistory.46 While alterations such as these may not impinge much on the viewer/listener, the addition of sound effects cannot be missed. These can usually be related plausibly to some event within the diegesis: the sound of wind in the run-up to the final collision (Cue 12), or the imagined rumblings during shots of the moving planets in the opening sequence (Cue 1a).

Much more contentious is how Wagner’s Prelude is sliced up and deployed in Melancholia (Figure 3 gives specific information for each cue with similar information provided for the distribution of the Tannhäuser Overture in Epidemic). Manipulations of classical masterpieces on film soundtracks have long been controversial—one need only think of the dismissive response to Disney’s Fantasia by Stravinsky (whose Sacre de Printemps was used in one sequence).47 Even those who loved von Trier’s film were uneasy about the manipulations of the Prelude: Tim Page wrote, “The first time I saw ‘Melancholia,’ I was bothered by the way the music was reiterated and, on occasion, looped and re-sequenced.”48 Such discomfort, which [End Page 45] anyone who knows the Prelude will probably share to some extent, arises from the fact that it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of organic continuity. Writing in a different context, Robert Morgan described the Prelude as “so continuous in effect and consistent in development that the notion of separating it into small segments seems counterproductive, if not blasphemous.”49

Figure 3. Excerpts from Wagnerian sources used in Epidemic and Melancholia. References to sources used in Epidemic are to bar numbers of the Dresden version of the Overture to Tannhäuser; superscripts refer to crotchet-beat divisions of the bar; where these are not specified, the cue will begin on the first beat and conclude at the end of the indicated bars. References to sources used in Melancholia are to bar numbers of the operatic version of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan, with the exception of Cues 1b and 13, which both refer to the Prelude to Act III of Tristan; superscripts refer to quaver-beat divisions of the bar; where these are not specified, the cue will begin on the first beat (or on the obvious quaver anacrusis before this) and conclude at the end of the indicated bars.
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Figure 3.

Excerpts from Wagnerian sources used in Epidemic and Melancholia. References to sources used in Epidemic are to bar numbers of the Dresden version of the Overture to Tannhäuser; superscripts refer to crotchet-beat divisions of the bar; where these are not specified, the cue will begin on the first beat and conclude at the end of the indicated bars. References to sources used in Melancholia are to bar numbers of the operatic version of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan, with the exception of Cues 1b and 13, which both refer to the Prelude to Act III of Tristan; superscripts refer to quaver-beat divisions of the bar; where these are not specified, the cue will begin on the first beat (or on the obvious quaver anacrusis before this) and conclude at the end of the indicated bars.

If this be blasphemy, then Melancholia is certainly sacrilegious. Ross charges von Trier with “dwell[ing] so relentlessly on the opening of the prelude that it turns into a kind of cloying signature tune; repetition robs the music of its capacity to surprise and seduce the listener. There are horribly inept cuts and rearrangements.”50 One blogger, Curtis White, attempted to justify the amount of repetition by arguing that it is “appropriately Wagnerian. It’s a leitmotif.” 51 However, while the person who is not a Wagner specialist might simply hear multiple repetitions of similar-sounding music, it behoves the musicologist to be more precise about which sections of the Prelude are being utilized in each case. Although the piece is so constructed that “the ear hears an unbroken chain of melodic phrases” in place of the usual “division by means of cadences,” the listening experience is not static: as Hugo Leichtentritt has noted, one certainly perceives “a difference in intensity, in colour, in accumulation of sound, [though] not a difference in melodic character.” In [End Page 46] other words, dynamics become a primary parameter in shaping the form of this piece.52

Figure 4. Hugo Leichtentritt’s “Curve of emotional intensity,” in “Tristan und Isolde: Prelude”: 185 (graph reproduced from Hugo Leichtentritt, Musikalische Formenlehre, 11th ed. [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1979]: 369). The divisions are as follows: A=bars 1–17; B: 17–24; C: 25–44; D: 45–62; E: 63–74; F: 75–83; G: 84–110. Sections of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan used in Melancholia. Where the cues use the source music in its original ordering, the box is filled. Unfilled boxes indicate a passage that is heard out of order (as in Cue 9), and hatched boxes imply that a segment is heard twice (as in Cues 3 & 11). Cues 1b and 13 use music from the Prelude to Act III instead, and so have been omitted.
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Figure 4.

Hugo Leichtentritt’s “Curve of emotional intensity,” in “Tristan und Isolde: Prelude”: 185 (graph reproduced from Hugo Leichtentritt, Musikalische Formenlehre, 11th ed. [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1979]: 369). The divisions are as follows: A=bars 1–17; B: 17–24; C: 25–44; D: 45–62; E: 63–74; F: 75–83; G: 84–110. Sections of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan used in Melancholia. Where the cues use the source music in its original ordering, the box is filled. Unfilled boxes indicate a passage that is heard out of order (as in Cue 9), and hatched boxes imply that a segment is heard twice (as in Cues 3 & 11). Cues 1b and 13 use music from the Prelude to Act III instead, and so have been omitted.

