Johnann Erdmann Hummel’s serene and sprightly painting Social Life at an Italian Locanda has acquired something of a reputation thanks to the Berlin Art Exhibition of the autumn of 1814, where it was deemed a positive delight to the eyes and the hearts of many a viewer. A bower, thickly overgrown with foliage—a table brimful of wine and fruit—at the latter, two Italian ladies sitting face to face—the one is singing; the other, playing the guitar--between and behind the pair of them, standing, an abbot who has assumed the duties of a conductor. With battuta held high, he stands poised for the moment when Signora, now lingering over her cadenza with eyes cast heavenwards, rounds out the latter in a long trill; then, he will strike the downbeat, in concert with the guitarist's strumming of the dominant triad. The abbot is the very image of awestricken-ness, of blissful enjoyment—and terribly overwrought to boot. He would not, for all the world, miss this downbeat by so much as a fraction of a second. He hardly dares to breathe. He would tie fast the wings and mandibles of every bee and gnat in the bower to silence their buzzing. And to make matters worse for him, their officious host has just come barging in, at this most precious, this most decisive, of moments, to deliver their order of wine. Behind the bower, a view of an arcade intermittently illuminated by shafts of sunlight—there we see a man on horseback; who, having just now drawn to a halt, is being handed up a dram of the locanda’s vintage.
Before this painting stood two friends, Eduard and Theodor.
“The longer I gaze at this admittedly rather grandmotherly—and yet, for all that, supremely virtuosic—singer, in her splendid costume,” said Eduard, “the longer I savor the solemn, authentically Roman profile and lovely features of the guitarist; the longer I revel in the sight of this most excellent of abbots, the more freely and strongly imbued with actual, kinetic life the painting as a whole seems to me. To be sure, at a more fundamental level, life is merely caricatured in it, but with what serenity and sweetness! How very much I should like to climb into that bower and uncork one of those exquisite demijohns that are smiling down at me from yonder table. Indeed, I believe I can fairly smell the noble wine’s sapid bouquet. But alas: this intoxicating vapor shall not be suffered to mingle with the sober, commonsensical draft that chills us here below. And so, in honor of this wonderful painting—of art, of gay old Italy, where the love of life burns on undiminished—let us repair thither and crack open a bottle of genuine Italian wine.”
Throughout Eduard's delivery of this disjointed monologue, Theodor had been standing in perfect silence, immersed in his own thoughts. Then, as though waking from a dream, he rejoined, “Yes, let's do that!”; but no sooner had he managed to elude the painting, and—having reflexively trailed his companion's footsteps—found himself at the threshold of the room, than he cast a yearning glance or two back at the singers and the abbot. Eduard’s proposal was realized effortlessly. They crossed the street and, by and by, found themselves face-to-face with a wicker-sheathed demijohn—a serviceable enough simulacrum of the ones in the wine-bower—in the little blue dining room of the Sala Tarone. “It seems to me,” said Eduard after a few glasses had been drained, to no effect on the score of Theodor's self-immersion, “It seems to me that you were not especially taken with this painting; and certainly by no means as heartily as I was.” ‘Rest assured,” replied Theodor, “I more than fully appreciate the gaiety, the charm—the vitality—of the painting in the highest degree; but the astonishing fact is that it accurately—and, indeed, with the fidelity of a master portraitist in the case of the dramatis personae—depicts a scene from my own life. You will, I trust, grant me that even the sunniest remembrances have an uncanny power to discompose the mind when they catch it unawares, when they suddenly and unaccountably spring forth as if brought to life by the touch of a magic wand. In just such a fashion has my mind just been discomposed.” “From your own life?” echoed Eduard in astonishment, “You would have me believe that this painting depicts a scene from your own life? I likewise took the singers and the abbot for faithful portraits, but as for the thought that you had encountered them in the flesh? Pray do make some sense out of all this for me: we are, after all, alone; no one comes here at this time of day.” “I would be all too happy to oblige you in that regard; but, unfortunately, to do so would necessarily involve my going back quite a long way indeed—all the way back to the period of my youth.” “Do tell on, and freely,” replied Eduard; “as of now, I know very little of your early history. However long it takes, the worst that will come of it is that we crack open another bottle, which we have resolved to do anyway; what harm can it do anyone, either Mr. Tarone or ourselves?”
“Well: that I ultimately cast all other endeavors aside,” began Theodor, “and gave myself over body and soul to the noble calling of music can come as no great surprise to anyone, for even as a boy I could scarcely trouble myself about anything else, and would plunk away night and day on the keyboard of my uncle’s rickety, jangly old grand piano. Our little town was less than a backwater musically speaking; and there was no one there who could give me lessons, apart from a certain capricious old organist who was basically nothing but a bloodless arithmetician, and who habitually tortured me with the most dismally cacophonous toccatas and fugues. Undeterred by these performances, I conscientiously pressed on with my studies. Oftentimes the old man scolded me with great vehemence; but he never dared to correct my technique in any other way but by playing through the same virtuoso passages over and over again in his idiosyncratic but masterly style, and I soon made my peace both with him and with my chosen art. What strange states could I be thrown into in those days!--certain passages, particularly in the works of old Sebastian Bach, were like ghost stories to me; and on hearing them I would thrill with such shudders as one willingly surrenders oneself to in one's fantasy-ridden youth. A veritable Eden opened itself to me when, as was wont to happen in the wintertime, the leader of our municipal band of musicians and his colleagues, supported by a couple of feeble sub-amateurs, gave a concert, and I played the tympani in the orchestra, which part I was vouchsafed in virtue of my impeccable sense of rhythm. I realized only much later how insanely laughable these concerts often were. Usually my teacher would play two piano concertos by Wolf or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a member of the band would muddle through a bit of Stamitz, and the excise-collector would huff and puff away on the flute with such lung-bursting violence that he blew out both the candles on the conductor’s podium, and they always subsequently had to be relighted. Of vocal music there was nary a trace, a state of affairs much lamented by my uncle, who was an ardent admirer and champion of the musical arts. He still recollected with great fondness the old days, when the four choir-masters of our four churches joined forces in a rendition of Lottchen at Court at the concert hall. In particular, he loved to extol the latitudinarian spirit in which the singers had laid aside their differences for the sake of art, all the more so as the Catholics and Lutherans alike were alienated from the Calvinist community on account of the linguistic schism between German and French; the French choir-master permitted himself no liberties with Lottchen and sang the role--so my uncle averred--in the most charming falsetto that ever had been wrung out of a human voice-box. At that time there subsisted amongst us (i.e., in our town) a fifty-five-year-old spinster surnamed Meibel, who received a niggardly pension allotted to her in remembrance of her services as a much-fêted vocalist at court; and my uncle sagely surmised that Mlle. Meibel could be persuaded, for a certain fee, to be fêted once again, however modestly, at an official recital. She put on airs and allowed herself to be implored on bended knee for a good long while; but in the end, she gave in, and emerged from the wings of our concert hall to greet her devoted public. She was quite an original, to say the least, this Mlle. Meibel. To this day, the image of her haggard, dwarfish person remains vividly etched in my memory. In an attitude of great solemnity and seriousness—vocal part in hand, and clad in a dress woven out of the most garish combination of hues—she took her place at center stage and saluted the audience with a curt bow. She wore a highly curious head-dress surmounted by a nosegay of ceramic Italian flowers; and as she sang, this coiffure shuddered and pivoted itself about her head in a quite peculiar fashion. When she had finished, and the assembly had rendered unto her its more than modest tribute of applause, she handed her part, with a lordly glance, to my teacher; whose duty it was to fetch forth and present to her her porcelain pug-dog-shaped snuff-box, from which vessel she thereupon extracted a pinch of tobacco with great contentment. Her intonation was hideously shrill; she indulged herself in all sorts of ludicrous ornaments and coloraturas; and you can well imagine how these vocal defects, in combination with her preposterous appearance, must have struck me at the time. My uncle gushed forth a stream of plaudits; I could hardly fathom his behavior, and thus forsook his company in favor of that of my organist, who, in taking a pretty dim view of vocal music in general, and being his constitutionally splenetic self, was more than capable of essaying an amusing parody of the silly old girl's performance.
“The more warmly I seconded my teacher's diatribes against vocal music, the more highly he rated my genius for music tout court. With enormous alacrity he threw himself into the task of instructing me in counterpoint, such that soon enough I was competently composing academic fugues and toccatas. On one of my birthdays (the nineteenth one), I happened to be performing one of these 'compositions' in the presence of my uncle, when the waiter of our finest inn appeared, announcing the visitation of two foreign ladies newly arrived in town. Before my uncle had had time to divest himself of his floral-patterned dressing-gown, let alone don proper day-clothes, the visitors were already entering the room. You are, of course, aware of the electrical force exerted upon the isolated inmates of a small town by the appearance of any stranger in their midst—well, these two ladies, in traipsing so unexpectedly into my life, were tailor-made to exert just such a force on me, as if by the touch of a magic wand. Picture to yourself two tall, slender Italian women, bedizened in the most splendid hues of the latest fashion, marching right up to, of all people, my uncle, and holding forth to him in the most forceful, albeit mellifluous, tones—but what is this curious language they are speaking?—it only intermittently sounds at all like German!—my uncle cannot understand a word of it—nonplussed, taking a step or two backward—utterly stupefied, he points to the sofa. They seat themselves—the two of them converse between themselves—and their conversation sounds just like music.
At length, they manage to make it more or less clear to my uncle that they are touring singers, that they want to give a concert in our town, and that they have had recourse to him in his capacity as a competent organizer of such musical events.
