The Lessons of Faustus

  • PDF:

Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus1 spotlights one of the most critical interfaces between traditional and new music as seen by the community of German intellectuals living in southern California in the early 1940s. Its composer/hero Adrian Leverkn, seeking a break-through in musical style, has already become a powerful figure in the popular mythology of contemporary music. Mann described the novel's theme in these words—"the flight from the difficulties of the cultural crisis into the pact with the devil, the craving of a proud mind threatened by sterility for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost, and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalistic frenzy of Fascism."2

I would like to discuss Faustus on the basis of a single strand of ideas: its musical mythology/philosophy, disassociating them from Mann's well known views on the artist and disease, his adaptation of the Faust theme, the parallels with Hitlerism, and side issues such as the subsequent controversy with the composer Arnold Schoenberg over Mann's "appropriation" of the twelve-tone technique on behalf of his protagonist. The critical literature on Doctor Faustus is already substantial, although the main lines of inquiry tend to follow the hints given by Mann in his confessional account of the writing of the novel: the identification of specific pieces described therein, locating the sources that Mann pieced together in his pastiche or "montage" technique, and in general focusing more upon the how than upon the why.3

Gunilla Bergsten has explored in a comprehensive way the author's claim that Faustus was to be a musical composition as well as a novel about music."4 The journal abstracts that provide the framework for The Story of a Novel are of necessity highly selective and we may expect the continuing study of Mann's papers to shed light on specific points, but it seems unlikely that any dramatic new evidence will revise the comprehensive picture we now have of his technique. It remains then to interpret.

I propose to examine the cluster of antithetical ideas that Mann associates with "old" and "new" music. In the real world the battle lines between the old and the new are never arrayed as neatly as students of music history would prefer. Musicology—when dealing with the recent past—easily becomes confused with journalism and is characterized by partisanship, polemics, slogans, and a lack of proper proportions. Intelligent fiction and mythology can serve as a clarifying device, perhaps because they stand at a distance from the anxieties of the critical marketplace. Mann's musics are necessarily fictions in themselves, since they are so diametrically opposed, but useful fictions in that they reflect and summarize so many of our own convictions on traditional and contemporary music.

Thomas Mann's "old" music is set within a collage of the traditional mythology of music, incorporating many of the images accumulated in the ancient tradition of musica speculativa: Orphic imagery and related notions about the power, transience, and ethos of music. In Adrian Leverkühn's "new" music, Mann has assembled a new myth, a powerful stereotype for the contemporary composer and so far-sighted in certain aspects of stylistic detail that music in the years since Faustus has substantially validated Mann's vision of the future, even in some details discouraged by his informants.

Mann's account and the literature of Faustus have, I believe, overstated the influence of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), philosopher, musician, and apologist for Schoenberg's New Viennese School; alert readers will recognize Adorno as one of the devil's multiple personalities in Chapter 25. Mann called him his "Privy Councilor" and allowed him to speak in his own words in the above chapter. It is clear that Adorno was one of the principal informants and that the manuscript of his Philosophie der neuen Musik not only influenced Mann's thought in general but (paraphrased closely) found its way into the text of the novel on more than one occasion.5

I believe that the studies have also exaggerated the role that music played in Thomas Mann's life. He was an extraordinarily quick study and his journals reflect the immersion in music that provided the necessary incubation for the novel, but he admitted that his interest waned when his work had been completed.6 Mann was forthright about his own musical values. As he wrote in 1945 to Bruno Walter (who appears briefly and at a distance in Faustus), "At bottom I am committed to romantic kitsch from head to toe; to this day my eyes always overflow at a lovely diminished-seventh chord." In The Story of a Novel he refers to the chamber music of Schubert as representing a "lost paradise."7 His self-defensive reference to kitsch we may attribute to Adorno, to whom all art was divided into the kitsch and the avant-garde.8

Mann's immersion was conducted in private; he greatly preferred gemütlich evenings of chamber music to public concerts. He was obviously capable of intense and sustained absorption in the most complex pieces of traditional music, such as a performance of Beethoven's Sonata in C Minor, Opus 111 accompanied by a lecture by Adorno, or a complete performance by Schoenberg of the piano score of Wagner's Parsifal, searching for "unresolved dissonances."