In Figure 4, Leichtentritt’s graph of the “curve of intensity” has been laid on top of a table listing the sections from the Prelude to Act I of Tristan used in each cue, so as to give a rough idea of the relative emotional temperature of the music von Trier has used. As can be seen, some passages are indeed utilized many times, others not at all, and even within a single cue there may be excisions and changes to the order of the musical events. What closer study of musico-visual relationship at each of these points reveals is that von Trier coordinated some of the excerpts to particular types of events. Most obviously, the climax of the Prelude (bars 83–84) is reserved for the final catastrophic collision of the two planets (Cue 12), a disaster that is visually anticipated in the preamble to the film proper (Cue 1a). The foreboding passage that leads into Act I (bars 106–11) is also reserved for two scenes only (Cues 7 and 8); in both of these, Justine’s horse has refused to cross a bridge, after which she looks up at the approaching planet (considerably nearer on the second occasion). However, such specific leitmotivic [End Page 47] coordination is the exception rather than the rule, and there is little consistency in the use of other phrases. For instance, when Claire arrives at the same bridge late in the film and the golf-cart stops working just where Justine’s horse froze, this is coordinated with the opening phrases of the Prelude (Cue 11), which elsewhere are matched with scenes involving motion (Cue 4) as well as stillness (Cue 3).

Some of the musical choices may seem puzzling to those who know Wagner’s work well. For instance, in Cue 3, phrase 1 (bars 1–3) is played twice in succession, which begs the question why not simply use bars 1–7, since phrase 2 (bars 5–7) contains virtually identical material to phrase 1, only at a higher pitch level? Cue 4 (bars 1–3, 8–11) uses phrases 1 and 3 of the Prelude, leaving out the middle part of the famous three-phrase ascending sequence, although the opening of phrase 3 (the ascending sixth d’-b’) follows smoothly on the E7 chord that finished phrase 1, and the rests between the two mitigate the cut. This defense cannot be offered for Cue 5 (bars 5–112, 183–31, 324–373), which contains an ugly overlaying of a B7 chord (bar 11) with a much louder [overdubbed solo] cello entry (bar 183), creating a d-d# clash; this is followed a few seconds later by the questionable omission of the resolution chord in the first half of bar 32.53 In Cue 9 (bars 8–223, 15–25) and Cue 11 (bars 1–252, 55–7), snippets from the opening bars of the Prelude are appended to the end of later passages, causing abrupt changes in texture and disruptions to the pacing as well as the harmonic flow. Cue 12 jumps from the first part of the Prelude (1–232) to the climactic section (703–711, 725–831), with a consequent sudden increase in dynamics and activity, but more disruptive still is the incision in this second section, which momentarily throws the rhythm out of kilter.

Figure 5. Tristan Prelude bars 10–112, 183–193; Melancholia stills 48’08, 48’09. For reasons of convenience, the two excerpts do not overlap in the score above, so it is important to clarify that the low D actually does enter on the third quaver of the bar, i.e., while the previous chord is still sounding.
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Figure 5.

Tristan Prelude bars 10–112, 183–193; Melancholia stills 48’08, 48’09. For reasons of convenience, the two excerpts do not overlap in the score above, so it is important to clarify that the low D actually does enter on the third quaver of the bar, i.e., while the previous chord is still sounding.

If these points of hiatus and disruption are now considered, as they must be, in relation to the visual aspect of the film, one can often find a reason for the seeming ineptitudes. Take for instance the wrenchingly clunky jump in the middle of Cue 5 (see Figure 5). The musical cut occurs when a shot of the guests assembling on the lawn gives way to a shot of them clinking champagne glasses a few minutes later. The cut functions (to those who know the source music) as the aural equivalent of the famous and once-frowned-upon jump cut, that is, a deliberately slight (<30º) change of camera angle between two shots intended to draw attention to itself and to the passing of time.54 And again, the smaller half-bar omission later in this cue coincides with another change in camera perspective: Justine has just moved away from the telescope, looking pensive and unhappy, and we are then shown the telescopic view of the heavens that she would have seen. A very similar strategy is used in the opening scene of von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), which features a rehearsal of The Sound of Music. Here, the on-screen [End Page 48] performance of the song “My Favourite Things” and the dialogue between the actors are both pock-marked by little temporal jumps forward.55

In Cues 9 and 11, which end with tagged-on reminiscences of the opening, the changeover is again coordinated with a change of scene and time. On one level, the persistence of music, any music, will smooth over these moments of temporal and locational hiatus, but on another, the internal disjunction in the musical flow actually acknowledges and signals the changes.56 None of this will reconcile the film to those who find the musical transitions awkward in and of themselves, but von Trier and Andersen, his sound designer, demonstrably had their reasons for manipulating the source material in cases such as these. Even the seemingly unnecessary repetition of Phrase 1 in Cue 3 can be justified. Justine has collapsed onto her nephew’s bed, overcome with a sense of the futility of everything. In a halting, whispered delivery, she explains to Claire: “I’m trudging through this grey woolly yarn [Phrase 1 begins]. It’s clinging to my legs. It’s really heavy to drag along.” As Claire attempts some false reassurance, the repetition of Phrase 1 gives her the lie. The music is stuck, paralyzed just as Justine feels emotionally paralyzed.

