A Symphony in Seven Chapters

If any of the 20th century composers had managed to create as precise and consistent a language in their works as Thomas Mann had when composing the linguistic scores of his short stories and novels, we would have gained a music to overshadow the whole legacy of modernism. The sensitivity with which he spun leitmotifs, the ability to lead verbal melodies in an intricate counterpoint, the consciousness of form, and, predominantly, the sense of musical time of the narration which was once continuous and then jagged, cyclic and linear, falling at times into a mythical, fable-like timelessness, brings to mind non-existent symphonies, operas that were never sung and painfully elusive works of chamber music. Regardless of whether he directly referred to the music of that time in his works (like in Buddenbrooks – built in the image and likeness of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung) or whether he wrote about imaginary music, completely different from his own preferences (like in Doctor Faustus whose hero Adrian Leverkühn in a way unintentionally became the character of Arnold Schönberg) he made a typically German “music of the word” in the spirit of Tieck, Hofmann and Heine, which was, however, larger in scale and more consistent as regards its concept.
The Magic Mountain can be interpreted in the same vein, as it is, after all, a pastiche, if not a parody of the classic Bildungsroman, as well as a story about death and illness, an allegory of the violent clash of ideology and thoughts at the turn of the century, a reflection about the space-time continuum. Also, in the context of music, what Mann clearly makes readers realise at the beginning of Chapter Seven: “Can one tell – that is to say, narrate – time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking. (…) For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound to it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once”. He explains the implications of this situation a few pages further on: “We freely admit that in bringing up the question as to whether time can be narrated or not, we have done so only to confess that we had something like that in view in the present work. And if we touched upon the further question, whether our readers were clear how much time had passed since the upright Joachim, deceased in the interval, had introduced into the conversation the above-quoted phrases about music and time (…) we should not have been dismayed to hear that they were not clear. We might even have been gratified, on the plain ground that a thorough-going sympathy with the experiences of our hero is precisely what we wish to arouse, and he, Hans Castorp, was himself not clear upon the point in question, no, nor had been for a very long time”.
The hero, Hans Castorp, will experience a violent transformation a few chapters later when a certain German product appears in Berghof, “the truly musical, in a modern, mechanical form, the German soul up to date”. The enchanted treasure, a Polyhymnia gramophone, which Castorp will soon appropriate, becomes the only dispenser of musical delights, out of fear that “the sick, but thick-skinned” will desecrate the records using worn needles, leaving them scattered on chairs or playing goofy pranks. Our “good-natured nuisance” will get out from the state of great stupor, stop playing patience and start listening. He will comprehend the meaning of those many years spent in the sanatorium, sum up his experiences to date, gain strength, mature and come to the surprising conclusion that the subject that he loves most, with a healthy and vigorous love, is death.
He will arrive at this conclusion with the help of his most beloved records, with the aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Gounod’s Faust, the prelude to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the final duet “O terra addio” from Verdi’s Aida, the end of the second act from Bizet’s Carmen with the well-known tenor “Flower song”, and above all the song Lindenbaum from Schubert’s cycle Winterreise. Castorp listens to these records in an utterly different manner than toward live performers, whose artistry made such an impact on the reception of music by Thomas Mann himself – the writer who experienced his musical initiation at the age of 17 at the performance of Lohengrin in Stadttheater in Lübeck and considered it one of his most significant experiences. Mann witnessed the very first performance of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as well as Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Berg’s Lulu. He was friends with the conductor Bruno Walter, a legendary interpreter of Mahler, Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner. He enjoyed sitting at the piano in solitude and playing his favourite fragments from Tristan und Isolde, allegedly the only opera that could make his stern and always poised face reflect any emotion. For a long time, he could not take to the recorded music, although he succumbed to it while still in the era of mechanical records, before the first gramophone for electrical recordings appeared on the market.