Now, in eavesdropping on this conference, I had happened to glean the singers' Christian names, and it was accordingly plain to me that, to the extent that I had heretofore been bemused by their apparition as a pair of virtual twins, I could in like measure now properly distinguish them as individuals. Lauretta—to all appearances the senior of the two—addressed my discomfited uncle point-blank, her radiant eyes flashing in all directions, with great ebullience and much animated gesticulation. Though far from tall, she was decidedly voluptuous; and I was completely transfixed by her many and considerable charms, all of them as-yet terra incognita to me. Teresina, taller, thinner, and of a longish and serious countenance, contented herself with supplying the occasional, albeit more intelligible, interjection. From time to time they would, oddly enough, burst into laughter, as if much diverted by the vainly repeated efforts of my worthy uncle—encased in his silk dressing-gown like a snail in its shell--to conceal the yellow ribbon securing his nightshirt, which had a perfidious tendency to wiggle itself out lengthwise from under his lapels at every attempt. Finally, they rose from the couch; my uncle promised to see to it that a concert would be scheduled for the next day but two, and was most civilly invited, along with yours truly—whom he had presented to them under the style of a ‘young virtuoso’—to take ciocolata with the two sisters at lunchtime. We ascended the staircase with great gravity and ceremony, as though setting out on some sort of adventure that neither of us was quite cut out for. After my uncle, suitably girded for such an enterprise, had delivered himself of a great deal of high-flown oratory on the subject of art, to the comprehension of no one present (either himself or the rest of us); after I had twice scalded my tongue on the boiling-hot chocolate—and yet, for all that, grinned and borne my unspeakable anguish with a stoic equanimity worthy of Scaevola9—Lauretta announced that she would sing something for us. Teresina took up her guitar, tuned it, and strummed a few open chords. Never before had I heard such an instrument, whose elusively unresonant timbre reverberated to the core of my very being. Lauretta entered quite softly with a single note, which she sustained and built up to a fortissimo, before abruptly and audaciously segueing into an intricate figure spanning a full octave and a half. Although I was well acquainted with the opening words of the song—Sento l’amica speme—they now deprived me of the very capacity to breathe, as I had never dreamed they were capable of doing. But this was as nothing to the moment when Lauretta, with unflagging intrepidity, cast off every last vestige of dependence on the score; and when, enfolded as I was in wave upon wave of circumambient sound, my inner music, which had for so long lain dormant and as good as dead, caught fire and burst forth in mighty jets of flame. Ah! For the first time in my life I had heard real music. Next the two sisters joined vocal forces in a rendition of those serious, profoundly understated duets by the Abbot Steffani. Terisina’s rich, pure, heavenly alto voice pervaded my soul; I could no longer contain my inner tumult, and the tears fell liberally from my eyes. My uncle cleared his throat and cast a disapproving glance or two in the direction of my person, but to no avail; for I was in no mere metaphorical sense in another place. This reaction of mine seemed to please the singers, who began inquiring into the precise nature of my musical training; for my part; I blushed at the thought of owning my ‘musical’ busywork under such a head, and with a forwardness imparted by the inspiration of the moment, affirmed outright that ‘today, for the first time in my life, I have heard real music!’. ‘Il bon fanciullo,’ murmured Lauretta in a most fetchingly lovely tone. No sooner had I got home, than, overtaken by a kind of mad delirium, I gathered up my collected ‘works’—all those wretched toccatas and fugues, along with a set of forty-five canonic variations composed by the organist and presented by him to me as a gift in fair copy—and pitched the lot into the fireplace, erupting into great peals of spiteful laughter as the reams of invertible counterpoint crackled and smoked their way into oblivion. I then seated myself at the keyboard and attempted, first, to replicate the sonority of the guitar; next, to plunk out the tunes that had been sung by the two sisters; and, finally, to accompany these purely instrumental efforts at mimesis through the medium of my own voice. Eventually, around midnight, my uncle appeared, exclaimed, ‘It’s high time you left off all this caterwauling and hit the hay!’, snuffed out both my candles, and returned to his bedchamber. I had no choice but to heed his plaint. In sleep—so it seems to me—I was at last vouchsafed the key to the song; for therein I sang Sento l’amica speme with great fluency and feeling. By the next morning, my uncle had arranged for everybody in town who could play a note on a string or a wind instrument to participate in the rehearsal for the concert. Out of sheer civic pride, he hoped to demonstrate the superiority of our local musical culture. Alas! From the very beginning things took a turn directly contrary to the realization of this hope. Lauretta, from a purely dramatic point of view, put on quite an impressive show; but unhappily she opted to deliver the whole of her performance in a meandering recitative that none of her would-be accompanists knew quite what to make of or do with. Lauretta screamed, wailed, and, indeed, wept in rabid consternation. The organist was then seated at the piano; and upon him she saw fit to let flow a stream of the most vituperative reproaches. Unmoved, he stood up and silently made straight for the exit. As for the bandleader, Lauretta having flung an Asino maledetto! at his head, he had by now insolently flung his hat on to that same head and slung his violin under his right arm. He likewise headed straight for the back door; his colleagues, with bows fixed athwart fingerboards and mouthpieces upturned, followed his lead. Now the only local performers left were the supernumeraries, the sub-amateurs, who began casting tearful glances in every which direction; and the excise collector lugubriously exclaimed, ‘Oh God! This has made a changed man of me!’ Every ounce of my bashfulness had by then evaporated; I flung myself into the path of the bandleader, and out of sheer panic begged, besought, and implored him to stay on the security of my pledge to provide him with six fresh minuets with double trios for the public ball. I managed to appease him. He turned round and slowly resumed his place at the podium; his colleagues likewise marched back in; and, in due course, all the requisite instrumental forces were once again assembled and ready to play, apart from the self-evidently still-absent figure of the organist. By then this man was wending his leisurely way across the market square, his progress unhindered by the gravitational pull of so much as a single hand-clap or huzzah. Teresina, in her capacity as a mere spectator, had greeted the whole imbroglio with grimly sardonic laughter; Lauretta, for her part, was now every bit as cheerful as she had so recently been irate. She fulsomely praised me on account of the ‘considerable pains’ I was taking; she asked me if I could play the piano, and before I quite knew what was happening, I found myself seated in the organist’s spot, with the score in front of me. I had never before accompanied a singer, let alone conducted an orchestra. Teresina sat down next to me on the piano-bench and marked time for me; I received one spirited ‘Bravo!’ after another from Lauretta, and the orchestra fell into line and began playing; everything was going better and better by the minute. At the second rehearsal everything went off without a hitch, and in the concert itself the transfixing power of the sisters’ voices simply beggared description. It then transpired that the Prince's forthcoming return to the capital was to be attended with much pomp and circumstance; that the sisters had been summoned thither to sing in recital and on stage; and that, pending the necessity of their presence at court, they had elected to tarry a bit longer in our little town: hence they came to grace us with a few further concerts. The adulation of the audience at these events verged on sheer mania. Old Lady Meibel alone dissented in circumspectly taking a pinch of snuff from her porcelain box and opining that such impertinent shrieks as these were hardly deserving of the appellation of vocal music, that a proper vocalist must always sing nice and doose.5 Thenceforth my organist, for his part, would have nothing to do with me; and I, for mine, hardly missed his company. I was the happiest man on earth! All day long, I sat next to the sisters, playing accompaniment and copying out parts from scores for their subsequent use at the capital. Lauretta was my ideal; all her petty sulks, all her horrible temper-tantrums—to say nothing of the round of virtuosic keyboard drudgery she put me through—I bore the lot with exemplary forbearance! After all, she and she alone had disclosed to me what real music consisted in! I began to study Italian and to try my hand at composing canzonets. And whenever Lauretta sang—and, moreover, praised—one of these compositions; why, I was in seventh heaven! It often seemed to me as though I had neither conceived nor written the composition in question myself; as though the central idea of the piece could shine forth only through Lauretta’s realization of it in song. As for Teresina—well, I never could quite accustom myself to her presence, as she sang only occasionally and seemed to regard my industry as being of but little account; and from time to time I even found myself wondering whether she were not laughing at me behind my back. At length, the day of their departure drew nigh. It was then that I first became conscious of the nature and force of my attachment to Lauretta, and of the impossibility of parting from her. Oftentimes, when inclined to act the part of a smorfiosa6 to the hilt, she would caress me; which action, notwithstanding the manifestly innocent attitude of the caresser, never failed to set my blood boiling, and I was restrained from embracing her in an access of amorous fury only by the singular coldness with which she consistently contrived to rebuff my advances.
