Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)

Schoenberg's Erwartung and Freudian Case Histories: A Preliminary Investigation1

By Alexander Carpenter

Arnold Schoenberg completed his Erwartung op. 17 in 1909. Composed in less than three weeks, the work, a monodrama for soprano and orchestra, is widely regarded as the quintessential work of musical modernism and expressionism, and represents Schoenberg’s first attempt at a large-scale atonal composition. It is also considered by many to be an unanalysable work, due in large part to its athematicism and free atonal language, and to its text, a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness monologue. In 1948 Theodore Adorno likened Erwartung to a psychoanalytic case study,2 and since then a number of scholars seeking to make some sense of the work have endeavored to uncover its “psychoanalytic background.”3 In investigating Erwartung and taking Adorno quite literally, some connections have been drawn between the monodrama’s text and an actual Freudian case history, that of “Anna O.” from Freud and Josef Breuer’s Studien über Hysterie of 1895.4 While I do believe that Erwartung and Anna O. are linked, the fact of this linkage does not completely unlock the monodrama’s secrets.  I would therefore like to further the project of (re)constructing a psychoanalytic context for Erwartung by revealing another possible—hitherto unconsidered—textual source, Freud’s 1905 case history of “Dora.”

The text of Erwartung was written by Marie Pappenheim, a young medical student, in response to a commission from Schoenberg in the summer of 1909.  Pappenheim’s libretto depicts an unnamed woman, “Die Frau,” wandering alone in a forest at night.  She is searching for her lover, and her fragmented, exclamatory text makes it clear that she is anxious, frightened, and quite possibly mentally disturbed.  She discovers the corpse of her lover in the fourth and final scene and angrily expresses her suspicions that he had been having an affair with another woman.  Die Frau then spends the remainder of the work mourning him, wondering aloud how she will go on living without him.  Many musicologists have claimed a familial relationship between Marie Pappenheim and Bertha Pappenheim, the real name of Freud and Breuer’s famous hysteric “Anna O.”  Bertha was the first person to have been treated using the psychoanalytic “cathartic” method, which she named the “talking cure.”5 Though Bertha was Breuer’s patient, she is still generally regarded as the first “Freudian” hysteric.  The question of the familial relationship between Marie and Bertha has never been definitively answered; however, it has led to the supposition that, related or not, Marie Pappenheim, as a medical student, may well have known of Anna O. and may have used the case history as a partial basis for her monodrama.  Certainly, there are similarities between the case of Anna O. and the text of Erwartung.  Robert Falck, Bryan Simms and others have noted that the two texts share certain important features, namely the “symptoms” of the two women.  According to Simms, Die Frau “has symptoms that are strikingly close to those of Anna O., suggesting that Breuer’s case study was, at least in part, a model used by Pappenheim in writing the libretto.”6 Both women exhibit some of the typical symptoms of hysteria, including amnesia, hallucinations, and a problem with language (Anna O. switches between languages and is sometimes mute; Die Frau’s speech is fragmented, littered with incomplete sentences and sudden exclamations). Falck suggests that the importance of memory—as repressed memories are at the root of Freudian hysteria—also features significantly for both women: traumatic memories are triggered, by Breuer’s cathartic treatment in Anna O.’s case, by Schoenberg’s music in Die Frau’s.7 While this recent scholarship has concerned itself with the origins and content of the text of Erwartung towards a new interpretation of the work, it is my contention that Freud’s “Dora” case has been overlooked as a possible source of inspiration for Pappenheim’s text. This strikes me as odd.  I do believe that the Anna O. case is one important source for the monodrama, but have also discovered a number of parallels between Freud’s case history of Dora and Erwartung, parallels which seem to me both compelling and obvious.