The omniscient and, at the same time, completely non-scient narrator of The Magic Mountain speaks from the perspective of a neophyte with an obsessive passion for listening into the gramophone tube. Mann was perfectly aware of the fact that the phonographic revolution turned the existing model of listening to music inside out. It took music out of its social context. It stripped the closed form of its integrity, making it possible to listen to the chosen passages virtually endlessly. It involved the listener in an intimate dialogue with the work of art, and, at the same time, increased his distance to the musicians. It aroused his imagination, forcing him to carry out a mental reconstruction of the visual aspect of the performance and the missing elements of the purely musical landscape. As we read about Castorp in the subchapter Fullness of Harmony: “The singers male and female whom he heard, he could not see; their corporeal part abode in America, in Milan, Vienna, St Petersburg. But let them dwell where they might, he had their better part, their voices, and might rejoice in the refining and abstracting process which did away with the disadvantages of closer personal contact, yet left them enough appeal to the senses to permit some command over their individualities”. Similar to Wagner’s Parsifal, the pure simple man was slowly reaching the truth, he “writhed when they failed. He bit his lips in chagrin when the reproduction was technically faulty; he was on pins and needles when the first note of an often-used record gave a shrill or scratching sound – which happened more particularly with the difficult female voice. Still, when these things happened, he bore with them, for love makes us forbearing”.
The majority of the readers of The Magic Mountain incorrectly assume that Mann equipped Castorp with a collection of records from the epoch, gave him a standard set of mechanical records from the time before the Great War. Meanwhile, the writer projected on the hero his own phonographic fascinations, whose beginning coincided with the author’s visit to George M. Richter in 1920, which was recorded in his journals. Admittedly, Radamès and Aida sing in the voices of Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso in the record from 1909, but the character of Valentin who leaves his sister, Marguerite, under the care of his beloved friend, Siébel, was impersonated by the German baritone Joseph Schwarz recorded almost ten years later. The British-American tenor Alfred Piccaver, the star of Staatsoper in Vienna, recorded the “Flower song” in 1923.
Similar was the case of the record with the piece that was of key importance for the hero’s inner transformation: “It was Schubert’s ‘Linden-tree’, it was none other than the old favourite, ‘Am Brunnen vor dem Tore’. It was sung to piano accompaniment by a tenor voice; and the singer was a lad of parts and discernment, who knew how to render with great skill, fine musical feeling and finesse in recitative his simple yet consummate theme. We all know that the noble lied sounds rather differently when given as a concert-number from its rendition in the childish or the popular mouth. In its simplified form the melody is sung straight through; whereas in the original art-song, the key changes to minor in the second of the eight-line stanzas, changes back again with beautiful effect to major in the fifth line; is dramatically resolved in the following “bitter blasts” and “facing the tempest”; and returns again only with the last four lines of the third stanza, which are repeated to finish out the melody”.
In the description of the narrator of The Magic Mountain there is a telling phrase “none other than the old” referring to the words “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore”, while the song sung by children and the German people – and most probably known to Castorp also in this form – uses a shorter text; the longer one had not yet been developed by the poet Wilhelm Müller who introduced into it the linden tree, the sacred tree of the Germanic peoples, associated with the cycle of life, and so with death and unavoidable passing, absent from the song’s traditional form. The folk song about the house of the beloved woman which was located by a well in front of the gate, was sang in Germany by everybody: at home, school, in an inn or by a bonfire, in the very simple version by Friedrich Silcher for voice accompanied by any given instrument, which served as a point of reference for one of the most famous and most sophisticated songs of Schubert’s cycle Winterreise.
It is possible, although quite unlikely, that Castorp knew only Silcher’s interpretation and encountered Schubert’s masterpiece for the first time in Davos. Regardless of that, he could not have listened to it in Berghof, at least not in the version described so sensually and meticulously by Mann further in the paragraph. This “clear, warm voice, with his excellent breathing technique, with the suggestion of a sob” as a result of which “the listener felt his heart gripped in an undreamed-of fashion; with an effect the singer knew how to heighten by head-tones of extraordinary ardour on the lines ‘I found my solace there’ and ‘For rest and peace are here’” definitely describes the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, an outstanding performer of Mozart characters, operetta parts and the German Lieder, whose records Thomas Mann listened to “with passion verging on misdeed”, five years after the end of the Great War.
And with this song, he sent his Castorp to attack the trenches. Singing Lindenbaum “as one sings, unaware, staring stark ahead”. He left us unsure whether Castorp would survive or fall, saying farewell to his hero in an elaborate musical cadence which befits a non-existent symphony by Mahler more than even the longest of novels.
What was the purpose of this anachronism in the narration of The Magic Mountain? Could Mann really have attempted to narrate time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? An attempt that is perversely successful because it is performed in the categories of musical time which is intrinsic to a completely different form? The time of Hans Castorp, rarefied by the seven-year long stay in Berghof, became suddenly thicker, future-oriented, made a circle and formed a spiral. Like in a real sonata cycle.

(Translated by Patrycja Cichoń)

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