Music vs. Image (2): Wagner Triumphant

This close coordination of music and image is not restricted to the places where there are cuts made to the Prelude. In fact, von Trier has revealed that it was his norm in this film:

For years, there has been this sort of unofficial film dogma not to cut to the music. Don’t cut on the beat. It’s considered crass and vulgar. But that’s just what we do in Melancholia. When the horns come in and out in Wagner’s overture [recte: Prelude], we cut right on the beat. It’s kind of like a music video that way. It’s supposed to be vulgar. That was our declared intention. It’s one of the most pleasurable things I’ve done in a long time. I didn’t have to force it out, like in Antichrist, not at all. Cutting on the beat is pleasurable.57

Figure 6. Tristan Prelude bars 14–19; Melancholia stills from 1’23’07–1’23’33.
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Figure 6.

Tristan Prelude bars 14–19; Melancholia stills from 1’23’07–1’23’33.

A clear instance can be found in Cue 9 (see Figure 6). Here the first part of the Prelude is used as Claire follows Justine [End Page 49] across the golf course at night. Claire pushes through some trees and finally stops on seeing her sister. The camera then cuts to a wide shot of a now naked Justine lying on the bank of the stream and gazing upwards. This moment of visual revelation occurs just as bar 16 of the Prelude is reached, the first passionate outbreak after the tentative opening. At bar 18 we are shown what Justine has been gazing at: the planet Melancholia, considerably closer than it was previously. At bar 19, the camera cuts back to a close-up of Justine.58

This choreographic matching of the visual to the musical is not only unusual for von Trier, it is the reverse of the industry norm whereby the composer is usually given a close-to-finished set of images to which to add music. However, when von Trier defies convention, he does so thoroughly, and the dominance of the sonic over the visual is made abundantly clear in the opening seven minutes of the film, revealingly described by the director as an “Overture.”59 This consists of sixteen stylized shots within which events unfold at an agonizingly slow speed, as if a single moment has expanded to take an eternity. None of these scenes are exactly as in the film proper, although with hindsight one can recognize that they are all dream-like derivatives or distortions of events that follow.60 For instance, at 6’19 we get a 23-second overhead shot of Justine in a bridal gown floating in a river and gradually moving down the screen. This image, found on the cover of the DVD release, undoubtedly derives from the famous painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852), which we are briefly shown in an art book in Part 1 of the film. Underpinning and controlling this entire sequence is the longest single cue in the film, bars 1–83 in the Prelude with only one 5-bar cut.61 Needless to say, the changes in the scenes are coordinated carefully with event points in the music: for example, the Millais-inspired shot begins half way through bar 66, where the ominous Tristan chord (first heard in bar 2) reappears.

Still more significant than this beat-matching is the overall aesthetic and purpose of this Overture. Von Trier is clearly trying to replicate something of the relationship obtained between an Overture or Prelude and the opera or other stage-work that follows. This is not the first time that he created a formal preface to a film: Dancer in the Dark begins with a three-minute instrumental “Overture” by Björk (itself strongly reminiscent of the beginning of Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold), during which abstract color pictures slowly dissolve into each other.62 In the case of Tristan, the instrumental Prelude introduces some of the most important musical motives heard later in the opera; while their emotional effect is immediate, they remain semantically underdetermined until later. For instance, the cello melody beginning in bar 17 (partly shown in Figure 5, above) is reused in an almost identical format toward the end of the Act when Tristan and Isolde gaze at each other as their hidden attraction surfaces, and consequently is generally known to commentators as the “glance” or “gaze” motive. In a similar fashion, the images at the beginning of the film are evocative but cryptic, with their specific relevance only being established later.

Perhaps all that can be gleaned with certainty from the film’s Overture is the unhappiness of the heroine and the importance of planetary movement. Sustained by Wagner’s ever-mutating, restless music, the shots follow each other without any clear sense of an unfolding narrative, save that indicated by the music’s own dynamic ebb and flow. At times, this is enough to give the images a sense of teleological purpose. The final ascent to the musical climax (bars 74–83) lends to the accompanying images—the catastrophic [End Page 50] planetary approach and collision as seen from a god’s-eye perspective—a climactic quality of their own. This high point is in fact the end point of the music: it collapses not into the more subdued final section of the Prelude but into a tiny sliver from the Prelude to Act III of Tristan (anticipating the post-holocaust use of the entire piece in the final credits), with added rumble noises as the earth is consumed in the fiery inferno. The screen then fades to black and the title card appears.63 As in Epidemic or indeed Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (literally, the Twilight of the Gods), those viewing Melancholia are armed with the supposition or foreknowledge that destruction will come.64 In an interview with Angelos Koutsourakis, von Trier emphasized that he felt anything but trammelled by the simple inevitability of his chosen plot:

