Adrian Leverkühn’s ‘Apocalypse’ (Thomas Mann)

Chapter XXXIV (Conclusion) – from DOCTOR FAUSTUS

It will perhaps be granted that a man labouring to digest such novelties as these might lose twelve pounds’ weight. Certainly I should not have lost them if I had not taken seriously my experiences at the Kridwiss sessions, but had stood firm in the conviction that these gentlemen were talking nonsense. However, that was not in the least the way I felt. I did not for a moment conceal from myself that with an acuity worthy of note they had laid their fingers on the pulse of the time and were prognosticating accordingly. But I must repeat that I should have been so endlessly grateful, and perhaps should have lost only six pounds instead of twelve, if they themselves had been more alarmed over their findings or had opposed to them a little ethical criticism. They might have said: Unhappily it looks as though things would follow this and this course. Consequently one must take steps to warn people of what is coming and do one’s best to prevent it. But what in a way they were saying was: It is coming, it is coming, and when it is here it will find us on the crest of the moment. It is interesting, it is even good, simply by virtue of being what is inevitably going to be, and to recognize it is sufficient of an achievement and satisfaction. It is not our affair to go on to do anything against it. — Thus these learned gentlemen, in private. But that about the satisfaction of recognizing it was a fraud. They sympathized with what they recognized; without this sympathy they could not have recognized it. That was the whole point, and because of it, in my irritation and nervous excitement, I lost weight.
No, all that is not quite right. Merely through my conscientious visits to the Kridwiss group and the ideas to which I deliberately exposed myself, I should not have got thinner by twelve pounds or even half as much. I should never have taken all that speechifying to heart if it had not constituted a cold-blooded intellectual commentary upon a fervid experience of art and friendship: I mean the birth of a work of art very near to me, near through its creator, not through itself, that I may not say, for too much belonged to it that was alien and frightful to my mind. In that all too homelike rural retreat there was being built up with feverish speed a work which had a peculiar kinship with, was in spirit a parallel to, the things I had heard at Kridwiss’s table-round.
At that table had been set up as the order of the day a critique of tradition which was the result of the destruction of living values long regarded as inviolable. The comment had been explicitly made — I do not recall by whom, Breisacher, Unruhe, Holzschuher? — that such criticism must of necessity turn against traditional art-forms and species, for instance against the aesthetic theatre, which had lain within the bourgeois circle of life and was a concern of culture. Yes. And right there before my very eyes was taking place the passing of the dramatic form into the epic, the music drama was changing to oratorio, the operatic drama to operatic cantata — and indeed in a spirit, a fundamental state of mind, which agreed very precisely with the derogatory judgements of my fellow-talkers in the Martiusstrasse about the position of the individual and all individualism in the world. It was, I will say, a state of mind which, no longer interested in the psychological, pressed for the objective, for a language that expressed the absolute, the binding and compulsory, and in consequence by choice laid on itself the pious fetters of pre-classically strict form. How often in my strained observation of Adrian’s activity I was forced to remember the early impressions we boys had got from that voluble stutterer, his teacher, with his antithesis of “harmonic subjectivity” and “polyphonic objectivity”! The track round the sphere, of which there had been talk in those torturingly clever conversations at Kridwiss’s, this track, on which regress and progress, the old and the new, past and future, became one — I saw it all realized here, in a regression full of modern novelty, going back beyond Bach’s and Handel’s harmonic art to the remoter past of true polyphony.
I have preserved a letter which Adrian sent to me at that time to Freising from Pfeiffering, where he was at work on the hymn of “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (see Durer’s seventh sheet). The letter asked me to visit him, and it was signed Perotinus Magnus; a suggestive joke and playful identification full of self-mockery, for this Perotinus was in charge of church music at Notre Dame in the twelfth century, a composer whose directions contributed to the development of the young art of polyphony. The jesting signature vividly reminded me of a similar one of Richard Wagner, who at the time of Parsifal added to his name signed to a letter the title “Member of the High Consistory.” For a man who is not an artist the question is intriguing: how serious is the artist in what ought to be, and seems, his most pressing and earnest concern; how seriously does he take himself in it, and how much tired disillusionment, affectation, flippant sense of the ridiculous is at work? If the query were unjustified, how then could that great master of the musical theatre, at work on this his most consecrated task, have mocked himself with such a title? I felt much the same at sight of Adrian’s signature. Yes, my questioning, my concern and anxiety went further and in the silence of my heart dealt with the legitimacy of his activity, his claim in time to the sphere into which he had plunged, the re-creation of which he pursued at all costs and with the most developed means. In short, I was consumed with loving and anxious suspicion of an aestheticism which my friend’s saying: “the antithesis of bourgeois culture is not barbarism, but collectivism,” abandoned to the most tormenting doubts.
