Dissertation Index

Author: Johnson, Shersten R.

Title: Hearing the Unvoiceable: Writer's Block in Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice

Institution: University of Wisconsin--Madison

Begun: May 1998

Completed: August 2002


Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, essentially plays out a dramatic struggle for words that is formulated in words, and as such poses the analytical problem: how does one musically voice writer's block? The interrelation between character utterances (or lack thereof) and the ambient music that sounds and surrounds them is vital in a dramatic context driven by Aschenbach's chronic inability to write, speak, or at times even to understand words. Since the power of words is central to this drama, the ways in which words and music interact, and the ways in which these interactions are perceived over time, merit critical attention. My dissertation relies on the writings of Freud and others on the subject of blockage in the creative process to help develop notions of blockage in the opera's text-music discourse, and expands on these ideas to more distant domains of cognitive processes. The analysis uses various methods including Conceptual Integration Network models to describe the way a listener might create meaning beyond that of the text alone by composing a blended mapping of text-music concepts. By doing this analysis, I hope to shed light on one of the opera's central issues: the loss of words that both initiates Aschenbach's journey and follows him to the end.

Keywords: Benjamin Britten, Opera, Freud, Writer's Block, Text-Music Relations


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