The omissions from his account are as interesting as those which he included. While Mann enjoyed frequent evenings with the Schoenbergs and Stravinskys, never does he mention hearing any of their music. Only two of Schoenberg's compositions are cited. Schoenberg sent Mann the libretto for his unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter ["whose religious poetry I found impure," Mann wrote9] and at a later time recounted the circumstances leading to the compositions of his String Trio, Opus 45. Stravinsky's name occurs only in a social context, except for the sly reference to "folklorists and neoclassic asylists" in the devil's lecture.10 There is no record of Mann's interest in the American experimental music establishment or of his attendance at any concerts of new music, although the Los Angeles area was a hotbed of musical experimentation during the early 1940s. There is likewise no indication that he found the work of contemporary French composers of any particular interest. His perspective was directed by his intellectual inheritance, his personal preferences, and the thematic parallel of his novel at the so-called "mainstream" of Austro-Germanic musical culture.

It will be useful to narrow as closely as possible what should be understood under the labels of "old music" and "new music." By "old" we mean the stream of nineteenth-century Romantic composers which includes Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler—those less formalistic and more subjective in their approach to music than, say, Brahms or Gounod. Mann deeply loved the world of nineteenth-century opera (as witness the collection of phonograph records at the sanatorium atop The Magic Mountain, with their symbolic properties) but more for individual arias. By "new" is meant specifically the Expressionistic music of the New Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg and his two disciples, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern), particularly the milieu of such works as Schoenberg's Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire, and Berg's Wozzeck.

Strangely enough, the names of Berg and Webern scarcely appear in Mann's account, and he betrays no familiarity with any of their music, although he admits that he read a theoretical study on the music of each composer. In particular one regrets the absence of Berg, who died in 1935, from the circle of Mann's informants; his obsession with numerical correspondences, symmetry and palindromes in his music, his fondness for extra-musical symbolism, and above all his searing personal involvement with his music would have endeared him to Mann and possibly enriched the portrait Mann was evolving. Mann received a complimentary letter from Berg after the publication of the first volume of Joseph and His Brothers and had replied, but then completely forgot the exchange of letters "probably because I had not then clearly grasped his [Berg's] importance."11

Before sorting out the cluster of ideas representing "old" and "new" music as defined above, here is a table showing the antitheses proposed in Doctor Faustus:

warm cold
fertile sterile
divine demonic
organic inorganic
natural artificial
dynamic static
civilized barbaric
free style regulated by internal laws strict style, archaic ritual regulated by the arbitrary application of external principles
ruled by the elemental (German Ur), material dominates ruled by the principle of order, form dominates and identity depends on context
specific valence of notes and intervals omnivalence of notes and intervals
harmonic tonality serial, atonal counterpoint
formal principles those of Goethe's morphology, Darwinian evolution and the Hegelian dialectic formal principles those of alchemy and twelve-tone serial technique
expressive of emotion and feeling inexpressive, cerebral, mocking
natural sound levels at times electronic amplification
developmental lacking in development, "concentric circles"
subjective, willful objective, lawful
Romanticism Expressionism
symbol: the living organism symbol: the magic square



Musical discourse tends to rely heavily on metaphor and one of the most potent metaphors has been the concept of music as organic substance. The traditional musical work has been compared to (and often criticized on the basis of resemblance to) a living organism; a popular trend in musical historiography interpreted the development of western European art music as a stream of organic evolution. Neatly combined in these images are the ideas of the essential unity of the musical substance, growth, development, decay, causality, determinism, motion, and the manifestation of characteristic structure—all cherished beliefs about the Romantic music of the nineteenth century.

