Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ritter Gluck by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1809)

It was a break-through for a 33-year-old musician, who, after a long and torturous pathway had found yet another muse. He had published a short story about the ghost of Gluck who communicated to a musician through the encoded language of music itself.

It required a musician of epic charisma to wrest musical fiction away from mythology. And it happened cryptically on Wednesday February 15, 1809 when a story called “Ritter Gluck” appeared in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, vol. 11, no. 20, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) who signed his name anonymously as “– – – – nn”

During the remaining 13 years of his life, he wrote music, taught the future how to hear Beethoven, initiated the attitudes of literary romanticism, and created a new art of musical fiction. He, and his characters, were an inspiration to Schumann and Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s nutcracker is on a Hoffmann text. Hoffmann appears as the central character in the opera by Offenbach that weaves several of his “Tales.” That it is as a character in Offenbach--instead of one of his own works--that most people know of Hoffmann is a fate worthy of a Hoffmann story in itself.

Here is my translation of Hoffmann's very first published story:

A Recollection from the Year 1809 by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Late autumn in Berlin normally still has some beautiful days. A friendly sun comes through the clouds and evaporates dampness from the lukewarm air blowing through the streets. You see a colorful long row of people—Elegants, Businessmen with their wives, and little ones in their Sunday best, priests, Jews, law clerks, prostitutes, professors, milliners, dancers, officers in the military—walking through the linden trees toward the Tiergarten. Soon all places are taken at Klaus und Weber’s. The smell of coffee fills the air; elegants light their cigarettes; people talk, one argues over war and peace, one over whether Madame Bethmann’s shoes at her latest stage appearance were grey or green, the closed commercial state, the weak Groschen and so on and on, until everything dissolves into an aria from “Fanchon”—with an untuned harp, a couple uninclined violins, a tubercular flute and an spasmatic bassoon torment themselves and any listeners nearby. Close to the railing which separates the Weberschen District from the Heerstraße there are several small round tables and garden chairs; here one breathes fresh air, can observe people coming and going, and are removed from the cacaphonic din of that accursed orchestra: that is where I sit. I fantasize friendly figures with whom I can discuss science, art—anything that people really should think about. Ever more multicolored, the crowd passes by me. But they do not distract me. It takes the trio section of that trashy waltz to tear me from my dream world. All I can hear is the shrieking upper voice of violin and flute and the nasal bass of the bassoon, locked together firmly in octaves which cut the ear, and as a reflex, like someone which a burning pain seizes, I cry out:

“What shitty music! Those horrible octaves!” when beside me someone murmured; “Just my luck! Another octave-hunter!”

I look up and become aware that, unnoticed by me until now, a stranger has joined me at my table, and stares rigidly at me, and once in eye contact with him, I can’t look away. I never saw a head, never a shape, that made such a deep and immediate impression on me. A gentle curved nose closed to a broad, open forehead. Bushy, half-grey eyebrows under which eyes with almost wild, juvenile fire (the man must have been over fifty) looked out. The softly formed chin stood in strange contrast with the closed mouth, and a scurrilous smile, brought about by a strange play of muscles on the sunken cheeks—in revolt against the melancholy seriousness of the forehead. Only a few grey locks lay behind the large, protruding ears. A bulky, modern overcoat enveloped the gaunt shape. The instant my eyes fastened on the man he lowered his gaze and continued the activity my outcry had interrupted. He was pouring from various small bags, with obvious pleasure, flavored tobaccos into a large box and dampened it with red wine from a quarter-liter bottle. The music had stopped. I felt the need to address the situation.

“It is good that the music is silent,” I said; “it was unbearable.”

The old man threw me a volatile glance and emptied the last little sack.

“It would be better that one did not play at all,” I went on. “Do you share my opinion?”

“I have no opinion,” said he. “You are musicians and connoisseurs of the profession . . .”

“You’re mistaken; I’m neither. At one time I took piano lessons and studied thoroughbass, merely as part of a good education, and among other things they told me that nothing sounds worse than bass and upper voice in octave progressions. I assumed at that time on authority and have subsequently seen it proven afterwards.”

“Really?” He stood up and walked slowly and thoughtfully toward the musicians, gazing upward and tapping himself on the forehead with an open hand, possibly like someone who wants to wake a memory. I saw him speaking with the musicians, who became more orderly. He came back had scarcely taken his seat when they began to play the overture of Iphigenia in Aulis.

