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Music and Melancholy

Author(s): Michael P. Steinberg

Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter 2014), pp. 288-310
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Music and Melancholy
Michael P. Steinberg

1. Melancholy Is the Condition of Music

What cannot be declared by the melancholic is nevertheless what governs
melancholic speech—an unspeakability that organizes the field of the speakable.1

To say that music can be melancholy doesn’t say much. Every style or
period of musical composition and reception would seem able to describe,
simulate, or embody a mood of melancholy or for that matter mood in
general. Such musical capacities and their dynamics prompted several
now-classic studies in the postwar American philosophical aesthetics of
music, including the especially prominent work of Roger Sessions, Leon-
ard Meyer, and Edward T. Cone.2 Words, partnering with music, can du-
plicate music’s affect and effect or, indeed, create them by speaking the
mood that the music corroborates. When we hear music alone—the prac-
tice that the young Richard Wagner named “absolute music” in the
1840s3—as melancholy music, we might be hard pressed to distinguish
diagnoses of its mood and meanings from occasions—in song, opera, or
indeed dance—where we can infer the mood and meaning from accom-
panying words, gestures, and personifications.

Audio clips are available in the online version of this essay.

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
1. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford, Calif., 1997),
p. 186; hereafter abbreviated PLP.
2. See Roger Sessions, Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, ed. Edward T. Cone
(Princeton, N.J., 1979); Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago, 1961); and
Cone, Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York, 1968).
3. See German Essays on Music, ed. Josh Hermand and Michael Gilbert (New York, 1994),
pp. 59–64.

Critical Inquiry 40 (Winter 2014)

© 2014 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/14/4002-0010$10.00. All rights reserved.


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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 289
Several conventions are usually in play here, subject as they may be to
important aesthetic analysis. The first understands melancholy as a
mood—usually associated with loss, memory, and nostalgia—and hospi-
table to a musical correlative. The second assumes the capacity and author-
ity of words and their variants of text, plot, and character when paired with
music in song, opera, or related genres to have the edge in the determina-
tion of mood and meaning. Music seems to be better at being than at
The argument I risk here is itself hospitable to and inclusive of mood
and loss as attributes of melancholy. But the assertion from which I start is
broader and blunter. The hypothesis is that melancholy is the condition of
music—all music. The excitement and the danger of the assertion reside in
the totalization. Though it might be responsible, though perhaps also ba-
nal, to propose that melancholy is the condition of some music, I want to
risk the totalization that understands melancholy as the condition of all
music. As a heuristic precedent—and also an immanently relevant one—I
would invoke Sigmund Freud’s foundational assertion that all dreams, and
not just some dreams, function as wish fulfillments. As he contentedly
states at the outset of The Interpretation of Dreams, it would have been
reasonable and safe to suggest that many dreams function as wish fulfill-
ments. Much more incisively, he holds that all dreams do and that dreams
that seem to suggest the opposite of wish fulfillments (nightmares, for
example) are in fact disguised fulfillments of concealed wishes.4
As the via regia to the work of the mind, dreams for Freud disclose a per-
son’s internal politics of desire. Dreams are dreamt by a person; the desire and
the distortions they contain therefore belong to the dreamer, person, subject.
The subject in my argument about music is, however, not the composer or the

4. See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Standard Edition of the
Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 24 vols.
(London, 1953–74), 4:121–60.

M I C H A E L P . S T E I N B E R G is the director of the Cogut Center for the

Humanities, the Barnaby Conrad and Mary Critchfield Keeney Professor of
History, and professor of music and German studies at Brown University. He is
the author of studies of Hermann Broch, Aby Warburg, and Walter Benjamin,
of Austria as Theater and Ideology: The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival (2000),
of which the German edition won Austria’s Victor Adler Staatspreis in 2001.
Current and recent books are Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and
Nineteenth-Century Music (2004); Reading Charlotte Salomon, coedited with
Monica Bohm-Duchen (2006); and Judaism Musical and Unmusical (2007).

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290 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
listener but, rather, the music itself. Music is melancholic in relation to its own
desire. To riff, then, on another Freudian question: what does music want?
Music wants to speak and to speak importantly, and that unfulfillable wish is
the source of its melancholia. Musical melancholia is an epistemic predica-
ment, an attribute of the musical desire to know.
If melancholy is the condition of music, then music of any period, place,
genre, and style can be considered through this lens. As my argument
claims melancholy as an epistemic predicament, I will focus on a musical
trajectory in which much of the theoretical work of modernism was un-
dertaken. My purview here will be the long nineteenth century of Euro-
pean and especially central European music, from Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart to Arnold Schoenberg. In this context, my argument relates to
basic ideas of modernism as a mode of art at once cognitively ambitious
and critically self-conscious. This understanding of modernism relates its
cognitive aspects to its political and religious or secular ones. The desire to
know combined with a critical awareness of the limits of knowledge dis-
qualifies absolute positions. Modern music might be understood to pos-
sess a capacity to recognize its own condition of melancholy and thus to
investigate critically the problem of knowing the world. In this case, pre-
modern or nonmodern music can be understood retroactively not to be
subject to the condition of melancholy at all; to be melancholic without
knowing it; or to be precociously modern in the inhabitation of self-
Such historicizations are complicated and continually revised by the
historical hermeneutics of listening. Ludwig van Beethoven’s stylistic force
and power conquered nineteenth-century ears so that all earlier music
sounded decorative—historically inconsequential in relation to the world
historical force that was Beethoven. Felix Mendelssohn’s recuperation of
the music of J. S. Bach—about which more later—turned out to be the
exception that ultimately proved a new rule. Mendelssohn revived the
St. Matthew Passion in 1829 as a cornerstone of the modern, a reception
paradigm that took another century to take hold and which remains in
place, extending ever more widely through the baroque period and style.
In recent years baroque style has been reprocessed not as affirmative or
decorative (compatible with the church and court functions for which the
music was principally written) but rigorous and clarifying in comparison
with the thicker sounds of later periods. This clarifying intervention can be
understood as emotional as well as cognitive.
To my own ears—which are just as contingent as anyone else’s—music
of and after Mozart does indeed possess a new quality. In Listening to
Reason: Culture and Subjectivity in Nineteenth-Century Music, I called this

