Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 3

The previous post closed with a perhaps outrageous claim to have noticed something that specialised music critics have not. But the point is not difficult to argue. Let’s look again at the extract from the score I printed in the previous post.

Lulu centre again - but note the direction to the performers to put mutes on their instruments

Notice the directions nehmen Dpf in the middle of the page – put the mutes on. For the music is played backwards with all possible instruments muted. This signals a difference from the first half, an addition subtle on the page but decidedly audible in performance. To an audience listening as opposed to a reader reading, that is, with the remediation of the text through the technologies of musical instruments from the visual to the aural, the palindrome does not signal a suspension of the arrow of time. Rather, it emphasises time’s passage by highlighting difference in similarity.

This is certainly the case with the narrative palindrome that Berg creates. By the last scene, when the husbands start returning and taking their revenge, we in the audience have been so well trained we know the narrative law.  And we are given a choice. Do we simply accept the law as an inevitable given, as part of the human condition, or do we rebel against its violent inflexibility? Do we want this structure to be enacted? I want the ending to be different. I want Lulu to escape Jack and for the self-sacrificing Countess to study law and fight for women’s rights. I do not want men to take revenge, as by this time I, though a man, have come to see Lulu as a human being. I want transcendence from my own gendered, socialised subject position, I want the cycle of suffering to be broken. My engagement with the performance has caused me to distance myself from a community of people who automatically assume the rightness of the lex talionis.

Alternatively, if I do want it – and parts of me do, confiteor – I am encouraged to ask myself about the moral stature of my sadistic desire, my conservative desire to remain within a community of vengeance.

Lulu in the final scene puts my desires in dialogue with one another.

By listening to and watching, by experiencing a performance on stage, I, already split, have also become linked to Lulu. If the title of the opera follows the tradition of naming a work after the solitary protagonist like Tosca and Fidelio – it’s not Tristan und Isolde, or A Village Romeo and Juliet ‑ I nonetheless supply both the conjunction the missing adjunct: Lulu and me. Who of these is the angel, who the demon? Am I Jack or Lulu or both? The and here is not, as I’ve already explained in a previous post, a simple conjunction: it is an implied copula. It suggests identity through linkage. Lulu and me suggests I wonder whether I am Jack or Lulu or both?

There is one of the many recurrent passages that is never subject to palindromic treatment. This is the music of Lulu’s desire to be loved by Dr Schön, her third husband and the man she wanted to be married to at the start. She wants him to recognise her as a valid human being. She him to recognise that she is. It’s all she’s ever wanted, as she says in one of the terrible quarrels they have. The first time the passage appears she recalls her childhood as a street urchin and thief in spoken words that ensure the audience understands them:

“My husband… If I belong to anyone in this world, I belong to you. Without you, I don’t know where I’d be. You took me by the hand, you gave me food and clothes, even though I was trying to steal your watch. Do you think I can forget that?”

Alban Berg, Lulu, vocal score, Universal Edition, 1936: 81 (“Coda der Sonata”)

Memory binds Lulu to Dr Schön. And indeed, it is the power of memory that binds me to Lulu as I watch that last scene. I remember her story, and that is why I partly become her.

What does Lulu give me in that memory? She does not give food and clothes. Instead she gives me the story of her life, an Other to my own. And then, to complicate the act of generosity that art always involves, the actress who plays Lulu gives me her labour and her skill. If successful, this is a gift beyond price, signalled by the ecstatic applause at the end of a performance which pays the artist beyond her fee, an act of recognition all of us who have performed need and know in our flesh.

Now, though no previous critic has pointed this out, I think it clear that Lulu’s gratitude  music owes a debt to the very first motif in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The first four notes have the same intervals but are played backwards and upside down, the whole filtered through the emotional and orchestral lens of late Mahler (itself deriving from Wagner).