Well, in this film that we are doing now— Melancholia—we have this very simple thing that this planet is approaching the earth and they are going to collide, which is very simple, but it leaves you a lot of space and I think it is like a very simple melody in a symphony that you can do anything with it. Imagine a simple theme in a Beethoven symphony, which starts in a very melodic way and then explodes. As long as you have that theme, you can do anything with it.65

Even the extreme visual slow-motion in the Overture to Melancholia might possibly reflect the influence of Wagner, although there are thousands of filmic precedents as well. In Act I of Tristan, the transition to the love scene after the potion drinking is one such radically expanded moment for which Wagner left microscopically detailed stage directions. It is largely built on the opening music from the Prelude, and lasts about two and a half minutes:

[Isolde] drinks, then throws away the cup. Both [Tristan and Isolde], seized with shuddering, gaze with deepest emotion, but fixed expressions, into one another’s eyes, in which the look of defiance to death fades and melts into the glow of passion. Trembling seizes them, they convulsively clutch their hearts and pass their hands over their brows. Their glances again seek to meet, sink in confusion and once more turn with growing longing upon one another.66

This scene is not unrepresentative of Tristan und Isolde as a whole, a drama far more focussed on interior psychological development than external action.67 One of the most critically acclaimed modern stagings of this work, first performed complete at the Bastille Opera in 2005, exploited this idea of temporal expansion. Directed by Peter Sellars, it made use of Bill Viola’s video art, which consisted of extremely slow-moving montages of fire, water, and the like. Viola took his cue from Wagner’s music, “these huge, very long, slowly evolving time-cycles, like these underground rivers beneath the immediate notes and melodies you’re hearing.”68 Alex Ross (who felt that the opening of Melancholia was derivative of Viola’s work) commented that “the artist [Viola] has in common with Wagner a disdain for the rhythms of daily life: in his work, events often happen in slow motion, so that they acquire an atmosphere of sacred ritual.” 69 This mention of ritual recalls the most famous instance of temporal expansion in Wagner’s oeuvre: the temple scene in Act I of Parsifal, where Gurnemanz proclaims, “Here time becomes space.” In this example, the usual feeling of temporal progression is circumvented by using circular, nonteleological harmonic patterns, something Adorno described as “the phantasmagorical emblem for time standing still.”70


The von Trier quoted in the epigraph to this article who said that he disliked film music [End Page 51] is hard to reconcile with the man responsible for choreographing the Overture of Melancholia to Wagner’s Tristan Prelude. He did claim that his film was different from others, although how so was left unspecified. The burden of his general complaint about film music, that one’s feelings were extorted by the manipulative soundtrack chosen by the director, would seem to apply to an even greater extent to Melancholia than to most other films. But if one looks at precisely what he says (“I want to see [a film] in my own way. But this is going be very different in this film. We are using Wagner in Melancholia. It is all very romantic.”), one explanation suggests itself. If, as we have seen, Tristan was endemic to the creation of the Melancholia, then he may be suggesting that there can (or should) be no possible divergence between the emotional response elicited by the music and the response that the filmic narrative would elicit ohne Musik. In this reading, the two are doing the same cultural work. This seamlessness of intention is admittedly hard to reconcile with von Trier’s “passion for postmodern bricolage,” as Badley has described it.71 This singleness of purpose also flies in the face of his use of Tannhäuser in Epidemic, where the heroic qualities of the Pilgrims’ music are ultimately undercut. Yet trying to infer some kind of ironic purpose to the Tristan citations in Melancholia seems to me to be forced and unconvincing.72 In his somewhat deprecating remarks about the film’s romantic qualities, von Trier said he would have liked “some more roughness to it: but that was not this film. These images kind of make themselves in a way.”73 If, as he hoped, there is “a bone splinter amid all the cream that may, after all, crack a fragile tooth,” it does not come about through any obvious dissonance between film and soundtrack.74

Even if we grant von Trier’s sincerity of purpose, this still does not get around the fact that some have found his usage of the Prelude to be clumsy. Nothing will persuade those who prefer their Tristan Prelude uncut to like the manipulated excerpts heard on the soundtrack to Melancholia. Nonetheless, one has to grant a filmmaker (or indeed any creative artist) the autonomy to manipulate their source material as he or she sees fit. Von Trier has not made a film of the Tristan Prelude, and has no responsibility to honor the organic wholeness of the original. In a similar vein, Jeongwon Joe concludes her defense of the use of fragments from Mozart’s music in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) by stating that “faithfulness to the original could not be a reasonable criterion for evaluating soundtrack music.”75 Ultimately, Wagner’s music has to serve von Trier’s purposes, not the other way around. The fact that the first seven minutes of the film correspond very nearly to what would be heard in a concert hall or opera house perhaps sets up undue expectations of visual subservience to the music. Even thereafter, there is minimal manipulation of the notes and the instrumentation of the original. The director can also be absolved from the charge of using clips indiscriminately: as has been shown, the choice of excerpts and where they are positioned on the soundtrack was calculated to further particular narrative ends.

