The history of music is filled with examples of authors trying to capture the psychological origins and meanings of compositions and the personalities of their creators. Just Google “Wagner and psychoanalysis” (over two million results) to get a first-hand impression of the vast literature on Wagner available in psychoanalytic journals alone. Then there is the music of prehistory; indigenous peoples; regional sounds from the middle east to India, China, Japan, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, Brazil, and the nation-states of the modern world; anthropological studies; and the

Page 177

historical stages of western music. The chronological and geographical range is enormous. So is the literature. This is only the beginning.

When we trained as scholars for our professions, a cardinal rule was to master the secondary literature first to learn what is already known, orient yourself to the controversies, then find the open spaces yet untouched by research. After we finally set out to write down our findings, we reminded ourselves that we were dialoguing with those who had come before and had to give credit where credit was due. I am afraid these traditions are in danger of disappearing.

I think of a recent seven-essay section of Clio’s Psyche on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma and Resilience (Part I) where not once in 36 pages does any contributor mention the work of the pioneering psychohistorian of traumatic reliving, Rudolph Binion (see Clio’s Psyche, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall 2022). I fear the same prospect is at hand with the current Call for Papers on music and musicians. Hence, I’ve created this historiographical essay where I review the work on music and musicians produced by those associated with our circle of psychohistorians.

Let’s begin with Jill Kroesen, a regular attendee at early annual conventions of the International Psychohistorical Association (IPhA). She studied with composer Robert Ashley at Mills College before coming to New York. Jill was a playwright, actor, videographer, composer, musician, and part of the Downtown New York avant-garde art scene of the late-1970s and early-1980s, a multi-talented Performance Artist in the mode of Laurie Anderson. Jill was exploring psychohistory at a time when cycles of child abuse, infantile regressions, and acts of self-destructive reliving were very much on the minds of psychohistorians, some of whom were debating Lloyd deMause’s mechanistic theories of historical cycles.

As with many people becoming aware of repeated trauma across generations, Jill was hoping her art and music would help end some of those cycles. The record label Lovely Music issued an album of her songs in 1982 called Stop Vicious Cycles, the first—and perhaps only—example of psychohistorical ideas influencing musical compositions. Critics called Jill’s music “Experimental Rock,” categorized it as “Post-Punk,” and labeled it “No Wave,” suggesting to me her unique music is beyond categorizing. She called her works “systems portraits.”  Performance critic Sally

Page 178

Banes identified one constant in Jill’s lyrics when she says they capture “infantile rationalizations about the way the world works,” a theme straight out of psychohistory.

The title of Jill’s songs will resonate with psychohistorians on individual and family levels (“Penis Envy Blues” and “Honey, You’re So Mean”), on levels of domestic and international politics (“Fay Shism Blues”), and expansionist imperialism (“Excuse Me, I Feel Like Multiplying” and “I Really Want to Bomb You”). Since it reflects the influences of new sounds explored in the avant-garde music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jill’s music will not be to everyone’s liking, but for that reason alone it remains an important historical document. After an absence of many years, Jill’s last major work was her return to a multidimensional theatrical performance piece, Collecting Injustices, Unnecessary Suffering, performed at the Whitney Museum in the summer of 2016. The piece included dance, sculpture, acting, and original songs that continue to resonate with psychohistorical audiences.

Psychoanalytic anthropologist Howard Stein has made many contributions to psychohistory. One overlooked area is his work on music. In the recent Stein Festschrift (Clio’s Psyche, Spring 2022), I mention Howard’s work from the late 1970s when he set out to decipher America’s national and local group fantasies through an Oklahoma classical music station, wherein Howard analyzed patterns of listener requests for clues to shared group emotions and fantasies on local and national levels. Howard’s lifelong passion for classical music and his interest in music’s connection to psychohistory can also be followed in his music-related poems, such as “Shostakovich in the Morning,” one of a series of poems with six other psychohistorians anthologized in Wounded Centuries (2015).