The metaphor of organicism is even more powerful when applied on the level of microstructure, as in chemistry where the term "valence" refers to the specific bonding affinities of elements. Indeed the most characteristic feature of traditional harmonic tonality is the specific set of valences, tendencies, and predictabilities displayed by the individual tones and intervals—their apparent stability or instability, the sense of expectation thereby created, the feeling of surprise when expectation is tricked by an unpredictable resolution, and similar phenomena. It is these bonding properties that in large part provide the sense of logical continuity, motion, and growth in traditional music. Mann and his informants clearly believed that the organic work of art was not given by nature or "inbreathed" by divine dictation, but was an analogy of nature. The account of Leverkühn's composition lessons brings this out forcefully.

[Adrian] deliberately brought to Kretzschmar unfinished things in order to be told what he knew already, then to laugh at the artistic sense, the connoisseurship, of his teacher, which entirely coincided with his own: the understanding which is the actual agent of the work-idea—not the idea of a particular work but the idea of the opus itself, the objective and harmonic creation complete, the manager of its unified organic nature; which sticks the cracks together, stops up the holes, brings out that "natural flow"—which was not there in the first place and so is not natural at all, but a product of art—in short, only in retrospect and indirectly does this manager produce the impression of the spontaneous and organic.12

We shall return to this idea of a "manager." The organic metaphor implies also an attitude toward the musical substance: that material determines form, and that the part implies the whole, a concept of source from which the work emanates. No other linguistic tradition expresses this idea as well as the German language conveys by the prefix ur, usually translated as "primeval" or "primordial." Mann's old music is grounded in similar imagery, especially in Kretzschmar's lecture on "The Elemental in Music."

. . . Among all the arts it was precisely music that—whatever the richly complicated and finely developed and marvelous structures she had developed into in the course of centuries—had never got rid of a religious attitude toward her own beginnings; a pious proneness to call them up in solemn invocation—in short, to celebrate her elements. . . . it was Wagner again of whom he spoke . . . in that in his cosmogonic myth of the Ring he made the basic elements of music one with those of the world. To him the beginning of all things had its music: the music of the beginning was that, and also the beginning of music, the E-flat major triad of the flowing depths of the Rhine. . . .13

Linked here again are the destiny of the individual composition and the destiny of the whole musical tradition through the metaphor of their common origin in primordial antiquity and their evolution through organic development. The individual work thus recapitulates, in a sense, the evolution of the species, a clear indication of the importance of Darwin for traditional musical thought. Whatever metaphors one chooses to apply, it is undeniably true that musical opening gambits have illustrated the concept of "elemental source" in a variety of ways: by opening with clearly-defined tonal patterns, or with a simple and relatively consonant sonority, or with a clear thematic statement that proves seminal for the later part of the composition.

For a clearer understanding of the mutual relationship of substance and structure in Mann's view of "old" music, it is useful to turn to Goethe's principles of morphology, the set of Ur-phänomene set forth in his studies on mineralogy, optics, and especially botany. These principles had long been embedded in Mann's thought and applied consciously in the construction of his great Bildungsroman, The Magic Mountain (1924). Goethe viewed all natural processes as series of metamorphoses, continuous chains of malleable substance forming and reforming. Although his model of an Urpflanz has no basis in botanical fact, the concept of an "archetypal plant"—spiraling (i.e., striving alternately for expansion and extension) through a series of continuous changes—proved to be pregnant with possibilities as a model for artistic structure. Polarität, the interplay between opposing [male and female] principles, provides the expansive impulse, whereas Steigerung ("intensification") furnishes the upward urge. The plant's potential, inherent in the seed, when stimulated by these tendencies, proceeds through a series of metamorphoses, leafing out and growing taller, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively, toward the supreme moment of full realization before the phase of decay sets in.

Here we have the "manager" of whom Mann wrote: the archetypal design striving to realize itself through action, simultaneously driven by its own generative powers and pulled by the magnetic impulse that Goethe called eros, das Ewigweibliche as immortalized in the closing line of Faust. Goethe believed art to be a "heightened analogy of nature," a manmade natural process in which the artist, through praxis, acts in partnership with natural forces, working on the "idea."

