Mann’s descent: The downfall of German culture

PUBLISHED: 14:00 07 October 2017

Clockwise from top-left: Robert Alexander Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Franz Josef Haydn and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Clockwise from top-left: Robert Alexander Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Franz Josef Haydn and Johann Sebastian Bach.

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JUSTIN REYNOLDS on the Thomas Mann novel which tried to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into Nazism.

The avant-garde composer Adrian Leverkühn was born in 1885 in the Bavarian town of Kaisersaschern. He read theology at Halle and Leipzig before studying music privately with the pianist Wendell Kretzschmar.

Leverkühn’s early work was written in the late Romantic style of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss. He went on to pioneer the chromatic ‘12-tone system’ in which he wrote the masterpieces that established his reputation, including an oratorio after the Revelation of St John (1919) and an epic symphonic cantata, The Lamentation of Dr Faustus (1929).

Leverkühn’s incendiary career ended prematurely in 1930 when he suffered a complete mental collapse following contraction of neurosyphilis. He died 10 years later, insane, at home in Pfeiffering, near Munich. His innovations helped shape the course of post-war classical music, influencing works such as György Ligeti’s Chromatic Fantasy (1956), Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (1983) and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Resurrection (1987).

Adrian Leverkühn, with his impeccable modernist biography and textbook death, can and has been mistaken for a real artist, one of those meteoric talents that burned briefly across the turbulent skies of the Weimar Republic.

But his story is fictional, the subject of Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann’s epic 1947 novel dramatising Germany’s spiritual decline during the first half of the 20th century. In Leverkühn, Mann created a character who influenced the course of the Western classical tradition he had been designed to comment upon.

Mann’s description of the atonal, compositional method he attributes to Leverkühn, written in consultation with the philosopher and musical theorist Theodor Adorno, was so detailed that some of its real-life practitioners, such as Ligeti, learned it from the novel rather than its true originator, Arnold Schoenberg.

Indeed Schoenberg, concerned that Mann, the famous European novelist, would be remembered as the inventor of the technique, sent the writer an extract from an imaginary Encyclopedia Americana entry for the year 1988 defending “the established view” that Mann was its designer against the claims of the opportunist Schoenberg. Mann subsequently inserted an author’s note into his novel stating that “it does not seem superfluous to inform the reader” that the technique was pioneered by Schoenberg.

Mann’s story turns to one of the great themes of German literature, the medieval Faust legend, to try to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into fascism.

Leverkühn grows up in an idyllic market town still rooted in the great culture of the German Renaissance and Enlightenment, the Germany of Dürer, Bach and Goethe.

Like generations of Bavarian musicians before him, the gifted youth is drawn to composition by a luminous vision of celestial harmony suggested by the musical laws of tonality, counter-point and polyphony.

But like so many of his peers he is frustrated by the limitations those conventions seem to impose upon opportunities for fresh forms of musical expression and – perhaps – under the hallucinatory influence of his illness he deconstructs the tonal system, developing a radical new musical grammar allowing work of startling originality.

Perhaps. After Leverkühn’s death his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, the novel’s narrator, finds a document among the composer’s papers recording an archaic dialogue between Leverkühn and a shadowy Mephistophelian figure who tells the composer his illness has bestowed upon him creative powers that will grant him 24 years of superlative artistic achievement – on the condition that he renounces all forms of human affection. Craving artistic immortality Leverkühn accepts the pact.

Though the mild-mannered Zeitblom, who represents Germany’s humanistic tradition, does not want to acknowledge the possibility of supernatural intervention, the arc of Leverkühn’s life seems bent by an undeniable demonic agency, shaped by encounters with dark emissaries and uncanny encounters. Zeitblom describes “with a religious shudder” the chaste Leverkühn’s compulsion to visit the mysterious ‘Esmeralda’ from whom he contracts his disease, even though syphilitic infection is visible on her ravaged skin. And when Adrian’s young nephew is entrusted to his care the boy dies shortly after the composer gazes at him with love, seemingly in breach of his infernal contract.

Whether inspired by disease or the devil Leverkühn’s work becomes ever more radical and intense as his body declines, saturated with images of apocalypse and last judgement. His setting of the Book of Revelation counterpoints soaring passages expressing St John’s visions of eternity with sonic evocations of the mocking laughter of the damned.

