The stuff dreams are made of

Sigmund Freud had next to no interest in the composers of his day. So why is he the subject of a music festival?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I know your wife. She loved her father and she can only choose and love a man of his sort. Your age, of which you are so much afraid, is precisely what attracts her. You loved your mother, and you look for her in every woman. She was careworn and ailing, and unconsciously you wish your wife to be the same."

It's the sort of advice that any psychotherapist might offer to calm a neurotic patient whose married life has become bogged down in jealousies and sexual dysfunction. Except neither the psychoanalyst nor his patient were just anyone.

For a few hours one August afternoon in 1910, the great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud met - and analysed - the troubled composer/ conductor Gustav Mahler.

Here were the greatest figures of turn-of-the-century Vienna, both arch-prophets of cultural revolutions that were to change our perceptions, who had until then never met. That session - which reportedly lead to the immediate restoration of Mahler's libido (though he was to die of heart disease the following May) - stands as an important symbol of the meeting of two worlds which do not usually freely intermingle, those of science and the creative arts.

This uniquely Viennese cultural intersection is the basis of a fascinating month-long mini-festival taking place in London in May. Dreamscapes, organised by the Austrian Cultural Institute, has chosen the centenary of the first publication of Freud's seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, to celebrate not only the genius of the father of psychoanalysis, but also the cultural world in which he lived and the influence he has had on a huge range of artists.

For all the modernity of his ideas, Freud was very much a man of his time. Look at Edvard Munch or Gustav Klimt's contemporary canvases, full of vampiric femme fatales or bejewelled Madonnas with a come-hither look and one sees the artistic embodiment of the kind of subconscious desires Freud was the first to unbutton in serious scientific form.

But just as the visual artists were toying with broadly similar ideas, so it was with music. Could Richard Strauss's Salome or Elektra, both examinations of the extremes of sexual desire, have quite the same punch if they did not both boast deep psychological insights? Or, less luridly, would Mahler's profoundly autobiographical symphonies - works that have come, like no others, to embody the tortured trauma of the last 100 years - have the same impact without our ability to empathise with their penetrating insights into the human condition? If Mahler wrote the soundtrack for the Age of Anxiety, then it was Freud who provided the script.

"There was definitely something in the air in Vienna around the turn of the century," says Brendan Carroll, one of the organising team behind the festival. "You see it in writers such as Schnitzler or Stefan Zweig; musicians such as Mahler or Schoenberg; or artists such as Klimt or Schiele. There was an awakening - of which Freud was an integral part - that made people more honest and forced them to consider things they'd not previously considered: it was he who made people start to talk about sex and the subconscious."

Freud ended his days as an exile in London, but it was in that other city, 100 years ago, that an artistic revolution was being forged. And while he may not have been directly part of it, the psychoanalyst had an immense impact on composers. Like him, they were mainly Jewish - Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg and his acolytes Alban Berg and Anton Webern - and, like him, most fled Europe to escape the Nazi persecution to end their lives in exile.

Dreamscapes may not feature any Mahler (his works are too gigantic to be mounted by a festival with slender means), but it will include the UK premieres of several works from his milieu, including six early songs by Zemlinsky, the 1896 Klavierstücke by Schoenberg, Franz Schreker's Violin Sonata and Ernst Krenek's Cello Suite, as well as the first performance in this country since the 1930s of Erich Korngold's Trio, an extraordinarily accomplished work written when he was a mere 12.

The last is particularly close to the heart of Brendan Carroll - the world expert on the composer and author of his definitive biography. While he appears irked that doubters question the inclusion of Korngold in the festival programme, his rejoinder illustrates the cultural complexity of pre-war Vienna.

"People say to me that the only reason we're putting on Götz Friedrich's film of Korngold's deeply Freudian opera Die tote Stadt is that I am Korngold's biographer and that there was no connection between Freud and Korngold," he says. "But Korngold's aunt lived in the flat below Freud in Vienna. She gave regular parties there, which the leading intellectual lights of the day would attend. Freud always came down for coffee and torte and met many people there, including the young Korngold. All of this is documented in the family's visiting books."

Dreamscapes opens on Tuesday night with an invitation-only concert of two works that perfectly illustrate the two worlds Freud straddled: the 19th-century Romanticism of Brahms' B flat minor Sextet, and that quintessentially Jugendstil Viennese creation, Schoenberg's dream-like Verklärte Nacht. Both pieces will be given by the Raphael Ensemble. Other highlights include a performance in the Victoria & Albert Museum by the Chamber Domaine Ensemble of Schoenberg's Expressionist masterpiece, Pierrot Lunaire, alongside Viennese cab-aret songs sung by one of the genre's finest living exponents, the German soprano Ulla Pilz.

Dreamscapes rounds off with a Philharmonia concert of Britten's War Requiem, conducted by Richard Hickox. Not itself directly influenced by Freud, perhaps, agrees Carroll, but "as a latter-day response to the most profound trauma of the 20th century, it symbolises a generation's shattered dreams".

Comments