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 291
quality the fiction of musical subjectivity, arguing that the new proclivity,
conceived thoroughly musically, constitutes a powerful aesthetic and po-
litical critique of the ideology of representation.5 This is the ideology of the
theatrum mundi, the theater of the world through which an older under-
standing of the baroque invested political power with the panoptical
power to see and to represent the world as the agent of divine power and
knowledge. By reversing the hierarchy of seeing and hearing, music be-
came a critical and indeed a subversive cultural intervention. This new
musical subjectivity is in turn able to embody melancholy, not as a descrip-
tion or correlative of human mood, but as a function of its own inner life.
All music is melancholy, but modern music knows its own melancholy.
This novelty of self-conscious desire and melancholy grabs hold of the
parallel discourses of Mozart and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau,
music best expresses the longing for the state of nature, which in the after-
math of society and language can never be restored. But Rousseau didn’t
have the music that would serve as the adequate correlative to his claims.
He tried to compose it himself, but, as would be the case with his semblable
and frère Friedrich Nietzsche a century later, his talents clearly lay elsewhere.
Mozart provided that music. Mozart endowed music with the fiction of sub-
jectivity, the fiction that the music is itself a listening, acting, and reacting
subject, with a past and a future, a desire for origins and for reconciliation with
the world in both space and time. Though this fictional endowment travels
across all the genres in which Mozart successfully (uniquely successfully) com-
posed, its leading momentum advances in his operas, where he could person-
ify musical subjectivity in human characters.
Rousseau’s political theory is anchored in his theory of music. The Essay
on the Origin of Languages Which Treats of Melody and Musical Imitation,
written early in his career but published posthumously, holds an evolving
political theory in questions of voice, representation, and ideology. The
attainment, recognition, and protection of voice—the problem of moder-
nity and authenticity—forms the first principle of the political contract.6
As both a political and musical first principle, voice demands that politics
be construed from an abstract, first-person position. From a musical point
of view and from its key position in the history of musical aesthetics, the
primacy of voice leaps over the primacy of sound. Music now claims to
have something to say and the right to say it. Music alone cannot, however,
take the final step to articulation.

5. See Michael Steinberg, Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century

Music (Princeton, N.J., 2004).
6. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages Which Treats of Melody and
Musical Imitation, trans. and ed. John T. Scott (Hanover, N.H., 1988).

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292 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
2. Melancholy: A Twentieth-Century History
The definition of melancholy is difficult and at the very least must be
historicized. The intellectual history of the twentieth century can be
framed, at the beginning and at the end, by two arguments concerning the
nature of melancholia and its relation to culture and society. At the begin-
ning stands Freud’s foundational essay of 1917, “Mourning and Melancho-
lia.” At century’s end stands Judith Butler’s study The Psychic Life of Power:
Theories in Subjection, in particular its final chapter, “Psychic Inceptions:
Melancholy, Ambivalence, Rage.”
Freud’s essay emerges from the trauma of the Great War of 1914–1918—
the war that instigated the modern diagnoses of trauma itself, of shell
shock and its descendants, including posttraumatic stress syndrome. For
Freud, melancholy makes sense as the failure of mourning, as the failure of
the process by which a lost object is let go and the self, the ego, is allowed to
survive, rebuild, and flourish. In its most immediate example, this lost
object is a deceased person. But the psychic and social worlds are inter-
twined, so a lost world may also be understood to have similarly devastat-
ing emotional effects. Freud focuses neither on the generation of young
men destroyed by the war nor the loss of the so-called world of yesterday,
of the too easily idealized fin de siècle or nineteenth century. Nevertheless,
his diagnosis of melancholy as a pathologization of mourning would seem
redolent of the wish to get past the war, understood itself as a continent-
wide performance of melancholy as self-destructive rage.
Freud’s diagnostic dichotomy reconfigures the romantic discourse of
melancholy. For Friedrich J. W. Schelling, melancholy was in fact a form of
mourning, a sustained awareness of a lost world.7 In Freud’s argument,
mourning is “normal”; melancholia is not. It is pathological. Freud returns
to the theory of the four humors and its philology, in which melancholy—
␮␧´ ␭␣␵, melas, “black” ⫹ ␹o␭␩´ , kholé, “bile”—involves a surfeit of black
bile. The melancholic condition that Freud describes involves “a distur-
bance in self-regard,” an impoverishment of the ego, the self attacking
itself. The work of mourning, which is reasonable work as well as the work
of reason, involves the progressive withdrawal of the libido from the lost
object, so “when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free
and uninhibited again.” In mourning, moreover, the lost object is known
and the act of loss is conscious; in melancholia, the loss of the object “is
withdrawn from consciousness,” so “the patient cannot consciously per-
ceive what he has lost either.” Melancholy thus stands in relation to

7. See Reinhold Brinkmann, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms, trans.
Peter Palmer (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 133–34.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 293
mourning as anxiety does in relation to fear; there is no discernable, em-
pirical object that can be attached to the condition of the afflicted subject.
Because of “an identification of the ego with the abandoned object,”
“object-loss is transformed into an ego-loss.” And the result of a lingering
melancholia can be enjoyable, Freud writes, but for unhealthy reasons
because the self turning on the self is permitted to practice a kind of sa-
dism.8 Here again Freud distances himself from the romantic inheritance,
where melancholy has a certain pleasure, related to an aesthetic of the self
and identified with so strong and sensual a term as Wollust, related in turn
to Charles Baudelaire’s volupté, an intense pleasure associated closely with
pain or tears.9 And, unlike the mourner, the melancholiac cannot histori-
cize his condition; he says he has always been this way.
Freud’s prime example of the melancholiac is Hamlet, and successors to
his argument have followed suit. For Walter Benjamin, Hamlet functions
as “the paradigm of the melancholy man.”10 Differentiated not from the
mourner but rather from the tragic hero, the prince of Denmark amounts
in the long run to a symptom of a political impotence. Melancholia be-
comes the impotence of politics. Thus Hamlet the character works as a
symptom of German princes and German baroque literature; Hamlet the
play, however, is not German but English and in this regard able to emerge
from the melancholy it portrays. It could never have come into being in
The melancholiac works under the sign of Saturn rather than that of
Jupiter; such is the iconography of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, as ex-
plored in the Warburg school’s pioneering discourse of what we today call
visual culture by Aby Warburg, Fritz Saxl, Erwin Panofsky, and Raymond
Klibansky (the latter coauthored Saturn and Melancholy)—all cited by
Benjamin—and then in their legacy by Rudolf Wittkower in Born under
Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists.11 For these scholars melan-
choly is a condition of actual exile as well as modernity as a form of exile, a

8. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological
Works of Sigmund Freud, 14:244, 245, 245, 249.
9. See Brinkmann, Late Idyll, p. 136.
10. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London,
1985), p. 142. See also pp. 157–58.
11. A superb portrait of Wittkower and his role in shaping the practice of art history at
Columbia University after he arrived from the Warburg Institute in 1956 was written by David
Rosand, whose spouse Ellen will be a familiar name to the musicologists. See David Rosand,
“Making Art History at Columbia: Meyer Schapiro and Rudolf Wittkower,” in Living Legacies
at Columbia, ed. William Theodore de Bary, Jerry Kisslinger, and Tom Mathewson (New York,
2006), pp. 118–29. See also Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and
Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (London, 1964), and
Rudolf Wittkower, Born under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists (London, 1963).