If we accept, even provisionally, that Erwartung’s text may be based in part on a Freudian case study—and the Anna O. evidence seems strong enough to allow this—then why not Dora too?  Freud’s case history of Dora, entitled “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” was published in Vienna in 19058 and recounts the “petite hysterie” of a teenage girl in a difficult situation, simultaneously concealing from her obsessive-compulsive mother her beloved father’s affair with a family friend while facing seduction by this same friend’s husband.  Freud’s treatment of the young girl consists of the analysis of two vivid dreams, which Freud interprets towards the revelation of Dora’s (supposed) deepest unconscious wishes.  In the first dream, Dora is rescued from her burning house by her father, but fears her jewel case (“Schmuckkästchen”) will be consumed by the flames.  In the second dream, Dora finds herself first in a strange town, then in a forest searching for a train station.  She encounters an unknown man and then learns that her father is dead and that her mother is already at the cemetery.  Freud interprets these dreams as expressions of Dora’s unconscious sexual desire for the family friend’s husband, who had attempted to seduce her on several occasions.  Dora ultimately rejects Freud’s interpretation and abruptly terminates the analysis.9 The case is thus a mere “fragment” but it is nonetheless regarded as one of his most important case histories.  In 1909, this fragmentary analysis would have represented to Marie Pappenheim the latest word on hysteria.10 I think that the Dora case would have struck Pappenheim as more interesting than the Anna O. case, certainly providing her with more dramatic material for her monodrama, since Anna O.’s story is a study of hysteria born out of domestic ennui, while Dora’s is a tale of seduction, betrayal, and sexual intrigue.  In addition, it is interesting to note that Marie Pappenheim and Dora were the same age, both born in 1882.  I think that this is important, since it means that Marie Pappenheim would have seen Dora as her contemporary and would have regarded herself a generation apart from Anna O., who was born in 1859.  Ultimately, though, what really draws Dora and Erwartung together are not my suppositions but the correspondences between the texts, their shared symptoms, settings, and symbology.

First, Dora and Die Frau share some of the symptoms of the Freudian hysteric, though Dora’s “petite hysterie” lacks the dramatic extremes of Anna O.’s affliction.  Indeed, Dora suffers no hallucinations, an essential point of symptomatic contact between Anna O. and Die Frau.  I would note, however, that Dora and Die Frau share something very important, namely a sexual aetiology for their symptoms.  Both women have experienced some kind of sexual trauma, the cause of hysteria according to Freud.  Dora is molested by an adult friend, while Die Frau faces her lover’s infidelity and subsequent death.  They do both suffer from one typical hysterical symptom, and this is aphonia, or loss of speech.  Freud notes that Dora is struck mute whenever her ostensible love interest, Herr K. (the man who has been attempting to seduce her) is absent; Die Frau’s speech is not lost persay, but is consistently broken and fragmentary.  The symptomatic connection between Die Frau and Dora is not as compelling as between Die Frau and Anna O.; however, I would argue that it is one small piece of a larger puzzle.

Second, Erwartung and the Dora case share settings.  In a general sense they are both dreams: Erwartung is a kind of “nightmare,” according to Schoenberg,11 while Dora’s case history is centred around her two dreams.  In both texts there is a forest, an anxiety causing place.  Die Frau, standing at the edge of Erwartung’s wood, sings “An oppressive air attacks me/Like a storm that waits”; inside the forest, assailed by real or imagined creatures, she sings “I hear a rustle…/It moves from bough to bough…/It’s over my head […] Oh I feel such a fear.” In her second dream, Dora recounts how she travels through “a thick wood” alone, in search of a train station.  When she finds the station she cannot reach it: “At the same time I had the usual feeling of anxiety that one has in dreams when one cannot move forward.”  Dora’s dream anxiety and stasis are certainly mirrored in Erwartung, where time seems to be suspended as the work “develops the eternity of the second in four hundred bars.”12 The settings of both the monodrama and Dora’s dreams feature spatial displacement as well: in her second dream Dora goes from the train station to her home suddenly, inexplicably: “Then I was at home.  I must have been travelling in the meantime, but I know nothing about that.”13 In Erwartung, Die Frau is displaced from scene to scene without explanation: there are no breaks between scenes and the musical flow is seamless.  Die Frau is at the edge of the woods at the beginning of scene one, deep in the dark woods at the beginning of scene two, in a moonlit clearing at the beginning of scene three, and in a state of bloody dishevelment at the side of a moonlit road near a house as scene four begins.  To me, these shifts exemplify the logic of the dream, in which continuity of time and place are suspended, subordinate to the dictates of the unconscious.

