Alfred Wolfsohn’s View of Myth, Dream, God and the Human Voice

First Lecture given by Sheila Braggins

at Myths of the Voice Festival, Pan Summer University,

Malerargues 2004


AW’s Ideas in Relation to the Voice (AW pronounced like the German lettering Avey).

Linda has warned me not to give a biography or history of Alfred Wolfsohn, partly because most of you are aware of it already but also because, I quote from her, “the nostalgia associated with the rich story of his life and ideas can obscure the depth of current work and new developments”.

I am not sure that I fully understand this but any case, I cannot see the complete remedy. It is very hard to separate his life from his ideas, because like so many therapists and psychologists, they grew out of his own suffering, The “Self” played an essential role in both his ideas and his teaching, and likewise, we pupils needed to constantly assess and reassess ourselves in relation to our voices and our lives. Added to which, he never lost sight of himself throughout his search, he never stopped asking questions about his own reactions and, in his philosophical writings, he returns to himself over and over again.

So, I shall do my best to avoid biographical detail, except when directly related to his views on the voice. The ideas I describe here are taken directly out of his manuscripts, and although they will inevitably be my interpretation of what he says, I do also have a living memory of him expressing his thoughts to us all.

First of all, I need to respond to a few references made in the preparatory literature for this conference.

The question has been asked:

What were the ruling myths in Alfred Wolfsohn’s philosophy?

To me his philosophy appears to have originated from three major sources:
1. the search for his own voice, or the Orpheus within himself.
2. Jung’s ideas about dream, about the anima/animus figures within each human being, and about the shadow or dark side of the person, the denial of this other side, often deeply hidden.
3. the search for his own God he felt he had lost in the 14/18 war

Unlike Roy, AW did not see ancient mythology as any more important in relation to the human psyche than more recently described archetypal figures or stories, for example Goethe’s Faust or Shakespeare’s Iago. Joseph Campbell1 in his book Myths Dreams and Religion, describes the four functions of myth as mystical, cosmological, sociological and psychological. AW instinctively recognized and incorporated them into his ideas, especially when analysing works of art.

There has been a mention that AW and Roy placed a great importance on the role of Jewish Cantor. In one of his manuscripts AW mentions briefly that “when the Jews pray to God, they sing, and when they don’t sing themselves, the cantor sings for them and their first cantor was David”, but he continues to speak about God, not the cantor. I do remember him once speaking about the typical cantor voice, because it often attracted a particular type of person. This was probably said in relation to a young cantor, a pupil of Roy’s, in whom AW took a parental interest, partly because the young man had a particularly beautiful voice but also because AW was trying to discover where his priorities lay and why he wanted to be a cantor – did he identify with the job with its archetypal figure or was it only because his father was a Rabbi? After AW died, the young man remained a pupil of Roy’s for some years, then he decided to leave to continue in his cantor singing. In this slight conflict, Roy may have spoken about the symbolic role of cantor, but I do not know.

Now, AW’s ideas: His approach to the study of the Human Voice was founded on his own inability to sing in the way that he knew he could, if his psyche hadn’t been shattered by the horrors of war. Trying to understand and solve this lead to his study of psychology. Way back in the 1930s, in his opinion, if the goal of psychotherapy generally is to cure the sick by way of self-knowledge, it should include working with the voice. After all if slips of the tongue could mean so much to Freud and a fractional delay in response to the “association of ideas” could be so revealing to Jung, how much more possible is it to draw important psychological conclusions from the sound of a voice, from the cover-ups, the harshness, the cramps, the hesitations or lack of modulation.