I suggest that Goethe's principles, which so clearly inform Thomas Mann's concept of traditional music in Doctor Faustus, provide a superb summary of the dynamics of this particular stream of nineteenth-century Romantic music.14 The idea is obviously the initial motif or theme; the "homing" force of the principle of harmonic tonality provides the force of eros; polarity is furnished by several pairs of opposing tendencies: the horizontal and the vertical, melody and bass, tonal stability and instability, the tonic key and contrasting key centers, and the juxtaposition of themes; intensification is provided by the musical interaction and development, working its way toward a more elevated emotional level—whether achieved by dynamic expansion (Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler) or intense concentration (Hugo Wolf)—and the total saturation of the sounding medium. The goal, the one "supreme moment" or Augenblick, greeted by Faust with the words, "Verweile doch, du bist so schön!" is the single structural climax featured in many nineteenth-century musical works.

This is clearly the musical model of Wagner and Liszt; just as clearly it is not the model of Haydn, Mozart, or Schubert, nor even of Brahms and Dvořák. Mann's stereotype of "old" music must be recognized as a sharply limited selection, yet one which is useful in distinguishing between the more recent phases of traditional music. Musicologists have vacillated in their appraisal of the classic and the romantic eras in music. While formerly it was assumed that music entered a distinctly separate age with the advent of nineteenth-century Romanticism, the tendency in recent years has been to emphasize aspects of continuity and view the classic/romantic as but two phases of the same historical period. Our analysis has focused on their differences. The constant ideal of intensification, the building of enormous climaxes, the continuous series of thematic metamorphoses are entirely foreign to the musical equilibrium achieved in the classical style of Mozart and Haydn through their precise coordination and balance of the various musical dimensions: harmony, melody, and rhythm. The nineteenth-century tendency to unite the entire work through a series of flashbacks, reprises, and similar devices that emphasize the dependence of the part on the whole stands in clear opposition to the classical concept of the musical work (symphony, concerto, sonata, quartet) as a set of complementary yet separate movements.

Mann's organic model does not neglect the phase of decay as a rich source of imagery: the progress of disease through Adrian's body, traditional harmony containing the seeds of its own destruction, the ending of a musical work; indeed we may include among these the seemingly decadent phase of the entire Romantic musical tradition, a fin de siècle malaise prominent in all the arts in the early twentieth century; a feeling that "the end of civilization as we know it" was at hand. According to this view traditional harmonic tonality contained certain specific features which, if emphasized beyond proper proportion, could bring about its downfall. In that unhappy event the entire musical tradition lacked the energy and vitality to sustain itself within the framework of a disintegrating style, and the only possibility of a break-through lay in the application of some artificial means of organization.

Traditional harmony's potential for plurivalence (ambiguity) was one of Adrian's first musical discoveries and represents the destructive "seeds" mentioned above, a kind of youthful "masturbation." As Adrian demonstrated to the narrator, Zeitblom,

"Relationship is everything. And if you want to give it a more precise name, it is ambiguity." To illustrate the meaning of the word, he played for me chord-progressions belonging to no definite key; demonstrated for me how such a progression fluctuates between C major and G major, if one leaves out the F . . . how it keeps the ear uncertain . . . "You know what I find?" he asked. "That music turns the equivocal into a system. Take this or that note. You can understand it so or respectively so. You can think of it as sharpened or flattened, and you can, if you are clever, take advantage of the double sense as much as you like."15

In short (to use Mann's favorite phrase), a musical pun. On this point hangs one of the most important differences between the music Adrian learned to write as a youth and the twelve-tone serial music of his maturity. In traditional harmony the clear tendencies of some intervals and the more unstable and expressive "equivocations" of others produce a rich tapestry of mental expectation for the listener. When "the equivocal is turned into a system," dominating the music, one can no longer depend on the predictable resolutions of tones and intervals, and even the concept of resolution (with its implications of relationship and logical continuity) ceases to be a valid description of the mental experience of perceiving music.

Another strand of ideas that serves as a bridge between Adrian's "old" and "new" musics is associated with the pseudoscience of alchemy. There can be no doubt that alchemical principles were still influential in the nineteenth-century sciences and in the development of Goethe's thought. Alchemy has a long history of linkage with music and astronomy, so its appearance in the thematic structure of Faustus comes as no surprise.16 In choosing a career Leverkühn realized instinctively that he lacked the human warmth to become a successful performer or conductor. But comparing himself in deliberately archaic language to an alchemist, he affirmed that composition was his destiny.