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294 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
condition they share with a much later study: Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun.12
Modernism as a form of exile is what Georg Lukács called “transcendental
homelessness” in his Theory of the Novel.13 In his essay “Reflections on
Exile,” Edward Said cautions against the fusion of the trope of exile with its
experience: “Exile,” he writes,” “is strangely compelling to think about but
terrible to experience.” At the same time, Said weaves into this essay as well as
many others a consideration of music—playing, listening, remembering—as
a form of melancholic pleasure grounded in the unrecoverability of the per-
sonal and political past.14
Butler’s “Psychic Inceptions” marks a distinct departure from the
twentieth-century pathologization of melancholia. Her discussion sug-
gests first a rapprochement between the categories of mourning and mel-
ancholia and, second, a depathologization of the latter. Taking an
unacknowledged cue from Freud’s observation that in melancholy the lost
object is “withdrawn from consciousness,” Butler suggests that “melan-
choly is precisely the effect of unavowable loss” (PLP, p. 170). But this
unavowability is not an absolute condition; on the contrary, it is a moment
in time, a stage. “A loss prior to speech and declaration, it is the limiting
condition of its possibility: a withdrawal or retraction from speech that
makes speech possible. In this sense, melancholia makes mourning possi-
ble, a view that Freud came to accept in The Ego and the Id” (PLP, p. 170).
There are two possibilities, two valences, in play here. The first is that
melancholy precedes and enables mourning, which for Butler as well as for
Freud involves the beginning of articulation—of consciousness and of
speech. In this respect Butler releases melancholia from the static position
with which Freud had invested it. Butler retemporalizes melancholia,
which becomes premourning rather than the dysfunction of mourning.
This is the emancipatory aspect of her formulation. The second and more
tempered option is a version of the Archimedean paradox, that is, the
condition whereby the moment prior to speech and declaration, to use
Butler’s terms, is permanent. Thus the enablement of the speech act be-
comes also its inhibition.
Butler is committed to the first of these possibilities, to the rescue of
melancholy as an enabler of speech, psychic health, and political possibil-
ity. In this respect melancholy becomes a surprising and surprisingly close

12. See Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New
York, 1989).
13. Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great
Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock (1920; Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 41.
14. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” “Reflections on Exile” and Other Essays
(Cambridge, Mass., 2002), p. 173.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 295
ally of performativity, of both speech and speech act, the central political
metaphor of Butler’s earlier work. Thus: “Melancholia produces a set of
spatializing tropes for psychic life, domiciles of preservation and shelter as
well as arenas for struggle and persecution” (PLP, p. 171). The relation
between time and space persists nonetheless as a knot in the argument.
Butler accepts Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “melancholia spatializes,
and that its effort to reverse or suspend time produces ‘landscapes’ as its
signature effect” (PLP, p. 174). If the dominant psychic metaphor is a spa-
tial one, does this imply a nonexistence of time and of change over time?
Are we talking in fact about a structure rather than a moment? In this case,
a problem remains for the eloquent summation that provides the epigraph
of this essay: “What cannot be declared by the melancholic is nevertheless
what governs melancholic speech—an unspeakability that organizes the
field of the speakable” (PLP, p. 186).
“Melancholy is a rebellion that has been put down, crushed,” Butler
writes. “Yet it is not a static affair” (PLP, p. 190). But it doesn’t go away,
either. In this respect, subjectivity is thus outmaneuvered by subjection.
For Butler in the 1990s, subjectivity is indeed a captive of subjection; in this
respect she operates in a Foucauldian and Althusserian universe. The psy-
chic life of power connotes more than the ego’s internalization of the
superego—the ego’s dependence on regimes of external power, beginning
with language itself—for its very formation. What kind of politics does this
predicament allow? And, as a corollary to this basic question, what is the
relation of a process that unfolds in time (a coming into freedom, a work-
ing through) to an unyielding principle such as the contingency of the
subject? If melancholy doesn’t go away but rather remains as a dimension
of history and experience, as a residue or Nachträglichkeit, it can or must
also be understood to be contingent on temporality.
Freud’s melancholy is spatial; indeed it identifies spatiality as a kind of
pathology. Butler’s melancholia is temporal. We can also say that, by the
same token, it is musical. More precisely, its implied musicality holds to a
nineteenth-century form and style, an implied harmonic language that
holds a promise for the future. This promise for the future does not nec-
essarily emancipate itself from the anxiety of articulation. It does not imply
harmonic resolution (whether in the technical or metaphorical sense of
harmony), and it does not imply or achieve reconciliation (in the Hegelian
usage) with itself or with the world.

3. Melancholy Music: A Nineteenth-Century History

At the end of Judaism Musical and Unmusical I asked the question,
“why . . . are Jews and music the same?” I introduced the question in a

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296 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
somewhat lighthearted and anecdotal context, but I meant it seriously. “At
stake,” I continued there,
in the cases of both music and Jews are non-essentializable products
of history, temporally, culturally, politically contingent beings, whose
own subjectivities and subject-positions are aesthetically constituted
and therefore require an aesthetic dimension from the discourses that
attempt to understand them. Music is inanimate and therefore pos-
sesses no subjectivity. The rise of the cultural and intellectual impor-
tance of music in 19th-century Europe was, however, rooted in the
fiction that music could be heard as if possessing subjectivity, as if it
itself were listening to the world and the past and finding its own po-
sition within the multiple contexts of space and time. The inverse
proposition is also valid. Just as an aesthetic form can be understood
as possessing attributes of subjectivity, so can subjectivities be under-
stood as aesthetically constituted, and understood so without triviali-
zation or irresponsibility. The discourses which engage these
subjectivities analytically, a key one of which I understand to be intel-
lectual history, do their objects of study and their own discursive dig-
nities no good by exorcising the aesthetic, namely, the presence of
sensation, style, affect, and humor, from their own discursive subjec-
tivities and practices. An aesthetic constitution recognizes depth of
feeling and depth of conviction. It also recognizes the outward mani-
festation, enactment, or performance of feeling which I would and do
classify as style.15
We can toggle between the incommensurable categories of music and Jews
by considering the categories of identity and articulation together.
The categories are in fact very close. Both involve a projection of self
and utterance into a finite world in which in turn a place exists into
which they can be received. If we take language as the most obvious
sphere of articulation, we can assert the most obvious fact that the
Jews have never known what language to speak. Neither Hebrew, Yid-
dish, nor German provided identity or articulation, although all have
been candidates in both political and existential terms. [J, p. 227]
The “preeminent critic of the ideology of identity” and its relation to
politics, philosophy, music, and Jewishness is Theodor Adorno. He
rarely took on—rarely articulated—these spheres at the same time. He