He believed that the Human Voice should be able to access and to express the vast realm of emotion from cruelty and anger to gentleness and love and he examined the inhibitions that limited this freedom. Inhibitions such as:
• the lack of self awareness, which includes a failure to recognise and deal with deep-seated, unresolved emotional experiences;
• inhibitions causing the need to conform to the gender stereotypes of that period which, especially in singing, encompassed the concepts of the specialised male or female voice. Jung’s theories regarding the anima/animus figures in each person linked with AW’s own concept that the classification of the voice into specialised roles lay in the fear of overstepping accepted gender boundaries, both in the voice and in the human being. He believed that every person, and therefore every voice, possesses male and female elements and it is only a question of time to see how far a person is capable of bringing these elements into harmony, arriving at a unified person and a unified voice instead of a specialised one.
• inhibitions producing the conformist use of toned language, which limits any expressive, spontaneous modulation of the voice;

In the late1940s/50’s the pupils of those days could accept cerebrally that we all have male and female qualities within us, that we all possess the varied emotional feelings from hatred to love hidden within, it was nevertheless a big step to take to search for these parts in oneself and then express them audibly. And to do so not merely in a sensational way or as an imitation – which is easily done - but as a serious attempt to discover and understand one’s other sides and thus learn more about oneself. Certainly, for some of us, it was much easier to shout and to roar than to express real gentleness and warmth.

Nowadays, if you turn on the radio and hear a pop song it is often impossible to know whether the singer is male or female, and this is accepted as being quite normal. In a similar way, the new Roy Hart Theatre pupils of today, find it far less difficult to extend their range and produce extraordinary sounds, which we had to struggle to liberate. In fact, Eight Songs for a Mad King, written in 1968 by Peter Maxwell Davies, specifically for Roy, because of his exceptional range, can now be sung by several different singers quite unconnected with the Roy Hart Theatre. There is no doubt that society has freed the voice in many ways. BUT the human being behind the voice is still the difficult part. The ability to sing and to use the voice creatively, with expression, to give oneself away, does not come from merely being able to make extraordinary sounds, extraordinary sounds can be a cover-up.

Music was AW’s life. He felt that inherent in the nature of sound is its subjectivity to continuous transformation. So in this sense, the essence of music is different from man’s other creative expressions. However, this does not mean that he felt sculpture, painting and other art forms are in any way inferior, he merely believed that the primal element of man’s artistic drive is most strongly expressed in music. In fact, AW even experienced works of art in terms of sound. He actually says, “Every picture, every sculpture, every architectural creation sings for my eye, which is for me a transformed ear. Singing is everywhere, only our ears have become too blunted to hear it.”

Thus all artists’ voices speak through their art for him – the mystery behind the voice, the voice of the artist, being all-important. He felt that art was the source of great wisdom – a wisdom not conceived in the head but from a deep creative centre within, an artist is a receptacle of a grace, a tool of a higher force which cannot be looked for outside ourselves, but governs us from within and compels us to serve. He believed that the simple phrase “Know thyself” can teach us as much as a flood of brilliantly formulated definitions. To know oneself is to look with wisdom at oneself.

Furthermore, anyone who truly looks at himself and affirms his shadow, thus “gives himself away”. By this he meant being able to expose ones inner self, to stand naked - and the essence of great men is that they do give themselves away.

I remember an amusing incident, which occurred in the early 1950s, from which I gained a sudden insight into what he meant by “to stand naked”. When I was about twenty three years old I attended a party given by one of his pupils. I got rather drunk and proudly lifted the skirt of my dress to show off a beautiful frilly petticoat I was wearing underneath. This was quite a bold thing to do in those days and I felt it demonstrated my “freedom” of expression. Someone reported the incident to him and at my next lesson, smilingly and yet seriously, he said, “So I hear you showed your petticoat to the party. When are you going to show me your soul?” This incident, though relatively amusing, taught me exactly what AW meant by “giving oneself away” and the memory still lives clearly with me.
To return to his ideas about artists: he linked the work and the personality of all major artists to the story and struggles of their lives. He believed he could understand Beethoven’s music more thoroughly if he could see it in relation to the creations of Michelangelo. He felt they were both of Promethean lineage. Like Prometheus they both figuratively stole the fire from heaven, they were both chained to their rock, left in total loneliness, with their livers eaten out by despair. But Michelangelo’s gigantic sculptures burst the chains of the limitations of raw materials, and Beethoven, with his vocally demanding opera Fidelio, led the human voice into new realms.