I had a passably decent tenor voice, which, having heretofore allowed to lie fallow, I now cultivated with the greatest assiduity; such that I found many an occasion for collaborating with Lauretta in the rendition of a handful of those tender Italian duettini that number in the thousands. On the very eve of her departure, we happened to be singing one of these duets, which just happened to be entitled Senza di te ben mio, vivere non poss'io. What hardened soul could bear such a coincidence? In despair, I threw myself at her feet. Bidding me to rise, she exclaimed, 'Ah, my friend! Is our parting really so inevitable?' I pricked up my ears in delighted astonishment. She went on to propose that I should accompany Teresina and her to the capital; inasmuch as I must sooner or later travel abroad in any case if I wished to pursue a career in music. Picture to yourself a man plunging headlong into the fathomless pit of despair, a man who has given up for good on life itself; but who, even as he is bracing himself for the blow that needs must spell his utter annihilation, simultaneously finds himself recumbent upon a magnificent bed of roses while a hundred little glimmers of light of a hundred different colors circle round him, each of them whispering into his ear, ‘Dear heart, you have yet to live!’ Such a man was I at that instant. ‘To the capital, and forthwith!’ my soul peremptorily commanded. I shall not try your patience by relating the particulars of the case I made to my uncle for the necessity of my undertaking this expedition of no great distance. Eventually, he succumbed to the force of my argument; nay, he even vowed to accompany me on the trip. What an upset to all of my calculations this was! Naturally, it was out of the question for me to breathe a word to him of my ultimate purpose in traveling with the two lady vocalists. I was delivered from this plight only at the last minute, when my uncle came down with a serviceably nasty head cold. I left town in the post-carriage, but traveled only as far as the first stage, where I tarried in expectation of the arrival of my goddess. My generously-larded wallet stood me in good stead to handle anything that might be in the offing. Being in a romantic, high-chivalric frame of mind, I wished to escort the ladies on horseback like some knight errant of yore. To this end, I procured a none-too-handsome but (so the dealer assured me!) perfectly docile old nag; and, sitting astride the beast, set out at the appointed time for my rendezvous with the sisters. By and by, the little two-seated carriage pulled up, its back seat occupied by the sisters themselves, its boot by their podgy chambermaid Gianna, a sun-burnished Neapolitan. In addition to its human cargo, the carriage was crammed full of an assortment of cases, baskets, and boxes: the inalienable paraphernalia of the itinerants. My salutation of this long-anticipated pair was, incidentally, attended by much yelping in my direction on the part of two minuscule pug-dogs seated in Gianna's lap. Everything went smoothly and according to plan until we reached the last stage, at which point my horse was untowardly smitten by a hankering for his native land. Experience, inasmuch as it had taught me that outright bullying was to little purpose in such situations as this, now counseled me to seek to win my point by the gentlest of all possible means, but the stubborn old nag was obdurate to my genial coaxing. I was all for pressing onwards, he for turning back; and the upshot of all of my pains was that we went round in circles. Teresina leaned out of the cart and laughed immoderately; while Lauretta, with both hands clasped over her eyes, screamed and wailed as though I were in mortal peril. Emboldened by sheer desperation, I dug my spurs into the very ribs of the beast; and at virtually the same instant, I found myself unceremoniously tossed on to the roadside. The horse stood his ground, and, with neck outstretched, glared down at me in an attitude of unmitigated scorn. I was patently incapable of getting up on my own, and the driver hastened to assist me, while Lauretta, herself newly sprung from the cart, resumed her screaming and wailing and Teresina kept right on laughing. As I had sprained my foot, there was no question of my continuing the journey on horseback. What choice did I have? The horse was hitched to the carriage, into whose confines I was now obliged to withdraw. Picture to yourself two fairly sizable women, a downright fat serving-girl, two pug-dogs, a dozen cases, baskets, and boxes, plus Your Humble Servant, all crammed into a tiny two-seated carriage--picture to yourself, moreover, Lauretta's endless whining about the uncomfortable seats, the Neapolitan's equally interminable chattering and Teresina's irremediable sulking; not to mention the unspeakable aching of my foot: then, and only then, will you come fully to appreciate the peculiar charm of my situation. Teresina could not, as she put it, take it anymore. We drew to a halt, and in a single bound she was out of the carriage. She unhitched my horse, mounted him side-saddle and trotted and curvetted him hither and thither in our plain view. I had to admit that she cut quite a splendid figure. And in the offing were still greater proofs of her grace and sublimity of carriage and movement in the art of horsemanship. She called for, and obtained, her guitar; and, with the reins slung round one arm, and strumming open chords by way of accompaniment, proceeded to sing a succession of stately Spanish ballads. The luminous folds of her silk dress glittered and fluttered this way and that, as zephyrs lovingly wafted the white feathers of her hat aloft and aground and aloft again in time with the music. It all amounted to such a vision straight out of the romances of yore that I could scarcely take my eyes off of Teresina; Lauretta, now cast aside, metamorphosed into a perfect specimen of feminine asininity whose impertinence was becoming ever more insufferable. But, luckily enough, we proceeded apace—either because the horse had overcome his former stubbornness, or because he simply found the company of the songstress more agreeable than that of the paladin—and it was only when we had arrived at the very gates of the city that Teresina climbed back into the carriage.
Picture me now in concerts and operas, picture me reveling in every conceivable form of music-making—behold me in my new capacity as a vocal coach, furiously swotting up the core repertoire for piano, for solo voice, for paired voices, for everything else I have ever heard of. And observe, my friend, what an essential, fundamental change I am now undergoing, pervaded as I am by this wondrous new spirit of virtuosity. Every vestige of my small-town boy's shyness evaporates when I sit down like a proper maestro at the keyboard, in front of the score, to conduct one of my donna's performances. All my thoughts, all my sensations, are comprised by a single sweet melody. I am now composing, in blithe disregard of the rules of counterpoint, all manner of arias and canzonets, which Lauretta is only too happy to sing—in the privacy of her apartment. Why will she never sing any of my pieces in public? I cannot get my head around it! But from time to time, the vision of Teresina astride her proud steed, and with lyre in hand--like the veritable incarnation of the romantic ideal in art—spontaneously impels me to compose one solemn lied in the high style after another. To be sure, Lauretta dallies with notes like a perennially shrewish Queen of the Fairies. How can she but succeed at anything she attempts? Teresina eschews the full trill, opting, rather, for a simple appoggiatura—or, at most, a mordent—but her clear, drawn-out, undecaying notes illuminate every last nook and cranny heretofore consigned to irremediable gloom, as newly-animated magic spirits gaze, with eyes transfixed, into the innermost recesses of the heart. I can hardly fathom how I have managed to live so long sequestered from such bliss.
At a certain point during the sisters' contractually-allotted benefit night, Lauretta and I were performing a rather lengthy aria by Anfossi. I was sitting, as usual, at the keyboard. We had just arrived at the very last fermata of the piece. On this single measure, Lauretta lavished the full panoply of her vocal technique: she warbled in ascending and descending intervals like a nightingale (on sustained pitches throughout), then launched into a most intricate, variegated succession of trills touching on every note of the scale! To be quite frank, the whole thing struck me as being too long by half, and I was beginning to feel a gentle breeze wafting against my shoulders: Teresina, you see, was standing directly behind me. Now, at just this moment, Lauretta was still building up to her final signature hairpin harmonic trill from which she was planning to segue, a tempo, back into the letter of the score. Here (at just this moment), Satan took possession of me: I pounded out the resolving chord of the cadence with all ten fingers. The orchestra followed my lead, forestalling, at the most fatal instant imaginable, Lauretta's execution of that final trill, with which she had fully expected to bring the house down. Lauretta, looking poisoned daggers at me, snatched up her vocal score, flung it at my head (on encountering which obstacle it fell to pieces), and stormed through the orchestra and clear on out into the wings. No sooner had the tutti fallen silent, than I was on my feet and hurrying after her. She wept, she raved. ‘Out of my sight, you malefactor—!’ she screamed at me, ‘—you devil, who, out of sheer spite, have brought this opprobrium upon me: upon my fame, upon my honor, upon my—ah!-upon my trillo! Out of my sight, you heinous son of hell!’ She immediately fled my presence; I dashed through the exit in pursuit. Meanwhile, of course, somebody had had to keep the show going, that somebody in this case being by default Teresina and the conductor, who, indeed, kept it going long enough to placate Lauretta's fury to such a degree that she was persuaded to return to the stage; this time round, however, I circumspectly recused myself from my keyboard duties. In the sisters’ final duet, Lauretta did in fact and at last execute the signature hairpin harmonic trill, which was delivered with impeccable intonation and received with unanimous applause. But as I well knew that I would never live down Lauretta's chastisement of me in full sight of the great wide world, I was firmly resolved to depart for my native city the very next morning. While I was busy packing up my belongings, Teresina entered my little closet of a bedroom. On taking stock of the import of my preparations, she exclaimed in frank astonishment, ‘Do you really intend to desert us?’ I explained that, in light of the disgrace I had suffered at Lauretta's hands, I could no longer remain in their company. ‘Are you really to be driven away so suddenly,’ asked Teresina, ‘by the demented histrionics of such a self-centered silly old goose, which in any case the goose herself now sincerely regrets? Do you really think you can better shift for yourself on your own than with us? Let me remind you that you have it well within your power to forestall any such future outbursts on Lauretta's part, provided you can bring yourself to set her a suitably stern example. But so far you have been altogether too soft, too good-natured, too indulgent for your own good. To put it bluntly, you vastly overrate Lauretta's talent. True, she has a decent voice that carries far enough and then some; but as for all of these outlandish trills and endless arpeggios—why, what do they amount to but so many cheap circus tricks admired after the same fashion as the so-called death-defying feats of tightrope-walkers? Can anything of this lowly sort penetrate our souls or touch our hearts? I can scarcely stomach the harmonic trill that you sabotaged; I find it both nerve-racking and depressing. And what of all of this labored striving toward the stratospheric heights appropriated to the third position of the violin: does it not constitute a perverse transgression of the natural range of the human voice, within whose limits alone that instrument is truly capable of rousing the emotions? Thank heaven for the middle register!—and the lower one. For me, nothing can quite compare to a genuine, heartfelt, soul-stirring portamento di voce. Strong and steady intonation, unadorned by superfluous embellishment; a direct emotional expressiveness that takes heart and soul alike into its bold embrace: these qualities together comprise the essence of vocal music, and by these qualities alone do I swear in my singing. Suffer, then, no longer for Lauretta's sake, and turn your thoughts to Teresina, who will gladly suffer for yours, provided that—in conformity with your proper calling—you are willing to serve as my composer and accompanist. Far be it from me to wish to offend you!—but all your pretty little canzonets and arias taken together can scarcely hold a candle to the mighty—’ Here Teresina sang, in her richly sonorous voice, a simple andante setting of a liturgical text that I had composed a few days earlier. I had never imagined that it could sound anything like this. The notes forced their way into my soul with miraculous ease; my eyes filmed over with tears of mingled desire and delight; I seized Terisina's hand; I pressed my lips to hers a thousand times; I vowed never to part from her. Lauretta jealously, grimly, furiously observed the flourishing of my liaison with Teresina; and all the while she continued to stand in need of my coaching, because, being a poor sight-reader with a shaky sense of rhythm, she was quite incapable of rehearsing anything new on her own. Teresina was an accomplished sight-reader; her sense of rhythm, moreover, was unequaled. Never did Lauretta so fully give vent to the obduracy and vehemence of her passion as when accompanying her sister. Never, on such an occasion, was the instrumental part even remotely up to snuff. She treated her part as one does a necessary evil: you could scarcely hear the keyboard--always pianissimo, and always getting slower and slower--and each measure, as though having spontaneously popped into her head as a self-contained entity, was different in time from the preceding one. By now I could no longer be bothered to humor her; indeed, I engaged in open war with her perversity in telling her quite pointedly that one might as well not play at all as play without energy, and that there was a difference between carrying a song and floating it to pieces against the tide of its basic pulse. Terisina loyally seconded my opinion. I was now composing sacred music exclusively, and reserving the solo vocal parts in my compositions for the alto register. And although Teresina belittled me often enough, I put up with her nitpicking inasmuch as she was more musically erudite than Lauretta and was likewise (so I assumed) more favorably disposed towards German seriousness.
