Between the Cipher and the Idée Fixe: Joachim, Berlioz, and the Lovestruck Psyche
Motivic signifiers of the self in love and his beloved play a profound role in Joseph Joachim’s Drei Stücke für Violine und Pianoforte Op. 5 (1853). These pieces revolve around the motive G#-E-A that symbolizes Gisela von Arnim, the focus of Joachim’s (perhaps somewhat unrequited) affections. Joachim also incorporates his own signature motto, F-A-E, encapsulating his self-image as “frei aber einsam.” Katharina Uhde has insightfully explored how Joachim’s motivic persistence diverges from Schumann’s more reticent approach to ciphered music. I will argue that Joachim fuses the Schumannian practice of ciphers with the Berliozian impulse for psychological self-disclosure. To this end, I examine how Op. 5 draws on the aesthetic of the idée fixe in Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Resemblances between the two works include the continual invocation of the beloved’s motto, intertwined with topics such as the rustle of trees, the tolling of bells, and a march-style movement. Moreover, both works lavish attention on the beloved’s musical name as a way of highlighting the composer’s psychological turmoil. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique enacts an obsessive form of love that Francesca Brittan has theorized in terms of the 19th-century diagnostic label monomania. Joachim’s Op. 5, in keeping with his concept of psychological music, similarly offers a compelling portrayal of a lovestruck psyche. On 29 November 1853, Joachim sent Schumann his Op. 5 accompanied by a letter stating that “das 2te Stück [sollte] eigentlich Malinconia überschrieben sein….Ich bin nicht verlobt.” This reference to melancholy underscores the way in which Joachim’s idée fixe, like Berlioz’s, symbolizes not only the absent beloved, but also acts as a diagnostic signifier for the composer’s love-induced symptoms.
Tekla Babyak received her PhD in musicology from Cornell University in 2014, supported by a Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. Currently an independent scholar based in Davis, CA, she is a member of the American Musicological Society council for the 2018-2021 term. She has chosen not to pursue academic employment because of her potentially disabling health condition, multiple sclerosis. A central goal of hers is to advocate for the inclusion of independent and disabled scholars in academic venues such as conferences. Recent publications have appeared in Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Bibliotheca Dantesca, and Routledge Approaches to History. Much of her research focuses on intersections between music and philosophy during the long 19th century. She is also interested in musical allusion, transcription and intertextuality in works by composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Joachim and Liszt.