Music as Narrator: Mahler, Mussorgsky, and Beethoven in Visconti’s Death in Venice

October 1, 2009

Thomas Mann published his famous novella Death in Venice in 1912. The plot is easily summarized: Gustav von Aschenbach, a highly respected writer of scholarly works experiences writer’s block and decides to take a vacation in Venice. While there he becomes enamored with the beauty of a young boy named Tadzio. Dazzled by this physical manifestation of pure beauty, Aschenbach loses all sense of decorum. Even after becoming aware that a cholera epidemic is ravaging the city he is unable to leave Venice and the sight of the young boy. The story chronicles Aschenbach’s descent from respected scholar to foolish old man and his eventual—death in Venice. The novella is a complex interweaving of influences as diverse as Euripides, Plato, and Nietzsche. To tell the story Mann employs an omniscient (but not impartial) narrator. In Death in Venice the role of the narrator is crucial because there is virtually no dialogue in the novella. This becomes Visconti’s challenge; how does one transform the role of the narrator into film?

In his 1971 film of Death in Venice Luchino Visconti turns to music to fill the role of the narrator. Visconti was not only a film director but also a highly regarded director of opera. His knowledge of music was extensive and it always played a prominent role in his films and none so prominent as his use of music in Death in Venice. The Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is the music that permeates nearly every aspect of the film. Most often, Visconti uses this music to accompany, amplify, and comment on the action on the screen, much like the original conception of melodrama where the music reflects the action. The opening scene of the film is an excellent example of the way in which the music reflects the state of mind of the protagonist. Mahler’s Adagietto begins with the opening credits against a black screen. Eventually the screen brightens a bit and we see a trail of smoke against the sky and then the source of the smoke, a ship. As the camera continues panning we see an enervated Aschenbach slumped in a chair on the deck of the ship reading a book. When the Adagietto becomes more agitated Aschenbach fidgets, shakes his head, and puts down his book. When the music becomes more wistful Aschenbach looks off thoughtfully into the horizon. The interaction of protagonist and music continues wordlessly for several minutes. It is the music that gives us insight into the mental state of Aschenbach. Do we know the details of Aschenbach’s malaise? No, but in some ways this recalls Mahler’s reflection on his impetus for writing music. In a letter to a friend he remarked, “I know that as long as I can express an experience in words I should never try to put it into music.”1 In this opening scene the combination of music, camera work, and the brilliant acting of Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach tell us more than words can convey.

Death in Venice was not the first time Visconti had experimented with a dramatic mingling of music and action. In 1951 Visconti met with Thomas Mann and they discussed Visconti’s plan for a dramatic interpretation of Mann’s novella Mario and the Magician that included a mixture of ballet, theater, and opera. Mann gave his permission for the project but due to a number of setbacks the work was not performed until 1956, the year after Mann died. But this experience prepared Visconti for a challenge like Death in Venice where there are long stretches of the film with no dialogue. In fact, nearly three quarters of an hour of the film is wordless.2 Mahler’s Adagietto accompanies much of this wordless action. Visconti uses long portions of the Adagietto in four different sections of the film. Each time the action of the film is choreographed to the music. Dirk Bogarde discussed his experience of seeing the completed film for the first time. He specifically remarked about now understanding some of Visconti’s directorial choices. In one scene where he is being taken back to Venice after his foiled departure Visconti instructed him to stand as the boat came out from under a bridge. It wasn’t until Bogarde saw the film that he realized that his movement was choreographed to coincide with a change in the music.3 Another example of Visconti’s use of the Adagietto will be discussed, but first it is important to consider the use of vocal music in Death in Venice.