We were traveling through southern Germany. In a small town of that region we happened upon an Italian tenor en route to Berlin from Milan. Both of my ladies were utterly smitten by their compatriot--he, for his part, could not be parted from either of them; but he took an especial shine to Teresina, and to my hardly negligible annoyance I suddenly found myself consigned to playing a bit part in the drama. One day, just as I was on the verge of briskly marching into the sisters' room with a full score slung under one arm, I happened to overhear an animated conversation taking place on the other side of the threshold, a conversation between my two ladies and the tenor. My name was mentioned: I snapped to attention and eagerly pricked up my ears. By now, I understood Italian so well that not a single word escaped me. Lauretta was recounting the tragic events of that night when, by my ill-timed striking of the downbeat, I had cut short her trill. 'Asino tedesco!' cried the tenor. I was of more than half a mind to burst into the room and throw the puffed-up drama king out the window, but restrained myself. Lauretta continued by saying that she had wanted to send me packing from the beginning, but that out of sheer pity she had yielded to my abject entreaties to take me under her wing as a pupil in the art of singing, and as my teacher reluctantly continued to endure my company. Teresina, to my hardly negligible astonishment, corroborated this description of me. ‘He is a good boy,’ she added, ‘and as he is now in quite smitten with me he writes only for the alto register. While he is not completely lacking in talent, he has yet to shake himself free—as he must do—of that awkward stiffness peculiar to Germans. I still hope, for my own purposes, to make a composer out of him; to incite him to compose a few trifles for solo alto, and afterwards to let him go. His endless cooing and pining alone render him thoroughly insufferable; but, on top of that, he persistently tortures me with his tiresome compositions, which have so far been consistently wretched in quality.’ ‘Well, I, at any rate,’ chimed in Lauretta, ‘am happily free of such molestation; but I trust, Teresina, that you will recall how this fellow used to nettle me with his arias and duets?’ Lauretta now launched into one of my duets, a composition that, I must emphasize, she had formerly roundly commended. Teresina followed with the second vocal part, and between the two of them, by way of intonation and diction, they executed the cruelest imaginable travesty of my work. The tenor laughed so hard that the walls echoed; an icy shudder shook my frame—my decision was firm and irrevocable. Noiselessly, I slunk from the door back to my own room by way of the window overlooking the side-street. Directly opposite lay the post office. The Bamberg mail-coach had just driven up, and it was now waiting out its loading interval. The passengers were already standing at the gateway, but I still had an hour left. I hastily gathered up my belongings, magnanimously paid our full reckoning at the inn, and hurried away to the post office. As I rode through the high street, I happened to espy my two ladies, along with the tenor, still standing at the window of their chamber; and, indeed, subsequently poking their heads out at the sound of the post-horn. I withdrew into the background and privately gloated over the ineluctably devastating impression to be made by the bilious letter I had left for them at the inn.”
With remarkable aplomb, Theodor quaffed the fiery dregs of the aleatico that Eduard had just poured out for him. “I would never—” the latter said, as he opened another bottle and poured away the layer of oil drops swimming on the surface of its contents,”—I would never have supposed your Teresina capable of such calculating duplicity. I quite simply cannot exorcise from my mind the enchanting image of her sitting astride that horse, and dancing to and fro in those graceful curvets, and singing those Spanish ballads.” “That was her finest moment,” Theodor interrupted. “I myself can still recall how peculiarly I was moved by that very scene. I forgot all my troubles; Teresina seemed then to be the actual manifestation of some higher order of being. It is only too true that such moments cleave fast to one's being and, quite in defiance of one's expectations, assume many a form that time itself is incapable of effacing. Thus, now, whenever I happen to hear a spirited ballad, the image of Teresina starts to my mind in all its original brilliance of color.”
“But,” said Eduard, “Let us not forget the talented Lauretta; and let us accordingly—having set all grudges aside--drink to the health of both sisters.” And so they did! “Ah,” said Theodor, “how this wine fairly overwhelms me with its enchanting aroma of Italy—how my every nerve and vein fairly glows with new life! Ah, why ever was I obliged so suddenly to forsake that glorious country a second time!” “Still,” Eduard interjected, “in none of what you have so far related do I discern the remotest connection to our divine painting, and thus do I surmise that you have more to tell me regarding the sisters; for I readily perceive that the two ladies in the picture are none other than Lauretta and Teresina themselves.” “Indeed they are,” replied Theodor, “and, indeed, all my present wistful hankering after the aforementioned glorious country segues perfectly into what I have yet to relate. Two years ago, when I was living in Rome but about to leave it, I undertook a little excursion on horseback. In the course of this excursion, I came upon a friendly young girl standing in the forecourt of a locanda, and it seemed fitting that I should beseech this pretty child for a draught of the noble grape. I stood there, on horseback, at the entrance of the house, in an arcade illuminated intermittently, from the side, by shafts of sunlight. From some distance away, my ears caught snatches of singing and guitar-playing. I listened more closely, so peculiarly struck was I by the two female voices, inasmuch as they conjured up in my mind the most unaccountably mysterious remembrances, remembrances that yet refused to take definite shape. I thereupon dismounted and, harkening to every note, approached the wine-bower from which the music seemed to be emanating. The second voice had fallen silent. The first was singing a solo canzonet. The nearer I drew to the bower, the further the initial impetus of familiarity receded. Now, the voice was lingering over a fermata, in an elaborate chromatic cadenza. It warbled up and down, up and down the scale, and finally alighted on a single sustained note; but then, a female voice—a speaking voice, not a singing one—suddenly erupted into a torrent of frenzied fault-finding—of curses, oaths, and calumnies! A man protests; another man laughs. A second female speaker joins in the melée. With ever-mounting fury, and ever-evident Italian rabbia, the tempest rages on. At length, I reach and hold fast at the threshold of the bower. Thence an abbot suddenly emerges and runs straight into me; and, indeed, practically bowls me over in his exit. He takes one look at me and I immediately identify him as none other than Signor Ludovico, my trusty intelligencer on all musical doings in Rome! ‘What, in heaven's name—?’ I cry. ‘Ah, Signor Maestro, Signor Maestro!’ he exclaims, ‘Save me, I beg you: protect me from this termagant, from this crocodile, from this tiger—this hyena, this demon of a girl. It is true; it is true: I was conducting Anfossi's canzonet and struck the downbeat too soon, in the middle of the fermata; I cut short her trillo—if only I had not looked into her eyes, into the eyes of that Sataness! The Devil take all fermatas, all fermatas!' With remarkable expedition, the abbot and I hastened into the wine-bower; and there, at a single glance, I recognized my two sisters, Lauretta and Tersina. Lauretta was still screaming and fuming, and Teresina was still vehemently remonstrating with her; the landlord, his bare arms folded across his chest, was looking on and laughing as a girl replenished the table with a complement of fresh bottles. No sooner had the singers taken notice of my presence, than they rushed towards me—‘Ah, Signor Teodoro!’—and overwhelmed me with caresses. All contention was instantly forgotten. ‘Behold,’ said Lauretta to the abbot, ‘behold: a composer with the grace of an Italian and the strength of a German!’ The two sisters now fell into animated conversation between themselves, a conversation touching on such topics as the happy days of our time together, the precociousness of my youthful musical erudition, our exercises, and the superiority of my compositions (they could never have wished for better songs to sing than mine); Teresina rounding out the whole by informing me that she had been engaged by an impresario to sing some leading tragic roles next Carnival season, but she wished to make clear that she would undertake this engagement 'only on condition that at least one newly-commissioned opera by you figures in the program,' for after all, high tragedy was just my line of work, etc. Lauretta, on the other hand, maintained that it would be a pity were I to curb my contrary predilection for elegance, for levity—in a word, for opera buffa. She said that she had been engaged as a prima donna in several performances in that genre, and that it went without saying that nobody but me would be allowed to compose any opera she was to sing in. You can well imagine the curious mixture of emotions I felt as I was standing between the two of them just then. You will, moreover, have realized by now that the little gathering I happened upon was the selfsame one depicted by Hummel, and that I happened upon it at the very moment when the abbot was cutting short Lauretta's fermata.” “But surely," said Eduard, “they recalled the circumstances of your parting, and your bilious letter?” “They breathed not a word in allusion to either of them; nor, for that matter, did I, for every last shadow of resentment had long since fled my mind, and my adventures with the sisters become a source of private jocular amusement. I allowed myself but one sop to the bad old days in relating to the abbot how I, a few years previous, and likewise in the middle of an aria by Anfossi, had suffered the same calamity that he had suffered today. Brusquely condensing my entire period of collaboration with the sisters into this single tragicomic episode, and deftly sniping at them along the way, I made the two sisters feel the full measure of my superiority to them, and of the years rich in artistic and private experience that had raised me to such a height. ‘And yet I was right,’ I concluded, ‘to cut short the fermata when I did, for otherwise the thing would have gone on forever; and, indeed, I believe that if the lady had had her way I would still be sitting at that piano right now.’ ‘But Signor,’ replied the abbot, ‘surely no maestro may presume to give orders to his prima donna; and your transgression, in the concert hall, was perforce of a much more criminal nature than mine, in this bower—actually, I was only a theoretical maestro; no one could have supposed me otherwise—and had I not been overawed by the sight of the sweet fire emanating from these heavenly eyes, I would not have made such an ass of myself as I did.’ The abbot's last sentence had a decidedly salutary effect, for Lauretta, whose eyes had begun to let off sparks of rekindled fury during the earlier part of his speech, was now completely quiescent.