Here no one can follow me who has not as I have experienced in his very soul how near aestheticism and barbarism are to each other: aestheticism as the herald of barbarism. I experienced this distress certainly not for myself but in the light of my friendship for a beloved and emperilled artist soul. The revival of ritual music from a profane epoch has its dangers. It served indeed the ends of the Church, did it not? But before that it had served less civilized ones, the ends of the medicine-man, magic ends. That was in times when all celestial affairs were in the hands of the priest-medicine-man, the priest-wizard. Can it be denied that this was a pre-cultural, a barbaric condition of cult-art; and is it comprehensible or not that the late and cultural revival of the cult in art, which aims by atomization to arrive at collectivism, seizes upon means that belong to a stage of civilization not only priestly but primitive? The enormous difficulties which every rehearsal and performance of Leverkühn’s Apocalypse presents, have directly to do with all that. You have there ensembles which begin as “speaking” choruses and only by stages, by the way of the most extraordinary transitions, turn into the richest vocal music; then choruses which pass through all the stages from graded whisperings, antiphonal speech, and humming up to the most polyphonic song — accompanied by sounds which begin as mere noise, like tom-toms and thundering gongs, savage, fanatical, ritual, and end by arriving at the purest music. How often has this intimidating work, in its urge to reveal in the language of music the most hidden things, the beast in man as well as his sublimest stirrings, incurred the reproach both of blood-boltered barbarism and of bloodless intellectuality! I say incurred; for its idea, in a way, is to take in the life-history of music, from its pre-musical, magic, rhythmical, elementary stage to its most complex consummation; and thus it does perhaps expose itself to such reproaches not only in part but as a whole.
Let me give an illustration that has always been the target of scorn and hatred, and hence the special object of my painful human feeling. But first I must go back a little. We all know that it was the earliest concern, the first conquest of the musician to rid sound of its raw and primitive features, to fix to one single note the singing which in primeval times must have been a howling glissando over several notes, and to win from chaos a musical system. Certainly and of course: ordering and normalizing the notes was the condition and first self-manifestation of what we understand by music. Stuck there, so to speak, a naturalistic atavism, a barbaric rudiment from pre-musical days, is the gliding voice, the glissando, a device to be used with the greatest restraint on profoundly cultural grounds; I have always been inclined to sense in it an anti-cultural, anti-human appeal. What I have in mind is Leverkühn’s preference for the glissando. Of course “preference” is not the right word; I only mean that at least in this work, the Apocalypse, he makes exceptionally frequent use of it, and certainly these images of terror offer a most tempting and at the same time most legitimate occasion for the employment of that savage device. In the place where the four voices of the altar order the letting loose of the four avenging angels, who mow down rider and steed, Emperor and Pope, and a third of mankind, how terrifying is the effect of the trombone glissandos which here represent the theme! This destructive sliding through the seven positions of the instrument! The theme represented by howling — what horror! And what acoustic panic results from the repeated drum-glissandos, an effect made possible on the chromatic or machine drum by changing the tuning to various pitches during the drum-roll. The effect is extremely uncanny. But most shattering of all is the application of the glissando to the human voice, which after all was the first target in organizing the tonic material and ridding song of its primitive howling over several notes: the return, in short, to this primitive stage, as the chorus of the Apocalypse does it in the form of frightfully shrieking human voices at the opening of the seventh seal, when the sun became black and the moon became as blood and the ships are overturned.