How the opening bars of Wagner's TRistan und Isolde become the theme of the heroine's Gratitude/ Love in Berg's Lulu

Lulu’s music of gratitude and love is by no means the music of absolute modernity and abstraction from history. Its reworking of Wagner declares itself to be very firmly within tradition, within a historical community of texts: Berg and Wagner, not Berg in splendid isolation. The reworking is a memory and acknowledgement of history, of community, of society — and therefore necessarily of ideology. The music of gratitude can even be said to acknowledge its debt by mirroring back its donor. This is exophoric reference, an intertextual repetition. It is not the abstract kind of repetition without ideology that Adorno and his followers have praised. It is an and of textual community.

My point is that repetition, even the retrograde of the palindrome, does not necessarily mean timelessness, the absolute of utter novelty that is high modernity, or a refusal of ethical intervention into society. On the contrary – repetition of the intertextual kind (and there are many such in Berg) and even palindromic repetition, necessarily implies memory, a coupling of the past to the present that enables future action.

I remember and I am  reminded of Lulu’s gratitude to Schön and her desire to be recognised by him every time this music recurs.  Its last appearance is in her conversation with Jack, the reincarnated Schön, when it is conjoined effortlessly with the music of her beauty that we first hear when she is presented by an animal tamer in the Prologue. Jack and Lulu discuss money: he, rather than she, takes more and more in incremental demands, an inversion of her financial dependence on Schön – except that he takes everything. (“Gib mir das ganze” he demands at 4.02 in the video; “In Gottes Namen” – “In God’s name” replies she, as if acknowledging the operation of Biblical lex talionis)

When Jack cuts Lulu we have been reminded he is killing a human being who only wants to be loved as she is. When he kills the Countess we have been reminded, and afterwards in her Liebestod will be reminded again, that he is killing a human being who only wants to live for others. Our Weinigerian misogyny at this moment will be pressured by our affective involvement, by our feeling for and with Lulu and the Countess.

That sounds very sentimental. Indeed it is, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense. This is a political tradition of sentiment that in the nineteenth century was practiced especially by women for the sake of women and other oppressed people – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps the most famous and impactful example of its deployment. Ouida operated within it, as did the American mass-market abolitionist and proto-feminist novelist E.D.E.N. Southworth. Better known today is the political sentimentality of Dickens.

This is not the sentimental tradition of, say, Violetta or Mimi – those archetypal operatic women who are thrown away when used up, who die of consumption literally and metaphorically and whose voluptuous deaths we uncritically enjoy so much, as we are reminded by Catherine Clement in her famous 1979 book on Opera and the Undoing of Women. That is the version of commercial sentimentality that Adorno hated. Instead, we are talking of a use of emotion to stir the audience to political action. Such action may stem from a humanistic ideology that not so long ago it was the fashion to excoriate and altogether repudiate. But at least action is possible (indeed necessary) in that ideology.

We also have to ask if Adorno’s belief in the possibility of escape from ideology and the personal is actually only a blindness to the very material conditions which permit that belief. After all, Universal Edition, Lulu’s publishers, were and remain a very canny publishing house as moiled in capitalism as any Hollywood studio. Adorno depended on a printed text produced by Universal to  show how Berg was unideological and passive, resistant to action. My main issue with him here is not blindness to the capitalist materiality of what enabled this anti-capitalist’s praise of inaction and formal perfection, nor his praise for the hard, the difficult, the challenging, the unpopular,  but  his rejection of the sentimental through praise of the abstracted.

Sentimentally, I refuse to be abstracted.

To move us to action a link must be made with  us.  And this is the conjunction-copula that binds the work of art to us. Lulu’s escape from ideological constraint, pace Adorno, lies not in its mystical abstraction of structure and a purity of absolute decontextualised modernity. That idea relies on the media technology of printed scores, itself a product of industrial modernity of which Adorno was the salesman of a specific sector. Instead, opera, when it is successful, like theatre in general, offers us the conjunction-copula – the and – of Carmen and Don Jose, Lulu and Dr Schön, murdered and murderer, actor and audience.

