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Mann and his musical demons

Thomas Mann was all too aware of the ties between music and Nazi ideology, writes Wolfgang Schneider

Thomas Mann is considered the most music-obsessed author in the history of literature. His powers of description were at their best when he was writing about music. But professional musicians have constantly objected to his statements on music. How to explain that?

For this author, music, romantic music in particular, is the "magician of souls" - but possibly with very dark results. The argumentative key of "Dr. Faustus" lies in the claim that Germany did not descend the path into National Socialist barbarianism "in contradiction" to its classical music culture but rather in evocation of it. And not only because Adolf Hitler was a fanatic music-lover and Wagner fan.

Anyone talking about the "Third Reich" and what came before also has to talk about music. Musicians don't like to hear that much. This perspective is made very plausible by Hans Rudolf Vaget, one of the most profound Thomas Mann experts, in the fifteen investigations of his book "Thomas Mann and Music" – doubtless one of the best, most informative sources on this topic.

Vaget traces how music has sat at the top of the arts in Germany since around 1800. It was part of the nation's high culture. Being German meant belonging to the same people as Bach, Beethoven and Richard Wagner. At the same time, since Romanticism, the notion has prevailed that German music was the best expression of the "German soul."

Imperialistic consciousness needs culture to justify its hegemonic claim. Nothing was as fitting for this as the so-called "triumphant procession" of German music through the entire world. In this domain, Germany truly occupied a superior position and this was a source of patriotic pride to even the most non-musical of Germans. In addition to idealism, German musical life – from the most modest hobby musician to the singing clubs and the men's choir movement to music studies - was infused with a "potentially aggressive mentality."

Thomas Mann himself contributed a good deal to the German music idolatry, even before he addressed the issue critically in "Doctor Faustus". A key line of thought of his "Observations of an apolitical man," penned during the First World War, is that Germany's musically centred culture set the country apart from the West and obliged it to defend its individuality in the war. He reacted with decisive enthusiasm in 1917 to Hans Pfizner's opera "Palestrina," a Parsifalesque work of the latest Romanticism, which seemed to him at last to confirm once more Germany's claim to leadership in musicis. And his favourite composer, Richard Wagner, was among those who vouched for this claim. Wagner gave him the term of "world conquering artistry": "Fifty years after the death of the master, the globe is ensconced in this music every evening."

The fear of broaching the subject of "Thomas Mann and Wagner" dominated for a long time. Partly because of the ideological contaminations; partly because Wagnerism was an obstacle when it came to locating Thomas Mann within modernism. Because for many, Richard Wagner represented the depths of the 19th century at its most ominous: bombast, musical pomp, nationalistic lindworms and ancient German stretching. Think of the satirical "Lohengrin" portrait in Heinrich Mann's "Der Untertan" (The Loyal Subject).

Thomas Mann, however, had always differentiated between Wagner's stage theatrics and the actual inner drama. For him, this introspective side was "the real Wagner" whom one "had for oneself after all." The internalisation of the narrative, which characterised the development of modern literature, was radically inspired by these qualities of Wagner's oeuvre – reaching its climax in the technique of inner dialogue in the Wagnerian James Joyce. So there are plenty of progressive links. As Nietzsche said, "Wagner sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian."

Wagner's music resonates at the central points of upheaval in Mann' s novels and stories. For the life-weary figures of the early works it gives a delighting adrenalin surge, holding the promise of flight and freedom. And it has deathly powers of seduction. Whether in "Little Herr Friedemann," "Tristan" or "Buddenbrooks", when Wagner is played, more often than not paralysis of the will, disintegration and the end are near at hand.

"Can shorten life expectancy and reactivate suppressed feelings." Warnings of this kind should consequently appear on every "Tristan" ticket. The general objection to music is expressed by Lodovico Settembrini in "The Magic Mountain," who compares its effects with those of "the opiate." From the start, influenced by Nietzsche's critique of Wagner, Thomas Mann developed primarily the political implications of the topic, fostering a culture of suspicion towards music. From time to time he also described his own relationship to music in this way, for example when he wrote in a letter that he was happy to have missed Wagner performance in Bayreuth: "I am defenceless when it comes to Wagner's music. I'm sure if I saw 'Parsifal' I couldn't write a line for at least two weeks." Astonishing and not particularly believable words from an author for whom music was a life elixir and an endless source of stimulation in his work.

He makes "as much music as one can justifiably make without making music," he said one time. His ambition was to create "good scores." Wagner's use of leitmotif was a model for him in doing so. As static and stereotypical as the leitmotif may seem as a means of external characterisation, the Wagnerian interweaving of references allows a more dynamic experience of time by continually referring to and incorporating elements of the future and the past, pointing beyond the figures' present consciousness. The passages of reflection and bundling of motifs are - in the neat phrase of Ernst Bloch - "plot-driving stopovers" in the musical-dramatic course of events.