Now putting these two aside, the solo artist and the conductor, what was left? Forsooth, music herself, the promise and the vow to her, the hermetic laboratory, the gold-kitchen: composition. "Wonderful! Ye will initiate me, friend Albertus Magnus, into the mysteries of theory and certes I feel, I know aforehand, as already I know a little from experience, I shalbe no backward adeptus. I shall grasp all the shifts and controls, and that easily, in truth because my mind goeth to meet them, the ground is prepared, it already nourishes some seed therein. I will refine on the prima materia; in that I add to it the magisterium and with spirit and fire drive the matter through many limbics and retorts for the refining thereof. What a glorious mystery! I know none higher, deeper, better; none more thrilling, or occult; . . ."17

The alchemical imagery controls a rich cluster of ideas: the archaistic diction, the composer's workshop as laboratory or "kitchen," the application of artificial heat (to compensate for coldness of spirit?), but above all in the basic concept of musical substance. Thus music, like base metal, could be reduced to its undifferentiated state (the prima materia, basic matter) by overcoming the "hostility of the four elements" and "uniting the opposites." In this primal state the basic unit of music, the individual note, corresponds to the scintilla, the fiery center, which could then be applied in a "chymical marriage" with other substances and sublimated to its ultimate form by means of various laboratory procedures.

The philosopher's stone for Adrian was the principle of composing with ordered sets of tones, twelve-tone serialism. But before serialism could become an operational principle the musical tones had to be purged of their referential nature, their connotations, and our traditional expectations, in other words separatio in the traditional alchemical formula: separatio - solutio - incineratio - sublimatio - transmutatio. The vital step in the musical process was to stress the particularity of the individual note, isolating it from its traditional context. This was to be the essential precondition for "new" music.


Adrian's personal "point of epiphany" and the turning point in his development as a composer came when his teacher Kretzschmar told him the strange story of Johann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768), the spiritual leader of an early Seventh-Day Baptist community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Beissel's naïve system for harmonizing the traditional chorale melodies suggested to Leverkühn the possibility of "mechanizing the laws of music."

Most of the chorals, which had come over from Europe, seemed to him [Beissel] much too forced, complicated, and artificial to serve for his flock. He wanted to do something new and better and to inaugurate a music better answering to the simplicity of their souls and enabling them by practice to bring it to their own simple perfection. An ingenious theory of melody was swiftly and boldly resolved on. . . . As for the harmony, he made use of a summary procedure. He made chord-tables for all possible keys, with the help of which anybody could write out his tunes comfortably enough, in four or five parts; and thus he caused a perfect rage for composition in the community. . . . Rhythm was now the part of theory which remained to be dealt with by this redoubtable man. He accomplished it with consummate success. He painstakingly followed with the music the cadence of the words, simply by providing the accented syllables with longer notes, and giving the unaccented shorter ones.18

It was a long step from Beissel's simplistic "do-it-yourself" style of church harmony to Adrian's new technique of composition, but the basic conditions for its founding had been met: the application of artificial structure to the musical substance, resulting in a "strict" style in which each note had its obligatory place and simultaneously controlling both the horizontal and vertical dimensions. Not that the latter idea was the devil's gift to Adrian; he toyed with this possibility while still a student of Kretzschmar.

He [Adrian] kept much to himself, sharing his speculations with me only in moments of relaxation, and then especially his absorption in the problems of unity, interchangeability, identity of horizontal and vertical writing. He soon possessed what was in my eyes an uncanny knack of inventing melodic lines which could be set against each other simultaneously, and whose notes telescoped into complex harmonies—and, on the other hand, he invented chords consisting of note-clusters that were to be projected into the melodic horizontal.

In the schoolyard, between a Greek and a trigonometry class, leaning on the ledge of the glazed brick wall, he would talk to me about these magic diversions of his idle time: of the transformation of the horizontal interval into the chord, which occupied him as nothing else did; that is, of the horizontal into the vertical, the successive into the simultaneous.19

The symbol for this "transformation" was the magic square that hung over Adrian's piano.