I may be allowed here to say a word on the treatment of the chorus in my friend’s work: this never before attempted breaking-up of the choral voices into groups both interweaving with and singing against each other; into a sort of dramatic dialogue and into single cries which, to be sure, have their distant classic model in the crashing answer “Barrabam!” of the St. Matthew Passion. The Apocalypse has no orchestral interludes; but instead the chorus more than once achieves a marked and astonishing orchestral effect: thus in the choral variations which represent the paean of the hundred and forty-four thousand redeemed, filling the heavens with their voices, here the four choral parts simply sing in the same rhythm, while the orchestra adds to and sets against them the richest, most varied and contrasting ones. The extremely harsh clashes produced by the part-writing in this piece (and not here alone) have offered much occasion for spiteful jeers. But so it is: so must one accept it; and I at least do so, consenting if amazed. The whole work is dominated by the paradox (if it is a paradox) that in it dissonance stands for the expression of everything lofty, solemn, pious, everything of the spirit; while consonance and firm tonality are reserved for the world of hell, in this context a world of banality and commonplace.
But I wanted to say something else: I wanted to point out the singular interchange which often takes place between the voices and the orchestra. Chorus and orchestra are here not clearly separated from each other as symbols of the human and the material world; they merge into each other, the chorus is “instrumentalized,” the orchestra as it were “vocalized,” to that degree and to that end that the boundary between man and thing seems shifted: an advantage, surely, to artistic unity, yet — at least for my feeling— there is about it something oppressive, dangerous, malignant. A few details: the part of the “Whore of Babylon, the Woman on the Beast, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication,” is, surprisingly enough, a most graceful coloratura of great virtuosity; its brilliant runs blend at times with the orchestra exactly like a flute. On the other hand, the muted trumpet suggests a grotesque vox humana, as does also the saxophone, which plays a conspicuous part in several of the small chamber orchestras which accompany the singing of the devils, the shameful round of song by the sons of the Pit. Adrian’s capacity for mocking imitation, which was rooted deep in the melancholy of his being, became creative here in the parody of the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges: French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz — like a tilting-ring it goes round and round, gaily glittering, above the fundamental utterance of the main orchestra, which, grave, sombre, and complex, asserts with radical severity the intellectual level of the work as a whole.
Forward! I have still so much on my heart about this scarcely opened testament of my friend; it seems to me I shall do best to go on, stating my opinions in the light of that reproach whose plausibility I admit though I would bite my tongue out sooner than recognize its justice: the reproach of barbarism. It has been levelled at the characteristic feature of the work, its combination of very new and very old; but surely this is by no means an arbitrary combination; rather it lies in the nature of things: it rests, I might say, on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return unto the first. Thus the elder art did not know rhythm as music later understood it. Song was set according to the metrical laws of speech, it did not run articulated by bars and musical periods; rather it obeyed the spirit of free recitation. And how is it with the rhythm of our, the latest, music? Has it too not moved nearer to a verbal accent? Has it not been relaxed by an excessive flexibility? In Beethoven there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come — a freedom which in Leverkühn is complete but for his bar-lines, which, as an ironically conservative conventional feature, he still retained. But without regard to symmetry, and fitted exclusively to the verbal accent, the rhythm actually changes from bar to bar. I spoke of impressions. There are impressions which, unimportant as they seem to the reason, work on in the subconscious mind and there exercise a decisive influence. So it was now: the figure of that queer fish across the ocean and his arbitrary, ingenuous musical activity, of whom another queer fish, Adrian’s teacher, had told us in our youth, and about whom my companion expressed himself with such spirited approval as we walked home that night: the figure and the history of Johann Conrad Beissel was such an impression. Why should I behave as though I had not already, long ago and repeatedly thought of that strict schoolmaster and beginner in the art of song, at Ephrata across the sea? A whole world lies between his naive unabashed theory and the work of Leverkühn, pushed to the very limits of musical erudition, technique, intellectuality. And yet for me, the understanding friend, the spirit of the inventor of the “master” and “servant” notes and of musical hymn-recitation moves ghostlike in it.
