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In Praise of Folly



Encomium Moriæ



The highest form of happiness is a life with a degree of madness.

Erasmus von Rotterdam (1469-1536)



The master piece from Erasmus von Rotterdam is considered to be one of the main symbols of the late Renaissance period. In Das Lob der Torheit (1509) it is the main goddess of the Olympe who speaks: Die Torheit - the Madness. At least this is how she classifies herself. She presents through reference to classical texts and Greek mythology, a paradoxical, ambiguous and satiric monologue, as expected by a mad orator, digressing about the relevance and influence of her presence on men´s daily lives. Along with her speech, die Torheit discusses many themes such as childhood, youth and old age; social conventions; love; war; man versus woman; the different sort of professions and institutions, but finally and foremost discusses and ironizes the church institution and its abuses, what has later contributed to the Protestant reform.


But why is this text a Renaissance symbol? Because through the Torheit´s monologue, the author puts in the center of the attention the man and his human condition. He presents not the rational and measured man, adjusted by social and moral rules, but the human being in his essence, with his passions, turbulence, and unconscious affections. By this discourse, Erasmus provides the concept of Torheit a dual sense: meaning a critic to the religious and social conventions of his time, as well as a praise to our most authentic expressiveness and characteristics.


The Torheit speech is inspired by many paradigms defended by important Greek philosophers, such as Platon which has also written a praise to Torheit of the muses on his dialogue intitled Phedre, which is a dialogue between Socrates and Phedre. On the third part of this dialogue, he divides the Torheit into four entities: The divine madness, the initiation madness, the poetic madness, and the love madness. Analyzing this text, the researcher Christian Gagné of the Université Laval describes how Platon defends the relation between madness and artistic creation:


      If these two souls, who have received divine craziness, prove to be one and the same soul, then one is entitled to assert that singing, music, and poetic discourse is the characteristic of the beloved, also the gateway to love. If so, it  no true music is possible without the call of the Muses , though Socrates produces two speeches: Someone who seeks knowledge is a philosopher; Someone, inspired by the Muses and Eros, is a musician and a lover. (...) To understand this distinction, one can refer to the praise of the divine follies that Socrates undertook at the beginning of this second discourse. The third folly is that of the muses. (...)  The poet, who has no divine madness, does not have much to offer. Well, what he can offer as poetry, he owes it to his art. In the same  

madness, and that the madness of the beloved is closely related to that of the musician.

(C. Gagné, 2011, St.28)1



It was maybe by the influence of these ideas and other classical philosophical concepts that led to the transition and evolution of the music making of the Renaissance period as well as the further development it had along the later periods. In the Renaissance, the theological paradigm of the musica mundana was replaced by a truly human music. This new music revives a dialogue with the soul, re-establishes a living link with the speech and the corporality.

It is not anymore the harmony of the human microcosm, reflected by religious arithmetic, but a harmony that is capable of expressing all the human complex inspirations and affections. It is probably also due to this creative shift towards the human condition perspective that the emphasis on themes related to madness and it´s variations, such as emotional outbursts, anger, passion, exultation, and others, inspired so much the composers, writers and many other artists ever since.



On the context of the music creation, the proliferation of madrigals with its florid lines and melodies designed to provoke and represent multiples affections was only a big laboratory to what would later come on the music´s evolutionary line: The Opera. In this field is where we find, since the beginning, the richest and true praise to madness. Starting by it´s structure, opera has always been an art based on the excess: the shock between realism versus surrealism created by the big scenarios and the development of special effects techniques, the singing narrative, the librettos based on the Greek mythology, all contributed to make the opera a place where the human life´s drama would be the main protagonist. Considering the beginning of the opera, the author of the book “La Folie à l´opéra”, Michel Laxenaire, describes:


  The fact that opera takes its libretto in mythology makes it possible to understand the nature of the connections made between it and the madness. The gods and heroes of Olympus are not rational beings. They have all the shortcomings of man and illustrate all the excesses of human nature. They are often just mythical incarnations of the emotions and passions that have animated men and women since the world is world: anger, anger, jealousy, love, adultery, ambition, revenge, to animate the gods and leads them to intrigue dramatically, often criminally, tragically ends. Olympus is by nature a place of surplus and monstrosity of the opera was born there. (LAXENAIRE, 2006, St. 2)2