. . . On the wall above the piano was an arithmetical diagram fastened with drawing-pins, something he had found in a second-hand shop; a so-called magic square, such as appears also in Dürer's Melancolia, along with the hour-glass, the circle, the scale, the polyhedron, and other symbols. Here as there, the figure was divided into sixteen Arabic-numbered fields, in such a way that number one was in the right-hand lower corner, sixteen in the upper left; and the magic, or the oddity, simply consisted in the fact that the sum of these numerals, however you added them, straight down, crosswise, or diagonally, always came to thirty-four.20

This achievement, regulating both the domains of melody and harmony by the same principle, has been an unrealized objective of musical thought since the beginnings of musical speculation. Natural principles such as modeling musical organization after the overtone series, calculation of tonal relationships with small-number ratios, and the like have all failed to provide such a principle. Only by the application of some arbitrary set of laws does it become possible to effect such a "transformation of the horizontal into the vertical." The magic square is today a literal fact in musical practice (in the form of the tonal matrix that includes all possible forms of a twelve-tone row), and the sketches for Anton von Webern's Concerto, Opus 24, show clearly how he attempted to construct a tone row from this celebrated Latin magic square.21


In his description of the technique used in composing one of the Brentano songs, Leverkühn anticipates the method he was later to apply.

That song is entirely derived from a fundamental figure, a series of interchangeable intervals, the five notes B, E, A, E, E-flat, and the horizontal melody and the vertical harmony are determined and controlled by it, in so far as that is possible with a basic motif of so few notes. It is like a word, a key word, stamped on everything in the song, which it would like to determine entirely. But it is too short a word and in itself not flexible enough. The tonal space it affords is too limited. One would have to go on from here and make larger words out of the twelve letters, as it were, of the tempered semitone alphabet. Words of twelve letters, certain combinations and interrelations of the twelve semitones, series of notes from which a piece and all the movements of a work must derive. Every note of the whole composition, both melody and harmony, would have to show its relation to this fixed fundamental series. Not one might recur until the other notes have sounded. Not one might appear which did not fulfill its function in the whole structure. There would no longer be a free note. That is what I would call "strict composition."22

As Adrian spoke, he spoke in a low tone and through his teeth ''as he used to do when he had headache." The series of notes used to organize the Brentano song (to the text "O lieb Mädel!") becomes a Leitmotif signifying Esmerelda, the source of Adrian's syphilitic infection, and the recurring references to his serial technique build up the following cluster of ideas: spreading disease—the devil's gift—sterility—the occult—strict style—compositional artifice—cold—calculating, cerebral control of musical style. Mann has articulated in the clearest way the essentially negative stereotype of the contemporary composer, in dark imagery that sums up virtually all the strands of popular reaction against the evolving currents of musical style in the early years of this century. It is a composite persona that conjures up centuries of superstition as expressed in the fear of Satanic influence and distrust of the power of music.23

From the perspective of the forties it is easy to see how serialism might be considered the inevitable pathway for music. But it is instructive to assess the developments in music from 1940 to 1980 as a background against which we may evaluate the other features of Leverkühn's style. How far-sighted was Thomas Mann as a prophet?

Serialism remains but one (but a very important) stream among today's musics, and in the evolution and refinement of its ordering techniques, twelve-tone music has progressed ever more rigorously toward Mann's goal of the "simultaneous control of the horizontal and the vertical." Serial operations have been applied by Babbitt, Boulez, and others not just to pitch but to duration, timbre, dynamics, register, articulation, and other musical dimensions. Multi- or total-serialism has thus developed as an entirely logical and perhaps inevitable consequence of the musical principle on which Leverkühn's style was modeled. Adrian would have approved.

What strikes me is that many of the other features of Adrian's music, even those maintained by Mann against the advice of his informants (or abandoned reluctantly), have been validated by recent trends in musical style. Whether Mann foresaw these developments as the ultimate barbaric violation of musical tradition or as legitimate channels for artistic expression is impossible to say. I prefer to think that he was enough of an artist to sense the possibility of the emergence of valid, new organizing principles, even in a cognate medium.