Von Trier’s use of Wagner’s music may have reached its apogee in Melancholia, but it has not ended there, as evidenced by the trailer for his most recent film.76 The last word has not been written on the relationship between Wagner and von Trier, and even the present analysis of Melancholia has left some lines of enquiry open. For instance, there might be an analogy between Wagner’s famously evasive harmonic movement (whereby he can leave a seventh chord hanging in bar 3 and only [partially] resolve it in bar 17; see Figure 7a) and the elliptical path traced by the destructive planet (approach—initial deflection—later completion; see Figure 7b).77 [End Page 52]

Figure 7a. Tristan Prelude, delayed resolution of E7 chord (bar 3) in bar 17.
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Figure 7a.

Tristan Prelude, delayed resolution of E7 chord (bar 3) in bar 17.

Figure 7b. Still from Melancholia. Claire discovers this diagram when she searches on the internet for “Melancholia” and “Death.” It is only later that this is confirmed as the planet’s trajectory.
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Figure 7b.

Still from Melancholia. Claire discovers this diagram when she searches on the internet for “Melancholia” and “Death.” It is only later that this is confirmed as the planet’s trajectory.

This sort of parallel is hardly susceptible to proof, absent an avowal of influence from the director, but since Tristan shaped the film virtually from its inception, it is at least an intriguing similarity. Despite von Trier’s characterization of Tristan as romantic rather than melancholic, I find a deep similarity between the aesthetics of the film and this music. This might in part reflect what Carolyn Abbate has described as music’s stickiness, its capacity to absorb meanings whereby “physical grounding and visual symbolism and verbal content change musical sounds by recommending how they are to be understood.”78 Even still, there seems to be a close alignment between this film and the Prelude to Tristan, which Wagner himself described as “travers[ing] all phases of the vain struggle against inner ardour, until this, sinking back powerless upon itself, seems to be extinguished in death.”79

David Larkin

David Larkin is a lecturer in music at the University of Sydney. After studies at University College Dublin and the University of Cambridge, he returned to Ireland to take up an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellowship. His research is primarily in the area of nineteenth-century German music, with particular focus on Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss. He has published articles in 19th-Century Music, The Musical Quarterly, and The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss, and has written book chapters for several edited collections. He is currently working on an extended study of selected progressive composers in the nineteenth century, exploring how they conceived their relationship with the audience. Larkin has been commissioned to write Experiencing Wagner: A Listener’s Companion for the series published by Scarecrow Press. He regularly gives preconcert talks at the Sydney Opera House and reviews classical concerts and opera performances for the online classical-music database Bachtrack.


My thanks are due in particular to James Wierzbicki, who first drew my attention to the “Wag/Tann” moment in Epidemic and read through a draft of this article, and to the anonymous reviewers for their many helpful suggestions. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the “Wagner and Us” Symposium in Melbourne in December 2013.


1. Lars von Trier, interview by Angelos Koutsourakis, November 12, 2010, in Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier: A Post-Brechtian Reading (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 199.

2. One indicator of the response the film has elicited from the public can be seen in the ratings of the DVD version on The numbers of five-star reviews and one-star reviews are approximately equal and far exceed those who voted somewhere in between (as of February 7, 2014, the 570 reviews are divided [high to low] 192–100–45–60–173), The Australian film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton disagree regularly over von Trier’s work, although Melancholia, to which they awarded 5 and 2.5 stars, respectively, in their film-review show, At the Movies, was less divisive than some of his earlier work (for instance, they gave Dancer in the Dark 5 and 0 stars, respectively),; see also (both accessed February 12, 2014).

3. Tim Page, “Filmmaker’s Audacious Teaming of his Melancholia with Wagner’s Music,” Washington Post, December 23, 2011, accessed November 10, 2013,; Alex Ross, “Melancholia, Bile,” The Rest Is Noise, Nov. 19, 2011, accessed October 4, 2013,

4. Lars von Trier, interview by Per Juul Carlsen, May 4, 2011, in Carlsen, “The Only Redeeming Factor is the World Ending,” FILM Magazine, [End Page 53] accessed November 10, 2013,

5. Lars von Trier, interview by Nils Thorsen, in publicity materials for Melancholia, by Entertainment One Films (2011), 10, accessed August 4, 2014,

6. A useful summary of these issues by David Conway, author of Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) is provided in his online essay “‘A Vulture is Almost an Eagle’: The Jewishness of Richard Wagner” (extract from seminar, University College London, March 13, 2002), accessed January 25, 2014,

7. Linda Badley, Lars von Trier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 8.

8. Lars von Trier, Melancholia press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, May 18, 2011, accessed December 1, 2013, One surmises that it was the even more provocative follow-up material which led to his ban from the Festival: “So . . . what can I say, I understand Hitler. . . . He’s not what you’d call a good guy, but I . . . understand much about him, and I sympathise with him a little bit, yes. . . . OK, I’m a Nazi.” And in response to a later question, he said “On a grander scale? Yes, that’s what we Nazis, we have a tendency to try to do things on a greater scale. Yeah, maybe you could persuade me into a . . . Final Solution with journalists. No, I’m . . . I’m . . .,” at which point the moderator brought the question-and-answer session to a close.