To enhance the expressivity of the libretto´s text, the composers have used and created many compositional artifices as well as explored the limits of the human voice extension and agility in order to represent the externalization of our most deep emotions. The mad scenes of different types were introduced to give voice to specific characters, whose insanity moments would be expressed through the speed of the melodies, the coloraturas, trilos, and high notes. The emotional outburst of the opera had its influences also on the church music that ended up bringing all the virtuosic writing to the composition of the Oratorios, cantatas, etc. Along the opera´s history, especially by the nineteenth century, the emphasis on the social problematics related to the patriarchal society, as well as the development of the psychoanalysis, has put the feminine heroin in the spotlight. It is then, a little bit of this vast content that we would like to present for you today.






On the creation of this program, I have divided the repertory organization based on Das Lob der Torheit structure. I have taken the main discussed themes and arranged the repertory according to what would correlate with each specific part. I have given each section the respective titles: 1. The Madness introduces herself, 2. The Madness about Religiosity, 3. The madness about youth, women, and Love, 4. The madness says goodbye.


To introduce each part, we have created a media, in partnership with a student of the composition in Elektronische Musik from the HFMT Hamburg, Dong Shou, using extracts from the book that represented each section´s themes main ideas. The book begins with the Torheit presenting herself to the public, so we have profited to use one part of this text to create our own introduction to the concert. The texts you will hear on the media can be found attached at the end of this program.



1. Die Torheit präsentiert sich selbst:



In this section, after the Torheit´s introduction monologue, we present a prologue with the aria from the comic opera Platée (1745) by Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whose character is la folie, that means die Torheit in German. The role of la folie only appears on the second act of the opera, with the purpose of warning Platée, a water nymph, not to marry Jupiter, by mentioning the love disillusion between Daphne and Apollo. To illustrate this narrative of an incisive, unstable and satiric character, Rameau uses compositional resources like chromatism, coloratura, and repetitive notes on the vocal line, and a very dense and fluid accompaniment that supports and dialogues with the voice, resulting in a unified discourse. On the sequence of the opera, after singing this aria, la folie is praised by the choir for her divine song, and she answers:


You admire the supremacy of my art,

I even make the joy sad

Through my sad and sad song.

Let me finish

With a stroke of genius.

Help me, I feel that I can reach

A great perfection of harmony.3


The Folly or madness is then portrayed as a god related to music creation, which is related to what we have previously said about Plato's praise to madness.


2. Die Torheit über die Religiosität:


Now I finally return to Paul. "With pleasure," he says, "let me please you as the fool herself... I speak not as the Lord's mind, but as folly." And elsewhere, "We are fools for Christ's sake." Then you hear how according to such a witness my praise announces! (E. ROTTERDAM, 1509)



All arguments presented by Erasmus von Rotterdam along the Torheit´s discourse converge to the final goal of analyzing and criticizing the religious conventions of his time, as wells as the miss interpretations of the holy text. To ironize and confront the intellectual administrators of the Catholic church, Erasmus quotes parts of the Bible, in which the madness is paradoxically praised as an act of modesty and self-consciousness, here go some extracts:


But much more open professes Jeremiah when he says in the tenth chapter: "To the gates, every person has become of his wisdom," God alone, he speaks wisdom; folly remains for folks. Even unselfish goodness attributes Holy Scripture to the fool, while the sage only knows Himself. (...) To the dear God, Paul speaks his foolishness to folly; he says: "What is foolish to God is wiser than men."     But why in false timidity, one testimony to another? Because Christ says all audible in the holy psalms to his father: "You know my foolishness. Paul testifies this as clearly as possible when he says, "What is foolish in the world, God has chosen," and "God has decided to save the world through the madness."(E. ROTTERDAM, 1509)4


