Amazing Moments in Timbre #5

Menotti’s Goya and The Timbre of Tinnitus

When considering the compositional problem of Goya’s deafness, Gian Carlo Menotti may have struggled to find the best approach. However, forty years prior to the première of Goya (1986), he had already explored the issue of muteness. The character of Toby in The Medium (1946) does not utter a single word during the entire opera. Although opera had always played with thinly veiled matters subversive, mid-twentieth century composers like Menotti, Britten, Debussy, Stravinski, and Bartok overtly exposed themes of horror and the supernatural, queerness, and mental and physical illness. This led to some interesting timbral experimentation and risk taking within a known genre that had always pushed the envelope but previously only within very strict visual, musical, and vocal conventions.

Spanish painter Francisco Goya was born in 1746 and died in 1828 in France. He suffered a sudden onset illness in the early 1790s and although most of his symptoms abated, his hearing was permanently damaged. By the time of his death, he could hear nothing at all, and it is believed that he eventually succumbed to severe mental illness. Several theories exist about Goya’s illness, but the true origin of his deafness will remain forever a mystery. When Goya’s body was finally returned to Spain in 1898, scientists planned to examine his head and neck to explain his malady. Unfortunately, they found Goya’s head missing, likely stolen by phrenologists in France.

Menotti is an anomaly amongst operatic composers because he wrote his own libretti and acted as stage director for his own works. This allowed him great control over the scenes dealing with Goya’s loss of hearing and impending mental illness. Famed tenor, Placido Domingo, is said to have approached Menotti with the idea of an homage to Goya in the 1970s. In 1962, British otorhinolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor), Sir Terence Cawthorne, published an article, Goya’s Illness, which suggests that Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada (VKH) Syndrome, possibly with meningitis, was the most probable cause of Goya’s deafness. If Menotti did his research, he would have known that tinnitus, the perception of noise in the ears such as buzzing, hissing, or ringing, is a symptom of VKH Syndrome. Perhaps more challenging and more fascinating than composing deafness, was the problem of composing tinnitus, which, as stated above, is a problem of perception – that is, there is no actual sound of tinnitus.

Below are some samples, created based on the descriptions given by tinnitus sufferers, from the website of the American Association of Tinnitus: 

7500Hz ringing 

Tea Kettle ringing 

Buzzing 1 

Buzzing 2

While Menotti’s libretto, which focuses on Goya’s rumoured affair with the Duchess of Alba, takes many liberties with this aspect of the story, the onset of Goya’s illness at the end of Act II is depicted with a jarring realism. Towards the end of his life, Goya self-isolated. As a younger man, he was known for portraiture, but he spent the last decade of his life covering the walls of his home near Madrid in huge and terrifying murals, such as the one above, Saturn Devouring his Son. Some of these murals are depicted in the Act III set of Menotti’s opera.

In the video excerpt below, Goya begins to experience hearing loss during a ball scene. Menotti’s instructions in the score explicitly state that all sound halts, a high-frequency buzz is heard, and the singers and dancers must continue to mime silently until Goya’s hearing returns. Menotti’s sense of drama is very powerful, and the scene captures the terror and isolation a person might feel if suddenly cut off from all sound.

All instruments are tacet, except the violins. Menotti creates a cluster of augmented octaves, placing B♭3 to E♭ 4 in the second violins, and B ♮ 4 to E ♮ 5 in the first violins. This tinnitus cluster returns, like a leitmotif, each time Goya ceases to hear the voices of his companions. Although the notes played are relatively low in the violins’ possible range and fit squarely in the comfort zone of the soprano voice, the clash of the augmented octaves and resulting overtones seems to magically replicate the annoying, high-pitched ringing of tinnitus

In this clip, from an early performance in November of 1986, Francisco Goya is played by Placido Domingo, King Charles IV of Spain is played by Howard Bender, and Manuel Godoy is played by Stephen Dupont.

by Juanita Marchand Knight