9. This was by no means his first artistic Manifesto: Koutsourakis reproduces no fewer than seven in the appendices to his volume, of which Dogme is chronologically the fifth. See Koutsourakis, Politics as Form, 207–17.

10. Jack Stevenson, Lars von Trier (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 203–4.

11. Wagner’s encounter with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, for whom music was on a much higher plane than the other arts, fuelled his re-evaluation of music’s significance, and in an essay from 1872, he almost openly reversed his earlier claim, now calling his dramas “deeds of music made visible” (ersichtlich gewordene Thaten der Musik). Richard Wagner, “Über die Benennung ‘Musikdrama,’” in Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, 3rd ed., vol. 9 (Leipzig E. W. Fritzsch, 1897), 306.

12. Thomas Alling, “Sightseeing with the Holy Ghost,” Levende Billeder (April 1984); reproduced in Jan Lumholdt, Lars von Trier: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 26–27.

13. Badley, Lars von Trier, 24.

14. Lars von Trier, interview by Jan Kornum Larsen, Kosmorama no. 167 (April 1984); reproduced in Lumholdt, Lars von Trier, 42 (emphasis original).

15. John Rockwell, “Lars von Trier, Bayreuth and the Ring,” Opera 53, no. 1 (2002): 31, 32, accessed July 14, 2014,

16. Interview with Lars von Trier in 2000, quoted in John Rockwell, “Reverbrations: Maybe Lars von Trier’s Vision Was Just What Wagner Needed,” New York Times, June 11, 2004, accessed July 14, 2014, The Bayreuth festival’s press release claimed that “the Ring would clearly exceed his powers, and that therefore he would not be able to fulfil his ambitions of his own high standards and the special standards of the Bayreuth festival” (accessed November 18, 2013, Some years later, von Trier counterclaimed that “they didn’t have the money for it anyway, because I was far too ambitious.” Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

17. The life/film parallels are not confined to these. Udo Kier plays the part of Udo, whom von Trier & Vørsel visit in the film. Claes Kastholm Hansen, a film consultant at the Danish Film Institute, also played himself in the film. It was the latter who in reality made the bet that LVT could not make the film for the derisorily small sum of one million Danish kroner, a wager which in a DVD interview it is revealed that LVT allegedly lost by a mere 70,000 kroner (incurred in postproduction costs). However, Stevenson says that von Trier and Vørsel raised another 200,000 [End Page 54] kroner in private funding, and an additional 181,000 in completion funds (Lars von Trier, 43).

18. As per the subtitles.

19. Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 2005), 4. Alex Rehding describes musical monumentality (of which the Pilgrims’ music is a prime example) as appearing “intellectually impoverished, aesthetically questionable and morally suspect,” the last because of the ease with which such rousing music has been co-opted by totalitarian regimes (in Wagner’s case, most obviously by the Nazi Party). Music and Monumentality: Commemoration and Wonderment in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 9.

20. “A fateful coincidence can often be so sinister and fantastic in character, that one is tempted to draw apparently logical, but actually unfounded conclusions. During the five days the manuscript of ‘Epidemic’ was created and written down in and around this apartment. That an actual epidemic was approaching during those days, and that its outbreak would coincide with the completion of the script was one of those coincidences” [sic as per the subtitles].

21. In this chromatic passage (bars 17–32), a two-bar idea is repeated twice, each time a minor 3rd higher and consequently more intense. On the third occasion it leads into a longer descending passage full of semitonal movement, which gradually lowers the emotional temperature.

22. Just prior to this, the last part of the medium’s paroxysm is accompanied by electronic wave-form noises (possibly made by a Theremin), which add to the weirdness of the scene.

23. Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

24. The music is credited to Peter Bach (the music director) and Wagner. A purely instrumental version of this song with saxophone replacing voice was heard at 37’05–38’24 as the writers drive through the Ruhr region. The sound of Vørsel’s typewriter, heard in the earlier scene, is sampled for the rhythmic introduction to the end-credits song.

25. Badley, Lars von Trier, 6.

26. Michel Ciment and Philippe Rouyer, “A Conversation with Lars von Trier,” Positif no. 334 (December 1988); reproduced in Lumholdt, Lars von Trier, 62.

27. “I’m very much for Speer. Speer I liked, Albert Speer I liked. He wasn’t also maybe one of God’s best children, but he had some talent that it was possible for him to use during. . . . OK, I’m a Nazi.” Von Trier, Melancholia press conference at Cannes. A few months earlier he acknowledged: “I’ve always had a weakness for the Nazi aesthetic. A Stuka will outlive a British Spitfire in our consciousness by millennia. That’s my point of view.” Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

28. Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

29. Ibid.

30. Von Trier may have conflated this six-page passage with the much lengthier one in the same volume given over to the narrator’s thoughts during a performance of the imaginary Septet by Vinteuil, which does refer to some of Wagner’s later works (specifically Tristan, Rheingold, and Meistersinger) as “masterpieces . . . whose very perfection might perhaps have prevented them from being understood.” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 5, The Captive, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Gilmartin, rev. trans. D. J. Enright (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 350–51.