As mentioned in the introduction, the term Torheit has many meanings and was once divided by Platon in four different categories. The repertory chosen for this part of the concert can be seen as a musical representation of the joy and unspeakable exultation related to the faith and belief on the divine bless, which correlates to the Divine Torheit category: Laute Wonne, Laute Freude - Kantate zum 4. Advent TVWV 1:1040 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Both works, the first one from the late Baroque period, and the second from the classical period were composed taking the long virtuosic coloratura as a form of expressivity of holy jubilation. The relation between coloratura, or melismatic singing has been long associated with this kind of expressivity, as mentioned by the researcher Sean M. Paar of Exultate Jubilate KV165/158, by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and the Columbus University,


One can trace melismatic songs in the Western musical tradition back to the Middle Ages. The melismatic singing also has a long history in connection with intense feelings of joy. St. Augustine characterized the coloratura as a jubilatio, a mental state in which words are impossible and unnecessary and in which meaning is expressed with utter passion and yet incomprehensible. Augustine's "Joy Without Words" was a spiritual movement of the soul through the voice.

(PAAR, 2009, St. 9)5


So, not only on the context of the Catholic church but as well as in other religions and their rituals, it seems to be part of what connects the men to their divinities, the moments in which they can experience sudden feelings of exultation and unutterable states of irrationality. That may be expressed by the movements of their bodies, their rhythms or, in the case of Western music, by their coloratura singing.



3. The madness about youth, Women, and Love:



In this part of the concert, we are bringing the focus to the feminine universe in the context of the psychological side effects of being raised by a patriarchal society. To illustrate this section, we have chosen two iconic women, Ophelia (Hamlet, Shakespeare) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti) that have had similar life stories: both had lost their mothers, both were obliged to live a submissive life, manipulated by their family, both were used as political objects and forced to give up on their deepest desires. On the other hand, although both end up getting mad, their madness was not provoked by the same inner reasons.


Ophelia, a young lady, is a very passive and naive character that can see no other truth beyond what is imposed by her care holders. After the death of her father, accidentally murdered by her lover, Hamlet, and the absence of her brother, she loses her mind for not being able to deal with her own state of freedom. On his cycle Drei Lieder der Ophelia op.67, Richard Strauss composed his musical interpretation of the Shakespeare´s songs text, of the scene in which Ophelia appears in the court mentally disturbed and starts to sing songs related to the death of her father and sexual insinuations of the day she would lose her virginity. On the first lied, Strauss uses many chromatic lines that cause dissonances and a sense of atonality, which illustrates well the erratic mental state of Ophelia by describing the image of her father on the tomb. This same resource he uses on the third lied, but the sense of tonality is kept by the melodic accompaniment together with the lyric line of the voice. The second lied, despite the rhythmical stability of the accompaniment, we find a chaotic harmonic progression and a vocal line filled with skips, that creates a joyful effect which correlates with the text.


By contrast, Lucia, also a young lady, is a very reactive and restless character that, although ignored, doesn´t conform to the reality which is imposed on her life. Not supporting the pressure of being forced to marry someone she doesn´t know and still be accused of infidelity by her lover, she ends up having a psychotic outbreak killing her fiancé on the night of their marriage. The mad scene composed by Gaetano Donizetti is one of the most sensitive, intense and descriptive scenes of the opera´s mad scenes. It illustrates, by the density of the vocal line and the tenderness of the accompaniment, the character´s disturbed mental state. The contrast between the almost murmuring legato lines, the sudden voice skips, the agile coloraturas, and high notes contribute to emphasize and bring an emotional aspect that can not be expressed only by the text.


4. The madness says goodbye:


It´s through the last words of the Erasmus` Das Lob der Totheit, that we thank you for your presence and desire to allow yourself to participate in this mad concert!

To conclude, we have chosen to come out of the main theme to bring a little bit of the music culture of my country: Brasil. We finish this concert with the lied Melodia Sentimental, from the A Floresta Amazonica (1958), by Heitor Villa Lobos (1887-1959), which is a lied that speaks about the joy of contemplating the moon when you are together with the one you love.