Vocal Music In Death In Venice

Visconti uses vocal music on the soundtrack that provides commentary on the action of the film. The twist is that the lyrics are in a foreign language or the selection is performed instrumentally. The first example is once again a selection from Mahler; the fourth movement from his Symphony No. 3. The text is the poem “Zarathustra’s Night Song” taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. An examination of Nietzsche’s poem is revealing. Before continuing, it must be noted that the poem is in German and it is sung in German. One wonders how much of this Visconti thinks the viewer will comprehend, but it seems evident that Visconti is unconcerned about the viewer’s ability to follow all the layers of the film. Visconti makes no concessions to the viewer. The translation of the first stanza of the poem reads:

Oh, man, give heed!
What does the midnight say?
I slept!
From a deep dream I have waked.
The world is deep,
And deeper than the day had thought!

In the film, Aschenbach, like midnight, has slept and as the sun begins to rise he stands looking out the window. Perhaps this is his realization that he is out of his element in Venice. Perhaps he realizes that the depth of his descent into his emotions is deeper than his rational mind can comprehend. In a variety of ways the film emphasizes the Nietzschean conflict between Apollo and Dionysus where Apollo represents the intellect, balance, and restraint, and Dionysus represents the emotions, intuition, and impulsiveness. This scene from the film emphasizes the conflict between day and night, where day is equated with Apollo, and night with Dionysus. The Apollonian Aschenbach has discovered that “The world is deep—And deeper than the day had thought!” Early in the novella, when the protagonist acquiesces to the sudden urge to travel, the narrator remarks: “And so what he needed was a respite, a kind of spur-of-the-moment existence, a way to waste some time, foreign air and an infusion of new blood, to make the summer bearable and productive. Travel it would be then—it was all right with him. Not too far, though, not quite all the way to the tigers.”4 The tigers mentioned here can be seen as a veiled reference to Dionysus whose entourage is often depicted as being led by tigers. This excerpt from the novella exemplifies the Apollonian Aschenbach’s belief that he can rationally decide how far he wants to dip into his emotions. The intention is clear. Aschenbach wants a bit of a foreign influence to loosen the Apollonian death grip that has created his writer’s block, but, in his Apollonian way, he thinks he can control the depth of his descent into his emotions. Mahler’s song, acting as narrator, questions Aschenbach’s belief that he can control the depth of his descent.

Another example of the use of vocal music to narrate this film is a song by Mussorgsky. This composition is given a variety of titles in articles about the film. On the soundtrack it is listed as Ninna nanna. In some articles it is referred to as Nenia. Nenia is a generic term for any song that is a dirge, or funeral song. In my research on the film, I have not found the lyrics to this selection listed anywhere. After searching the repertoire of Mussorgsky, I did find the song and a translation of the lyrics. The actual title of the composition is “Lullaby,” which is quite misleading, but the irony is, of course, intentional. The lyrics, like the song, are chilling:

Hush, hush-a-bye, my little grandchild,
Sleep in slumber deep, little peasant’s son
Hush, hush-a-bye; our forefathers never saw such a misfortune,
But misfortune has come, disaster upon disaster, . . .
Hush, hush, hush-a-bye!
Your small white body lies there in the cradle,
Your soul flies in the heavens,
Your quiet slumber is guarded by God himself.
By your side stand bright angels,
Bright angels!

In the film, an elderly woman sings this song in Russian as she sits on the beach. She sings without accompaniment and creates a palpable sense of impending doom—even when you do not know the language. This is the day that Tadzio and his family are leaving Venice; the beach is nearly deserted. The song narrates and creates the ambiance for the end of the film and the lyrics include such elements as a reflection on one’s forefathers. In the novella Aschenbach comments that his forbearers would never have found themselves in his predicament. Visconti never articulates this theme, but it is here in the music. This is another instance where Visconti uses the music as narrator to reveal the inner dialogue—even if it is in a foreign tongue. The visual images also reflect the lyrics. Eventually we see Aschenbach in his white suit slumped in a recliner. This is a dramatic representation of the lyrics, “your small white body lies there in the cradle.”