We remained together into the evening. The fourteen years since my parting from the sisters had wrought great changes. Lauretta had visibly aged, but she was still attractive enough. Teresina had held up better and retained her fine figure. Both were fairly colorfully dressed, and their mannerisms were the same as before—in other words, fourteen years younger than the women themselves. At my request, Teresina sang a few of those solemn lieder that had once moved me so deeply, but they seemed not to resonate in my soul in the same way that they formerly had done; and it was the same with Lauretta’s singing, which, although her voice had not perceptibly declined in either range or volume, was nonetheless entirely dissimilar to the Laurettan vocal idiom that still resided in my heart. The obtrusion of this contrast between an inner idea and its none-too-agreeable counterpart in the external world was bound to put me out of humor, as the behavior of the sisters towards me—their simulated ecstasies, their tactless fawning, their condescendingly pre-fabricated offers of patronage—already had done. Eventually, the comical abbot—who flirted with the sisters in the sweetest manner imaginable—together with the fine wine, imbibed in copious quantities, restored to me my good mood, such that the evening cheerfully expired in a puff of unalloyed geniality. With the greatest zeal, the sisters invited me to pay them a visit so that we could come to an agreement about the requirements of the parts that I was to compose for them. I quitted Rome without bothering to seek them out beforehand.”
“And yet," said Eduard, "it is to them that you owe the original awakening of your inner song.”
“To be sure,” replied Theodor, "and quite a few fine melodies to boot, but precisely for that reason I would have been better off had I never seen them again. Every composer can call to mind some original, powerful impression immune to the ravages of time. The spirit immanent in living sound has spoken to him, enunciating a Logos that has appropriated him to its own ends, awakening the spirit long dormant in his soul and causing it to shine forth with eternally unconquerable radiance. Indeed, in being imbued with such radiance, all melodies that come from the heart seem to us to be the rightful property of the women who first ignited the melodic flame therein. Once having heard them, we commit to paper only what they have sung. It is, however, the lot of us fallible mortals, bound as we are to this mud-heap of a world of ours, to endeavor to circumscribe such etherealities within the pitifully straitened limits of terrestrial actuality. So comes the lady vocalist to be our mistress—nay, our wife!; the spell is broken, and our inner melody, erstwhile herald of the glorious realm beyond, debased into the housewife's lament over a broken soup bowl or an ink stain in a batch of clean laundry. Fortunate beyond compare is the composer who never sets his terrestrial eyes a second time upon the woman who had the mysterious power to kindle his inner music. Let the young man be violently racked by the torments and disappointments of love, for once he has been separated for good from his fair enchantress, her image will metamorphose into a divine sound that will perdure in an eternal exuberance of youth and beauty, and from this sound will be born the melodies that are and never can be anything but unchanging iterations of this eternal she. What, then, is this she, if not the highest ideal, which, in the course of its unceasing emanations from within, contingently finds itself mirrored by some essentially alien image in the external world?”
“Strange, but not implausible,” said Eduard, as the two friends strode arm in arm from Tarone's restaurant into the open air.
Theodor’s friends were unanimous in the conviction that although he had been mistaken in representing his tale as Serapionian in the strictest sense, it could not be denied to possess a certain gay and easygoing charm attributable to his having seen the painting and the people depicted in it with his very own eyes, and such being the case it was not entirely unworthy of admission into the annals of the Serapionian Club. “You have,” said Ottmar, “you have, my dear friend Theodor, brought to life before my very eyes your efforts to excel in the noble art of music. Each of us in the old days tried to seduce you into pursuing a different branch of that art. Lothar wanted to hear nothing but instrumental works from you, I insisted on your writing only comic operas, and Cyprian, as he will now admit, thought you should be writing compositions that were completely formless and flouted every rule in the music teacher’s book; and while each of us was trying to pull you in each of these directions, you were unprecedentedly serving as the confidant of an obscure fourth branch and taking pleasure only in writing serious church music. Be that as it may, it would seem that at the present stage of music history the composition of a serious tragic opera is a peak that every composer must strive to reach, and it astonishes me that you have not long since undertaken such a work and accomplished something substantial in it.”
“And who is truly to blame for my dilatoriness,” replied Theodor; “who is truly to blame for it if not you yourself, Ottmar, along with Cyprian and Lothar? Has any one of you, despite all his begging, pleading, and importuning, yet managed to persuade me to compose an opera?”
“What an odd fellow you are!” said Cyprian: “did I not discuss opera librettos with you at sufficient length? And did you not reject the most sublime libretto-scenarios on the grounds that they were utterly impracticable? Did you not oddly enough finish up by demanding that I should undertake a complete formal course of study of music in order to understand your requirements and only then be capable of satisfying you? At that point all relish for poetic composition along those lines naturally forsook me, for you had quite patently shown yourself to be what I had never dreamt you capable of becoming: the sort of plodding, workmanlike composer, conductor, and music director who clings for dear life to established forms and refuses to deviate an inch in any direction from any of them.”
“Which of course,” chimed in Lothar, “is absolutely inexplicable. Tell me: given that Theodor is a past master of poetic expression, why in heaven’s name doesn’t he just write the libretto of his opera himself? Why does he expect us to become trained musicians and squander our literary talent on producing something that will acquire life and motion only thanks to him? Doesn’t he himself know best what his desiderata are? Is not the vulgar majority of opera composers’ need to lean on the assistance of others entirely attributable to their own imbecility, to the illiberality of their own education? Is not a complete and seamless fusion of text and music only really conceivable when the librettist and the composer are one and the same person?”
“Everything you have just said,” said Theodor; “everything you have just said sounds extraordinarily plausible, but for all that it is as far from the truth as anything can be. It is, I maintain, literally impossible for any single individual to produce a work in which words and music are of mutually comparable excellence.”
“That belief,” chimed back in Lothar, “that belief, my dear Theodor is a mere chimera begotten by either inordinately low spirits or congenital indolence. The thought of having to churn out hundreds of lines of verse before you can compose a single note of music is so disagreeable to you that you would rather not involve yourself in the libretto-writing at all; but the truth, at least according to my lights, is that any genuinely inspired poet-cum-composer will find his mind crowded with notes and words all at once, in a single instant.”
“Hear! Hear!” cried Cyprian and Ottmar.
“As you have driven me into a corner,” said Theodor, “please permit me to offer to you in lieu of a refutation a reading from a dialogue I wrote several years ago, a dialogue between two friends on the very topic of the desiderata of opera. At that time, the disaster-ridden historical epoch we have lived through was only beginning. I then fancied that my very existence as an artist was in peril—nay, in ruins—and I fell into a state of dejection, of insuperably low spirits, whose fundamental efficient cause may very well have been some physical malady. I then procured myself a Serapionesque companion who wielded a sword instead of a pen. He cheered me up in my hour of heartache; he thrust me plumb into the middle of the parti-colored welter of stirring events and noble deeds by which those glorious days were signalized.”
