A cursed libretto is not your typical campfire ghost story.Its not a joking anecdote to be easily dismissed either. Its one helluva an imp who has displayed wildly inconsistent behavior over the years. The specific association of music and madness seemed to begin in romantic literature, and it has had ramifications for theories of aesthetics, representation, and linguistics. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there existed an autobiographical impulse that influenced the direction of literary, philosophical, and psychological treatments of music and madness.
The subject’s loss of rational control during the experience of music and the rise of unexpected passions is a transcultural, transhistorical phenomenon whose origins are not easily determined. Even today, scientists remain intrigued by the intricacies of the apparent relationships between creativity and mental illness, yet it is in the romantic period, that the deepest and most prolonged reflection on the coupling of music and madness occurred; associating mental disturbance with sound, and a trend toward intermingling literary and clinical discourses, assisted in shaping the direction of in particular, the western European cultural and literary imagination. Music was presented sometimes as essentially beneficial and therapeutic in nature, but also as a detrimental and pathogenic force. Yet both of these standpoints pointed toward a recognition of the emotional force and influence of music that nurtured and stimulated an ongoing debate within music, literature, medicine, and philosophy.
That winter he was still in Milan, and in a cruel paradox he was working on his first comedy opera ” A Day’ s Reign” when his wife suddenly following the death of their small and only son who passed away before his first opera a year earlier. Verdi was staying in obscure lodgings staring at four walls. He thought his career was over and he didn’t care; a young musician broken by professional failure and personal tragedy.He was near suicide. One evening as snow was falling he was walking through the streets with his head down and literally ran into Merelli, the head of La Scala. Merelli , somewhat of a conniving schemer started spinning a yarn about a composer who had refused a libretto and wanted something else or else.Verdi kept asking to released from his contract, but Merelli managed to weasel Verdi into his office and took out the rejected manuscript and suggested Verdi take it along with him. In addition, he slipped a second one into his coat pocket.
Verdi trudged back home and flung the manuscript on the table; it bounced between the cutlery and glasses and tumbled onto the floor at an open page: ” Va, pensiero sull’ ali dorate” — “Go thought, on golden wings”. It is the first line of the chorus of exiled Jews in Nabucco. Though he made another effort to return the libretto, Verdi was hooked. Sixty years later, at Verdi’s funeral, the immense crowd spontaneously began to sing that chorus of exiled Jews; singing at the very end of his giant career, the lines that had brought him back to music.
“Hamilton argues that both music and madness marked out a conceptual border where language could not reach. Romantically, they were conceived as abstract spheres that challenged the norms of denotation and signification, defining the upper and lower limits of language. The rational working of language was thought to be a mechanism that distinguished mankind from beast. Hence, speechlessness became conceptualized as a symptom of imminent insanity and a signifier of a psychically disturbed state that threatened individual identity. Madness dissolved the boundaries between man and the savage, while music might override the division separating humanity from the divine.”
Nabucco was an overwhelming success, and Verdi’s career from that point went up and up, though not invariably so. But that to that second manuscript, the mysterious libretto that seems to have its origins shrouded in an impenetrable mist. The question always arises, and whether there was a missing sheet to the manuscript or whether Verdi hid it. The legend has it, that this libretto has been passed down through time to different musicians, who have used pieces of or been inspired by it; the problem is that every time it has changed ownership it has sold for less money than was paid for it. Curiously, its previous owners have had to rebuild their lives after their painful relationship with the manuscript.
“One of the most profound and practical manifestations of this was the contemporary acknowledgement that music might be essentially violent in nature, a concern that pressed upon eighteenth-century aestheticians. Verbal language was commonly deemed necessary to maintain art’s mimetic principle and acted as a safeguard against its potential to evoke irrational emotionalism. Hamilton describes polyphony, as represented by the burgeoning popularity of instrumental forms including the sonata and the symphony, as becoming perceived in some intellectual circles as a threat to the individual. Without words, music might be free to exert its violence upon the listener. Yet to its advocates, instrumental power had the potential to present human truths that evaded the rigid concepts of syntax.”
Verdi’s cursed libretto has been somewhat like the bottle in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Bottle Imp” where whoever possesses the libretto achieves greatness and sometimes comes into a sizable fortune, but experiences crushing personal tragedy and, on pain of having his immortal soul burn in hell, he must, as a condition of sale, agree to resell the manuscript for less than what he paid for it. That libretto may have been brought to earth by the devil, and owned by various musicians- explaining all of their various successes.
Phil Spector is one who has felt the full force of the curse of the libretto;A case of the imp crawling over the his trademark Wall of Sound and wreaking havoc. An example of the tightrope between genius and insanity, creativity and madness. Vikram Jayanti’s new documentary profile of the legendary pop music master and convicted murderer is likely to place people into taking sides with two ambiguous and not totally disconnected positions: those who think he’s eccentrically crazy and belongs in jail, and those convinced he’s a troubled genius who was framed by the woman he allegedly did in.
There is a musical engagement with the theories of Foucault who aligned his discussion of musicology with the emergence of madness from invisibility and silence throughout the romantic period. Music became perceived as having immediate access to the volatile life of the emotions which rendered it morally problematic. The listener became viewed as having little choice but to submit to music’s intoxicating power, which caused music to be regarded as an exemplary case of the sublime, as something that eluded definition, comprehension, or representation. Foucault drew on Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reflections on the voice and the burgeoning discipline of musical aesthetics. Diderot’s employment of the literary figure of the mad musician in this work was determined as providing a literary place for a group banished in a period that arguably witnessed a great confinement of the mad.