Tom Artin’s first book on Wagner from 2012, The Wagner Complex: Genesis and Meaning of The Ring, received a rave review by psychohistorian Jay Gonen (December 2012) in Clio’s Psyche, calling it a “long-awaited comprehensive analysis of the ring cycle as well as its author from a Freudian standpoint” and citing it as “a brilliant work” (p. 349). Tom followed The Wagner Complex with a second psychoanalytic work on the composer titled What Parsifal Saw in 2016.

Integrated and clearly delineated, Tom’s analyses in both books draw upon all the pertinent historical, biographical, musico-

Page 179

logical, and psychoanalytic literature. They proved successful because of Tom’s varied credentials as an independent scholar and musician. He has taught at Swarthmore College and the State University of New York, holds a PhD from Princeton University in Comparative Literature, has written several books, translated many others, and is a master photographer with numerous one-man shows in the U.S. and abroad, including superb photos of jazz musicians. Tom is also a jazz trombonist.

Part of the house band at Eddie Condon’s jazz club in New York City for a decade, Tom toured the world as part of The Louis Armstrong Alumni All-Stars, was a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble, and performed as lead trombonist backing jazz singer Mel Tormé. He led a big band of international musicians at the annual Ascona Jazz Festival on Lake Maggiore, Switzerland, as well as performed regularly with Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer John Harbison at Harbisons’s annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in Wisconsin (a chapter devoted to Tom is included in Harbison’s 2018 book, What Do We Make of Bach?). Tom has recorded several albums and CDs as a sideman and under his own name.

Tom’s stepfather, composer Mark Brunswick, Chair of the Music Department at City College of New York from 1946-1965, is a familiar figure in the history of psychoanalysis, both as an analysand of Freud’s and as the “eye behind the lens” of the home movies of Freud and his family, which are now preserved in London’s Freud Museum. Like his stepfather, Tom underwent a classic psychoanalysis. After the publication of his first Wagner book, he undertook speaking engagements at various Wagner Societies in the U.S. and abroad, addressing them in English or German. This included a presentation by invitation at the Freud Museum. Tom’s biography shows what can happen when training in a discipline meets life experience.

Psychohistorian Mel Kalfus has also written on Wagner, an independent scholar who earned his PhD from NYU in American History while employed as the Vice-President of a prominent New York advertising firm. He was a past president of the IPhA and served as its Treasurer for many years. He authored the psychohistory Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist (1990) and taught psychohistory courses at Florida Atlantic University after retiring from his business career. His long essay, “Richard Wagner As Cult Hero. The Tannhäuser Who Would Be Siegfried,”

Page 180

appeared in The Journal of Psychohistory (Vol. 11, No. 3), which deserves to be mentioned in any psychohistorical discussion of Wagner and his music.

Psychohistorian Ken Fuchsman has written on the psychology of popular music. I first met him at a panel organized and chaired by Paul Elovitz at an annual conference of the International Society of Political Psychology in Toronto. After our presentations, several of us decided to take a bus tour of the city. During the tour, Ken mentioned a few blocks from where we were passing was a concert hall made famous by a performance recorded there in the mid-1950s. “You don’t mean Massey Hall, do you?” I asked. We suddenly became engrossed in an animated conversation about Bird, Dizzy, Bud, Max, and Mingus that went on endlessly—to the growing annoyance of everyone on the bus—until Paul Elovitz put an end to it with, “Okay jazzaholics, that’s enough!”

Ken taught American history and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Connecticut where he is now Professor Emeritus and was a part-time DJ who hosted his own local jazz radio program. A past president of the International Psychohistorical Association, Ken has published widely in The Journal of Psychohistory and Clio’s Psyche. His most recent book, Movies, Rock & Roll, Freud: Essays on Film and Music (2021), includes several chapters that cover psychological studies of composers and musicians, such as Pete Seeger and Paul Simon, and others that look more broadly at 50s rock ‘n’ roll (showing how raunchy R&B and Blues was psychologically transformed into music considered suitable for white audiences), the counterculture rock of the 60s and 70s (showing how rock maintained a fantasy of a “forever young rebellion”), and how, from 1955 to 1975, jazz was used as part of the civil rights movement—until the King assassination and other historical forces led to widespread disillusionment.