These trends include (1) the availability of the pitch and time spectra as continua, unstriated by the traditional tempered twelve-tone octaves and equidistant beats, (2) the incredible expansion of sound resources and organizing procedures made possible by electronic technology such as recording on magnetic tape, electronic tone generation, sound synthesis, and computer operations, (3) the expanded role of parody, citation, and allusion as formal principles in music, (4) the inclusion of jazz and ethnic music as additional sound resources, (5) music that features enormous amounts of repetition, tape loops, wave-phase repetition and the like, (6) a freer and nonlinear concept of musical time that results in new perceptions of the experience of temporality in music such as long stretches of stasis, a succession of unrelated times, or the simultaneous existence of several times, and (7) the abandonment of the distinction traditionally drawn (acoustically or aesthetically) between music and noise.

All of the above were anticipated in one form or another in Adrian's oratorio Apocalypsis cum figuris and the final Dr. Fausti Wehe-klag: the famous choruses in nontempered tuning (to which Mann admits he clung and abandoned only after Adorno's strong opposition), the "barbaric" trombone glissandos, the shrieking of the human voices "at the opening of the seventh seal," the use of electronic amplification, jazz rhythms, the speaking chorus, the use of ostinato repetition, and the rhythm written without the traditional bar lines. Although these are only peripheral elements of Adrian's style, they are obviously seminal for subsequent musical developments in the last forty years.

Mann did not foresee the trend toward "disorganization" in the form of aleatoric (chance) music, indeterminacy, and "minimalism" as exemplified in the work of John Cage and others, but it is unlikely that he would have taken it seriously even if he had been aware of such a possibility. The paradox of strict organization combined with the chance selection of musical elements would, I think, have stretched even his dialectical position to the point of discomfort. There is reason to wonder, however, at the absence of the name of Edgard Varèse from Mann's journals, since Adorno was familiar with his music and wrote respectfully of it in his Philosophy of Modern Music.24 Possibly Varèse's alignment with the French musical tradition put him outside Mann's field of view, but Mann would have found him an extremely useful model in his use of sounds sliding along the pitch continuum, repetition, emphasis on percussion instruments, electronic devices, the complexity of his temporal dimension, and his formal process which was modeled after the formation of inorganic crystals. If Adrian's personality was a composite of Berlioz/Wolf/Cellini/Nietzsche, his later musical style appears to be a blend of Schoenberg (technique and intellectual approach), Berg (in terms of the affective elements in his music), and Varèse (by instinct, perhaps also by future-dread).

Adrian Leverkühn's search for a break-through in musical style invokes one of the most basic issues in the philosophy of music, the relationship between subject and the structure of the art work as a whole. In traditional, "old" music the subject (qua theme) is invented according to the prevailing guidelines of the tradition, and its implementation is constrained by the laws and tendencies accumulated in the tradition by consensus. In Adrian's mature serial system the subject matter is (in Adorno's words) "reduced to an amorphous substratum, totally undetermined within itself"25 and thus available for manipulation by mechanistic means, without regard for natural tendencies. In more recent works by Stravinsky, Berio, Rochberg and others that feature parody of other pieces and musical styles, we can say that the proper subject is music itself, "music about music," as Adorno wrote of Stravinsky's oeuvre.26 Finally, in the complex "sound-mass" pieces of the new Polish school with their dense, incommensurable textures, partially indeterminate, we can say that the musical spectrum itself has become the subject. We are presented with a sound landscape, a field on which each single event is submerged within the collective and whose laws are those of statistical distribution and probability.27 Was this perhaps what Mann sensed when he wrote of "a cult in art which aims by atomization to arrive at collectivism?"28 In this evolving sequence of attitudes toward subject matter, we see clearly a trend away from the humanistic values of impulse, will, and choice, toward the values of the mechanistic, the arbitrary, and the collective.