15. Steinberg, Judaism Musical and Unmusical (Chicago, 2007), p. 222; hereafter
abbreviated J.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 297
did so in what I understand as one of his most wide-ranging utterances,
his stunning book on Gustav Mahler, which contains the following
three passages:
Mahler’s symphonies plead anew against the world’s course.
They imitate it in order to accuse; the moments when they
breach it are also moments of protest. Nowhere do they
patch over the rift between subject and object; they would
rather be shattered themselves than counterfeit an achieved
What is Jewish in Mahler does not participate directly in
the folk element, but speaks through all its mediations as
an intellectual voice, something non-sensuous yet percep-
tible in the totality. This, admittedly, abolishes the distinc-
tion between the recognition of this aspect of Mahler and
the philosophical interpretation of music in general.
Mahler’s vigilant music is unromantically aware that me-
diation is universal.
Mahler’s music is thus at once musical and unmusical, Jewish and
unJewish, and is these things in a way that blends together the
blurred contradictions. There is no such thing as Jewish music, in
Mahler’s case or anywhere else, just as there is no such thing as
Jewish modernism. But there are significant convergences of Jew-
ishness and musicality, convergences that are to be understood in
the context of highly specific cultural mediations and overdetermi-
nations. Here, too, what I am attempting to describe as the anxiety
of articulation is in play, in play in both history and (my own) his-
toriography. This anxiety is coincident with the critique of iden-
tity. This austere example and practice has, in my view, been
insufficiently heeded in what one might call Jewish intellectual
history. [J, pp. 227–28]16
The anxiety of articulation is what makes melancholy the condition of
music. The locus classicus of music producing the self-awareness of its
own inarticulacy and demanding, seemingly from within itself, the status
of speech remains the work at the origin of music drama: Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony. Specifically it involves the choral movement as a rewrit-
ing not only of symphonic form and possibility but of the symphony up to

16. See Theodor Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, trans. Edmund Jephcott
(Chicago, 1992), pp. 7, 149, 15.

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298 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
that point, including of course and most intensively its own previous three
You know this music. The movement opens with the so-called terror
fanfare—the Schreckensfanfare. Some act of violence is announced and
performed here. This announcement is followed by quotations of the three
earlier movements’ principal themes, all of which are disrupted by return-
ing fragments of the fanfare. That this musical texture constitutes a nega-
tion of all that precedes it is made clear, finally, by the voice of a singer
uttering the words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” The introduction of
words at this moment implies that this instruction cannot be given by
music alone. The movement’s aesthetic suggests that this musical articu-
lation of the negation and instruction “nicht diese Töne” needs help. It is
retroactively understood to have happened in music alone once it has been
repeated, articulated, and ratified by the sung words.
Beethoven’s introduction of words to the symphonic form was not nec-
essarily emulated by later composers. Nonetheless, the Ninth Symphony’s
anxiety of articulation created a new urgency for symphonic form. It de-
fined a landscape that was more a condition of necessity than a condition
of possibility.
The nineteenth-century descent of the category and claims of sym-
phonic form can be characterized according to a model of natural selec-
tion. The winning descendent is music drama: the literal music drama
forged by Wagner as well as a more generalized way of listening that seeks
and finds dramatic movement in musical forms, whether or not a program
is asserted, implied, or affixed.
Since Wagnerian music drama has a political agenda, its claims become
dangerous when a new body politic is announced at the moment of mel-
ancholy’s alleged resolution. But that claim is only fully activated with
Parsifal. The turning point of The Ring of the Nibelung is Wotan’s renun-
ciation of his political plan, and the result is a state of defeat that the gods
have never before known. Except, then, in Parsifal, which has a toxicity all
its own, Wagner never produces a political resolution for melancholia. His
alternative is explicitly antipolitical, and that is the erotic. Tristan is its
prime example, as marked by the unity of love and death. Tristan’s life-
affirming alternative is the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act
of Die Walküre. The awakening of eros along with its accompanying poet-
ics of earth, spring, and moon proceeds from an exquisite minimalism of
bourgeois gestures: sequences of glances and half-speech that we would
associate more with cinema than with the operatic stage.
Especially cunning and moving about this act is that its erotic momen-
tum does not accrue by an act of negation of an existing status quo,

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 299
whether in musical terms or in plot terms. Contrary to the expected plot
development, the oppressive marriage of Sieglinde and Hunding is not
revealed first, occasioning her escape into adultery. The attraction to Sieg-
mund occurs before we know anything about Hunding. The musical ex-
position is similar. Following the descriptive, if leitmotiv-laden storm
music that drives Siegmund into the house, we have a kind of rebirth of
music from extremely sparse and fragmented material. Music evolves
slowly through the desire for a success of articulation and through a se-
quence of melancholic autobiographical narration— Siegmund’s account
of his youth, followed by Sieglinde’s of her unhappy wedding and the
appearance there of the uninvited guest who planted the sword in the
trunk of the tree.
This reawakening of eros produces new life and a new life: Siegfried. (To
ask a question that may be out of bounds but not silly, can you imagine a
baby produced by the union of Tristan and Isolde?) It produces life but no
viable social or political setting for it. Eros without politics results in the
suppression of both (Parsifal). Hannah Arendt would argue as much.17
The opening of the Ninth Symphony’s final, choral movement offers a
fleeting melancholy moment that is easily forgotten. A short, transitional
phrase, it appears as a shadow, a remnant, a question, a doubt, or an
afterthought put to the powerful negation advanced by the movement’s
opening phrase. Or you might hear it as a kind of tag or residue of a musical
past that will not be completely negated or transformed by the force of the
gesture that immediately precedes it (audio 1). Wagner, I would suggest,
did not forget this phrase. On the contrary, it provided him with the germ
from which the governing musical and dramatic vocabulary of melancholy
of his opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg emerges. Here is the prelude to
act 3, with Beethoven’s phrase forming what leitmotiv hunters call the
Wahn-motiv, the madness motive (audio 2).
This prelude can be understood as a mood painting of melancholy in
which we will find Hans Sachs when the curtain rises. It will soon become
the musical and emotional base for his Wahn or madness monologue, in
which his complaint about his fellow Nurembergers’ aesthetic philistinism
and general incivility will give way to a desire to help craft both art and
civility out of disorder: “Now let’s see how Hans Sachs can forge a worthy
work out of the madness.” The danger summoned by this challenge is
aestheticism or, worse, idolatry. This is of course the issue at stake in

17. The key text wherein she develops this linkage and to which she tentatively returns
throughout her life is her dissertation; see Hannah Arendt, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin:
Versuch einer Philosophischen Interpretation (Berlin, 1929).