One missing piece from Clio’s Call for Papers was music therapy. For the last 33 years, Gestalt therapist Susan Gregory has maintained a private practice in New York City. She served as President of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy from 2007 to 2009, has published 25 peer-reviewed articles and four book chapters, has taught in the U.K., Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand, and presented at many conferences worldwide. As an opera singer, Susan was a principle artist with the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. She brings to her psychohistorical work expertise in both music and as a practicing psychotherapist in body expe-

Page 181

rience as a phenomenological aspect of Gestalt therapy. She has presented at several sessions of New York’s Psychohistory Forum on music and identity as well as published in Clio’s Psyche on the lives of working-class artists.

Irene Javors has written on the arts for many years. She holds degrees in history, philosophy, and counseling. She maintains a private practice in psychotherapy in New York City. Recently retired from teaching in the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University, Irene is the author of a book of poetry, In The Twilight Hour (2021), a children’s book, Kelpie’s Bells (2020), has written numerous articles for Clio’s Psyche and other publications, and has presented at the Psychohistory Forum and the IPhA. An aficionado of symphonic music, chamber music, jazz, and opera, Irene has written articles for the online magazine Hyperallergic on Richard Strauss (“Behind the Masquerade of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier”) and on neglected women composers. She has recently written on the psychology of jazz.

Two of the six essays in our book, Genres of the Imagination (2021), explore jazz from several angles. Irene’s essay looks at the psychology behind promoter Barney Josephson’s creation of the New York nightclub Café Society as a successful venue where jazz was used to further popular front goals. (Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” there at every set for two years.)  My essay looks at other issues, including the psychology of the jazz musician, some inherent contradictions in the music that, I argue, leads some musicians to addiction, as well as jazz’s role as a symbolic representation of American culture and its healing efforts to forge a union between mind and emotions. Two other essays in the book’s “Riffs” section offer further thoughts on jazz psychology and our personal involvement with that type of music.

That is it. The list is small. Newcomers to psychohistory often ask: “Why has there not been more work on the arts?”  I believe one reason for this meager output is the massive influence of Lloyd deMause. He did many good things for psychohistory (e.g., as founder and publisher of The Journal of Psychohistory and founder of the IPhA), though his approach was marred by a number of biases. One blind spot was his adamant disinterest in the arts in general. I once asked him why he was so opposed to publishing psychohistorical essays on the arts, including music. He said: “There are other outlets for that. We print the history of childhood and politics,” as if the arts were not a way to understand art’s sym-

Page 182

bolic psychological connections to politics. Lloyd’s myopia had a deadening effect on our field despite his own passion for classical music.

For each of the scholars mentioned above, the confluence of multiple credentials suggests why their psychohistorical work still needs remembering. I have stressed their biographies to make a point. Training in a specific discipline—or even two disciplines—is often not enough. Here are people whose passion for music led them to devote countless hours to composing, playing, and listening to the music they love and learning about the composers and musicians who make it. Their life experiences bring as much to their deep understanding of the psychology of music as their intellectual training in their chosen professions.

Finally, it is good to remember that insight into music psychology can come from many places, not just psychoanalytic sources. Jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s recording, A Love Supreme (1964), long recognized—and often written about—is an exemplary expression of deep feelings of an elusive spirituality. A recent contribution to this literature was forwarded to me by Irene Javors in an article by Rev. John Lee called “Awakening with ‘A Love Supreme’” (from the Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time website, July 17, 2022). The place where this article was published reminds me of the untapped resources, many online, that can offer us profound psychological and psychohistorical insights equal to any psychoanalytic journal.

Page 183


  • Gonen, Jay Y. (December 2012). The Wagner Complex. Clio’s Psyche, 19(3), 348-351.


David R. Beisel

David R. Beisel, PhD, earned his degree in Modern European History from New York University and is a Professor Emeritus at SUNY where he taught psychohistory to 8,000 students. He has written widely on American and European history. A collection of new essays, Genres of the Imagination (2021), which he wrote with Irene Javors, is available worldwide on Amazon. His book, The Suicidal Embrace, a study of the diplomatic origins of the Second World War, is available in a new Fourth Edition (2021) from . He can be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Beisel, D. (2023). Psychohistorians of music and musicians. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 177-183.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF