I make no apologies whatsoever for returning to Thomas Mann for this month’s Book of The Month. Whereas Buddenbrooks launched his long literary career, Doctor Faustus (first published in 1947) marked its formal conclusion, not least because the Confessions of Felix Krull remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Doctor Faustus, full title Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (German: Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde), can in the first instance be understood as a clever re-fashioning of the Faust legend. As Wikipedia succinctly describes the latter:
“Leverkühn's extraordinary intellect and creativity as a young man mark him as destined for success, but his ambition is for true greatness. He strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: he intentionally contracts syphilis, which deepens his artistic inspiration through madness. He is subsequently visited by a Mephistophelean being (who says, in effect, "that you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist"), and, renouncing love, bargains his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of genius. His madness – his daemonic inspiration – leads to extraordinary musical creativity (which parallels the actual innovations of Arnold Schoenberg).”
Doctor Faustus makes heavy demands on the reader, emotionally as well as intellectually, but these demands are neither frivolous nor egotistical. Few works have explored in such an extended and intensive manner the exceptional roots and limits of human creativity. Moreover, although the setting for this exploration is what might be crudely described as European ‘high culture’, the questions raised by the work have global relevance, even within indigenous cultures which value the ‘communal’ over the ‘individual’.
In his earlier novel The Magic Mountain (first published 1924), Mann frequently alludes to his novella Death in Venice published twelve years earlier. In the latter, Gustav von Aschenbach is an established writer, not a composer. However, at this point things start to get somewhat muddled as in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the novella (1971) Gustav von Aschenbach is portrayed as a composer who exhibits more than a nodding likeness to Gustav Mahler. The latter of course can be reasonably seen as a ‘late romantic’, but also as a composer on the very cusp of modernism to which the baton was very soon to be passed to Arnold Schoenberg - Verklärte Nacht (1899) and Guerrelieder (1901) providing the necessary rites of passage.
The influence of Schoenberg, along with Palestrina (earlier) and Hindemith (later) isn’t accidental. Indeed, Visconti uses an extended and dramatic flashback in his film based on these passages in Doctor Faustus to illustrate aptly the extraordinary scope of Mann’s vision.
“‘And he played a chord: all black keys, F sharp, A sharp, C sharp, added an E, and so unmasked the chord, which had looked like F-sharp major, as belonging to B major, as its dominant. ‘Such a chord,’ he said, ‘has of itself no tonality. Everything is relation, and the relation forms the circle. The A, which, forcing the resolution into G sharp, leads over from B major to E major, led him on, and so via the keys of A, D, and G he came to C major and to the flat keys, as he demonstrated to me that each one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale one could build a fresh major or minor scale.
“‘But all that is an old story’, he said. ‘That struck me a long time ago. Now look how you can improve on it!’ And he began to show me modulations between more distant keys, by using the so-called relation of the third, the Neapolitan sixth.
“Not that he would have known how to name these things; but he repeated:
“‘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 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, that in G major turns into F sharp; how it keeps the ear uncertain as to whether the progression is to be understood as belonging to C major or F major if one avoids the B, which in F major is flattened to B flat.
“‘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.’”
This last point is made again, a little later in the story, when Leverkühn observes:
“‘Well of course the dialectic of freedom is unfathomable. But [Beethoven] could scarcely be called a free inventor of his harmony. Would not the making of chords be left to chance and accident?’
“‘Say, rather, to the context. The polyphonic dignity of every chord-forming note would be guaranteed by the constellation. The historical events – the emancipation of dissonance from its resolution, its becoming ‘absolute’ as it appears already in some passages of the later Wagner – would warrant any combination of notes which can justify itself before the system.’
“‘And if the constellation produced the banal: consonance, common-chord harmonics, the worn-out, the diminished seventh?’
“‘That would be a rejuvenation of the worn-out by the constellation’
“‘I see there is a restorative element in your Utopia. It is very radical, but it relaxes the prohibition which after all already hung over consonance. The return to the ancient forms of variation is a similar sign.’
“‘More interesting phenomena,’ he responded, ‘probably always have this double face of past and future, probably are always progressive and regressive in one. They display the equivocalness of life itself.’”