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300 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses und Aron. Left uncompleted in
1933—that circumstance indeed a part of the work’s mythology—this op-
era famously forms a swan song to modernism and its paradoxes. The
struggle between Moses’s austerity and Aaron’s idolatry is performed by
their conflicting vocal practices. Moses is a sung part for bass but written in
antilyrical sung speech or Sprechstimme. The part of Aaron is written for a
coloratura tenor. (The bass/tenor pairing echoes two male pairs in Wag-
ner’s Das Rheingold: Wotan and Loge; Donner and Froh.) Moses carries
the opera’s moral integrity. Thus, in an ironically Wagnerian way, the
operatic style of Aaron’s music contains an implicit attack on artfulness
and on opera itself.
The unfinished work ends with Moses’s lament “O Word, thou word
that I lack!” This line is cited by virtually every commentator on the work.
Yet its most glaring contradiction is rarely addressed. We have come to
know Moses as one who possesses words (contrary perhaps to his biblical
profile as a stutterer who requires the intervention of his brother) but who
refuses music. The concluding lament appears to reverse the positions of
words and music. Yet perhaps this is the point. Perhaps the claim of mu-
sic’s superiority as a language—a claim inherent in the German tradition
that Schoenberg claimed abidingly to preserve and reground—is implied
and then mourned at the moment of loss that must generate the opera’s
giving up on itself. Music and words have become interchangeable in their
status and demise; both lack, and the opera is over.
The transformative power of Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg
forms a triad of peaks in conventional music historiography. They force us
repeatedly, even against our own better intentions, to consider composers
who come in between, in the valleys, as somehow transitional. This is the
unyielding and unforgiving context that brings us to Mendelssohn—and
indeed to Mendelssohn the composer of music drama, music drama in the
time-honored and culturally marked genre of the oratorio. The Men-
delssohnian oratorio stands in explicit relation to Bach, of course, and also
to G. F. Handel, especially in its theatrical moments. As nineteenth-
century products, the Mendelssohn oratorios join Mahler’s sung sympho-
nies as alternative music dramas, music dramas without the theater,
without the stage.
In Becoming Historical, John Toews concentrates productively on four
key works: the Reformation Symphony (1830); the oratorio Paulus (1836);
the Lobgesang Symphony Cantata (1840); and the oratorio Elias (1846).
Toews recalls the importance of the late Beethoven to the developing Men-
delssohn and carefully places the Lobgesang Symphony inside the long
shadow of the Ninth Symphony. “Mendelssohn obviously recognized

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 301
Beethoven’s creative use of reminiscences and premonitions as a unifying
thread in the Ninth Symphony,” Toews suggests, “but the balance of rem-
iniscence and premonition is entirely different in the Lobgesang. His em-
phasis is on the continuous underlying presence of the opening hymnic
revelation . . . whereas the ‘Ode to Joy’ melody in Beethoven is gradually
and laboriously pieced together and then finally articulated in a construc-
tion of unity from previously isolated fragments.”18 Indeed, there is no
ambiguity, developmental revision, or interrogation of the declaration
“Alles was Odem hat lobet den Herrn” and of the fanfare quality of musical
utterance and unchanging repetitions.
According to his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, Mendelssohn mastered
an impersonation of G. W. F. Hegel’s lecturing manner. But the associa-
tion goes deeper than that. Who was Hegel for Mendelssohn? And why ask
the question?
Larry Todd warns us judiciously to be wary of asserting Hegel’s influence
on Mendelssohn, even through his lectures on aesthetics, which Mendelssohn
attended at the University of Berlin in 1828. Published posthumously from
lecture notes, like many of his major works, Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics
posited a decline of aesthetic form in the romantic period, a decline from
the classical unity of subject and object into a “complete withdrawal, of
both the inner life and its expression, into subjectivity.”19 The disavowal of
the spatial representation of reality seals music’s weakness in comparison
to visual art. (It might be noted that the Hegelian pejorative definition of
subjectivity is largely responsible for its common contemporary usage, in
contradistinction to Immanuel Kant’s usage, where, as Ernst Cassirer has
incisively shown, the cognitive and ethical responsibility to the world is
emphasized.)20 For Hegel, music, in its incapacity to signify, was a prime
symptom of this alleged withdrawal into the subjective. As Todd writes:
“Hegel’s sweeping view of art history appears to have elicited skepticism
from both Zelter and Felix. Writing to Goethe in March 1829, Zelter ob-
served: ‘This Hegel now says there is no “right music” [dieser Hegel nun
sagt: dass sey keine rechte Musik]; we have now progressed, but are still quite
away from the goal. But that we know as well or not as he, if he could only

18. John A. Toews, Becoming Historical: Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early
Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 251–52; hereafter abbreviated BH.
19. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, trans. T. M. Knox, 2 vols. (Oxford,
1975), 2:889.
20. In Cassirer’s summary, Kant’s “concept of the subjective expresses a foundation in a
necessary procedure and a universal law of reason” (Ernst Cassirer, Kant’s Life and Work, trans.
James Haden [New Haven, Conn., 1981], p. 151). Subjectivity here means the capacity to reason,
universal across the human species and thus built on an ethical as well as epistemological

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302 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
explain to us musically [wenn er uns nur musikalisch erklären könnte]
whether or not he is on the right path.’ Felix too bridled at the Hegelian
notion that art had somehow declined, or indeed ceased, ‘as if it could
cease at all!’”21
Zelter’s comment is really quite interesting. Of course for Hegel there is
plenty of real music, and he mentions both traditions and composers,
though he analyzes no works and shows no signs of listening with any care
at all. But to say that, for Hegel, there is no “right music” would be accu-
rate. In others words, Hegel’s classification of music’s imprisonment in
subjectivity does not allow it to reconcile with the world, and that is Hegel’s
unitary measure of the success of civilization, whether in the spheres of art,
religion, or politics.
Symptomatically, then, Zelter’s comments fix on something central to
Hegel’s argument and by no means to his arguments about music alone.
For Hegel, music’s inability to transcend its own subjectivity runs parallel
to the condition of human history—all history up to the present moment,
Hegel’s present moment of the European world in 1815—that cannot meet
the world in freedom, that is, in the reconciliation of subject and object,
idea and material, individual experience and world order. Hegel’s history
of the world can be summarized as a macrohistory of melancholy. It con-
tinues to be a matter of basic debate in Hegel scholarship as to whether
Hegel asserted that the Prussian state indeed achieved the goal of history,
also known as the end of history, defined as the realization of freedom—
the freedom that Isaiah Berlin called positive freedom, involving the rec-
onciliation of the individual and the enlightened state.22
Mendelssohn’s was a Hegelian generation, one that consumed and dis-
seminated the idea of history as the realization of freedom. At the same
time, this generation of 1815, as it may be called, experienced a consistent
assault of disillusionment, no matter their political agendas. The seamless
passage of German emancipatory momentum into national identity is the
flaw in the German idea of freedom.23
This political dialectic of national self-definition and disappointment had a
religious analogue: the increasingly suppressed North-South, Protestant-
Catholic division, and the structural irritant of the small Jewish minority.
Zelter expressed consistently, in memoranda to Prussian officials as well as in
his voluminous published correspondence with Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe, an argument about the elevation of music out of its Hegelian

21. R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford, 2003), p. 183; trans. mod.
22. See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Liberty (Oxford, 1969), pp. 166–217.
23. See Leonard Krieger, The German Idea of Freedom: History of a Political Tradition
(Chicago, 1957) and Ranke: The Meaning of History (Chicago, 1977).