Thomas Mann. © S. Fischer VerlagThomas Mann. © S. Fischer Verlag
Thomas Mann adopted this compositional procedure, and this above all comprises the "musicality" of his narrative style. He saw Wagner's orchestral language as a school of ambivalence and deeper meaning. In addition to formal elements, many of Mann's stories have explicit references to Wagner in their content. "Buddenbrooks", for example, is a replica of the "Ring of the Nibelung", resetting the mythical tale in a bourgeois environment. The first book mirrors "The Rhinegold": Here the family of gods take possession of a castle in Valhalla, there the Buddenbrooks occupy the house in Mengstrasse in Lübeck. Conflicts appear: here the giants demand reimbursement for their construction work, there Gotthold Buddenbrook seeks payment for services rendered. Gold and "Geld", German for money, are at the heart of both stories.

One compulsory exercise of the realistic novel is to ridicule the spectacle of illusion in opera, and to deflate its theatrical air. Thomas Mann was no stranger to this activity in his descriptions of opera, as far as the events on stage were concerned. The singer portraying Siegfried may be "a rosy-cheeked man with a bread coloured beard," and a knock-kneed Hunding may stare into the audience "with buffalo eyes." Nevertheless the magic of the "inner drama" remains untouched.

Visits to the opera are also described as social rituals in the works of Flaubert, Tolstoy and Henry James, which deal less with the music than with marriageable young women and demonstrating arrival in society. Social signals are studied with the opera glass. This is also true of Mann's descriptions of the opera. But with Mann there is a movement in the other direction, toward inwardness: Thomas Mann continually swore by his "hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the opera crowd."

He inherited his passion for music from his mother. Ludwig Ewers, a journalist friend of the Manns, wrote that Julia Mann "was both a regular piano player and possessor of a full, clear mezzosoprano voice with which she delighted her boys." "Lohengrin" at the Stadttheater in Lübeck was the musical initiation of the 17 year old Thomas Mann - it changed his life.

Throughout his life, he went regularly to concerts and operas and he spent many hours of solitary reflection with his record player. James Meisel, his secretary at Princeton, described the look of musical devotion on the writer's face: "It's quite something to behold how he listens to 'Tristan' and 'Götterdämmerung'. His face, normally so controlled, gradually lets go and becomes soft, mild, full of pain and joy."

It all started in 1920 with a first-class gramophone that he found one day in "Villino": his refuge at Lake Starnberg, where he got away from his many children to work. He listened to it enraptured and decided immediately to find a place for the magic box in "The Magic Mountain." Soon, Hans Castorp was also kneeling before a "Polyhymnia" and putting on his favourite records. The arias from "Aida" and "Carmen" that he played again and again are projections of the roles, subtle reflections of his own situation between the arrogant Peeperkorn, the brave nephew Ziemßen and the beguiling Clawdia Chauchat.

Thomas Mann specialists love the chapter on music in "The Magic Mountain." The modern world doesn't play much of a role in most of Mann's work – no democratic masses, no big city hustle and bustle. But then the record player! Throughout his life, Thomas Mann felt the need to verify his understanding of music with experts and he surrounded himself with musical mentors. Possibly his only real friend, his neighbour in Munich, Bruno Walter, was one of the great conductor of the day. When the General Music Director was picked up in the royal carriage, the writer often sat next to him. The seats in the opera reserved for the Director were often made available to Mann and his family. His glorious childhood dreams of becoming a "conductor" (the conductor fantasy is presented with humour in the novella "Der Najazzo") had almost come true. Being around Bruno Walter, he could almost take part in the conductor's "joy of creation."

But he also witnessed the fatal connection between music and politics in the populist anti-Semitic hostility against Bruno Walter. "Munich's Wagner-tradition in the hands of a Jew!" - that was the tenor of it. The conductor was accused of "un-Aryan interpretation." The Nazis and Hitler himself succeeded in driving him out. In 1923, he announced his resignation. Later the populist press wrote of the conductor's banishment: it was a "victory" that "for the first time in Germany, the great power wrestled Jewry to the ground."

Nazism used the dominant Wagnerian culture as a gateway into the educated bourgeois classes. Thomas Mann's major essay "The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner" was an attempt to offer an alternative to the official Bayreuth version of Wagner – as "patron saint of the what-is-German solipsism." Mann tried to take an artistic, psychological, cosmopolitan view of the composer.

Richard WagnerRichard Wagner
Words like "dilettantism" were enough to shake up the Wagner establishment. In March 1933, there was a "Protest of the Wagner City Munich" in which Thomas Mann was accused of muddying the reputation of "upright German cultural giants." It was initiated by Bruno Walter's successor Hans Knappertsbuch and was signed – among others – by Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. It was Munich's cultural bourgeois and not the Nazi authorities that drove Thomas Mann out of Germany (and that in the name of Wagner!) The Nazis praise the "folk's will" with sardonic joy. The "national Ex-communication" was a mortifying trauma, the worst that the writer ever experienced from the German public, and, like the story of Bruno Walter, a significant motivation for "Doctor Faustus," the novel on the connection between music and politics.

Music, more than any other art form, served the cultural image of the Nazis. The Bayreuth Festival was a showcase for the Third Reich. Concerts by Wilhelm Furtwängler reached listeners all over the world. Even Thomas Mann the emigrant clung to his radio although not without qualms: "we shouldn't have listened, shouldn't have loaned our ears to the swindle," he wrote in his journal after a broadcast of "Lohengrin" in 1936. For him, Wilhelm Furtwängler was the most powerful example of an artist who thought he could maintain his culture in a political vacuum. And the embodiment of German musical arrogance, expressed in comments such as "a real symphony" has "never been written by a non-German."