I stand with Cixous in her remarks on opera and theatre. Lulu offers the time of pity in its examination of the uncertain differences coupled and defined by a conjunction, the messy relation of memory, of today and yesterday, of the popular and exclusive, of men and women, of Angels and Demons, of Conservative Communities and New Possibilities, Others and Us. And is not a simple parataxis devoid of force; it is a part of speech that, when examined, can and should result in calls to action. What that action is depends on the force of  copula and conjunction.

Christine Schafer as Lulu in prison, from the palindromic film at the centre of the 1997 Glyndeborne production.

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)

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 1

In 2010 I organised a conference on Angels and Demons at Canterbury Christ Church University. This resulted in a  special number of Critical Survey on the topic in 2011. Keen to promote my colleagues’ work rather than mine in the limited space available, I never expanded and published the paper at the conference that I had to give at only a few days notice when a speaker had to withdraw. The other papers looked at the first and last words of the title. Typically for me, I examined the smallest, neglected word: the ‘and’ of the title.

Here it is, more or less as delivered, in three parts.

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula

Part 1

Nothing like beginning at the end, especially the end of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera Lulu, and a double murder by Jack the Ripper, of someone we hear described as an “angel”, and of the woman in love with her, a personification of the New Woman, the Countess Geschwitz, who plans to leave the garret to go to university to study law and fight for women’s rights. The 9 minute video in the link unfortunately doesn’t have English subtitles: the last 4 minutes are crucial for the argument (if you understand German – or Japanese subtitles).

or there are several other excellent productions on YouTube.

The important point is that this scene, the last from the opera, pretty unequivocally suggests that men really don’t like women!  Men really are devils, aren’t they? From the way the countess’s decision to fight for women’s rights is thwarted by her murder, you may have decided already that Jack is a representative figure of something beyond himself, perhaps standing for the general category “misogynistic, conservative, reactionary man”. Certainly the idea that Jack represents the revenge of men  on uppity women is a very common interpretation. For some critics, the work even becomes the tragedy not of Lulu, but of men who are forced to violence by such women.

And then the music… this isn’t just any old double murder of women by a man, of course, but a double murder in the 1930s high modernist opera by Alban Berg: Lulu, a work championed by no less an enemy of mass culture than Theodore Adorno.

One might well ask whether the demon is not Jack the casual murderer of would-be liberated New Women, or even women who supposedly make men behave in violent ways,  but exclusive avant-garde texts like Lulu. After all, everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is – he has generated a vast amount of material dedicated to him. We might say he has a vast fan base. We even go on Jack the Ripper tours in London’s East End. Jack is popular.  Berg’s Lulu, by contrast is hardly the Glaswegian singer who won the 1969 Eurovision  Song Context with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”. It’s “hard”, difficult, unpleasant; this Lulu doesn’t follow the musical rules we are familiar with.

Yet it’s clear just from the inclusion of the figure of Jack that the opera attempts to take on board the violent hierarchy of popular and exclusive. For the conjunction “and” can be used in various senses – inclusion yes, but also to signal and interrogate a hierarchy of difference: good and evil, man and woman, angel and demon. In questioning the hierarchy of popular and exclusive as well as the other binaries I’ve just mentioned, Lulu is like many operas of the period, such as Ernst Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf, or several of Franz Schreker’s operas (perhaps most of all Die Gezeichneten). Certainly in some places it reworks then popular dance forms, jazz rhythms and instrumental colourings.  Lulu even takes on the film industry – already dominated by Hollywood by the time it was being written between 1927 and 1935. A performance of Lulu as Berg wrote it has a film at its very centre, a 3-minute action-packed short very different from Pabst’s lingeringly aesthetic film on the same subject as the opera, Pandora’s Box of 1928, starring the wonderful Louise Brooks. Despite the claims of a few breathless writers, even the Pabst film was never “popular” in any sense. When it premiered in Berlin in January 1929, it was almost entirely ignored in the excitement of the new “talkies” that were grabbing public attention in Europe and America. Brooks herself was slashed by the critics. It took until the 1950s for the film to be appreciated by the cognoscenti in the art house. Despite the retellings of the tale and figure that Karen Littau and Shelley Berc have detailed for us, the Lulu I’m writing of here has never been popular for all its engagement with elements of the popular. Does that mean that I, as a historian of popular narrative, cannot or should not engage with it?