Without further ado Theodor began reading, thus:
The Poet and the Composer
The enemy was at the gates; the ordnance was thundering on all sides, and fire-spluttering cannonballs were whizzing through the air. With terror-blanched faces, the townspeople were racing into their houses, and the virtually deserted streets echoed with the hoofbeats of the steeds of the mounted police patrol, who rode along cursing and goading the few straggling infantrymen into the trenches. But Ludwig was utterly oblivious of the commotion; he sat in his tiny backroom of an apartment, totally immersed in and absorbed by the fantastic, majestic, parti-colored world newly discovered by him at the keyboard of his piano; he had just finished composing a symphony in which he had striven via fixed pitches and durations to capture his soul of soul’s full complement of spiritual reverberations; a work that in the manner of Beethoven’s compositions aimed to hold forth, in the language of heaven itself, on the majestic wonders of that remote romantic realm in which each and every one of us lives perpetually perishing of ineffable yearning; indeed, it aimed at nothing less than to enter into our cramped, shabby lives like a full-fledged miracle, and with the inexorably sweet voices of the sirens to seduce the listener to proceed knowingly, willingly to his own doom. Then his landlady burst into the room, incredulously and furiously demanding to know how in the midst of all this terror and danger he could sit there plunking away at his piano, and whether he was seriously planning to have his head shot off here in his pokey little garret. Ludwig had no idea what the woman was talking about until a moment later a descending cannonball tore away a piece of the roof and blasted a hail of tintinnabulating windowpane shards into the room; whereupon his landlady ran screaming and wailing downstairs, and Ludwig, now carrying his most precious possession—namely, the score of his symphony—tucked under his arm, hurried after her into the basement. Here his fellow-lodgers were already assembled. In what was for him an unprecedented access of liberality, the landlord of the tavern on the ground floor had relinquished a couple of dozen bottles of his best wine; the women of the households, still ever-attentive to bodily nourishment and necessity amid all their quaking and quailing, had brought down many a dainty little wicker basketful of toothsome morsels from their larders; everybody ate, everybody drank—everybody gradually descended from the heights of danger-induced panic into that cozily contented mood wherein neighbor nestles against neighbor in fervent and credulous quest of security, wherein it as if one loses command of every single proper little step one has learned in the dancing school of convention, and one joins in the riotous round dance of general humanity, whose simple, uncouth rhythm is pounded out by the heavy iron fist of fate. Forgotten was the dire, nay, the seemingly mortal, peril they were all in, and merry, lighthearted conversation flowed freely and enthusiastically from their lips. Next-door neighbors who upon crossing paths on the staircase had barely tipped their hats to each other now sat hand in hand, unbosoming their most intimate thoughts in reciprocally heartfelt confidences. The cannon-shots were becoming more sporadic, and some people were already talking of heading back upstairs, because, they said, the street seemed be growing safer. A certain old soldier in the company went even further, and was in the midst of proving—thanks to a few instructive words on the art of war among the ancient Romans (with special emphasis on the workings of the catapult), and a downright glory-garnering mention of the more modern contrivances of the great Vauban—that there was no point in worrying, because the building was well beyond the line of fire, when the impact of a descending ball caused the masonry barrier protecting the ventilation shafts to collapse into the cellar. But for all the architectural damage, not a single living soul had been injured, and when the soldier, still holding his brimful glass leapt up on to the table—from which the wine bottles had been sent tumbling to the floor by the cascading bricks—and bade defiance to every cannonball in the world, however near or distant, the courage of the entire company was instantly restored. As it turned out, though, they had already had their last scare of the siege; the ensuing night passed without incident, and the next morning they learned that the home army had shifted its position and ceded the town to the enemy. When they left the cellar, enemy cavalrymen were already ranging the streets, and an official proclamation guaranteeing the peace and security of all citizens’ property had been posted. Ludwig threw himself into the motley crowd of townspeople who, in their greedy appetite for the pageantry of the new, were running to greet the enemy’s commander-in-chief, who, amid the merry fanfares of trumpets, and surrounded by mounted guards in dazzlingly splendid attire, was just now riding through the city gates. Ludwig could scarcely believe his eyes when only inches away, amid the general’s adjudants, he espied his intimate old school chum Ferdinand, who, clad in a simple, unadorned officer’s uniform, and with his left arm bandaged, was curvetting past him on a majestic sorrel stallion. “That was him! That was him—the genuine article!” he spontaneously shouted. In vain did he attempt to follow his friend, who was borne rapidly out of view by his swift-hoofed steed, and Ludwig broodingly hastened back home to his room; but even within its confines he could not manage to make the slightest progress in his work; his mind and soul were flush with thoughts and feelings inspired by the sudden appearance of this old friend whom he had lost touch with years earlier, and the blissful days of youth he had whiled away in the company of the genial Ferdinand came blazing radiantly back into his memory. In those days Ferdinand had evinced no militaristic tendencies whatsoever; he lived entirely for the muses, and numerous literary productions of an astonishing precocity proved his true calling to be that of a poet. It was for this reason that Ludwig found it especially difficult to comprehend the transformation his friend had undergone, and he burned with eagerness to speak with him, without having the slightest notion of how to go about tracking him down. Meanwhile the town was becoming an ever livelier and more interesting spot to reside in; for a substantial portion of the enemy army was obliged to pass through it, and at the head of this contingent were a coalition of princes, who decided to permit themselves a few days’ rest there. The more the coalition’s headquarters swelled with new arrivals, the fainter became Ludwig’s hope of ever seeing his friend again; until finally, one evening, in an out-of-the-way, little-frequented coffeehouse where Ludwig habitually took his frugal supper, he suddenly and quite unexpectedly found the very man he had been searching for throwing himself into his arms with an exclamation of heartfelt joy. Ludwig for his part remained silent, for this longed-for moment of rediscovery was embittered on his side by a certain feeling of unsettledness. It reminded him of those moments in dreams when, upon embracing one’s sweetheart, one finds her rapidly changing into a woman whom one does not recognize—a transformation during which the fairest joys rapidly founder on the shoals of derisive chicanery. The tender son of the muses, the author of many a romantic lyric that Ludwig had attired in timbres and pitches, now stood before him with a plumed helmet on his head and a mighty, rattleable saber slung round his waist—why, in the harsh, clipped tones in which he was expressing his jubilation, he seemed to be disowning the very sound of his old voice! Ludwig’s ashen gaze alighted on Ferdinand’s wounded arm and from there flitted up to the row of medals hanging on his chest. Then Ferdinand embraced him with his right arm and pressed him violently and forcefully to his heart. “I know,” he said, “what you must be thinking and feeling about our running into each other in these circumstances! My fatherland called me, and I had no choice but to heed the call. With what joy, with what ardent enthusiasm—the enthusiasm that our sacred cause has kindled in the breast of every man whom cowardice has not earmarked as her slave—did this hand, which had thitherto wielded only the delicate shaft of a goose quill, reach then for the hilt of a sword! I have already shed some blood; and it was only because chance allowed me to perform this duty in the sight of the prince that I acquired these medals. But believe me, Ludwig!: the strings that so often resounded deep within my soul, and whose strains so often spoke to you, in the old days, remain undamaged; indeed, after the blood and horror of a battle, at some solitary sentry post, when I am lying huddled around a watch-fire in a bivouac with my fellow cavalrymen, I have in a fever pitch of enthusiasm indited the words of many splendid songs that have elevated and fortified me in the pursuit of my noble calling to fight for the freedom and honor of my country.” As Ferdinand spoke these words, Ludwig felt as though his soul of souls were now free to hold forth without reserve, and when he and Ferdinand stepped into a small side-room, and the helmet and saber were laid aside, it was as though his friend were finally casting off some strange fancy dress costume that he had been sporting only as a joke at Ludwig’s expense. As the two friends consumed the modest repast that had arrived at their table by then, and clinked glass after glass together in a succession of merry toasts, their hearts and minds were swelled with good cheer, the old days in all their glorious parti-colored splendor sprang back to life all around them, and all those irresistibly alluring phenomena their united strivings in the name of art had summoned forth with the potency of a magic spell now returned imbued with the blazing vitality of the first surge of youth.
Ferdinand eagerly implored his friend to tell him all about what he had been composing over the course of those many years, and he was greatly surprised when Ludwig confessed to him that he had not in all that time managed to compose and bring to theatrical production the music for an opera, because he had yet to come across a single libretto whose subject or treatment of that subject was capable of inspiring him to set it to music.
“I simply cannot understand,” said Ferdinand, “why you, who, thanks to an imagination of wondrous fecundity, can never want for a subject to write about, and who have the resources of numerous languages at your command, have not since written an opera libretto yourself.”
Ludwig: I am willing to grant you that my imagination may well be fecund enough to dream up plenty of subjects for an opera; nay, that especially at night when a slight headache has put me into that dreamy state that may be termed the no-man’s-land between waking and sleeping, I am often visited not only by full-fledged romantic opera librettos, but full-fledged settings of these librettos to my own music. What I seem to lack, though, is the gift for holding fast to these fleeting conceptions and writing them down; and in point of fact, among us composers it is by no means a common thing to possess the brute mechanical craft that is necessary to the successful completion of a work of art of any genre and that can be attained only by unflagging industry and incessant practice—in this case I mean the craft of assembling the verses of one’s own libretto. But even if I had become fluent at disposing a well-conceived subject properly and tastefully among scenes and verses, I would still be a long way from being able to make up my mind to compose an opera.
Ferdinand: But obviously nobody could ever understand your musical tendencies more intimately than you yourself do.
Ludwig: That is quite true; but it seems to me that a composer who sits down to turn a well-conceived opera subject into a libretto invariably feels like a painter who must make a monochrome engraving of the picture he holds in his imagination before he can even begin to render it in the living colors of actual paint.
Ferdinand: Are you saying that libretto-writing causes the fire necessary to composition to sputter and smolder?
Ferdinand: Indeed, that is exactly what it does! And in the end even my verses themselves would strike me as wretched things indeed, like the spent paper shells of rockets that only yesterday were blazing and crackling with life and soaring skyward. But in all seriousness, it seems to me that in no other art is the success of a work so dependent on the artist’s apprehension of the entire piece in all its parts down to the smallest detail at the initial, fire-imbued moment of inspiration, as it is in music; for in no other art is pruning more ineffectual or pernicious, and indeed I know from my own experience that the first melody that occurs to the composer during his inaugural reading a set of verses, the melody that then instantly springs to life in his mind as if at the touch of a magic wand, is in every case the best of all possible melodies, and indeed, as far as the composer is concerned, perhaps the only true melody. Once he has been thoroughly swept away by one of these melodies, a melody that pervades his soul, such that he is thinking solely in terms of that melody, he finds the entire struggle for appropriate words a futile one; and though he may compel himself to engage in it for a time, the billowing surge whipped up by this exertion, however high it initially rises, is bound very quickly to peter out in the barren sands of unproductivity. Indeed, to express my firm and deeply held conviction in even plainer terms: at the moment of musical inspiration, every word, every sequence of words, needs must cut a mean, shabby, and pitiful appearance in the eyes of the composer; and he would be obliged to descend from the glorious heights he has attained in order to seek his subsistence as a beggar in this ignoble terrestrial realm of words. But once here below would he not soon begin to comport himself like the captive eagle with clipped wings, and toil in vain to take flight towards the sun?
Ferdinand: All of this sounds reasonable enough, but can’t you see that you are merely making excuses for your disinclination to clear yourself a path for musical activity via the completion of all those mandatory scenes, arias, duets, etc., rather than convincing me of your inability to clear that path?
Ludwig: I may be doing just that, but allow me to revive an old reproach: why back in the days when we were so intimately conjoined in our artistic aspirations did you never even attempt to gratify my ardent craving for an opera libretto penned by you?
