At a Loss for Words: Writer's Block in Britten's Death in Venice

By Johnson, Shersten | PSYART, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

At a Loss for Words: Writer's Block in Britten's Death in Venice


Johnson, Shersten, PSYART


Based on Thomas Mann's story about an aging novelist's fateful obsession with an adolescent boy, Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice artfully dramatizes Mann's story of repressed sexuality masked as creative inhibition. Aschenbach's introductory monologue, beginning "My mind beats on and no words come," alludes to the psychosexual roots of his dilemma. The music itself even sounds blocked, as do his words, which not only describe his problem, but also are inhibited syntactically and semantically. In order to discover how music and text blend to portray Aschenbach's writer's block, this article examines the opening monologue using a combination of tools: musical-theoretical and grammatical, to discern how Aschenbach's block "structures" the music and text; psychoanalytical, to uncover the causes of his crippling inhibition; and cognitive-linguistic, to ground the analysis in certain conceptual blends that permeate notions of creativity, sexuality, language, and music in this opera.

keywords: Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Conceptual Blending, Opera, Benjamin Britten, Thomas Mann, Lawrence Zbikowski, Creativity, Homoeroticism, Der Tod in Venedig

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_johnso01.shtml

I. Aschenbach's Self-introduction

In the opening scene of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice (1973), Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging novelist, finds himself at a loss for words. While woodwinds quietly but insistently juxtapose erratic rhythms, Aschenbach obsesses over his confusing loss in a way that nevertheless situates the listener squarely within his dilemma. The music spills out in fits and starts, mimicking his frustration, and sweeping us directly into the center of an inward and paradoxical struggle about words formulated in words. He will go on to seek relief from his writer's block in Venice, a place of inspiration for many artists. There he will find himself aesthetically attracted to a youth who inspires the few words Aschenbach manages to write. Becoming obsessed with the youth, though, Aschenbach will stay in Venice too long, ignore the warnings about a cholera plague threatening Venice, and succumb to the sickness.

In this article, I will consider how Aschenbach's self-introductory monologue provides listeners with a wealth of information about his dilemma and its probable outcome. As I will suggest, we immediately know that the nature of Aschenbach's problem is:

1. sonic: both music and textual sounds exhibit aural symptoms of blockage

2. psychosexual: music and text imply an underlying libidinal problem rooted in a mind/body conflict that drives Aschenbach's artistic struggle

3. linguistic: Aschenbach's words about his block are themselves syntactically and semantically blocked

As I will show, the addition of music helps deliver this information effectively. As Sandra Corse (1987) writes, "The music becomes a substitute for [Aschenbach's] perception and for his subconscious; thus, the audience gets a better view of Aschenbach than the reader of the novella does-and a better view than he has of himself" (p. 132). The monologue itself suggests a combination of tools that I will be using to show how the opera communicates so much information so effectively in just its first few minutes:

1. music-theoretical, to examine how Aschenbach's block "structures" the music

2. psychoanalytical,1 to uncover the causes of his crippling inhibition, particularly 3. drawing on Freudian notions, which permeate Thomas Mann's novella, Der Tod in Venedig (1912), upon which Britten's opera is based.2

3. cognitive-linguistic, to ground the analysis in certain conceptual complexes that permeate all of the above, especially focusing on the image of flow that facilitates our understanding of creativity, sexuality, language, and music in this opera.

Various changes of texture and mood shape this monologue and suggest several subdivisions (coincident with rehearsal numbers in the score); audits of these sections and the symptoms they present (writer's block, fatigue, insomnia, etc.

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