With half-closed eyes, arms resting on the table, he heard the andante, quietly moving his left foot. He designated the entrances of parts; now he lifted his head and threw a glance into the space surrounding him, the left hand he placed with fingers spread apart on the table as if he were playing a chord on the piano, the right hand he extending above his head: He was a Kapellmeister, indicating for a change of tempo to an orchestra—the right hand falls and the allegro begins! — A burning redness flies over the pale cheeks; the brows pull together on the taut forehead; an internal rage inflames his wild glances, gradually removing the smile, that still floated around the half-open mouth. Now he leans back; the eyebrows rise; the muscle-play of the cheeks resumes; the eyes flash; a deep, internal pain becomes joy in every fiber and convulsively shakes. Deeply from the chest he draws breath, perspiration dripping from the forehead; he signals the tutti, then each of the principal sections, his right hand never losing the beat, his left drawing out a handkerchief to drive over his face. —In such as way it animated the skeleton, which the small orchestra produced, with substance and color. I heard the gentle, melting laments with which the flute climbs; when the storm of violins and basses is expended and the thunder of the kettle-drums is silent; I heard the quietly fastening tones of cellos, and the bassoons, filling my heart with indescribable nostalgia and longing. The tutti returns, like a tall, noble giant striding forth, unisono, crushing the musty lament with his footsteps.

The overture was ended; the man let both arms fall and sat with closed eyes, weakened from the exertion. His bottle was empty; I filled his glass with Burgundy. He sighed deeply, he seemed to be wakening from a dream. I urged him to drink, which he did at once, swallowing the full glass in a single draught. He exclaimed: “I am content with the performance! The orchestra was good!”

“And nevertheless,” I added, “only weak outlines of a masterpiece scored with vibrant color was given.”

“Do I judge correctly? – You are not from Berlin!”

“Correct; I’m here only now and then.”

“The Burgundy is good, but it is becoming cold outside.”

“Let us go inside and empty the bottle there.”

“A Good suggestion. I do not know you, but you don’t know me, either. Let’s not query names; names are occasionally annoying. I will drink the Burgundy; it is costing me nothing, we seem to get along and let’s leave it at that.” He said all this with good-natured cordialness.

We had stepped into the room; when he sat down, his overcoat fell open and I was astonished to see an embroidered vest and frock-tail coat, black velvet breeches and a tiny silver dagger. He pulled the coat together and carefully buttoned it.

“Why did you ask me if I was a Berliner?”

“Because I would have been forced in that case to leave you.”

“Sounds puzzling.”

“By no means, not when I tell you that I’m a composer.”

“I still do not understand you.”

“Please forgive my outburst a while ago. I see that you know nothing at all about Berlin and the Berliners.”

He rose and went off, pacing sometimes violently, back and forth; then he stepped to the window and sang, barely audibly, the chorus of the Priestesses from Iphigénia in Tauris, tapping on the windowpane now and then to indicate the tutti. I was surprised to note that he made certain modifications in the melodies, giving them new strength and novelty, but I didn’t comment on them. He finished and came back to his chair. I was completely moved by the man’s strange behavior and the fantastic expression of such a rare musical talent. After a while he began:

“Have you never composed?”

“Yes, I’ve tried, but I found everything, at least it seemed to me, written in moments of enthusiasm weak and boring afterward, so I gave it up.”

“You were wrong then; since rejecting your own attempts is no bad sign of talent. You study music as a boy because Papa and Mama wish it. First loosely jingled and played on the violin, but imperceptibly the sense of melody develops. Maybe the half-forgotten theme of some little song that you sang differently from the original, became an embryo, laboriously nurtured by unrelated forces, matures into a giant with newly-charged flesh and blood! Ha, how is it possible where there are thousands of kinds of kinds, to hint at the paths leading to composition! It’s a wide highway where everyone romps along, cheering and shouting: “We are consecrated! We’ve been chosen!” Through an ivory gate one enters the empire of dreams. A few see that gate even once? still fewer pass through it! Everything inside looks adventurous. Great figures float to and fro, each with its own character, distinct from the others. They cannot be seen on the highway, only beyond the ivory gate are they to be found. It is difficult to return from this realm; as before Alzinens castle monsters obstruct the way. —Whirling, spinning — many dream away the dream in this realm of dreams, dissolving into it—never casting a shadow, but they would be aware of the light streaming through this empire. Only a few awaken from the dream, climb and walk through the dreams—they come to the Truth— The ultimate moment: in touch with the eternal, the inexpressible! The sun shines, it is the triad (Dreiklang:threesound) from which celestial harmony shoots forth and enfolds you in a fiery web. Transfigured in the fire, you lie there until Psyche himself swings up to the sun.