Ferdinand: Because I regard it as the most thankless task in the world. You must admit to me that nobody in the world can be more stubbornly demanding than you composers; and if you dare maintain that it is unreasonable to expect a musician to stoop to mastering the humble mechanical craft of versification, I must counter with the assertion that we poets cannot but find it extremely burdensome to cleave to the letter of the desiderata of your art—to sweat and fret over the structure of your blasted vocal trios, quartets, finales, etc.; to avoid violating—as we but seldom manage to do for two consecutive lines—the statutes of that ridiculous form that you have adopted for Lord knows what reason. Once we have strained ourselves to the breaking-point in the effort to comprehend every facet of our text in genuinely poetic terms and to depict it in inspired words and prosodically smooth verses, it is a horrible thing indeed to see our finest lines pitilessly consigned to the blotting-ink by you lot, and our most majestic words often manhandled and indeed drowned in the inversions and perversions of the vocal line. So far I have addressed only the pointlessness of all the painstaking detail work. But oftentimes the subject never even reaches the stage of receiving such work: it comes to us in a flash of poetic inspiration, it strikes us as a truly splendid basis of a composition, we proudly bequeath it to you in the conviction that we are doing you an enormous service, and you immediately chuck it in the dustbin, dismissing it as unusable and unworthy of musical adornment. What could motivate such behavior, if not sheer stubborn, confounded perverseness—or perhaps something even worse, for I know with what alacrity you lot are wont to snatch up the most wretched doggerel for your--
Ludwig: Enough, my dear friend, enough! To be sure: there are plenty of pseudo-composers who have no affinity whatsoever with music, just as there are plenty of versifiers who have no affinity whatsoever with poetry, and such composerasters have indeed often appended musical notation to librettos that are truly and in every respect nothing but wretched pieces of doggerel. But a true composer, one who lives and works in music in the highest and most sacred sense, will never settle for any text that is not a work of genuine poetry.
Ferdinand: And yet Mozart…
Ludwig: …chose eminently music-worthy librettos for all his classic operas, however paradoxical many people may find this. But setting Mozart aside for the moment, I am saying that it is possible to determine precisely and from the outset whether a subject is suitable for an opera, and that if it is suitable, the poet need never fear losing his way while developing it into a libretto.
Ferdinand: I confess I have never given a single thought to this question of suitability, and in the light of my lack of musical knowledge, I don’t see how any of your premises could ever apply to me.
Ferdinand: If by “musical knowledge” you mean a so-called musical education, in other words, formal academic training in music, a poet need have no musical knowledge at all in order to be a judicious appraiser of the composer’s requirements, for even if he lacks such training he still may carry within himself such a thorough understanding of the essence of music that he is in this respect a much better musician than the man who by the sweat of his own brow has worked his way through the academy’s entire labyrinthine syllabus, who mistakes its lifeless rules for the living spirit of music, who worships them like some fetishistic statue of his own carving, and believes that such wanton idolatry is paving his way to heavenly salvation.
Ferdinand: So you really believe that a true poet is capable of penetrating to the true essence of music even if he has never received the petty benison of the academy?
Ludwig: Absolutely! Indeed, in our shared communion with that far-off realm that often enfolds us in strange intimations, and from which terrestrially unknown voices hold forth to us here below and awaken all the sounds that lie slumbering in our breasts—sounds that once awakened shine forth in beams of pure fire, rendering us worthy and able to partake of the blissfulness of that paradise—in jointly participating in this experience the poet and the composer are intimately mutually affined members of a single church: for the mystery of words and musical pitches is one and the same, a mystery that by disclosing itself to them ordains them in the highest and most sacred sense.
Ferdinand: As I was just now listening to my dear friend Ludwig striving to apprehend the mysterious essence of art in apothegms of such compelling profundity, the formerly seemingly vast chasm between the poet and musician instantly shrank into nonexistence before my very eyes.
Ludwig: Let me try to boil down what I believe to be the essence of opera into a single short sentence: a genuine opera seems to me simply to be one in which the music immediately springs forth from the poetry as its necessary progeny.
Ferdinand: I am afraid I still can’t quite follow you.
Ludwig: Isn’t music essentially the mysterious language of a certain distant spiritual realm, a language whose miraculous accents reverberate within our souls and awaken a higher, more intensive form of life in us? A pitched battle in which all the passions, resplendently armed and armored, wage war against all the others and perish in an inexpressible access of yearning that suffuses our breast: this is the ineffable and inevitable effect of all great instrumental music. But now music is expected to enter into everyday life, it is expected to comprehend the various phenomena peculiar to it, such that having acquainted its palate with words and deeds, it is able to hold forth fluently about specific, well-defined passions and actions. But is it even possible to talk about commonplace things using noble words? Can music ever give us any other tidings than those of the wonders of the land it hails from that it wafts over to us in glorious waves of sound? Let the poet gird himself for the audacious flight to the far-off kingdom of Romanticism; there he will discover the essence of the miraculous, which he will be duty-bound to carry back to this world while it is still alive and retains all its supernal luster, so that his fellow terrestrial men and women will freely embrace its reality; so that, indeed, as if under the spell of some enrapturing dream, they will desert this shabby workaday existence entirely and wander off into the flower-strewn avenues of the realm of Romanticism, whose music-imbued logos will have become the only language they can speak or understand.
Ferdinand: So the only kind of opera you are willing to take under your wing is the Romantic opera, with its full complement of fairies, spirits, miracles, and metamorphoses?
Milo first beholds Armilla, he is healed of the madness
that has seized him. The steed and the falcon
are brought into the royal presence, and the king is enraptured by his
brother’s thoughtful affectionateness in catering to his favorite pastimes with
such splendid gifts. Jennaro presents the falcon
to him, but just as Milo is about to take hold
of the bird, Jennaro hacks off its head, and his brother’s eyes are
spared. In like manner, just as Milo
is setting his foot in the stirrup to mount the horse, Jennaro draws his sword
and with one stroke cuts the horse’s forelegs in two, causing the beast to
collapse to the ground. Milo is
now convinced that some mad amorous passion has induced his brother to perform
these bizarre acts, and Armilla shares his supposition: from Jennaro’s furtive
sighs and tears and his wild, distracted demeanor she has long since inferred that
he is in love with her. She assures the king of her
most ardent partiality to him, to Milo, which,
she says, was engendered even before she saw him, during the voyage, when
Jennaro spoke to her of his brother in the most spirited and most moving
fashion. On her side, for the sake
of warding off all suspicion she now beseeches Milo
to expedite her wedding to him, the king, which thereupon very promptly takes
place. In his mind’s eye, Jennaro can already see his brother
perishing; the thought that he has been completely misunderstood is driving him
to despair, and yet he knows that he will suffer an unimaginably horrible fate
if a word of the terrible mystery escapes his lips. He now resolves to save his
brother whatever the cost, and by way of an underground passage he steals into
his brother’s bedchamber. A fearsome, fire-spewing dragon appears; Jennaro falls on it with his
sword, but his blows are completely ineffectual. The
dragon approaches the bedchamber; Jennaro, now at the utmost pitch of despair, swings
his sword with both hands, and the fearsome blow with which he intends to despatch
the dragon instead cleaves the door of the bedchamber in twain. Milo emerges from the bedchamber, and because the monster
has vanished, to Milo’s eyes Jennaro gives every appearance of being a
perfidious scoundrel whom the lunacy of a sinful amorous passion has driven to
attempt fratricide. Jennaro
has nothing to say in his own defense; the palace guards are summoned, and they
drag him down into the dungeon. He is now expected to
pay for his supposed crime by laying down his life at the executioner’s
scaffold, but he insists on speaking to his ardently beloved brother first. Milo grants him an audience; in the
most moving terms Jennaro reminds him of the intimate, heartfelt love that has united
them since birth,; but when he asks him if he really believes him capable of
murdering his brother, Milo demands proof of his innocence; whereupon Jennaro
in a mixture of fury and grief reveals to him the fateful, horrifying
prophecies of the doves and Norand the necromancer. But no sooner has he finished speaking than to Milo’s gaping
horror he freezes into a marble statue. Now the depth and extremity of
Jennaro’s fraternal love dawns on Milo; he is tormented by heart-rending
self-reproach, and he resolves never to leave the statue of his beloved
brother--to breathe his last despairing and remorseful breath at its feet. Then Norand appears. “In the eternal law-book of fate,” he
intones, “were recorded the death of the raven, the curse pronounced against
you, and the abduction of Armilla. There
is indeed one if only one act that can restore your brother’s life, but its
ghastliness beggars description: if Armilla dies by means of this dagger at the
side of the statue, its cold marble, bespattered with her blood, will then glow
with life. Have you the courage to murder Armilla? Then do it!
Grieve and mourn as I shall likewise do!” He
vanishes. Armilla wrests from
the unfortunate Milo the secret of Norand’s horrifying words. Milo
despairingly abandons her, and Armilla, caring nothing more for her own life
and overwhelmed by shock and horror, stabs herself in the heart with the dagger
that Norand has thrown down at the foot of the statue. As soon as her blood spatters the
statue, Jennaro comes back to life. Milo returns to the
spot where he left Armilla; he beholds his newly reanimated brother and the
corpse of his beloved spouse lying at Jennaro’s’ feet. Now
succumbing to despair, he tries to destroy himself with the same dagger that
killed Armilla. Now, all of a sudden, the gloomy tomb
metamorphoses into a spacious and dazzlingly bright reception chamber. Norand
appears again; the mysterious decree of destiny is fulfilled; all sorrow is at
an end; at Norand’s touch Armilla comes back to life, and they all live happily
Ferdinand: So the only kind of opera you are willing to take under your wing is the Romantic opera, with its full complement of fairies, spirits, miracles, and metamorphoses?