1 Après avoir invoqué les muses, Socrate produit deux discours: Quelqu’un qui aspire au savoir, c’est un philosophe. Quelqu’un qu’inspirent les muses et Éros, c’est un musicien et un amant. (...) Pour comprendre cette distinction, on peut se reporter à l’éloge des folies divines entrepris par Socrate au commencement de ce second discours. La troisième folie exposée est celle des muses. (...) Celui qui est rendu fou par les muses éduque la postérité (...). Comparativement, le poète qui n’a pas de folie divine n’a pas grand-chose à offrir. Or, ce qu’il peut offrir comme poésie, il le doit à son art. Au même rang, on retrouve l’amant, celui qui est divinement fou d’amour. Si ce fou d’amour possède une âme aussi digne que celle du philosophe et du musicien, ne doit-on pas penser que les trois vont de pair ? Si ces deux âmes ayant reçu la folie divine se révèlent n’être qu’une seule et même âme, on est en droit d’affirmer que chanter, faire de la musique et discourir poétiquement est le propre de l’amant, de celui qui est aussi fou d’amour. S’il en est ainsi, c’est donc qu’aucune musique véritable n’est possible sans folie et que la folie de l’amant est intimement liée à celle du musicien. Cependant, que l’amant et le musicien soient un, ou qu’ils soient différents, il apparaît maintenant que, selon le discours de Socrate, l’âme musicale, avec celle qui aime, est celle qui est la plus susceptible de recevoir la philosophie, puisqu’elles sont mises au même rang. (C. Gagné, 2011,St.28)


2 Le fait pour l’opéra de prendre ses livrets dans la mythologie permet de comprendre la nature des liens qui s’établirent entre celui-ci et la folie. Les dieux et les héros de l’Olympe ne sont pas des êtres raisonnables. Ils ont tous les défauts des humains et illustrent tous les excès de la nature humaine. Ils ne sont bien souvent que des incarnations mythiques des sentiments et des passions qui animent les hommes et les femmes depuis que le monde est monde : Fureur, colère, jalousie, amour, adultère, ambition, vengeance animent les dieux et les mènent à des intrigues dramatiques, souvent criminelles, qui se terminent de façon tragique. L’Olympe est par nature un lieu de démesure et la démesure de l’opéra est née de là.(LAXENAIRE; 2006, St. 2)


3  Vous, Vous admirez mon art suprême/J’attriste l’allégresse même,/Par mes sons plaintifs & dolents./Je veux finir Par un coup de génie./ Secondez-moi, je sens que je puis parvenir /Au chef-d’œuvre de l’harmonie.


4 Revenons à saint Paul. , Dit-il de lui-même, : « Acceptez-moi comme un fou »; puis : « Je ne parle pas selon Dieu, mais comme si j'étais fou »; et encore : « Nous sommes fous pour le Christ. » Que d'éloges de la Folie, et dans quelle bouche !


5 Jérémie est plus explicite encore, au chapitre X : « Tout homme devient fou par sa propre sagesse." Dieu seul est sage, selon lui l'humanité entière étant folle. Les Saintes Écritures reconnaissent au fou la qualité de modestie, en face du sage qui se croit au-dessus de tous. (...)Et peut-on s'en étonner, puisque notre saint Paul attribue à Dieu lui-même un grain de folie? « La folie de Dieu, dit-il, est plus sage que la sagesse des hommes. » Mais pourquoi se fatiguer à tant de témoignages? Le Christ, dans les psaumes sacrés, dit à son Père : « Vous connaissez ma folie. » Saint Paul l'affirme sans ambages : « Dieu a choisi ce qui, pour le monde, est folie », et encore « Dieu a voulu sauver le monde par la Folie ».


 One can easily trace melismatic singing back to the Middle Ages in the Western musical tradition. Melismatic singing also has a long history of association with intense feelings of joy. St. Augustine characterized coloratura as 6jubilatio, a mental state in which words are both impossible and unnecessary, and in which meaning is expressed with utmost passion and yet is incomprehensible. Augustine's "exultation without words" was a spiritual moving of the soul through vocality (PAAR, 2009, St. 9)


Nívea Freitas


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