Background on Visconti and Music

The question may arise, how is it that Visconti was able to choose such appropriate music to accompany his films? A brief examination of his background reveals that he was well versed and well suited to select the music for his films.

As mentioned earlier, although Visconti is best known today as director of film, in the past he has been equally well known as a director of opera and of stage plays. His role as a director of opera was most impressive. When he was a child his family held the controlling interest in what is probably the most important opera house in the world, La Scala in Milan Italy. Visconti’s debut as a director of opera was in 1954 at La Scala with La Vestale by Spontini. The production featured Visconti’s protégé, Maria Callas, one of the most important sopranos of the twentieth century. Visconti worked many times with Maria Callas and with a number of famous conductors including Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. Visconti was uniquely qualified to select the music for his films.

The final example of vocal music that comments on the action of the film is quite unusual and was a surprise to me. I had watched the film many times and knew that the incidental diegetic music in the hotel lobby was from Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow. In the film the music is played by a piano and a small group of strings in the lobby. I was familiar with the basic storyline of the operetta but had never paid much attention to the lyrics. I thought its inclusion in the film was merely an appropriate choice; the operetta premiered at the very end of 1905. It was a big hit and was almost immediately translated into many other languages which made it ideal music for the lobby of a cosmopolitan hotel. When I decided to look into the operetta a bit deeper and saw the lyrics to the selections Visconti chose I was quite surprised. They fit the story line completely; one selection is about forbidden love and the other is about a man who is enthralled and enslaved by a Vilja. Camille Crittenden in her notes on the operetta comments that “Like the German Lorelei, the Slavic Vilja calls to unsuspecting adventurers, making them forsake all reason and die for their mysterious attraction.”5 That certainly describes Aschenbach’s fate in Death in Venice. The other selection is what is commonly known as the Merry Widow Waltz but the actual title is “Forbidden Words.” The words, again, are most appropriate to the film:

Words forbidden
Long, long hidden
Love be mine
Strings are playing
Softly saying
Love be mine
Every glance revealing
Thoughts I may not speak
Turn to me for I could be
The love you seek.

The Merry Widow is also an appropriate choice because there is a sense that in both the operetta and the film you have people who are waltzing at the edge of the abyss that is the First World War. But in the film there is also the sense that they are waltzing at the edge of the abyss of a cholera epidemic in Venice; here they are laughing and enjoying themselves when they should be fleeing.

All that has been described so far are examples where Visconti has followed the plot of Mann’s novella quite closely. But Visconti the auteur is not content to merely translate the novella to film. Visconti felt passionately about German culture. He once said, “I have always had a strong interest in German culture, literature and music. After Goethe, I love Thomas Mann. In one way or another all my films are dipped in Mann . . . and German music, Mahler and Wagner.”6 In Death in Venice Visconti was able to combine his love of German literature and music and also exercise his creativity. Visconti was aware that Mann had intentionally given Gustav von Aschenbach Mahler’s first name and physical description. Given that, Visconti creates a hybrid character who embodies Visconti’s love of German culture. Visconti transforms Mann’s writer into a musician and imbues Aschenbach with biographical details of Mahler’s life. For instance, in the film Aschenbach and his wife suffer the loss of a child. This does not occur in the novella. Visconti also conflates his protagonist in Death in Venice with another of Mann’s protagonists, Adrian Leverkuhn from Doctor Faustus. In Doctor Faustus, Mann’s protagonist is a musician who sells his soul to the devil. In the novel the pact is sealed not with a signature in blood, but with a visit to a prostitute named Esmeralda. Visconti incorporates this thread into his film of Death in Venice. In fact, in the opening scene of the film as the boat brings Aschenbach to Venice the name of the boat comes into view—Esmeralda.

