Formed in the late eighteenth century, medical theories of obsession divided the mind into two components: rational thought and a stubborn fixation. Contemporaneous with the emergence of this medical model of mental pathology, an evocative musical topos of dueling agencies—in which a note or group of notes is stuck, repeating itself within a shifting harmonic context—has been used by composers to depict these obsessional spaces in musical terms. Three compositions, each positioned at different moments within the history of obsession, demonstrate various ways in which each agent may interact with the other: the obsessive agent may be rehabilitated (as in Gaetano Brunetti’s programmatic symphony Il maniático [1780], from an era before psychiatry’s radical reconceptualization of the mind), the rational agent may accommodate the obsessive agent (as in Peter Cornelius’s “Ein Ton” [1854], a reflection of the nineteenth century’s “democratization of madness” [Davis 2009]), or the obsessive agent may assume total control of the musical discourse (as in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb [1943], a tale of madness for a Freudian age).

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