Musical Hallucinations


On Music

Sheet music of Don Giovanni. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CCO 3.0.

Don Giovanni keeps playing in my head, as if of its own accord. I wonder if I could be having musical hallucinations. I read an article about a woman who had musical hallucinations. She heard someone playing a piano outside the front door of her house. She went outside to look but nothing was there. The music played on, always vaguely nearby. Pretty soon the music was playing constantly—long passages from Rachmaninoff and Mozart.

She went to a doctor. Was she complaining? I wondered. I was already praying: Please let me have that disease where you hear a piano playing Mozart nonstop.

Time went on and she heard a marching band in the next room. A full church choir sang constantly in her kitchen. The doctors wondered: What would happen if she went to a concert? Would the concert drown out the music she was hallucinating, or would it all clash together in a musical storm?

It turned out that Bach fugues were able to drown out the music in her head. (Not surprising, since Bach fugues are the epitome of stern and strict, and would have the force to drown out everything else with their resolve.) But then the marching bands and the Rachmaninoff would start up again the minute the Bach fugues ended.

So if she listened to Bach fugues all day, then would she be normal? Or sort of normal?

The scientists attached electrodes to her head and tested her brain waves and looked forward to poring over the results, studying magnetic fields in her prefrontal cortex, etc. While the test was being administered, the woman was hallucinating a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The scientists kept inserting the Bach to see if it canceled out the Gilbert and Sullivan

Meanwhile I’m thinking I wish I had Gilbert and Sullivan operas and marching bands playing in my head. Musical hallucinations—I’m praying for them. I’d have to pick the program, though. Oriental foxtrots. Argentine tangos. Guatemalan rumbas. Scratchy old recordings of 1920s French jazz waltzes.

But it might be more like the time I went to Scotland and kept hearing bagpipes in the distance long after I had returned home. That was pretty good, though. I wouldn’t mind hearing bagpipes in the distance all the time.

I asked my father (age ninety-seven) who he thought was the greatest Don Giovanni of all time. Ezio Pinza, he said promptly. I found a recording of this production, and its beauty is so thrilling that it makes even Erwin Schrott look slightly pale.

In case you’re wondering who Erwin Schrott is, he is the opera singer who played the role in Washington twenty years ago when I first moved to our nation’s capital. He was then a mere boy but a sublime Don Giovanni who wrenched my heart. Twenty years after that I saw him play the same role in a highly successful rotation as a middle-aged man but still the same enthralling heartthrob.

My obsession with him was momentarily shattered when I heard the Ezio Pinza version. I’m scared to listen to it as much as I want—all the time—in case I get sick of it. Could I ever get sick of it? Anything seems possible.

Music is an antidote for anhedonia. Sometimes you can’t feel. Let’s say you can’t cry. The beauty of music is that it can remove these restraints, defeat the lions at the gate. But it’s not always a sure thing. Anhedonia is a powerful enemy.

So the Ezio Pinza does put my dear Erwin Schrott a tad bit in the shade. There’s this 1940s American radio announcer summarizing the plot between the acts, however, which is annoying. Though he does have the quaint, archaic voice as in old movies from that era where you keep thinking: Did people really talk like that?

But the announcer’s stock interpretations of the action do not take into account the subtleties of the libretto. How all the women who decry Don Giovanni’s villainy and call for his demise secretly adore him and were secretly brokenhearted that he only wanted one-night stands from them. Elvira sometimes begs him to come back, amid the denunciations, etc.

Knowing Mozart as we do—his genius; his angelic quality, which would not be so angelic were it not mixed with some cynicism, immaturity, slapstick, darkness, prurience; and his being kind of a mess in some respects—he would never have conceived the opera according to the stock interpretation of prudish one-note morality.

A bunch of prudes wrote in to protest the deletion of the epilogue (the ensemble aria after Don Giovanni’s descent to hell where they’re all proclaiming the justice of his punishment) in the newer Erwin Schrott production. They protested not because they missed ten more minutes of towering rapture (the experience of Mozart’s music), but because they missed the moralizing. Like I said, a bunch of prudes.

Actually I do think Erwin Schrott stacks up to Ezio Pinza after all. But the point is really this: I watched an interview on YouTube with Erwin Schrott preparing for the Royal Opera House production in London—the production I watch over and over incessantly—and in this interview he says that everything good that has ever happened in his life has to do with music, and that it started twenty years ago when he first played Don Giovanni.

So I thought this must mean he had the same rotation I did, referring to the same moment twenty years ago when I saw him play the role that meant so much to him. And to me.

I’m hoping to attend a performance of Don Giovanni at the historic opera house in Palermo next fall—another rotation destined to produce a mad conglomeration of ecstasy. The rotation decrees that Don Giovanni will be the same, and it is I who am meant to be different. But I am not really that different. And I secretly rejoice to find the same girl with the same soul and personality now as when I first became obsessed with that opera (age twenty-two, New Orleans, streetcar rumbling past).

There is a theory that the world is divided into two kinds of people: continuers and dividers. The continuers can tell they are the same person they always used to be; the dividers continually change. Music is one proof in my case. The gift bequeathed by my father.