Do I, with these personal interpolations, contribute anything which will explain that reproach which hurts me so, which I seek to interpret without making the smallest concession to it: the re-proach of barbarism? It has probably more to do with a certain touch, like an icy finger, of mass-modernity in this work of religious vision, which knows the theological almost exclusively as judgment and terror: a touch of “streamline,” to venture the insulting word. Take the testis, the witness and narrator of the horrid happenings: the “I, Johannes,” the describer of the beasts of the abyss, with the heads of lions, calves, men, and eagles — this part, by tradition assigned to a tenor, is here given to a tenor indeed but one of almost castrato-like high register, whose chilly crow, objective, reporterlike, stands in terrifying contrast to the content of his catastrophic announcements. When in 1926 at the festival of the International Society for New Music at Frankfurt the Apocalypse had its first and so far its last performance (under Klemperer) this extremely difficult part was taken and sung in masterly fashion by a tenor with the voice of a eunuch, named Erbe, whose piercing communications did actually sound like “Latest News of World Destruction.” That was altogether in the spirit of the work, the singer had with the greatest intelligence grasped the idea. — Or take as another example of easy technical facility in horror, the effect of being at home in it: I mean the loud-speaker effects (in an oratorio!) which the composer has indicated in various places and which achieve an otherwise never realized gradation in the volume and distance of the musical sound: of such a kind that by means of the loud-speaker some parts are brought into prominence, while others recede as distant choruses and orchestras. Again think of the jazz — certainly very incidental — used to suggest the purely infernal element: one will bear with me for making bitter application of the expression “streamlined” for a work which, judged by its intellectual and psychological basic mood, has more to do with Kaisersaschern than with modern slickness and which I am fain to characterize as a dynamic archaism.
Soullessness! I well know this is at bottom what they mean who apply the word “barbaric” to Adrian’s creation. Have they ever, even if only with the reading eye, heard certain lyrical parts — or may I only say moments? — of the Apocalypse: song passages accompanied by a chamber orchestra, which could bring tears to the eyes of a man more callous than I am, since they are like a fervid prayer for a soul. I shall be forgiven for an argument more or less into the blue; but to call soullessness the yearning for a soul — the yearning of the little sea-maid — that is what I would characterize as barbarism, as inhumanity!
I write it down in a mood of self-defence; and another emotion seizes me: the memory of that pandemonium of laughter, of hellish merriment which, brief but horrible, forms the end of the first part of the Apocalypse. I hate, love, and fear it; for — may I be pardoned for this all too personal excuse? — I have always feared Adrian’s proneness to laughter, never been able, like Rüdiger Schildknapp, to play a good second to it; and the same fear, the same shrinking and misgiving awkwardness I feel at this gehennan gaudium, sweeping through fifty bars, beginning with the chuckle of a single voice and rapidly gaining ground, embracing choir and orchestra, frightfully swelling in rhythmic upheavals and contrary motions to a fortissimo tutti, an overwhelming, sardonically yelling, screeching, bawling, bleating, howling, piping, whinnying salvo, the mocking, exulting laughter of the Pit. So much do I shudder at this episode in and for itself, and the way it stands out by reason of its position in the whole, this hurricane of hellish merriment, that I could hardly have brought myself to speak of it if it were not that here, precisely here, is revealed to me, in a way to make my heart stop beating, the profoundest mystery of this music, which is a mystery of identity.
For this hellish laughter at the end of the first part has its pendant in the truly extraordinary chorus of children which, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, opens the second part: a piece of cosmic music of the spheres, icily clear, glassily transparent, of brittle dissonances indeed, but withal of an — I would like to say — inaccessibly unearthly and alien beauty of sound, filling the heart with longing without hope. And this piece, which has won, touched, and ravished even the reluctant, is in its musical essence, for him who has ears to hear and eyes to see, the devil’s laughter all over again. Everywhere is Adrian Leverkühn great in making unlike the like. One knows his way of modifying rhythmically a fugal subject already in its first answer, in such a way that despite a strict preservation of its thematic essence it is as repetition no longer recognizable. So here — but nowhere else as here is the effect so profound, mysterious and great. Every word that turns into sound the idea of Beyond, of transformation in the mystical sense, and thus of change, transformation, transfiguration, is here exactly reproduced. The passages of horror just before heard are given, indeed, to the indescribable children’s chorus at quite a different pitch, and in changed orchestration and rhythms; but in the searing, susurrant tones of spheres and angels there is not one note which does not occur, with rigid correspondence, in the hellish laughter.
That is Adrian Leverkühn. Utterly. That is the music he represents; and that correspondence is its profound significance, calculation raised to mystery. Thus love with painful discrimination has taught me to see this music, though in accordance with my own simple nature I would perhaps have been glad to see it otherwise.


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