With these last words he jumped to his feet, looked up and threw his hand into the air. Then he sat down and quickly emptied the glass I had filled for him. A silence developed which I didn’t want to break for fear of diverting the extraordinary man. Finally, more calm, he continued:

“When I was in the realm of dreams I was tormented by a thousand pains and fears. It was night, and grinning maggots suddenly rushed me, plunging me to the bottom of the sea and then throwing me high into the air. Then beams of light drove through the night, and the beams were musical tones that enveloped me with charming clarity. I awakened from my torment and saw a big, bright eye, gazing into the pipes of an organ, and as it gazed, shimmering tones came forth and embraced one another in splendid chords such as I had never thought of. Melodies streamed forth and I swam in the stream. When I started to sink the big eye looked down at me and held me above the roaring waves. It became night again, and two titans in gleaming armor approached me: the Tonic and the Dominant. They lifted me up as the eye smiled: “I know the longing that fills your soul. Thirds, those soft, gentle youths, will step between the titans. You will hear the sweet voice. I will see you again, and my melodies will be yours.”

He went silent.

“And you saw the eye again?”

“I saw it again! For many years I sighed in the realm of dreams—there—there! I sat in a wonderful valley and listened to how the flowers joined each other in song. Only the sunflower was silent, sorrowfully leaning her folded calyx toward the earth. Invisible threads drew me toward her; she raised her head, the calyx opened and from it the eye cast its beam on me.

Then tones streamed like beams of light from my head to the flowers, which they soaked up. The sunflower leaves grew larger and larger; sending out a warm glow. It flowed around me, surrounded me, the eye had disappeared and I found myself inside the calyx. With these words he sprang up, and with quick, youthful strides rushed out of the room. In vain I waited for his return, and eventually decided to go back into the city.

I was near the Brandenburg Gate when I saw a tall figure coming toward me in the darkness. Immediately recognizing my eccentric, I spoke to him:

“Why did you leave so quickly?”

“It was getting too hot, and the Euphon caught sound.”

“I do not understand you!”

“All the better.”

“All the worse, because I wish to completely understand.”

“Do you hear something?”


“. . . It is past! Let us leave it and go. I do not love society evenly—but you do not compose —you are not a citizen of Berlin.”

“I cannot fathom why you’re so against the Berliners. Here, where the arts are respected and exercised to a considerable degree, I would think that a person with your artistic spirit would feel at home!”

“You err! To my agony I am condemned to wander here—restless, like a copied spirit in the desert.”

“The desert? Here—in Berlin?”

“Yes—desert because no kindred spirit is here. I stand alone.”

“But the artists! The composers!”

“Away with them! They cavil and deride; they refine and analyze to the tiniest detail; they root through everything in search of a single miserable thought; they spend so much energy chatting about art and artistic sensibility and who knows what else that they never get around to the work. —And if a couple of thoughts did see the light of day the frightful cold here, the distance from the sun would freeze them. They might just as well be working in Lapland.”

“Your judgment seems much too hard. At least you must enjoy the wonderful performances in the opera theater.”

“I did bring myself to go into the theater once again, to hear my young friend’s opera. What’s it called? — Ha, the whole world is in this opera! The brightly colored performers are pierced by the shades of Hell. Everything finds voice and all powerful sound. The devil—I mean Don Giovanni! But I couldn’t endure it even through the overture. It was played prestissimo, sprayed out like seltzer water, no sense, no understanding— and I had prepared myself through fasting and prayer, because I know that the Euphon is moved much too much by these masses and impure appeal”

“I also have to admit that Mozart’s masterpieces are neglected here, in a way that is hardly explainable, but Gluck’s works certainly enjoy respectable performances.”

“You think so? — Once I wanted to hear Iphigenia in Tauris. As I entered the theater I heard them playing the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis. Hmm, a mistake, I think: they’re playing this Iphigenia! I was surprised hearing that andante played, followed by the storm. Twenty years lie in between! The whole effect, the whole well-calculated exposition of the tragedy was lost. A quiet sea, a storm, then the Greeks are thrown onto shore—that’s the opera! How! Did the composer write in the score that you could blow it off like some little trumpet ditty, as and wherever one wants?”

“A mistake; no doubt. All the same, they do everything possible to promote Gluck’s works.”

“Yes, indeed,” he said dryly, and his smile grew more and more bitter. Suddenly drove off and nothing could stop him. It was as if he vanished in that instant, and for several days afterward I went to the Tiergarten, searching in vain for him.

[* * *]

Several months had passed and I was late on cold, rainy evening in a distant part of the city, and I was hurrying toward my apartment on Friedrichsstraße. I passed the theater; music rushed out—trumpets and drums—reminded me that Gluck’s Armida was being performed. I was in the process of going in when I heard a strange soliloquy—close to the windows where almost every tone of the orchestra could be heard.

“Now the King enters—they’re playing the march. Beat, drums, beat; it’s quite lively! Oh, my! Today they have to do it eleven times, otherwise the procession doesn’t have time enough to proceed! Ha-ha! Maestoso! Move along, boys. Look, there’s someone with a shoe-string hanging loose. Right! — for the twelfth time! And don’t forget to bring out the Dominant. — Oh, you eternal powers—it never ends! Now he’s taking his bow. Armida thanks you most humbly. Again? Right! . . . two soldiers still haven’t come on. Now someone rattles off the recitative. What malevolent spirit binds me to this place?”