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 303
subaltern position into a prominent cultural status. Zelter was clear that
his agenda was a northern German one, loyal to the tradition, in Toews’s
apt summary, of the “German tradition of music as a ‘serious business’ and
‘high art’ as it had been passed on to him by the generation of Bach’s sons
and immediate students during the last decades of the eighteenth century”
(BH, p. 210). The devotion to Bach provided a close link between Jewish
and Protestant foundations in texts and textual practices. Indeed, this con-
nection was not lost on Mendelssohn. For example, the opposition of the
choruses of Baal priests and Hebrews in Elijah is perhaps better under-
stood as the opposition of Catholic and Protestant voices and styles than it
is as one between “Christians” (a term that can often be productively sub-
divided in German history) and Jews.
For Mendelssohn and his father a conversion to Lutheranism meant a
modernizing Judaism realizing itself in Lutheranism. This is the Hegelian
formulation. By the late nineteenth century this option was no longer
acceptable to most anti-Semites, and in the post-Holocaust world this
option is no longer acceptable to most Jews. But this is the thinking of the
1820s and 1830s—not the years of Mendelssohn’s conversion but the years
of his own integration of that basic biographical and cultural fact into his own
mature consciousness. The more historically conscious and historically artic-
ulate the mature Mendelssohn becomes, the more the confessional vicissi-
tudes and nuances that form the origins of his early nineteenth-century
predicament enter into his musical and textual discourses. The Erste Walpur-
gisnacht (1831) and the incidental music to Antigone (1841) invoke explicitly
the tensions between archaic religion and modern practice and norms.
Mendelssohn’s inner symbiosis of Jewish memory and Protestant cul-
ture, increasingly embattled from without, appears in Eric Werner’s per-
ceptive reading of the Jewish subtext in a January 1831 letter disparaging the
frivolity of New Year’s celebrations. The days around the turning of the
year, wrote Mendelssohn, are “real days of atonement.” Werner attributes
these thoughts to “his parental home, where the very serious attitude to-
wards the New Year had simply been transposed from Jewish to Christian
practice.” The same sensibility is revealed in the words to the concluding
hymn of Goethe’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” Mendelssohn’s source:
“And if we are robbed of our old customs, / Who can rob us of thy light?”24
Toews provides a helpful summation of the mature Mendelssohn’s
identity politics:

24. Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Glencoe, Ill.,
1963), p. 171.

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304 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
Mendelssohn, unlike his father, felt that he could retain his Jewish
identity within the larger frame of Christianity. . . . By clearly identify-
ing himself as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy throughout his adult life,
Mendelssohn did distance himself somewhat from his father’s teleo-
logical conception of history [that is, his father’s popular Hegelian-
ism], in which obsolete Jewish confessional forms were rejected in
favor of more “advanced” Christian forms, although it was only in the
1840s that he moved more self-consciously toward a position of si-
multaneous rather than historically sequential cultural identities.
[BH, p. 233]
Mendelssohn’s two largest historical mises en scène reveal also his most
developed melancholic landscapes: the oratorios Paulus (1836) and Elias.
The maturity of these two oratorios lie, I want to argue, in their inscrip-
tions of historical melancholy—in the romantic, enabling melancholy as
reinstated by Butler and not in the pathological melancholy as classified by
Abraham Mendelssohn died in November 1835. His memory absorbed
the completion as well as the character of Felix’s oratorio Paulus or St.
Paul. Predictably, the work is a drama of religious conversion. It transmits
Abraham’s belief in a linear realization of history through synthesis and, a
fortiori, conversion. This work’s narrative of the conversion of Paul tells
the story in a transparent way. And yet it does not do so without repre-
senting as well the inner conflict required—and required of Felix—in tell-
ing and advocating his father’s story. The father/son inscriptions are
multiple, as the Abraham/Felix axis is doubled by the Bach/Mendelssohn
one and the division of male voices into bass (Paul) and tenor.
The overture’s chorale form suggests a stabilizing, indeed, even consol-
ing texture. It is therefore vulnerable to a persistent criticism of a lack of
drama in Mendelssohn’s orchestral texture, as if the music were electing to
console itself, stroking its own shoulder, so to speak.
In the second part of Paulus, the tenor and bass have two duets. The first
is a duet for Paul and Barnabas to the words “now we are ambassadors for
Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). The second duet carries a similar statement. Finally,
the tenor has a last cavatina, with cello obbligato, to the words “be faithful
unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” “Be not afraid of them,
for I am with you” (Rev. 2:10; Jer. 1:8) (audio 3).
This passage’s straightforward texture contains energies of subtle cul-
tural and generational negotiation. The cello obbligato grounds it histor-
ically in musical legacies: of Bach, of Protestant music, and of faith.
Personally, it suggests a memorial of the composer to his father. Culturally,

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 305
it suggests a memorial of a living Protestantism to an ancient Judaism.
Both of the auras are consistent, of course, with the Pauline plot of the
oratorio. Formally, the obbligato’s effect combines simultaneity with a
sense that this inarticulate, wordless voice is a residue of a past voice, a
memory. Dramatically, it is unclear who is speaking here and to whom.
But the tenor voice and rhetoric resonate with the consolation offered by a
son to a father—a situation awkward and indeed unrealized in the rela-
tionship of father and son but possibly invoked with commemorative af-
fection of a son for a dead father.
If this last statement for the tenor closes the musical as well as the
much less certain dramatic relation between tenor and bass, we can ask
what may have been achieved or at least portrayed by their joint trajec-
tory. If the bass/tenor duets in the second half of Paulus can be under-
stood as projections of harmony between father and son, then they act
out in musical terms the alliance between Abraham and Felix that the
composition of this oratorio explicitly expressed. The oratorio, named
for the father, is concluded musically and dramatically by the son. In a
way, Felix anoints himself the successor in Christian music that his
father wanted. The human voice actualized here, materially and meta-
phorically, lives in a fragile, contingent, and most deliberate cultural
multiplicity, its aesthetic constitution a measure of its political aware-
ness and not an impediment to it. The harmony of the two voices
results from their simultaneity—the simultaneity of generations and
religions, a fragile harmony that nevertheless disavows the linear
claims and confidence of Hegelian history.
Elias evinces a different dominant mood from Paulus. Perhaps unfairly,
I am reminded of Robert Gutman’s comparison of the musics of the lovers
Siegfried and Brünnhilde before and after their one night of love, a night
that of course separates the two operas in which they appear together.25
The Siegfried duet still resounds with the radical energy of the general
revolution of 1848, Gutman suggests, while the Götterdämmerung duet
suggests the pomp and solidity of good nationalist burghers. I confess to hearing
the same burgherly pomp—a bit overconfident and routinized—in Elijah, em-
phasized in moments such as the chorus Fürchte dich nicht. Perhaps this tendency
results from the fact of Elijah’s Birmingham premiere and its abiding Victo-
rian popularity. But other moments seem to me to depart significantly
from such a tone. Toews, in his discussion of the oratorio’s second part,
refers to the “sentimental beauty of [its] hymns to paternal love (the a
capella trio ‘Lift thine eyes’ and the chorus, ‘He, watching over Israel’