31. Proust, Captive, 205–6. For a more detailed analysis of this and other passages, see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Proust as Musician, trans. Derrick Puffett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), esp. 12–18; Cormac Newark, “Proust and the soirée à l’Opéra chez soi,” in Opera in the Novel from Balzac to Proust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 167–97, esp. 175–95.

32. The length of the cinematic release of Melancholia is usually given as 135 minutes (see, for instance,–0), and the DVD is marketed as this length on the usual outlets. However, the DVD release is in fact listed as “129mins approx” (, and the official website for the film also lists its running time as 130mins (25f) ( (all sources accessed August 1, 2014).

33. Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

34. Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier (2011; Denmark: Artificial Eye, 2012), ART541DVD. [End Page 55] “Interview with Lars von Trier” found at “Extras\ The making of Melancholia\The visual style.”

35. Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.” Among Visconti’s output is the Mahler-laden Death in Venice (1971), which may well have served as a model for the use of music in Melancholia.

36. Lars von Trier, “Director’s Statement,” April 13, 2011, in publicity materials for Melancholia, by Entertainment One Films (2011), 3, accessed August 4, 2014,

37. For a more complete plot summary, see Richard Lippe, “Lars von Trier and Melancholia,” Cineaction 86 (2012): 62–64.

38. Ross, “Melancholia, Bile.”

39. Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

40. Von Trier, interview with Nils Thorsen, 8; Richard Wagner, program note for “Prelude (Liebestod)” [when performed together with the Transfiguration], in Wagner: Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan and Isolde, ed. Robert Bailey (New York: Norton, 1985), 48.

41. Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 239.

42. Von Trier, “Director’s Statement,” 3.

43. Mike Cormack, “The Pleasures of Ambiguity: Using Classical Music in Film,” in Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, ed. Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 20.

44. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 15.

45. David Ng, “‘A Dangerous Method,’ ‘Melancholia’ Take Cues from Richard Wagner,” Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2011, accessed July 31, 2014, Alex Ross was unimpressed (“Adding Emotion to Wagner,” The Rest Is Noise, Nov. 26, 2011, accessed July 31, 2014,

46. For instance, the solo violin represents the hero’s companion in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and the eponymous heroine in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, while in Strauss’s Don Quixote, the solo cello became the Knight with the Sorrowful Countenance, and the solo viola Sancho Panza. The solo viola also stands for Harold in Berlioz’s Harold en Italie.

47. Stravinsky’s response is summarized by Nicholas Cook, who defends the film against his critiques. “Disney’s Dream: The Rite of Spring Sequence from “Fantasia,’” in Analysing Musical Multimedia (Oxford: Clarendon University Press, 1998), 174–77. The manipulation of materials was not the only criticism levelled at the film: the whole enterprise of pairing visuals with established masterpieces of music was also controversial (see 210–14).

48. Page, “Filmmaker’s Audacious Teaming,” 2.

49. Robert P. Morgan, “Circular Form in the Tristan Prelude,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 53, no. 1 (2000): 69.

50. Ross, “Melancholia, Bile.”

51. Curtis White, “Crazy Wisdom: von Trier’s Melancholia,” Feb. 24, 2012, accessed October 16, 2013,

52. Hugo Leichtentritt, “Tristan und Isolde: Prelude,” excerpt from Musical Form (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), 355–58, in Bailey, Wagner: Prelude and Transfiguration, 183.

53. Gorbman notes in connection with Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) that “this technique of robbing the musical statement of its closure has the effect of drawing attention to the score.” Unheard Melodies, 14.

54. See Susan Hayward, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (London: Routledge, 1996), 195–56, 386; Ira Konigsberg, The Complete Film Dictionary, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 1997): 200–201.

55. It is perhaps of interest to note that von Trier was trying in this film to effect “the emotion of an opera. . . . That is, melodrama with music,” since in the American musical, “you can’t go all the way with the feelings.” Badley deduces that Dancer is closer to “European opera” (her term). Lars von Trier, 88–89.

56. In a similar fashion, Gorbman concludes that the nondiegetic music heard during the famous breakfast montage in Citizen Kane is used “to simultaneously bridge and demarcate the temporal discontinuities in the narrative.” Unheard Melodies, 26.

57. Carlsen, “Only Redeeming Factor.”

58. The degree to which the visual is coordinated with the music here recalls Gorbman’s analyses of the use of Beethoven in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (Unheard Melodies, 24), [End Page 56] and Shostakovich in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (“Ears Wide Open: Kubrick’s Music,” in Powrie and Stilwell, Changing Tunes, 7–9). In the former case, she uses the term orchestration to describe the “most closely synchronized music-scene coordination” that this exemplifies.