Hans Rudolf Vaget argues that the mediocre writer Frank Thiess should not be presented as the antipode to Thomas Mann in the discussion of "inner emigration" but rather Furtwängler, as the "emblematic protagonist" of all those who stayed behind. While he inwardly opposed the regime, the conductor identified with the fighting and "tragically" falling Germany. At the same time, he helped those being persecuted - and he maintained contact with Thomas Mann's Jewish step-parents. He visited the Pringsheim parents over the 1937/38 New Year after they had been driven from their Munich palace; the "sweet Willi" just spent "an entire two and a half hours" with us, Hedwig Pringsheim reported to her daughter Katia in Zürich. But Thomas Mann was sceptical. He considered the fifteen minute standing ovation that Furtwängler got after his first postwar concert in Berlin as evidence of political incorrigibility.

Music critic Joachim Kaiser asked, "Can Adrian Leverkühn's fate, can the life and collapse of a fatefully-brilliant, paralysed composer be said to represent, in any compelling or plausible way, the collapse of Hitler's Germany?" And he asked in such a way that the only possible answer was no.

Of course there is no allegoric analogy between Leverkühn and National Socialist Germany. Hans Rudolf Vaget understands the novel's depiction of the relationship between music and politics more in the sense of "anticipation." Leverkühn's attempt to "eliminate the unthematic from a composition" in a quest for a "perfect organisation" of the musical material is a foreshadowing of the totalitarian aspects of National Socialist rule. For Vaget, "anticipation" means that the collective receptiveness to National Socialism is already evident in the cultural developments of the previous epoch – the "mentality's incubation period."

In this sense, "Doktor Faustus" is about the deep crisis in German music in the post-Wagnerian era. "Finis musicae" - the catchword that was going around at the beginning of the 20th century - expressed the concern that Germany's great musical tradition could be nearing its end. When and how would an innovative leap on the scale of "Tristan" would be possible again?

With its breakthrough into new forms, Mann's novel about musicians also addresses the need to secure international world standing, even if this means resorting to demonic means. Adrian Leverkühn aims for musical "Führerschaft," or "leadership" - a world-conquering act of genius. He wants to "break through the encumbering difficulties of the era" and "defeat the future of the march." Thomas Mann understood Schönberg better on this score than his musical advisor Theodor Adorno, who considered the objective tendencies of "musical material" to be crucial. But Schönberg spoke in a totally Leverkühnian sense, with a certain degree of Faustian hubris, about composing in the twelve-tone system: "I have made a discovery that will ensure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years." As little as a Leverkühn would have in common with the proto-fascist discourses of Munich's intelligentsia, the composer is a "master from Germany" (reference) who didn't only take part in the musical superiority concept but also embodied it.

In 1948, listening again to the final act of "Rheingold," Thomas Mann remarked: "For this part alone I would give up all of Schönberg's music, all of Berg's, Krenek's and Leverkühn's." Small wonder that the novel is charged with being somewhat insincere – Thomas Mann let Leverkühn compose music that deviated from his own musical preferences! These kinds of objections are strange: why assume that the depiction of medical operations in "Magic Mountain" reflects Thomas Mann's own desire for treatment, and why evaluate the other fields of knowledge presented in his novels based on a subjective sense of credibility?

No, he did not particularly like listening to twelve-tone music, but he did appreciate its aesthetic challenge, its intellectual attraction – and its literary usefulness. Thus he allowed himself to be prompted by Adorno, who gives some passages in the novel a strong shove in the direction of "negative dialectic," otherwise rather foreign to Mann's understanding of music. The Kretzschmar chapter on Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 111 was the first that was influenced by Adorno, and Joachim Kaiser – otherwise impressed by Mann's talent for describing music - charged him with making factual errors. The sanity of his "Secret Council" must have seemed somewhat questionable to Mann himself. One could infer as much from the way he finally includes Adorno in his novel as the embodiment of the devil himself, "an intellectual who himself composes, as long as his thinking allows him to do so." A malicious formulation, that hit a nerve: Adorno's musical compositions never met his own expectations.

Hans Rudolf Vaget's model of "anticipation" is convincing, but it also conceals the conceptual gaps in "Doctor Faustus." Leverkühn and Nazi Germany both sought to make a pact with the devil, but Leverkühn is anything but a Wagnerian fascist. He is a composer who, under Hitler, no doubt would have been ostracised as a "cultural Bolshevist"; that befuddles even the cleverest critics. Thomas Mann's parallelism of music- and Germany-novel remains problematic – and precisely for that reason interesting, because it will never yield fully harmonious interpretations.


The article originally appeared in German in Literaturen magazine, July/August 2007.

Wolfgang Schneider is a writer living in Berlin. He is author of the book about Thomas Mann, "Lebensfreundlichkeit und Pessimismus. Thomas Manns Figurendarstellung"

Translation: jab, nb, ta

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