25. See Robert Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, His Music (New York, 1990).

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306 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
[“See, the guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers” (Siehe, der Hüter
Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht)], [which] drove nineteenth-century
audiences to tearful ecstasy” (BH, p. 276). If these pieces seem to stand
apart from the more declamatory portions of the work, portions that re-
semble the Lobgesang more than they resemble Paulus, then I would de-
scribe their emotionality as melancholy rather than sentimental. They
move forward while retaining a sense of loss (audio 4).
This distinction between melancholy and sentimentality strikes me as a
key one. The modern understanding of sentimentality, which I don’t think
we can escape, has traveled quite far from its initial eighteenth-century
articulation of sentiment.26 It has been absorbed by the culture industry
and its critiques, so sentimentality has come, productively, to characterize
a commodified emotion, produced according to proven formulas, and
thus infinitely reproducible with slight, always tested variations. Mel-
ancholy is more inwardly constituted and thus more specific to and
contingent on the trajectories and moments of individual and cultural
The melancholy hopefulness that bridges these two very different ora-
torios in fact constitute, I would argue, a political as well as an aesthetic,
emotional, and religious impulse. This political impulse might be de-
scribed as melancholic freedom, to borrow the title of a recent book by
David Kim.27

26. See James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature
and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), for the reconstruction of a transhistorical discourse of
sentimentality that resists the absorption of the category into ideology.
27. See David Kyuman Kim, Melancholy Freedom: Agency and the Spirit of Politics (Oxford,
2008); hereafter abbreviated MF. Melancholic freedom suggests an unacknowledged return to
the unmentioned example of John Stuart Mill, for whom liberal politics and bourgeois society
carried a huge burden of social surveillance, conformity, and the loss of individuality. Kim’s
grounding paradigm is Max Weber’s characterization of modernity as disenchantment—the
loss of a magical connection between the world and the divine through which Weber traced the
onset of Protestantism and the engine of modernization and secularization. Modernity is thus
understood as the work of freedom severely tempered by a permanent experience of loss. Kim
devotes chapters to two key contemporary commentators on this predicament: Charles Taylor,
for whom secularization represents an intolerable loss and banalization of life and thus an
intolerable cultural and moral loss, and Butler, for whom, as suggested above, it represents an
enabling reality principle.
Kim proceeds from a foundation as old certainly as Montaigne, writing during those wars of
religion that constituted an initial paroxysm of the Reformation’s explosion of uncontested
divine authority, namely, the dislodging of modern subjects from the absolute standards of
moral authority provided by an uncontested divine being. Secular freedom, disenchanted
freedom, does indeed come across as a kind of unmooring, as the obsolescence of being able to
act in the name of an uncontested being. This being can be replaced by a principle—justice,
freedom, equality, and so on—but these principles can also be contested, as can the authorities
that define and uphold them. The challenge of modernity is that of “overcoming an alienation
and estrangement from one’s moral sources” (MF, p. 78). For Taylor, as Kim correctly states,

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 307
Elijah in 1846 and Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 was followed by the
uprisings of 1848, the historic and ultimately devastating flash of liberal
hope that spurred the Frankfurt Parliament to offer the constitutional
monarchy to Frederick William IV, the same Prussian king who had lured
Mendelssohn to Berlin, and his contemptuous and catastrophic refusal of
the offer—possibly the most damaging single political move in modern
German history.
A precise half-century after Elijah and Mendelssohn’s death a year later,
Mahler converted to Catholicism in a mood dramatically more self-
conscious and ambivalent about the promise of cultural multiplicity, dia-
logue, and integration. This mood is profoundly inscribed in the musical
work. Not only from work to work but indeed from performance to per-
formance, Mahler withdrew the specific programs as well as the more
general programmaticity that he had inserted into his work. The most
dramatic turn-around occurs between the Second and Third Symphonies.
If the Second Symphony expresses the fulfillment of the desire for integra-
tion as the escape from abjection in an ever intensifying momentum and
grandiose conclusion, the Third Symphony brackets the message of that
grand conclusion into a tiny fifth movement, preceding it with a poem
from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and building opening and clos-

the unmooring must be understood as a negative development. Taylor remains a conventional

religious thinker in this context. Kim is committed to the preservation of the category of
religious thought and life but wants, unlike Taylor, to displace divine legitimation with moral
principles. The modern subject is an agent, an agency to be understood, writes Kim, not as the
fact of action but as the capacity of moral action: the ability to act as a “strong evaluator,” in
Kim’s own jargon, possessed of the ability “to make judgments of value” (MF, p. 61).
Subjectivity is thus identical to agency: “In the beginning was the deed” (Im Anfang war die
Tat)—the words that Goethe took from Gospel and placed in the mouth of Dr. Faustus, a
dangerous displacement if ever there was one (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I and II,
vol. 2 of The Collected Works, trans. and ed. Stuart Atkins [Princeton, N.J., 1994], p. 33).
But here we return to the thrust of Butler’s earlier arguments about the power of the
performative, most evident in Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
(New York, 1990). If a principle of language, according to structuralist and poststructuralist
argument, is that it preexists and enables human subjectivity; if, to quote Kim, “to articulate
what is of worth to me is to speak of who I am,” we face the question of sequence and
temporality (MF, p. 62). Do subjectivity and agency accrue through articulation and indeed
through action so that who I am is a function of what I do?
Kim’s argument, like Butler’s, asks melancholia to take hold of its own potential to produce
a performative and indeed a transformative moment. There is a distinct Hegelian momentum
in their arguments, an Aufhebung or sublation into a new level of political, moral, and (in Kim’s
case) religious potential. Butler began her academic life as a scholar of Hegelianism, and Kim,
in paying close attention to Taylor, is staying close to the shadow of Hegel’s most interesting
English-language reader.