Visconti continues this connection with Esmeralda in another scene which is totally his creation. As Aschenbach comes into the lobby of the hotel he hears someone pluncking out the opening bars of Beethoven’s Für Elise. It turns out to be Tadzio. Aschenbach is distracted by the hotel manager, and after a brief conversation with him Aschenbach heads for the stage where the piano is. The music continues, but we see that there is no piano player. At this point there is a match cut to a flashback of Aschenbach in a brothel. The playing of Für Elise continues without missing a beat, but has dropped about a half step in pitch and is somewhat distorted. I believe that this is the turning point in the film and Visconti is using music to emphasize the change that occurs. One of the main points that Mann makes in the novella is related to his interpretation of Plato’s dialogue The Phaedrus. In this dialogue Plato posits that Beauty is the only ideal virtue that is visible to humans. The problem is that a human encounter with ideal beauty inevitably leads to a sensuous desire for beauty. When Visconti uses Für Elise to connect Tadzio and the prostitute I believe he is communicating that Aschenbach has moved beyond the intellectual, Apollonian appreciation of Tadzio as the embodiment of pure beauty to the sensual, Dionysian obsession with Tadzio. Beethoven’s Für Elise provides the commentary that might have been provided by the narrator. It is not only that the music is out of tune and distorted but that the mis-en-scene of the brothel is overwhelming and unsettling.


Last Scene and Conclusion

The last scene of the film brings together several of the issues discussed. Mussorgsky’s Lullaby has just finished and Aschenbach is sitting in his “cradle.” Tadzio walks out in the surf and the deathly debilitated Aschenbach, as usual, is watching the young god. When Tadzio points to the horizon and Aschenbach breathes his last we are given the impression that Tadzio is leading Aschenbach into eternity, and that is certainly what happens in the novella, where Tadzio is described as “the pale and charming psychagogue.”7 The god Hermes is the psychagogue, that is, the leader of the souls to the underworld and in the last scene Mann makes Tadzio the psychagogue: “It seemed to him, [Aschenbach] as if the pale and charming psychagogue out there were smiling at him, beckoning to him; as if, lifting his hand from his hip, he were pointing outwards, hovering before him in an immensity full of promise. And, as so often before, he arose to follow him.”8 In the film, Visconti perfectly captures this last encounter. Once again Visconti uses Mahler’s Adagietto to choreograph and amplify the action on screen. Tadzio walks into the surf to the first portion of the Adagietto. As the music builds to a crescendo Tadzio points to the horizon and Aschenbach tries to rise to follow, but dies in his chair. As the music builds to a new crescendo people on the beach realize that Aschenbach has died and they rush to carry him away. This scene also recalls the last stanza of “Lullaby”:

Hush, hush, hush-a-bye!
Your small white body lies there in the cradle,
Your soul flies in the heavens,
Your quiet slumber is guarded by God himself.
By your side stand bright angels,
Bright angels!

And finally, returning to “Zarathustra’s Night Song,” we see how Aschenbach experiences the joy and suffering described in the last stanza of the poem:

Deep is its pain!
Joy deeper still than the heartbreak!
Pain speaks: Vanish!
But all joy seeks eternity
Seeks deep, deep eternity

Here, at the end of the film, the imagery of Visconti and the music of Mahler perfectly portray Aschenbach seeking, and finding “deep, deep eternity.”



Bacon, Henry. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Bogarde, Dirk. Snakes and Ladders. New York: Harper Collins, 1979.

Carr, Jonathon. Mahler. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1997.

Crittenden, Camille. Liner notes for The Merry Widow, Franz Lehar. DVD. Directed by Lotfi Mansouri, Opus Arte, OA0837D, 2003.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Edited and translated by Clayton Koelb. New York: Norton, 1994.

Servadio, Gaia. Luchino Visconti: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.



1Carr, Mahler, 48.

2Bacon, Visconti, 166.

3Bogarde, Snakes and Ladders, 298.

4Mann, Death in Venice, 6.

5Crittenden, Liner notes, 1.

6Servadio, Luchino Visconti, 46.

7Mann, Death in Venice, 63.

8Ibid., 63.

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