59. “Interview with Lars von Trier,” on the Melancholia DVD (see note 34, above).

60. These shots have been described in detail in Manohla Dargis, “This Is How the End Begins,” New York Times, December 30, 2011, accessed November 11, 2013,

61. Given that von Trier clearly has arranged his images to fit with the contours of the music, the cut from bars 354–403 (approximately 20–25 seconds in performance time) is all the more mysterious. One might speculate that at some late stage in the editing process, he decided to omit an entire shot.

62. Both the Rheingold Prelude and Dancer’s Overture emerge from a single low bass note (Eb and E respectively); the textures are brass-dominated (with horns especially prominent); both employ arpeggiated melodic gestures, and the textures become increasingly complex as the music progresses. Daniel Grimley has located both works within a nineteenth-century tradition that associates with these gestures “the musical depiction of sunrise, birth and the natural world.” “Hidden Places: Hyper-Realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark,” Twentieth-Century Music 2, no. 1 (2005): 40.

63. This form of musical coitus interruptus is in fact found elsewhere in Tristan und Isolde: in Act 2, the climax of the love duet is not reached as the lovers are discovered in flagrante, and the evaded high point is only reached during Isolde’s final monologue, which reprises the final portion of the duet and brings it to a satisfying (if detumescent) conclusion.

64. The fifteen-year old von Trier shot a film of abstract visuals in 1970, with the following question on an intertitle: “Why run away from that which you know you cannot escape?” Koutsourakis, Politics as Form, xiv.

65. Ibid., 198.

66. Richard Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, ed. Nicholas John, trans. Andrew Porter (London: Calder, 1981), 61.

67. On this point see Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 49–51.

68. Bill Viola, interview by Heidi McKenzie, accessed July 18, 2014,

69. Alex Ross, “Bill Viola’s Tristan: ‘The Waves,’” The New Yorker, May 30, 2005, accessed February 18, 2014, For further discussion of this production, first shown in Paris in 2005, see (accessed February 18, 2014).

70. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, 76.

71. Badley, Lars von Trier, 3.

72. For those wishing to attribute the saving grace of ironic exaggeration to the Tristan citations, one remark by Justine might serve as some kind of support. In response to her sister’s wish to meet the moment of doom by drinking a glass of wine on the terrace, Justine says: “How about a song? Beethoven’s Ninth. Something like that? Maybe we could light some candles. You want us to gather on your terrace to sing a song, and have a glass of wine? The three of us?” She then explodes this fantasy by describing the plan as “a piece of shit.” The absence of an in-scene musical accompaniment for the collision has the practical effect of allowing von Trier to surround the moment of doom with the sweeping climax of the Prelude, but on another level it could open up the nondiegetic music to the charge of being an empty gesture of would-be transcendence.

73. “Interview with Lars von Trier,” on the Melancholia DVD (see note 34, above).

74. Von Trier, “Director’s Statement,” 3.

75. Jeongwon Joe, “Reconsidering Amadeus: Mozart as Film Music,” in Changing Tunes, ed. Powrie and Stilwell, 72. In the debate over Amadeus, there were some who viewed the use of Mozart’s music as the “one overwhelming salvaging force” (quoted in Robert Marshall, “Film as Musicology: Amadeus,” Musical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (1997), 175). Others, such as Robert Craft, complained about the fragmentation of the source material: “Music bleeds at every splice, welling up, fading out, left suspended in mid-phrase” (“B-flat [End Page 57] Movie,” New York Review of Books, April 11, 1985, accessed July 2, 2014,

76. In the trailer for Nymphomaniac (the film was released in 2 parts in 2013 and 2014), a brief clip from the transition between scenes 2 and 3 of Das Rheingold (the descent into Nibelheim) is heard, although much more extended segments of Mozart (the Requiem’s Introit) and Rammstein are used. (accessed February 27, 2014).

77. Virtually all commentators see bars 1–17 as forming a meaningful unit, thanks to the resolution of the E7 chord in 16–17. This act of harmonic completion is not the only factor, of course; aside from the motivic unity of this passage, Robert Bailey has shown how the arrival on a2 in the violins in bar 17 completes a linear chromatic ascent that has begun from g#1 in bar 2. See Bailey, “An Analytical Study of the Sketches and Drafts,” in Wagner: Prelude and Transfiguration, ed. Bailey, 127.

78. Carolyn Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Spring 2004): 523–24. She goes on to claim that “this capacity is exploited by film music composers writing or employing so-called anempathic music, which can depend upon the image field’s ability to make sound ironic, to write over the mood or significance that the music suggests on its own.” Because of our “oculocentric and logocentric nature,” she believes (questionably, in my view) that the use of music as ironic counterpoint (her example is the use of The Magic Flute during a torture scene in The Night Porter) “corrupt[s] the music and will continue to do so long after the movie is over.” Such has not been my experience with regard to the Tannhäuser Overture after Epidemic.

79. Wagner, program note for “Prelude (Liebestod),” 48. [End Page 58]

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