Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 2

I ended the previous post with a reference to Adorno’s appreciation of Lulu. I’ll return to Adorno later. Before I do, I want to remark on a particular structural element the critics find more fascinating than any other:  Berg’s obsession with palindromes – music that runs forwards and then backwards.

Perhaps the most commented on is the film interlude right at the centre of the opera – where I’ve inserted the blue line is indeed the opera’s exact centre – you don’t need to be able to read music to see that.

The centre point of Lulu

Lulu’s palindromes are narrative as well as musical. As you can see Berg’s screenplay for the 3 minute film at the heart of the opera very clearly organises its narrative palindromically.

Structure of film in the middle of Berg's Lulu

He stuck very closely to Wedekind’s original text, though he had to cut it down by 4/5ths. The cuts are significant: they make the whole work structurally tauter, emphasising the text’s repetitions and balances which appeared in the original but by no means as starkly. Most important of all, the final scene is key: Berg turns it into a recapitulation of the first half of the opera, that is, the whole of Wedekind’s first play. By now Lulu is reduced to plying her trade as a prostitute in London, accompanied by her 3rd husband’s son and the seedy old Schigolch, a hanger on who may or may not be her father. In the Wedekind, she has 4 clients, the last of which is Jack. In the Berg she has only 3 – the virgin university lecturer is cut – and each of these 3 is a reincarnation of one of Lulu’s husbands. Each client has the same music as the relevant husband and even is, so Berg directs, to be sung by the same singer.

Now this emphasis on musical recapitulation and double roles means that everything after the mid point of the opera takes on what George Perle in his magisterial study of the opera calls a déjà vu quality. The musical symmetries seem to bind the characters into a machine-like helplessness.

In terms of narrative justice – and justice is staged at the heart of the opera with Lulu’s filmed trial  –  the plot is governed by the retributive and symmetrical  lex talionis of Deuteronomy — an eye for an eye. A cold, simple and inflexible justice. Lulu kills and is killed, an active is balanced by a passive verb. The narrative, judicial conjunction here becomes a copula marking a predicate,  a cause and effect of equivalent force: the balance of a palindrome. End of story.

Although Adorno never mentions the lex talionis, acceptance that this is the way of the world is what some of his praises of Berg suggest. Berg refuses the happy end of commercial texts – that happy end which may not always be happy for the characters but which suggests catharsis for the audience, or the possibility of hope for a better future – or even, as Adorno devastatingly suggests in his analysis of Hollywood film in some aphorisms from the 1920s in Quasi Una Fantasia (pp. 49-50), the minimal happiness which lies in the audience’s knowledge that happiness is not for them (“the old mother who sheds tears at someone else’s wedding, blissfully conscious of the happiness she has missed”). Berg, for Adorno, looks on the human condition objectively and not sentimentally (i.e. commercially). Berg does not impose his subjective response to the narratives he presents in either of his two operas. It is this, along with the music’s extreme complexity and ingenious logic that renders Berg able to escape the constraints of his society’s ideology. This is a huge and important claim – for how far is it possible for any of us to escape ideology? What of the gender and sexuality conventions that Berg, following Wedekind, exploits for his theatre piece – the tragic half-man lesbian, the sex-obsessed Woman? Is this not ideology?

Adorno has, however, to admit that Berg sided with the lost, and that in this  Lulu is similar to Berg’s earlier opera Wozzeck. But Wozzeck, said Adorno, quoting Berg himself,  could easily put its first bar after its last and the whole tragedy could happen all over again. The narrative is an endless cycle of suffering with no possibility of escape. No answers are given, just deixis – a pointing out of the human condition into which no intervention is possible, and from which there can be no transcendence. Alban Berg was passive, stresses Adorno, not assertive, and it is his siding with  non-action that allows him to escape ideology. This is good, for action is, according to Adorno, always geared towards making a population act in a certain way, and therefore must of necessity be ideological.

The palindrome contrasts with ideology by suggesting a self-contained universe beyond the arrow of time we experience in the phenomenal world – the critic John Covach has suggested that for Berg the palindrome represented a timeless heaven deriving ultimately from a Swedenborgian description in one of Balzac’s lesser-known  novels. This is perfectly consonant with the mystical leanings of the musical circle Berg moved in ‑ and of course it matches Adorno’s promotion of Berg as offering a non-active refuge from the evil of a world that could produce the ideology of Nazism.

There are two things that interest me in these claims. Yes, I love tracing the music’s formal complexity – it has all the charm of a musical puzzle and a practical rhetorical lesson for my own compositions (how did Berg derive that chord or instrumental line from his musical materials?). In either case, its analysis is a very abstract activity indeed, like maths. But it’s of course very dependent upon my access to a very particular mediated version of the music – the printed score. To print I can return again and again – abstracted from society, abstracted from death and the onward rush of time. This is a characteristic of the medium of print, as envisaged in the very first image of a printing press known to us. Death takes away the men, but the books and printing press remain.

The earliest known illustration of a printing press, from the Dance of Death, Lyons, 1499

Adorno’s vision of abstraction from ideology depends, it seems to me, on a particular organisation of the media industry, which enables the stable reproduction of very complex printed musical instructions – to write them out by hand would require literally years and, as all students of media history know, would generate an unstable text.

But my relationship with this medium has also shown me how the large scale palindromes so commented on aren’t exact. How dare I say this when so many critics have not noticed it?

(to be continued)

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at

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