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308 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
ing movements of unparalleled length, power, and melancholic, that is,
underarticulated austerity.
In his 1974 book Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria, William
McGrath devoted a full chapter to a contextual analysis of the Third Sym-
phony as the mature blossom of Mahler’s youthful participation in the
Telyn Society, or Pernerstorfer Circle, after its leader Engelbert Perner-
storfer.28 The group read Nietzsche and espoused German national or
völkisch ideals. Reasonably, McGrath combines this strand in Mahler’s
intellectual biography with his stated 1895 and 1896 programs accompany-
ing the evolving symphony and their invocations of an exultant pagan
spring awakening, completing the Nietzschean genealogy with the com-
pleted fourth movement’s setting of Zarathustra’s “Dancing or Drunken
Song” (it appears twice in Thus Spoke Zarathustra): “O mankind, pray!!
What does deep midnight have to say?”29
Yet McGrath’s connections may be too seamless. Zarathustra’s poem
does not necessarily imply the presence of the full text; even less does it
imply the full legacy of Nietzsche’s reception that had captivated the
younger Mahler. The poem’s final line, “Yet all joy wants eternity” matches
its words to a key musical phrase introduced in the first movement. The
poem gives authority to what lies deep, including the world itself: “The
world is deep, and deeper than the grasp of day.”30 Deep or unarticulated
musical meaning may come to a semantic surface through the addition of
words, but those words in turn return authority to the unarticulated land-
scape of music alone. The final movement charts a deliberate and austere
path to resolution and completion without resolving this impasse, without
achieving reconciliation.
It comes as no surprise to hear these discourses of modernism, melan-
choly, and Jewishness converge most precisely in the music of Mahler.
They converge also in Mendelssohn, less urgently and perhaps more sub-
tly. The quotations from Adorno’s monograph go far in sketching the
acoustic as well as hermeneutic and indeed political aspects of this conver-
gence. Equally precise in Mahler is, I think, his performance of the new
inflection of melancholia that I have been developing here with the help of
Butler and others. This aspect of Mahler requires careful reading and a
much longer treatment than the one I can give here. It instantiates with
uncanny precision that instant of anticipation that prepares the way for

28. See William J. McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria (New Haven,
Conn., 1974).
29. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Adrian del
Caro, ed. Caro and Robert Pippin (Cambridge, 2006), p. 183.
30. Ibid., p. 184.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2014 309
articulation, speech, action, and even reconciliation, leaving the listener
with an appreciation of hope but without the claim—the work’s claim or
the listener’s claim—to have arrived. Thus the realm of the worldly and the
secular is never breached: “all that is transitory is only a symbol,” to cite the
concluding verses of Goethe’s Faust that Mahler sets in his Eighth Sym-
phony.31 But there is no way out of metaphor, as there is no way out of
history. No assertion of Goethe’s or Mahler’s is more important. To cite
the words that Christian Dietrich Grabbe wrote and that Freud quoted
with special urgency: “we cannot fall out of this world.”32
Mahler opened his Third Symphony with a distorted quotation of the
great theme from the last movement of Brahms’s First Symphony, a ges-
ture that promptly collapses into an invocation of deep, virtually primor-
dial sound, as if symphonic texture and form requires a new foundation.
Reinhold Brinkmann’s Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes
Brahms introduces Brahms in the company of Theodor Fontane and Adolf
Menzel, the latter of whom he knew personally. The three figures share for
Brinkmann a sense of their time, the late nineteenth century, as a genuine
fin de siècle, a late period. This sentiment is closely related to one of mel-
ancholy, and Brahms identified his Second Symphony as his most melan-
cholic. “The new symphony is so melancholy that you won’t stand it,” he
wrote soon after its completion in 1877.33 But Brinkmann also detects a
certain pleasure in this musical and wordy rhetoric of melancholy, and that
is the pleasure of consolation, specifically the consolation in nature and
religiosity that compensates for a temporal and historical world spun out
of control. In this symphony, Brahms arrests the specifically Beethovenian
temporal momentum by spatializing it, turning its back on history, and
reinvesting in a static sense of nature.34 The consolation never lasts, however,
as Brahms’s statements are inevitably unstable, broken, and fragmentary—
those qualities that earned him the sobriquet the Progressive in Schoen-
berg’s definitive essay.35
Brahms’s Second Symphony (opus 73), the subject of Brinkmann’s
pathbreaking study in contextualist musicology, dates from 1877. An ear-
lier work, the Piano Quintet in F minor (opus 34) and its alternate version
for two pianos (opus 34b), both dating from 1864, will provide my last

31. Goethe, Faust I and II, p. 305.

32. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 21:65.
33. Brinkmann, Late Idyll, p. 13.
34. See ibid., pp. 49, 60.
35. See Arnold Schoenberg, “Brahms the Progressive,” in Style and Idea (Berkeley,

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310 Michael P. Steinberg / Music and Melancholy
musical example (audio 5). The nine-or-so-minute-long second move-
ment, marked “Andante, un poco Adagio,” is in three-quarter time, the
standard dance time signature from the minuet to the waltz. Yet the move-
ment confuses a bit, as it sounds more as if the beat were in two or four
rather than in three. In any case, the rocking melody that opens the move-
ment would seem hardly danceable. This anomaly immediately compli-
cates an apparently consoling texture. Consolation is combined with a
complicated presentation/self-presentation of the music itself, as if the
subject of the music were unclear and unclear to itself. The movement’s
second theme of subject consists of a series of repeated phrases, as if the
music were insisting on something, perhaps on its desire to know. The
movement is in the key of A-flat major, the closest major-key relation to
the quintet’s home key of F minor. The major mode is usually understood
to offer the ear a sense of confidence, stability, and even optimism in
comparison to the minor. The close relation, though, to the first move-
ment’s minor mode doubles the emotional and cognitive ambivalence
provided by the undanceable three-quarter time. The movement hovers
between stability and anxiety, desire (to know) and inhibition.
Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) contains the suggestion
that music as well as dance could function as therapies against melancholy,
a position that has been repeated endlessly by therapeutic paradigms.36
Burton works with the assumption of melancholy as a disorder. If we work
rather with Butler’s paradigm of melancholy as an enabling condition,
then a new paradigm in the history of music and musical aesthetics ap-
pears. I am filling this gap with what I am calling the anxiety of articula-
tion—the gap between music and speech, between music and meaning,
between music and the world. This is the melancholia of music itself, the
predicament that gives music so much rhetorical and emotional impor-
tance for modern listeners. Music wants out of this melancholy situation,
yet there is an additional catch. If music wants to achieve the state of
speech, it also contains in itself through its very inarticulacy an unsignify-
ing precision that speech itself may not be able to attain. Like two desires
crossing each other in the wind, music wants the status of speech while
speech strives for the status of music: “What the music I love expresses to
me is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary,
too definite.”37

36. See Richard Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (New York, 2001).

37. Felix Mendelssohn, letter to Marc-André Souchay, 15 Oct. 1842, Letters of Felix
Mendelssohn Bartholdy, from 1833 to 1847, trans. Lady Wallace, ed. Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy
and Carl Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Philadelphia, 1865), pp. 269–70.

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