The aptly-titled Allegro con Fuoco from his String Quartet “sounds as if flames are licking at one from all four sides”. And his final symphony, a setting of the Faust tale, seeks to negate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the great hymn to universal brotherhood at the heart of German humanism. Referring to a famous message woven into Beethoven’s final string quartet, in which viola and cello play a minor key phrase labelled with the words “Must it be?”, to which surging violins reply, in major mode, "It must be!", Leverkühn declares: "I have found that it is not to be. The good and the noble, what they call the human, despite the fact that it is good and noble. What men have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and, in their moment of fulfilment, have jubilantly proclaimed – it is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back."

For Mann’s Satanic artist, originality can only be found in transgression, not platitudinous affirmations of liberal hope.

Leverkühn, absorbed in his art, is an apolitical figure, but Mann suggests his readiness to sell his soul for greatness is indicative of the unmooring of the German genius from ethical constraint that opened the door to fascism. Reflecting on the rise of National Socialism Zeitblom writes:

Was not this regime, both in word and deed, merely the distorted, vulgarised, de-based realisation of a mindset and worldview to which one must attribute a characteristic authenticity and which, not without alarm, a Christianly human person finds revealed in the traits of our great men, in the figures of the most imposing embodiments of Germanness?

For Mann, the dark flower that poisoned Germany had taken root even in the soil of one of the culture’s greatest gifts to the world, the Austro-German classical tradition.

By the beginning of the 20th century composers were striving to push beyond the legacy of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner and Brahms to new sonic territories.

Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, lodestars for Adrian Leverkühn’s generation, were producing epic soundscapes. Mahler was augmenting his epic orchestrations – such his Resurrection symphony and Symphony of a Thousand – with massed choirs, while Strauss blew the roof off Vienna’s venerable concert halls with titanic tone poems such as Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony (originally titled The Anti-Christ) which glorified the Nietzschean ideal of the Übermensch, the Teutonic hero scornful of bourgeois conventions.

Their themes were as exploratory as the music. Strauss’s opera Salome, a tumultuous setting of Oscar Wilde’s most notorious play, flirted with necrophilia, culminating in a scene in which the daughter of Herodias kisses the severed head of John the Baptist.

Like all composers of their day, Strauss and Mahler were battling with the legacy of the greatest German composer since Beethoven, Richard Wagner, whose epic ‘music dramas’ probed questions of purity, honour and transgression against intoxicating musical backgrounds.

Critics continue to dispute the extent to which Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism – he referred to Jews as "the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man" – guides his work, a tangle of many philosophical, political and psychological subjects. But there is a consistent preoccupation with national honour, as in the hymn to the supremacy of German art that closes The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and the obsession with purity and pollution that runs through his final opera Parsifal.

Throughout the drama, the chaste Grail Knights, their king, Amfortas, suffering from an affliction that has defiled his blood, and Parsifal, “the pure fool”, are mocked by the shape-shifting Kundry, a feminine manifestation of the legendary figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth in perpetuity for the sin of laughing at Christ’s suffering.

Parsifal enraptured bohemians across fin de siècle Europe, including, fatally, the young Adolf Hitler, a classical obsessive who saw Mahler conduct the opera in Vienna (and, intriguingly, and certainly unknown to Mann, the performance of Salome in Austria to which Leverkühn was en route when he paid his fatal visit to Esmeralda).

For Hitler and other fascist aesthetes Wagner’s music was a religion. The dictator’s famous vegetarianism, love of animals and propensity for dabbling in eastern mysticism flourished through a long association with the Wagner family, and the master’s music did not so much follow as shape the course of Nazi pageantry. For Hitler, politics was itself a form of aesthetics: in his ‘cultural address’ to the party’s 1938 rally he urged that, rather than regarding it as a tool for propaganda National Socialism, should aspire to the condition of music.

Indeed there are chilling indications that his musical obsessions informed some of his darkest decisions. His 1942 speech effectively announcing the Final Solution conjures images of Kundry’s mocking laughter:

The Jews in Germany once laughed at my prophecies. I do not know if they are still laughing today, or if their laughter has not already died down. I can only affirm now: their laughter will everywhere die down.

The Nazis used Wagner’s word for annihilation – Vernichtung – to refer to the removal of the Jews. And Hitler’s determination that his regime go down in flames as the Red Army entered Berlin recalls Brunnhilde’s immolation at the end of the Ring Cycle.

Long before the rise of National Socialism, German musicians, critics and audiences worried over the decadent turn their tradition had taken. But as with Mann’s Leverkühn the transformation they sought was aesthetic, concerned with music’s technical form rather than its subject matter.