Jayanti juxtaposes archival material and trial footage resulting from the 2003 shooting death of forty-year-old actress Lana Clarkson in Spector’s L.A. mansion, with the only substantial interview he has given in a fifty-year career as the Tycoon of Teen, creator of the Wall of Sound, and writer-producer of some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring classics. It is difficult to conceive of pop without Be My Baby, Spanish Harlem, Da Doo Ron Ron, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling or River Deep-Mountain High. Imagine John Lennon’s Imagine, as Spector talks in front of the white piano they bought together for the recording of that iconic composition.
There has also been a linkage between music and madness through analysis of the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, and Heinrich von Kleist. The latter’s haunting tale of music and madness, St Cecelia, or the Power of Music (1810) was a deft rehearsal of the major motifs of the sublime. E.T.A. Hoffman explicitly theorized music to exist before and after the abstract forms established by language. Hegel was led to recognize that the musician’s derangement was a sign of modern man’s necessary self-alienation, acknowledging music’s inherent inwardness….
Spector looks back over the years, from writer-producer-member of The Teddy Bears and their hit To Know Him Is To Love Him in 1958, to his “retirement” in 1966 after the failure of Ike and Tina Turner’s epic River Deep-Mountain High to climb the American charts.He is credited by John Lennon with keeping “rock ‘n’ roll alive for the two-and-a-half years that Elvis was in the army.” Spector remains haunted by the father he hardly knew -a suicide when he was five years old. To Know Him Is To Love Him, are the words written on his headstone. He was bullied in school, harbours a lifelong persecution complex, and compares himself to Da Vinci for his creation of “little symphonies for the kids” from a blank canvas. He tells a great story about Martin Scorsese’s breakout Mean Streets, and his Be My Baby, a song Phil says drove Brian Wilson crazy trying to figure out.
He offers insights into the Beatles, for whom he is credited with, or savaged for, salvaging Let It Be. He describes working with John Lennon on the elemental Plastic Ono Band album in the morning, then going off to add layers to George Harrison’s faith-driven My Sweet Lord. They are all in a day’s work. Despite Jayanti’s frankly sympathetic position, there can be little doubt Spector fails most of the criteria for what is considered normal behaviour. He’s a loner, has a violent history with women, and a love of guns.
After decades holed up in his castle, his idea of a joke doesn’t play with judge and jury when he comes to court with exaggerated hairdos. What he thinks is funny is disrespectful to them, and destructive to his case. After one hung jury trial -they could not align prosecution’s stand he shot Clarkson in the mouth with the lack of evidence on his clothes -he was convicted in 2009 and has good odds of kicking the bucket behind bars. Those conditioned by decades of gossip about Spector’s mental state will say he got what he deserved. Those unconvinced by the evidence of his show trial, or inclined to cut him slack for his eccentric genius and place in history, may quietly mourn his fate.
This past summer John Malkovich brought a famously vile serial killer back to life in “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer” Malkovich affected the mannerisms of a psychopath, touring his role as a resurrected Jack Unterweger, the famous Austrian writer and notorious murderer of prostitutes. He is another prime suspect in the chain of purchasing the cursed manuscript. Malkovich’s challenge was in portraying Unterweger’s sweeter, charismatic side; the kind of gentle humor that would flash in between the serial killing. The Austrian was popular with women and had many followers, fans and supporters ; won over by his intellect and apparent reformation during a fifteen-year prison stint. The play even begins with a musical excerpt from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Don Juan ”
The opera-play features Malkovich as an already dead Unterweger, decked out in a white suit and black-with-white-polka-dots shirt, returning to give a talk about his new autobiography to the assembled audience; Malkovich’s monologues are interwoven with music by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, among others.
The work, written and directed by Michael Sturminger, veers from darkly comic to just plain dark as Unterweger charms his victims with humor; a questionable charm, that is fascinatingly alluring at the same time. Unterweger claimed his mother was a prostitute who left him to be raised by his grandfather, who he described as a violent womanizer. After a degenerate and destitute adolescence punctuated by episodes of violent behaviour, he was sentenced to life in prison in 1976 for murdering a teenage girl by strangling her with her own bra.
Unterweger’s studies in the prison library led him to pen a series of poems, plays and short stories, as well as a 1984 autobiography called “Purgatory” which made him a literary star of the tabloid variety. Prison psychiatrists deemed him to have been rehabilitated by the time he was paroled in 1990, after serving the minimum possible sentence, and became a public figure, appearing in television debates dressed like a dandy. But he returned to old habits within months of his release, murdering as many as eleven more women in Austria, Czech Republic and Los Angeles, and then brazenly investigating the murders as a journalist interested in the dangers faced by prostitutes. He was eventually recaptured, only to commit suicide in his cell.
Malkovich, who is used to playing film characters that are menacing and alluring, said he found Unterweger “haunting and tragic. I can find him so touching that I can’t even talk when I get on stage,” he said. Describing The Infernal Comedy as a “lesson in being careful about what you wish for”, Malkovich added: “It is a cautionary tale about where our projected fantasies of redemption hurl themselves, out into the night, not knowing if the ground is 10 inches below or 200 storeys. I’d be shocked if those who supported him haven’t shown some remorse.” ( Kate Connolly, Guardian )