“The spell is broken,” I called. “Come with me!”

I seized the arm of my Tiergarten eccentric (for the speaker was none other than he) and rapidly drew him away with me. He seemed surprised but followed me silently. We were in the Friedrichsstraße when he suddenly stood still.

“I know you,” he said. “You were in the Tiergarten; we talked a long time. I drank wine and got overheated. Afterward the Euphon sounded drunk through two days. I endured much . . .it has passed!”

“I’m pleased that coincidence supplied you to me again. Let’s get better acquainted. I don’t live far from here; how would it be if . . .”

“I cannot. I’m not permitted to go to anyone’s lodgings.”

“All right, but you won’t get away from me. I’ll go with you.”

“Then you’ll have to run a few hundred steps with me. But you didn’t want to go into the theater?”

“I wanted to hear Armida, but now—”

“You shall hear Armida now!” Come!.”

Silently we walked up Friedrichsstraße. Rapidly he bent onto a side road, and I could hardly keep up with him, so fast he ran the road, until he finally stood still in front of an unattractive house. A rather long time he knocked before the door finally opened. Groping in the darkness we reached the stairs and then a room in the upper storey, whose door my guide had carefully locked. I heard another door opening and soon thereafter he came in with a lit candelabra, and the strangely furnished room surprised me. Old-fashioned, richly ornate chairs, a clock with gilded housing and a broad, ponderous mirror created an air of gloomy, outmoded splendor. In the center of the room was a small piano on which stood a large porcelain ink-pot and some sheaves of music paper. Looking more closely, I saw that nothing had been composed there for a long time—the paper was yellowed and thick spider webs covered the ink-pot. The man stepped before a cabinet in the corner of the room, which I had not noticed yet, and as he moved the curtain away, I saw a row of beautifully bound books with golden labels: Orfeo, Armida, Alceste, Iphigenia, among others—in short, Gluck’s collected works.

“You own Gluck’s complete works?!” I exclaimed.

He didn’t answer, but his mouth twisted into a convulsive, desperate smile and the play of muscles in his sunken cheeks transformed his face into a frightful mask. His somber stare fixed on me, he seized one of the books—it was Armida—and walked solemnly to the piano. I quickly raised the lid and set up the folded music desk, which seemed to please him. He opened the book and—who can describe my astonishment?—I saw lined music sheets, but inscribed with no notes.

He began, “Now I shall play the overture. Turn the pages for me, and at the right time!” I promised, and he played wonderfully, masterfully, with full-handed chords the majestic tempo di marcia that opens the overture, almost completely true to the original; but the allegro twisted through Gluck’s main ideas. My astonishment grew with each new, wonderfully ingenious variant he wove into the music. The modulations were excellent—striking without being harsh, and he enriched the melodic lines with figurations, that were ever rejuvenating. His face glowed; his eyebrows knotted as he gave vent to long-repressed fury, then his eyes would swim in tears of deepest nostalgia. Occasionally, while both hands worked out figurations he sang the theme in a pleasant tenor voice; then, using his voice in a quite particular way, he would copy the deep tone of the bass drum. I turned the pages industriously, following the direction of his eyes. The overture came to an end and he fell back exhausted, eyes closed, into the armchair. After a bit he recovered sufficiently to flip through several blank pages in the book and say in a husky voice:

“This, my friend, I wrote when I returned from the realm of dreams. But I betrayed that which is holy to the unholy, and an ice-cold hand seized this glowing heart! It did not break, but I am now cursed to wander among the damned like an unwelcome guest— formless, so that nobody knows me, until the sunflower once again turns its face toward the eternal. Enough! Now let us sing Armida’s scene!”

Then he sang the final scene of Armida with an expression that penetrated my core. It deviated noticeably from the original, but his variants transformed the Gluck scene into a higher power. He gathered everything expressing hate, love, despair, rage, into powerful tones. At times his voice seemed that of a youth; then it would rise from the darkest bass, swelling into tones of penetrating power. All my fibers trembled, I was completely beside myself. When it had ended I threw myself into his arms and managed to gasp: “What is that? Who are you?”

He rose and measured me with a solemn, penetrating look, and when I wanted to enquire further he took the candelabra and disappeared through the door, leaving me in darkness. Almost a quarter-hour passed, I despaired of seeing him again. Orienting myself by the position of the piano I was groping my way toward the door when he suddenly reappeared, holding the candelabra. He was in full gala attire: richly embroidered vest, the dagger in his sash.

I froze as he solemnly approached me, seized me gently by the hand and said, strangely smiling: “I am Ritter Gluck!”


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