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Trippy Tales in Classical Music


Divine Inspiration of Music by Nicolas Régnier via Wikimedia Commons

Composing music has often been associated with altered states of consciousness, including drug use and mysticism. Berlioz heard the demonic sounds of a witches’ sabbath while under the influence of opium, while medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and Romantic composer Robert Schumann both described receiving their music from divine sources.

Symphonie fantastique: Berlioz’s Opium-Fueled Fever-Dream

While in the midst of a manic obsession with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, Berlioz composed one of his most famous works, the Symphonie fantastique (1830). Berlioz rented an apartment near hers so he could be close to her and regularly sent her flowers, but she had no inkling of his existence. Around this time, Berlioz had been taking opium to relieve the pain of his severe cavities but was evidently also familiar with its propensity to induce bizarre dreams.

Just before he began writing the Symphonie fantastique, he wrote to his father: “I see myself in a mirror. Often, I experience the most extraordinary impressions…the effect is like that of opium.” Indeed, Berlioz’s program for the Symphonie fantastique would become a mirror of sorts, strangely resembling his own life. A young musician falls hopelessly in love with a woman who seems to represent the embodiment of all his ideals. In the music, the beloved appears as the idée fixe, a recurring melody that both inspires and haunts the protagonist. The symphony moves through vignettes of the protagonist’s life: (1) “Reveries—Passions” (2) “A Ball,” and (3) “Scene in the Fields,” in which he travels to the countryside. By the fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold,” the musician realizes that his love is unrequited. Out of despair, the young man takes a large dose of opium in an attempt to poison himself. The dose isn’t enough to kill him but instead gives him horrific visions.

“March to the Scaffold” is a marvel of orchestration that seems to emerge directly from Berlioz’s own experience with opium. Plunged into a fever-dream, the protagonist imagines he has killed his beloved and is watching the scene of his own gruesome execution unfold before him. He marches toward his death at a pace that becomes ever more frenetic as the movement progresses, accompanied by hand-muted horns, four bassoons, and two sets of timpani played with new “sponge-headed sticks” that produced a smoother, more subtle sound. One last gasp of the idée fixe appears in the clarinet before the protagonist is audibly guillotined with a brash tutti orchestra hit.

Berlioz saves the tour de force of orchestral special effects for the final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” in which the musician imagines the beloved as a witch who presides over his own funeral. The sounds of Berlioz’s sonic hellscape seem possible only in an opium-fueled delirium. Here, the idée fixe transforms into the sound of the beloved’s cackling laughter in the clarinet, soon joined by a shrieking piccolo. Funeral bells toll, the brass section sounds the menacing Dies irae, and the strings play col legno with the back of the bow (literally, “with the wood”)—an eerie sound reminiscent of the rapping of fingernails.

Hildegard of Bingen’s Musical Revelations

Born in 1098, Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine abbess, composer, and mystic. She began experiencing visions when she was a child and entered into religious life at 15. Over the course of her lifetime, she completed a significant body of written work, including theological texts, pharmacological and medical works, and collections of music.

In all, Hildegard wrote 77 chants and the earliest known morality play, Ordo virtutum (“Order of the Virtues”). Unlike conventional plainchant of her time, Hildegard’s music features wide leaps and extremes of melodic range. In Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations (Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum), Hildegard transcribed the heavenly chorus she heard in her mind, beginning with O vis eternitatis (“O Power within Eternity”), a particularly salient example of her breathtaking, angular melodies. The melody reaches ever more improbable heights as the poetry expounds on the incarnation of God’s Word in Christ.


Hildegard von Bingen, O vis eternitatis, performed by Sequentia

Her most famous theological work, Scivias, contains illuminations of her visions in brilliant colors and ends with fourteen musical compositions: two for the Virgin Mary, two for the angels, and two for each category of saints—patriarchs and prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins. Scivias stands for “Scito vias Domini”: “know the ways of the Lord.”


An illumination from Scivias depicting Hildegard’s egg-shaped vision of God, the cosmos, and humanity.

As in her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, Hildegard begins with an image of salvation in O splendidissima gemma (“O jewel resplendent”), the chant that opens the musical portion of Scivias. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this antiphon—a refrain sung before or after a psalm—compares salvation to sunlight glinting off a jewel. God infused his creation with light through his Word, a light refracted and dimmed by the Fall of Man, and then fashioned the Word into human form as the light of Christ. The melody weaves its way forward, with occasional departures to a higher register, like an auditory rendering of light dancing across a prism.


Ensemble Mediatrix performs “O splendidissima gemma.”

Schumann’s Ghost Variations: The Sound of Angels

Throughout his life, Schumann struggled with a mental illness that a number of scholars now believe was bipolar disorder, as he was given to extremes of wild productivity and catatonic depression. In his early twenties, Schumann had also contracted syphilis and was treated with arsenic. After a long period of latency, he began to experience symptoms of the final stages of the disease, including auditory hallucinations and paranoia, imagining he had been poisoned. He heard divinely inspired music and the voices of demons who called him sinful and made him scream in fear. By 1854, Schumann was aware of the deterioration of his mental state and asked Clara to commit him to an insane asylum on several occasions. In the middle of the night on February 17, he awakened to write down a theme that he believed was dictated to him by angels, the beginnings of the piece that would become known as the Ghost Variations (Geistervariationen). But the theme was actually Schumann’s own, appearing several times across his works—in his violin concerto, which he had written just four months earlier, his Album for the Young (1849), and his String Quartet, Op. 41, no. 2 (1842).

In the early afternoon on February 27, 1854, Schumann left his study, where he had been composing earlier that morning, and walked to a bridge on the Rhine River, still in his dressing gown. He tossed his wedding ring into the river then jumped into the icy cold water. Fortunately, he was soon rescued by a passerby who pulled him onto his boat, and was taken home. He completed the Ghost Variations within a few days, dedicating the score to his beloved wife Clara. Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to an asylum where he spent the remaining two years of his life.

In his last years, Schumann became aggressive, had fits of screaming that left him hoarse, and eventually declined to the point that he lost the ability to speak clearly. In the summer of 1856, Clara found out that Schumann had not left his bed in several weeks and went to visit him. Having been prevented from seeing him twice, she was finally admitted into the asylum to find Schumann ill with pneumonia and barely conscious. Schumann summoned the strength to embrace her. That would be the last time Clara saw him.

As it was one of the last pieces Schumann completed, Clara did not want to release the Ghost Variations for publication, but Brahms managed to persuade her to publish the theme in 1893. It took over forty more years for the complete work to be published, finally appearing in 1939. This beautiful composition has only recently begun to receive more interest among pianists, and one can only hope that it will be performed more widely in the future.


András Schiff plays Schumann’s Ghost Variations on his own Bösendorfer mahogany piano.

 

Written by:
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Published on 08.30.2023

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