Despite his powerful attraction to literature and the visual arts, Sigmund Freud was by his own admission utterly immune to the charms of music. In a 1914 essay, he wrote, “I spend a long time before [works of art] trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.”
How ironic, then, that “Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna,” the Nov. 11 offering from the New York Festival of Song, is not only a very full program, it is a rich one as well, showcasing the cream of early 20th-century composers from Mitteleuropa, including Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold and Alexander Zemlinsky. (The program even includes a song by Alma Mahler, who had been a student of Zemlinsky’s — and his mistress — before she married Mahler.)
“This isn’t really about a concert that Freud would have liked,” admits Steven Blier, the NYFOS’ artistic director. “It’s more about these creators who were in that milieu of self-discovery [pioneered by Freud], and what rocks were being turned over and what they were finding under the rocks and unashamedly writing about.”
Although Freud wouldn’t “get” the musical art behind these songs, their air of nervous, edgy mental confusion and contortion was unmistakably the product of the same dangerous explorations as Freud’s own researches; they embody that combustible blend of sexuality, family ties and social repression which was at the center of turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese society. After all, this was the milieu that gave us Klimt, Schiele and Schnitzler.
Neurotic times breed neurotic art, and the NYFOS program certainly reflects that reality.
“The fact that this concert occurs on the 75th anniversary of Freud’s death is a complete coincidence,” Blier says. “I’m thrilled that it worked out that way, but the real impetus for the program came from Strauss’ Opus 67, the Ophelia-Lieder, his setting of Ophelia’s song fragments from ‘Hamlet.’ The settings are so bizarre, so manic, so depressive, so … psychiatric.”
Blier elaborates on that analysis in his program notes for the recital: “Strauss’ music gives us an Ophelia straight out of the mental ward, where he paints her anomie, obsessive-compulsive behavior, manic flights, deep depression, and emotional repression in strange, evocative writing for voice and piano.”
With that very, er, Freudian beginning, it was simply a matter of selecting other songs with similar characteristics. As Blier notes, “I was looking for conflict and subtext and surprising ways of setting text.”
He managed to even find one composer, perhaps the most prominent one in the program, who had even had a brief therapeutic encounter with Freud.
Gustav Mahler met with the father of psychoanalysis over a long evening in 1910, when the musician sought out a vacationing Freud for advice. It must have worked, because after that four-hour conversation Mahler reclaimed his wife Alma, and rekindled his composing career.
“The whole thing is, not to propose a big theory, but to let people listen to songs and hear them in the context of a time that they know something about,” Blier says. “We all imagine what it must have been like when [psychoanalysis] was just starting, the tumultuous atmosphere in Vienna in which the arts and intellectual pursuits were thriving. We tried to choose the repertoire so that some of the central issues get brought up.”
Even Freud would have understood that.
“Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna” will be presented by the New York Festival of Song on Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center (129 W. 67th St.). The program will include songs by Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky and Alma Mahler, performed by Janai Brugger, soprano; John Brancy, baritone; and Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, pianists. For information, go to www.nyfos.org/couch.