Thomas Mann saw new music in terms of paradoxes, "stringently disciplined yet criminally loose," "blood-bolstered barbarism" combined with "bloodless intellectuality," a method [of composition] that "liberates as it constrains." Some of this tendency to construct pairs of opposites lies in his unconscious acceptance of the line of Hegelian thinking implanted in the nineteenth-century German philosophical tradition; more of it, perhaps, reflects Adorno's relentless and (to me) unpalatable dialectical interpretation of music history. To Adorno the main evil was the debasement of the musical tradition by the commercial music establishment, and this idea is entirely absent from Mann's novel. Musical style is necessarily a synthesis of past musics, so the main difficulty in justifying a dialectical approach lies in how one selects one's opposites. Such explanations of music history are too facile in that they inevitably succumb to the temptation of drawing historical "imperatives" and revising the narrative to fit what is perceived as historical pattern and trend.

Mann was too good an artist to submerge his own instincts in Adorno's dialectics, and so his view of the future of music is, perhaps in spite of his own musical taste, more hopeful than Adorno's. Adorno wrote of Schoenberg's later work, "It no longer permits conclusions. . . . the conclusion of a work becomes no more than a breaking-off."29 But Mann describes the end of Adrian's final composition as "the miracle that passes belief."

. . . One group of instruments after another retires, and what remains, as the work fades on the air, is the high G of a cello, the last word, the last fainting sound, slowly dying in a pianissimo-fermata. Then nothing more: silence, and night. But that tone which vibrates in the silence, which is no longer there, to which only the spirit hearkens, and which was the voice of mourning, is so no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night.30

Musicians and listeners alike need to keep this light alive. It reminds us that musical meaning is a product of culture. To a degree we all have the same problem with style change that Thomas Mann did. Although few of us can express it as well as he did, I suspect that we all grasp a traditional musical style mainly by instinct and our cultural conditioning, and a new style by conscious, often painful intellectual effort. This leads us to oppose what we perceive as "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" qualities in music; internal tendencies that we feel, as opposed to the application of arbitrary principles, subjectivism vs. formalism (to use code words), depending on which side of the fence one stands. A musical system is perceived as a closed universe, perhaps one that requires the application of some "external" principle to disclose new possibilities. Thomas Mann in his two musical mythologies has articulated one of the central issues of the philosophy of music with rare insight, with wisdom, and with compassion.


Quotations from Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter, copyright 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Quotations from The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, copyright © 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

1Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1948). All subsequent references will be to this approved translation, prepared under Mann's personal supervision by Mann's longtime collaborator.

2Thomas Mann, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Knopf, 1961), p. 30.


4Gunilla Bergsten, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Sources and Structure of the Novel, translated by Krishna Winston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

5Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, translated as Philosophy of Modern Music by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

6Story, p. 94.

7Idem, p. 229.

8Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 10.

9Story, p. 52.

10Doctor Faustus, p. 238.

11Story, p. 72.

12Doctor Faustus, p. 180.

13Idem, p. 62.

14I am thinking particularly of such works as Liszt's Sonata in B Minor for piano, the Vorspiel to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E-flat.

15Doctor Faustus, p. 47.

16See for example Franz Liessem, Musik und Alchemie (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1969).

17Doctor Faustus, p. 132.

18Idem, pp. 65-66.

19Idem, p. 73.

20Idem, p. 92.

21Anton yon Webern, Sketches (1926-1945), facsimile edition (New York: Carl Fischer, 1968), plate 34. Also see David Cohen, "Anton Webern and the Magic Square," Perspectives of New Music Vol. 13, No. 1 (1974), pp. 213-215, and Dmitri A. Borgmann, Language on Vacation (New York: Scribners, 1965), p. 208.

22Doctor Faustus, p. 191.

23See especially Part Two of Kathi Meyer-Baer, Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 219-336.

24Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 153.

25Idem, p. 117.

26Idem, pp. 181-184.

27I refer here to such works as Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Lutoslawski's Second Symphony, and recent works by such composers as Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti.

28Doctor Faustus, p. 373.

29Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 65.

30Doctor Faustus, p. 491.

Read 2721 times

Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

Go to top