Saturday, September 25, 2010

"The Disenchanted Symphony;" the Reason Why an Orchestra Disappeared in 1902

Today the title seems like the description of a labor dispute. But James Huneker wrote a tale of an orchestra that disappeared for a very different reason in 1902.

He was proud of the bizarre plot schemes he developed in his book "Melomaniacs." The most striking and Oz-like, "The Disenchanted Symphony," describes a situation where music has deliberately transported an orchestra into the fourth dimension or Pobloff, the conductor/composer of the worked, has fainted.

"Pobloff loved mathematics more than music," wrote Huneker, "and he adored music. He was fond of comparing the two, and often quoted Leibnitz: ‘Music is an occult exercise of the mind unconsciously performing arithmetical calculations.’ For him, so he assured his friends, music was a species of sensual mathematics."

Pobloff been influenced by the music of Strauss. He becomes convinced that he can invoke a new kind of consciousness in his music if he can activate musical and mathematical resonances.

"Could but the fourth dimension be traced to tone, to his tones, then would his name resound throughout the ages; for what was the feat of Columbus compared with this exploration of a vaster spiritual America! Pobloff trembled. He was so transported by the idea, that his capacious frame and large head became enveloped in a sort of magnetic halo. He diffused enthusiasm as a swan sheds water; and his men did not grumble at the numerous extra rehearsals, for they realized that their chief might make an important discovery."

Huneker pondered the fourth dimension in a later book called Unicorns. “What is the Fourth Dimension?" he pondered: "A subtle transposition of precious essences from the earthly to the spiritual plane. We live in a world of three dimensions, the symbols of which are length, breadth, thickness. A species of triangular world, a prison for certain souls who see in the category of Time an escape from that other imperative, Space (however, not the Categorical Imperative of Kant and its acid moral convention). Helmholtz and many mathematicians employed the 'n' dimension as a working hypothesis. It is useful in some analytical problems, but it is not apprehended by the grosser senses. Pascal, great thinker and mathematician, had his 'Abyss;' it was his Fourth Dimension, and he never walked abroad without the consciousness of it at his side. This illusion or obsession was the result of a severe mental shock early in his life. Many of us are like the French philosopher. We have our 'abyss,' mystic or real.”

The music proceeded, "and a glaze seemed to obscure [Pobloff's] eyes; he was well-nigh speechless but beat time with an intensity that carried his men along like chips in a high surf. The free-fantasia of the poem was reached, and, roaring, the music neared its climacteric point. 'Now,' whispered Pobloff, stooping, 'when the pianissimo begins I shall watch for the Abysm.' As the wind sweepingly rushes to a howling apex so came the propulsive crash of the climax. The tone rapidly subsided and receded; for the composer had so cunningly scored it that groups of instruments were withdrawn without losing the thread of the musical tale."

"The tone, spun to a needle fineness, rushed up the fingerboard of the fiddles accompanied by the harp in a billowing glissando and--then on ragged rims of wide thunder a gust of air seemed to melt lights, men, instruments into a darkness that froze the eyeballs. With a scorching whiff of sulphur and violets, a thin, spiral scream, the music tapered into the sepulchral clang of a tam-tam. And Pobloff, his broad face awash with fear saw by a solitary wavering gas-jet that he was alone and upon his knees. Not a musician was to be seen. Not a sound save dull noises from the street without. He stared about him like a man suffering from some hideous ataxia, and the horror of the affair plucking at his soul, he beat his breast, groaning in an agony of envy."

An entire orchestra of 52 men and his wife, the harpist, had disappeared. Gone. He remained alone onstage.

The deliberation about how to bring the orchestra back from the fourth dimension strikes on a musical device common since the second Viennese school, but strangely visionary for the year 1902 when this volume appeared. Pobloff calculates that in order to bring his orchestra back from the fourth dimension it will be necessary to play the music backwards from specially constructed organ rolls made to order at the local organ factory. “Slowly as if the grave were unwilling to give up its prey the music began to whimper, wheeze and squeak," writes Huneker, "A lightning flash had ended the music; then he heard feet pausing in the gloom and . . . saw the stage crowded with men.”

This story is wonderful and among Huneker's best.

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