One of the most heartbreaking story types in music, film, and literature is when a character is so obsessed with a lost (i.e., dead) love that he (and it is usually a male protagonist in this situation) begins to see her take form in another living being. Three of my favorites follow.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia” might be the best known example of this type of tale. The narrator extols the virtues of his wife, Ligeia: her beauty touched with strangeness, her intelligence, and so on. Alas, she dies. He remarries, but spends his days in remembrance and an opium haze. Alas, his second wife, the Lady Rowena, also takes ill and is slowly dying. Without totally spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Ligeia, possibly by her sheer will and her husband’s desire, makes a dramatic return.
The dead lover’s return story is much more complicated in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. After viewing what we think is Madeleine’s death, to see the obsessive ex-cop Scottie desperately try and transform Judy into Madeleine is painful to watch. When we find out that Judy and Madeleine are indeed the same woman, it’s devastating. (In an earlier post, I wrote about how Bernard Herrmann’s music written for the Judy and Madeleine transformation scene was so effective.)
My final example is more obscure, but definitely worth some attention. Die Tode Stadt (“The Dead City”), the 1920 opera by the underrated composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was based on Georges Rodenbach’s 19th century novel Bruges la Morte. It’s a harrowing story in which Paul is in such a state of mourning for his dead wife, Marie, that he believes that the coquettish dancer Marietta might be his Marie returned to him. But he is tortured by his physical desire for the free-spirited Marietta while wanting to remain faithful to the innocent Marie. And much of Marietta’s desire for Paul is from a sense of competition with the deceased Marie. To further complicate matters, much of the middle of the story is a dream sequence. But all the different elements of the tale (sadness, tenderness, lust, jealousy, rage, redemption, etc.) gave Korngold the opportunity to write music showcasing his diverse palette. Indeed, the opera contains two of his most gorgeous triumphs: “Glück, das mir verblieb,” the duet sung by Marietta and Paul, and “Mein Sehnen, Mein Wähnen,” the wistful song for baritone about yearning, dreaming, and returning to the past.
Longing for the past is often touching. Trying to revivify it is often tragic.
p.s. Sadly, music fans have been all too familiar with death in the last week as folk musician and historian Mike Seeger, guitarist and recording innovator Les Paul, and Coltrane’s drummer Rashied Ali, have all passed away.