Like Pabst, Berg based his work on a pair of plays by the fin-de-siècle German playwright Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box which Wedekind worked on between 1892 and 1913. Many of the music critics who discuss the opera love the music. It is a highly ingenious form of dodecaphony and full of the signs of exclusive distinction that requires long training to decode.  But they regard the plays as belonging on the junk heap of literature, too low for the sacred realms of opera. What was Berg doing when he chose to set this shabby little shocker that sold out to contemporary bourgeois notions of the femme fatale and comprised a collage of the vulgar misogynistic commonplaces that Otto Weininger systematised in his 1902 Sex and Character? Wedekind’s Lulu plays seem uncannily to agree with Weiniger’s fantasy that Woman has no ethics, logic or soul and therefore can only see with a blank stare, that Woman is totally materialistic and has no spiritual or intellectual side. It’s all wonderfully summed up in a notorious quotation from Weininger, “Man possesses sexual organs, her sexual organs possess Woman.” The New Woman we see murdered at the end, who plans to go to university to study law so that she can fight for women’s rights was, so her beloved Lulu tells her, half a man. Lulu herself can be regarded only too easily as the quintessence of Weinigerian Woman, as a one-sentence narration of her life will demonstrate. Having started as a child prostitute and thief, Lulu goes through three husbands, murders the last of them, escapes from prison through the machinations of her lesbian friend, runs off to Paris with the son of her third husband, and ends in a London garret as a prostitute.

Wedekind wrote his original version as Die Büchse des Pandora, ein Monstretragödie (“Pandora’s Box, a Monster Tragedy”)  between 1892 and 1894 as a single 5-acter, monstrous both in length and subject matter. If you thought the ending in the opera was shocking, in the original Jack the Ripper explicitly knifes out Lulu’s genitals and fantasises about how much the London Medical Club will pay for them. Partly because of this ending Wedekind’s publisher thought the Monstretragödie would provoke prosecution for obscenity. He therefore persuaded Wedekind to publish just the first three acts of his play which dealt with Lulu’s marriage to each of her three husbands. Subsequent versions of the play which Wedekind wrote attempted to negotiate a path between the censors and desire for popularity through sensation. Berg condensed his opera from the published two-play version – we know from a surviving seating plan that he went to a private performance of the second play in 1905 and that this performance and its paratexts influenced him. By recombining the two plays, therefore, Berg was returning them to their original structural integrity.

To me just as shocking as the murders is the number of music critics who choose to ignore what they regard as an unworthy text to concentrate instead on analysing the fabulous intricacy of the music – Adorno amongst them. What is at stake in this violent excision of words? This what the other parts of this blog will seek to answer.

(to be continued)

The Summer of 1871: Ouida and Mario

Today it’s the first day of the 4th Annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association. As always, I’m attending and giving a paper. This year’s conference theme is “Hard Cash” and it’s prompted me to think about exchanges where the medium isn’t “hard” at all.

Perhaps strangely, I started wondering about the possible prompts for Ouida’s move to Italy, her increasing interest in politics and in how writing can have a social impact. In 1871, she left for a tour of the continent. The tour turned into a life-time’s decision: from 1871 until her death in 1908 Ouida was to live in Tuscany. Her decision to live in Italy (Florence at first) was motivated, according to her early biographers, by her infatuation with the opera singer Mario who had a villa just outside Florence. Ouida was over 30 and some biographies (and still some more recent critics) have described this as an adolescent passion, a symptom of how popular culture can’t grow up.