There was a shared recognition that the system that had been brought to perfection by Haydn and Mozart was collapsing. Composers had been pushing against tonality since Beethoven’s appropriation of the tradition as a mode for self-expression. Liszt, Wagner and Debussy experimented with shimmering orchestral textures, and Strauss and Mahler counterbalanced consonance with dissonance. But it was Schoenberg, the brilliant outsider, who made the decisive breakthrough to a new system.

Schoenberg’s early work, like that of Leverkühn, charted the same turbulent late Romantic waters as Strauss and Mahler. And like Leverkühn he made the break in circumstances of personal anguish. In 1909, after discovering his wife’s affair with a young avant-garde artist, Schoenberg wrote a series of pieces in a new atonal language that gave equal prominence to all 12 notes in the chromatic scale, moving beyond major and minor scales and the standard chords and harmonies constructed from them.

The new music was typified by the spectral Erwartung, a setting of the monologue of a woman wandering through a midnight forest in search of her lover, pitching wailing upper register melodic lines against monstrous chromatic chords. Here the haunted landscapes of Schubert’s Erlkönig are transplanted to early 20th century Vienna.

For Schoenberg, the new world of pure sonic expression he had opened satisfied a desperate desire for personal and artistic release, a resolution of the “unhealthy” tensions poisoning the Western classical tradition. He went on to formalise the new system in his suitably provocative Theory of Harmony (1911), which reads more like a book of Lutheran theology than a technical musical treatise.

Schoenberg thought it no use to merely augment the existing harmonic system like the late Romantics: in seeking novelty they had "polluted" tonality with "hermaphroditic" dissonant, diminished chords. Such "inbreeding and incest" could only be rooted out through an "emancipation of the dissonance", in which all notes of the chromatic scale are treated equally.

Schoenberg enraged Viennese audiences, who hated his work, by daring to present himself and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern as the "Second Viennese School", successors to Haydn and Mozart.

The new atonal music was an unashamedly elitist art designed to protect high music from defilement. "If it is art," Schoenberg wrote, "it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art."

Fatigued by the "extreme emotionality" of pure atonality Schoenberg went on to devise rules for chromaticism, suggesting intervals, inversions, rhythms and harmonic relationships that paralleled those of the tonal system. It was this 12-tone system that Mann’s novel attributes to Leverkühn.

The Jewish Schoenberg was no fascist, but his motivations for developing the system were not untouched by national chauvinism: he boasted that his reforms would "ensure the hegemony of German music for the next hundred years". But whatever Schoenberg’s motivations might have been, his system went on to dominate the postwar classical music world not only for the creative possibilities it offered, but its perceived moral superiority.

Unlike so many icons of Austro-German culture Schoenberg, hated alike by the Nazis and the Soviets, emerged from the war relatively ‘untainted’. Indeed for Theodor Adorno the tonal system itself had been fatally compromised by its association with Wagnerian and late Romantic decadence that atonality offered the classical tradition its only opportunity for a new start.

In his Philosophy of New Music (1949) Adorno declared:

[New music] has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. All its happiness comes in the perception of misery, all its beauty comes in the rejection of beauty’s illusion.

(Mann seems to have injected a rare lighter moment into his novel in presenting a figure uncannily like the severe Adorno as one of the guises of Mephistopheles, a "theoretician and critic, who himself composes, so far as thinking allows him".)

Schoenberg’s system went on to establish itself as a quintessentially cosmopolitan musical language, something of a lingua franca for the classical avant-garde.

As for Mann’s novel, it remains a monumental landmark on the 20th century literary landscape, a mea culpa for the sins of fevered cultural milieu in which Mann himself participated: the author intended his novel as an act of penitence not only for his nation but for himself. Though consistent in his opposition to the Nazis, Mann was one of those ‘great men’ who had been caught up in a desire for German supremacy earlier in the century, writing on the outbreak of the First World War that "We felt purified, liberated … we felt an enormous hope". Of Doctor Faustus he wrote: "Zeitblom is a parody of myself. Adrian’s mood is closer to my own than one might – and ought to – think."

In the new Germany built after the war it was Zeitblom’s humanism that was to prevail.

But it was the uncompromising musical system developed by his demonic composer that helped the great German classical tradition renew its reputation and bring new gifts to the world.

  • Justin Reynolds is a designer and writer

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