It started with Bach. Bach was the thing. With Bach it’s about the sternness. Take the Bach inventions. Glen Gould is too emotional about them. That detracts from their effect. Emotion in Bach must be earned—hard-earned, the result of bracing discipline. The atmosphere is firm, uncompromising, steadfast. Upright. Not upright as in morally upright, necessarily, just straight—a straight shooter, a straight arrow. An inexorable, unbroken bass line always braces the foundation, which highlights the sternness. The unwavering sternness.

This does convey an emotion, and that emotion is JOY. Joy is a more stern form of happiness.

I come from the town where jazz was born, a town whose personality is the exact opposite of the sternness of Bach, and my taste resides at those two opposite extremes. My friends there were wild. Ditto my first love. His thing was drinking and decadence (yet happiness and hope). My thing was Albinoni on a stern-green German lake.

One of my debauched friends used to play Bach fugues. It was a most incongruous spectacle: debauched friend with a talent for Bach fugues, which require the strictest discipline. But that was the thrill: residing in the incongruity.

There’s a movie about British explorers in the Amazon in 1910 hacking their way through the overgrowth in the depths of the jungle who suddenly come upon the incongruous spectacle of an opera being conducted on this remote and stifling stage. The orchestra is wearing white tie and tails, in the heart of the wilderness at this hidden opera. A degenerate baron in a beat-up white summer suit who runs the rubber plantation is the host (Franco Nero) and makes some mysterious comments.

An unknown pathos and sharp ecstasy lie in the incongruity, the intrinsic and extrinsic elements juxtaposed. Or on the boat in Egypt amid the green palms, the blue Nile, the waning afternoons, Schubert played on deck. At night Strauss waltzes played. The same wrenching pathos and sudden bliss as to the opera in the jungle.


For some years it was obvious that my father was getting frail. We were listening to opera in his study one day and reading the newspapers.

“Do you think an artist has to be crazy?” I asked him.

“Couldn’t hurt,” he said crisply, puffing on his cigar.

A marching band came out of nowhere down State Street. I ran outside to look and saw it turn down Garfield heading for the Park. Mardi Gras rehearsals—drumbeats in the distance, impending gaiety—like the parades that came down Dominican Street in the Black Pearl when I was little, with little Black girls in white dresses followed by a marching or jazz band. That’s where the talent was in that town.

I would walk to the church on the corner with Franciola, who would be singing the latest soul songs. I was wearing a pair of Mardi Gras beads that I exulted in, and as we approached the avenue, the world was wide with hope. But a shimmering realm of promise would lead beyond it one day to the outer world.

Now the shocking thing is how lackluster the outer world sometimes seems, when I leave my house in Washington, D.C., and how much more exciting and fascinating it is inside my head than out in the real world. The actual world. Not because of what it’s like inside my house. Because of how everything is arranged inside my head. Maybe the trick is to keep it all going with Bach-like resolve—what’s inside your head when you’re in the real world.

Opera is a cultivated taste. Like oysters, Scotch, and the New York Times Book Review—at least in my first youth in New Orleans those things seemed abhorrent, uninteresting, or extreme. But once you do cultivate an interest in those things, you’re bound to them for life with an almost religious fervor.

Still I must always fight my enemy, anhedonia. The antidote to anhedonia can be random. There is, for instance, an unprepossessing interlude, comparatively speaking, before the masked ball in Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni enjoins Masetto and Zerlina to be strong (whatever that means—maybe for him, according to his character, it means to revel unabashed in opportunities for lust and love) and put aside their sorrows. A seemingly innocuous interlude, yet the harmonies of their voices in the score at that seemingly innocuous juncture tear my heart and raise a tear by their stalwart beauty.

A stalwart joy, and yet I weep. That’s the mystery.

The mystery is that the emotion is not conveyed by words. One part conveys the stalwart joy, another piece funereal bereavement. Take Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, which seems to show an upward progression of pure sorrow, humanity trudging up a mountain to—to what? Possibly to Dante’s Paradise, except it’s kind of sad? In contrast to the soaring aspiration expressed by Mozart’s early symphonies.

My father took my younger daughter, Grace, and me to Venice when she was twelve. I had an epiphany in the courtyard of an ancient music conservatory laden with the grime of centuries while someone played the Italian Concerto by Bach on a glorious old piano. I burst into tears, and thanked God for reminding me of who I am and prayed to be that person again. As I had been lost.

When you’re young you spend a certain amount of time finding yourself; but in the middle of this journey of our life, you tend to lose your way. Probably the same amount of time it took to find yourself when you were young, is the amount of time it takes to recognize that you have lost your way again and must renew the search.

There I was transfixed by beauty, sobbing. A stalwart joy, and yet I weep. There I met that same odd girl I once was and reunited with her, transported by the music of the spheres.


Nancy Lemann is the author of Lives of the Saints, The Ritz of the Bayou, and Sportsman’s Paradise. “Diary of Remorsewas published in the Fall 2022 issue of the Review.