Using imagery in the same way, he felt he could gain a greater understanding of both Wagner and Nietzsche. Wagner’s Nibelungen (his people of the underworld) gave form to his world of fairytale princes and princesses – while Nietzsche, with his drama of Zarathustra, created his theory of his superman. They were both men searching for salvation and deliverance.

In this context, AW was aware that he too had a strong “Saviour Type” archetypal figure within him. He was very aware of his identification with Christ and the Christ figure, which can also include Orpheus. He wanted to save the world and he knew that this was one of his biggest problems that he had to come to terms with.

He believed that art in general is the most sublime expression of the whole process of life, and is in essence a healing process. In relation to music, he thought that in the 30s various tentative attempts had been made to use music as a means of healing. But its influence was limited because, by merely listening, the patient is allowed to feel it only in a passive way. Music can only be therapeutically successful when it is no longer administered as a sort of sedative, but instead is used as a way of helping the patient to recognise the music within himself. He must then be encouraged to express it outside from within.

Expression coming from within leads me into AW’s ideas of dream. He believed that dream represents the wisdom of our unconscious, being expressed without the censoring process of consciousness. So we can constantly learn from our dreams.

He believed that all art comes out of dream, as do all inventions, and just as the realm of art is inborn and rooted in every human being, so is every person graced with the gift of dreaming, asleep or awake. Dreams emerge from the realm of imagination, the source of the creative process within ourselves. Many scientists have acknowledged that the growth of their vision was in fact dream like and so many inventions of man’s early fantasies have later materialised in physical form: Leonardo da Vinci in his time visualised both the helicopter and the diving bell, and in many books, fantasy dreams have predicted and described journeys to the moon and scientific changes that have all come to pass.

In the 1930s, when film making was slowly developing, AW was very excited by this new art form. He would have been really fascinated to know about a TV interview of Ingmar Bergman 2, the famous film producer, where Bergman says, “Every one of my pictures are dreams”. He speaks about the demons of his psyche which come out in his films, and says, “I think everybody hears those voices and those forces inside you…and I have always wanted to put them in “reality”, to put them on the table”. Here is an example of someone almost consciously “giving himself away”...

AW felt that this new medium allowed dream to be enacted in front of you, bringing the dream from the sphere of the unconscious into consciousness. It allowed you to live the dream story unfolding before you, to identify with your archetypal figures and to worship the divine actors and actresses taking the dream roles. He believed that film, using its unique presentation technique and artistry, can present a story that leads to insights into the world of the soul which cannot be portrayed in painting, theatre or opera.

Finally, at the end of AW’s long search for his own God, in his second manuscript, The Bridge, he comes to the important and final conclusion that in the end man’s greatest dream is his concept of God. Man has created God in his own image. He has projected onto God a gigantic image of his own creative unconscious. This projection says that, like his image of God, every creative act in fact is possible - so who knows, maybe in the end man will eventually, like his God, create life out of matter.

AW believed that the most important factor in life is that the each human being should recognise and accept these archetypal figures within himself, understand them and use them creatively in his chosen way – AW’s chosen way was through working with the Voice.

1. Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art by Joseph Campbell, in Myths Dreams and Religion ed Joseph Campbell. Spring Publications, INC, Dallas , Texas, 1988.
2. Waking Dream and Living Myth by Ira Progoff, in Myths Dreams and Religion ed Joseph Campbell. Spring Publications, INC, Dallas, Texas, 1988.
3. All quotations of Alfred Wolfsohn are taken from his manuscripts Orpheus or the Way to a Mask or The Bridge, with kind permission from the Berlin Jewish Museum.

Sheila Braggins


Writings about Alfred Wolfsohn index page