Third and finally, there is a shared symbology between texts, important because it is a Freudian, psychoanalytic symbology.  Both texts are overloaded with (overdetermined) symbolic representations of (feminine) sexuality.  For example, in Erwartung Die Frau sings repeatedly of her “garden,” which her lover used to visit (“Oh! Unser Garten…Die Blumen für ihn sind sicher verwelkt”…“Es war so still hinter den Mauern des Gartens”).  In scene three Die Frau encounters perhaps the most obvious Freudian symbols of the entire monodrama, decidedly phallic mushrooms (“grosse gelbe Pilze”) rising out the grass like eyes on stalks (“Glebe, breite Augen.  So vorquellend…wie an Stielen…Wie es glotzt”).  In the Dora case, Freud offers a lengthy interpretation of Dora’s second dream in which he identifies certain symbols—house, train station, forest, cemetery—as standing for the female genitals.  The train station in the forest (where Dora encounters a strange man) is described by Freud as representing symbolically the interior and exterior of the female genitals respectively.  Consider now, in light of Freud’s analysis, Erwartung’s dark forest (“der Wald hoch und dunkel”) in which is found a man and house; moreover, in this house resides a woman, the other woman, the slut (“die Dirne”) with the white arms.  Erwartung’s house in the woods seems equivalent to Dora’s train station in the woods: for Freud, I think they might be one in the same, namely, unconscious representations of female sexuality.  Dora’s forest is part of what Freud describes as “a symbolic geography of sex,”14 a phrase which applies no less to the sexually charged symbolic landscape of Erwartung.

My conclusion is necessarily inconclusive: the Dora case may have been one source of inspiration for Marie Pappenheim’s libretto.  There is no documentary evidence to support my claim, only what is in the texts.  I do believe, however, that the texts plainly speak for themselves in regards to shared symptoms, settings, and symbology.  Erwartung’s forest is Dora’s forest, a Freudian one but also the dark forest of feminine sexuality that Freud’s theory was never able to find its way out of.  If Marie Pappenheim drew upon the Anna O. case for a classical representation of hysteria, then she drew upon the Dora case for its evocative dreams and their subsequent interpretations, but also may have been drawn to Dora herself as a powerful figure of irrepressible feminine sexuality and sexual ambiguity.  In the end, in a kind of symbiosis, Dora and Die Frau achieve the same effect: they successfully rebuff interpretation.


1. This paper represents a small section of a larger research project, a Ph.D dissertation in historical musicology currently underway at the University of Toronto.

2. Theodore Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 39.

3. Lewis Wickes, “Schoenberg, Erwartung, and the Reception of Psychoanalysis in Musical Circles in Vienna until 1910/11” Studies in Music, XXIII (1989), 95.

4. Cf. Robert Falck, “Marie Pappenheim, Schoenberg, and the Studien über Hysterie,” in German Literature and Music, an Aesthetic Fusion: 1890-1989 ed. Claus Reschke and Howard Pollock (Wihelm Fink Verlag): 131-144; Bryan Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Christopher Butler, Early Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

5. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 3 (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 83.

6. Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg, 93.

7. Falck, “Marie Pappenheim, Schoenberg, and the Studien über Hysterie,” 136-138.

8. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories 1: “Dora” and “Little Hans”, The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 8 (London: Penguin Books, 1990).

9. Freud admitted, after the fact, that he had made two major mistakes in this case: he did not take into account the effects of the transference (ie. the patient’s strong feelings for the therapist) and the latent fact of Dora’s homosexual love for her seducer’s wife. (“Dora,” 146n., 162n., 161)

10. I should note that there was also a 1909 edition of the Studien über Hysterie, but it was unaltered from the 1895 original printing.

11. Arnold Schoenberg, quoted in Butler, Early Modernism, 113.

12. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, 30.

13. Freud, “Dora,” 133.

14. Freud, “Dora,” 139.