As usual, I want to query such a response. As far as I’m concerned, such an understanding is the slave of history and stereotypes. It still continues as a trope that keeps the “soft” – in this case, women and popular culture – in its place. Just the other day I heard someone, who should have known better, reduce this representative of women’s creative engagement with a system that didn’t exactly treat her well (while profiting immensely from her labour)  to a stupid ignoramus “with hundreds of lovers” and no idea of how to manage her money (oh for goodness sake!).  To begin revisioning Ouida (and indeed the despised “soft” in general), I want to consider more carefully what actually happened in the summer of 1871. Not many letters from Ouida survive from this period and certainly she left no revealing diary, but by shifting our point of view slightly we can increase our understanding of history and its operations by thinking about what is at stake in dissing too glibly such excluded and derided figures.

In the first place, Ouida’s enthusiasm for Mario was shared by hundreds if not thousands. It was a collective passion. Mario had fans. The Victorian society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill remarked on how Mario used to create ‘a perfect furore’ when he appeared, and The Leader in 1854 noted that he had what today would be called ‘stalkers’. Lady Geraldine Somerset recorded his farewell performance at Covent Garden on 19 July 1871 in her diary:


Mario in the role in which Ouida saw him in July 1871: Ferdinand in Donizetti's *La Favorita*

The scene of enthusiasm is difficult to describe, he was in glorious voice and acted quite magnificently. They gave him a tremendous reception, and at the end of the fine 3rd act [of Donizetti’s La Favorita], the ovation was beyond anything I ever saw, the whole house rose to receive him, waving handkerchiefs and hats, shouting showering wreaths and flowers upon him. P[rincess] A[ugusta]’s wreath was the first thrown and she threw it beautifully. HRH [the Duchess of Cambridge] threw him her bouquet and he caught it in his hand in the air as it reached him, so prettily that there was a roar of applause at it. P[rincess] M[ary Adelaid] caught up my bouquet round the corner of the box and threw it to him! Again and again and again he had to come forward, five or six times…

[after the last act] ‘a really delirious excitement, the whole house standing – quite a choking sight! He was quite pale and really overcome… the public were determined to see him yet again!! And called and shouted so he was forced to come on, in his dressing gown and stood all ému, only able to press his hand to his lips to express his emotion.

The almost equally breathless Times account of the performance confirms the ‘overwhelming’ delirium of an audience in which – to the amazement of the correspondent ‑ men were as ecstatic as women.

Ouida was there too and threw Mario a bouquet. Hers had an ivory cigarette case inside it inscribed with the following in mock-Dante Italian:

Pietosi dissero gli Dei

Oda la terra una volta la musica

Del Ciel, e labbre toccaro di …


In English it reads less elegantly: ‘In pity the gods said “May the earth hear once the music of heaven”, and they touched the lips of … Mario.’

What is the meaning of these gifts that are showered on popular artists such as Mario? What is the meaning of the ecstatic applause that follows their performance and the rapt silence that the nineteenth century audience learnt to give during it? Certainly both are in excess of any ticket price or contracted payment the artist receives. The artist and the audience give and also receive in a very curious economics, very different from the hard-headed exchanges of capitalism. For her most recent novel,  Folle-Farine (which was to come out in late August 1871, immediately before she left London) Ouida obtained £900 from her publisher Chapman. This was a considerable advance from what she’d received for her early novels, but not that much compared to her fellow literary stars Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins (and indeed, George Eliot). Perhaps what she participated in in Covent Garden was another way of conceiving the exchange that is “Art”, music, literature — a collective, communitarian conception. Perhaps also a political one? It’s an economics where “cash” isn’t “hard” in the sense of reducible to conventionally agreed quantities. If that is what the conception of art is not, what is it? How are we to understand it positively?

(to be continued)