The University of St. Thomas


Shersten Johnson

Shersten Johnson

Strange Strange Hallucination: Dozing and Dreaming in Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice Dr. Shersten Johnson

Dr. Shersten Johnson's "'Strange, Strange Hallucination': Dozing and Dreaming in Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice" appears in the newly released fifth volume of the Journal of Music and Meaning, an on-line peer-reviewed journal for multidisciplinary research on music and meaning. The article appears at: and the journal's homepage is:

Abstract: In the early moments of Britten's Death in Venice, the protagonist, Aschenbach, walks through a garden in Munich and encounters a Foreign Traveler, who commands him to "see" exotic marvels. The Traveler's aria foreshadows a number of elements that arise from the moment of the hallucination: exotic images, dramatic personae, phonemic sounds, and musical ideas. Critics generally hold that once Aschenbach "awakens" from the hallucination, his trip to Venice and the ensuing events - including his obsession with the boy, Tadzio - comprise waking action (with the exception of the Scene 13 nightmare). Given the multivalent operatic processes that spring from the hallucination, though, we could speculate that Aschenbach never leaves Munich and merely imagines or dreams of the Traveler, Venice, and Tadzio. The music even replicates a state of diminishing awareness not unlike that of falling asleep right before the Traveler appears. From then on, we cross over into an exotic, at times surreal, sound world, leaving behind the consciously manipulated twelve-tone environment of Munich for good.

Several possible readings of the hallucination and ensuing action drive the analysis in this paper. Is the vision a dream or daydream? Is it a fantasy or merely the workings of an artist's imagination in preparation for putting pen to paper? The discussion engages psychoanalytic dream analysis to illuminate the way music reinforces and even guides the condensations and displacements of Aschenbach's imagination. Then it pans out to explore the conceptual commonalities that allow us to hear music simulate altered states of consciousness.