Ludwig: Hardly. To be sure, I really do regard Romantic opera as the only genuine form of opera, inasmuch as it is only in the realm of Romanticism that music truly feels at home. But you may rest assured that I have nothing but the utmost contempt for those wretched productions whose dramatis personae are peopled by infantile, spiritless spirits, and whose plots are filled with wonder upon wonder strung together without regard for cause or effect and solely for the amusement of the empty-headed rabble. A genuine Romantic opera can be composed only by a poet of genius working in the white heat of inspiration: for such a person alone is capable of introducing the miraculous apparitions of the spiritual realm into this life; having been borne aloft on his wings, we soar across the chasm that formerly separated us from that realm, and once we have acclimatized ourselves to that foreign land, we freely give credence to the miracles that occur before our very eyes as the necessary and inevitable consequences of the influence of more exalted natures on our being; and thereupon develop all the myriad violently soul-stirring situations that at one moment fill us with dread and horror and at the next carry us to the very acme of bliss. It is the magic power of summoning forth poetic truth with a single word that must be at the disposal of the marvel-conjuring poet, for this power alone is capable of captivating us; and the brazenly capricious succession of pointless fairies that one often gets in pseudo-Romantic operas, creatures whose sole purpose is often only to get under the skin of some pagliasso in apprentice’s garb, will always strike us as farcical and silly and consequently leave us cold and uninterested. And so, my friend, in opera the influence of higher natures on us must visibly exert itself and hence disclose to our view a Romantic state of being, wherein language acquires a heightened power, or rather, in which in partaking of the aforementioned far-off realm, it is transformed into music, into song; such that even the most ordinary actions and situations, now swelling aloft in mighty pitches and timbres, seize us with main force and hold us captive. It is in this sense that, as I asserted earlier, music must immediately and necessarily spring forth from poetry.
Ferdinand: Now I understand you perfectly, and you have put me in mind of Ariosto and Tasso; and yet I still think that the composition of a musical drama meeting your criteria would be a very difficult task.
Ludwig: It is the remit of a poet of genius, of an authentically Romantic poet. Think of the majestic Gozzi. In his dramatic fairy tales he has fulfilled all my requirements of a librettist, and it boggles the mind to consider how little this rich treasure trove of first-rate opera subjects has thus far been exploited.
Ferdinand: I must admit that when last I read him several years ago Gozzi spoke to me in the most eloquently spirited terms, although naturally I have never contemplated him from the point of view you are starting from.Ludwig: Unquestionably one of his loveliest tales is “The Raven.” It may be recounted as follows: Milo, the king of Frattombrosa, is acquainted with no other pleasures than those of hunting and shooting. In the forest he sees a majestic raven and shoots it through with an arrow. The raven tumbles down on to a white marble tomb sited directly beneath the tree he was just perched on, and as he freezes into the rigid posture of death, he bespatters the tomb’s surface with his blood. Then the entire forest gives a single, mighty shudder, and from out of a grotto strides forth a hideously misshapen creature that thunders out into poor Milo’s ears the following curse: “If thou findest not a wife as white as the marble of this tomb, red as this raven’s blood, black as this raven’s feathers, thou needs must die a captive to the delirium and fury of full-blown madness!” All of Milo’s questing for such a woman proves futile. Then the king’s brother, Jennaro, who loves him most tenderly, resolves to search incessantly and indefatigably himself for the beauty fated to save his brother from all-consuming madness. He traverses entire countries and oceans; at length, having been guided along her trail by an old man skilled in necromancy, he beholds Armilla, the daughter of the mighty enchanter Norand. Her skin is as white as the marble tomb and as red as the raven’s blood, and her tresses and eyebrows are as black as the raven’s feathers; he succeeds in carrying her off, and after weathering a violent tempest, the ship they are voyaging in finds safe harbor not far from Frattombrosa. No sooner has he stepped ashore than chance bequeaths to him a majestic steed and a falcon possessed of the most peculiar qualities, and he is flush with delight at the prospect of not only saving his brother from the curse but also showering him with gifts that he will perforce prize highly. Jennaro now lays himself down to sleep in a tent that some unknown soul has pitched beneath a tree, upon whose branches two birds now alight and begin to speak, thus: “Woe to thee that thou wast ever born, Jennaro! The falcon will peck out thy brother’s eyes; do not present the bird to him or reveal what thou hast learned, lest thou turn to stone. If thy brother mount the horse, the beast will instantly throw him to his death; do not give him the steed, or reveal what thou hast learned, lest thou turn to stone. If thou givest Armilla to him in marriage, a hideous misshapen creature will tear him to pieces in the night; do not surrender her to him, or reveal what thou hast learned, lest thou turn to stone.” Norand appears and corroborates the truth of the doves’ pronouncement as a prognostication of the retributive consequences of Jennaro’s abduction of Armilla. The moment
Ferdinand: I can now quite clearly recall that splendid, fantastic tale; and the profound impression it made on me when I read it has lasted to this day. You are quite right about the story: in it the miraculous seems necessitous; and it is so poetically true that one willingly accepts the reality of everything that happens in it. It is Milo’s deed, his murder of the raven, that in a manner of speaking knocks at the brass gate of the spiritual realm, which then swings open with a resonant clang; and out march the spirits into the lives of human beings, whom they entangle in the miraculous, mysterious destiny that holds sway over them.
Ludwig: Yes they do, and just consider what strong, splendid dramatic situations the great writer managed to derive from this conflict with the spiritual world. In Jennaro’s heroic sacrifice, in Armilla’s noble deed, there inheres a certain greatness that our run-of-the-mill moralistic playwrights, who sift through the shabby events of quotidian existence as if through the refuse swept out of the state hall and into the dustcart, have not the faintest idea of. But how splendidly, too, are the comic parts of the masquerade figures woven into the basic tragic fabric!
Ferdinand: Indeed!—only in an authentic Romantic play is the comic element mingled with the tragic so pliantly that the two of them melt together in the overall dramatic effect, and the viewer’s soul is stirred in a single miraculous fashion.”
Ludwig: This is something even our dull mechanical manufacturers of operas have dimly surmised. For it was obviously the impetus to the contrivance of the so-called heroic-comic opera, in which the heroic element is often genuinely comical, but the comic element is heroic only insofar as it bids defiance to everything conducive to good taste, propriety, and moral decency.”
Ferdinand: Hence, your ascertainment of the essential prerequisite for a great libretto also goes to show why we have in actuality been graced by so very few genuine operas.
Ludwig: That is absolutely right! The vast majority of so-called operas are only vacuous plays with songs in them, and their total lack of dramatic power, which one blames by turns on the verses and on the music, is actually attributable to the lifeless mass of strung-together scenes, which is devoid of inner poetic coherence and poetic truth, a mass that even the most enchanting music could never bring to life. In many cases the composer has unintentionally worked solely in his own behalf, and the wretched verses plod alongside the music and never get a chance to fuse with it. The music may in a certain sense be very good, in other words, even though it fails magically to captivate the listener with far-reaching profundities, it may still engender a certain feeling of well-being, like a merry, glittering play of colors. In such cases the opera performance is a concert that happens to be being given in a theater with costumes and scenery.
Ferdinand: Since by this account you accord merit of the most authentic kind only to romantic operas, what room is there left for the classic musical tragedies, let alone for comic operas in modern dress? Would you consign the entire corpus of such works to oblivion?
Ludwig: By no means! In most of the older tragic operas, operas that unfortunately are no longer written by either librettists or composers, it is the genuine heroism of the plot, the inner strength of the characters and situations, that exerts such a powerful fascination on the spectator. That obscure, mysterious force that reigns supreme over gods and men alike strides past before his very eyes, and in the ominous, inscrutable notes of the score he seems to hear the proclamation of the irrevocable fiats of destiny, with which the gods themselves must comply. This purely tragic vein is perforce immiscible with any elements of genuine fantasy: but in virtue of its involvement of the gods, who rouse human beings to the attainment of a more exalted version of life, and indeed to the performance of deeds worthy of divinities, it gives rise to a correspondingly more exalted form of language that cannot but ring out in the wondrous accents of music. Indeed, were not the tragedies of the ancients already musically declaimed?, and was this musical declamation not genuinely tantamount to an acknowledgment of the need for a more exalted means of expression than can be vouchsafed by ordinary, everyday speech? Our musical tragedies have inspired composers of genius to attain an elevated, I would almost say a sacred, style; and it is is miraculously floated atop the notes, which ring with the aureate timbre of cherubim’s and seraphim’s harps, into the kingdom of light, where the solution to the mystery of his own being is revealed. I have been attempting, dear Ferdinand, to convey a sense of nothing less trivial than the intimate affinity of sacred music with tragic opera, from which the composers of earlier ages shaped a unique and noble style, an affinity of which more recent composers—the luxuriantly superbombastic Spontini not excepted—have absolutely no idea. I would rather not mention even in passing that noble version of fortune that stands forth like a hero; but if you would like to get a feeling for how even a lesser talent of the last age was capable of understanding and commanding the authentically great, tragic style, you need only recall the example of the chorus of Pluto’s priests from Piccini’s Dido.
Ferdinand: Everything now strikes me as being exactly as it was in the early, golden days of our time together: you have been holding forth about your métier in an enthusiastic strain, and in so doing you have raised me to heights from which I behold prospects that were formerly beyond my ken, and you can take me entirely at my word when I say that in my imagination’s eye I now understand a great deal indeed about the true nature of music.
Ludwig: Is this not spoken with the unfeigned enthusiasm of a born librettist? I maintain that he, no less than the composer, must write entirely at the behest of his soul of souls, and that it is merely the composer’s distinct consciousness of specific melodies, and indeed of specific orchestral timbres—in short, his easygoing, unforced mastery of the realm of notes--that distinguishes him from the librettist. But I still owe you my opinion of opera buffa.
Ferdinand: I suppose you take a rather dim view of operas in this mode, at least when they are performed in modern dress?
Ludwig: Yes, but I must confess that in my view what makes for a truly great opera buffa, the thing that establishes its credibility, is not its performance in historically accurate period costumes, but its capturing of the essential nimbleness and volatility of Italian-ness. Therein consists the opera buffa’s fantastic quality, which arises partly from the devil-may-care momentum of individual characters, and partly from the bizarre freaks of contingency; a quality which, in impetuously pitching into the quotidian precincts of ordinary life, turns everything within them topsy-turvy. One is compelled to acknowledge that, yes, that is indeed Mr. So-and-So, my neighbor, in his usual cinnamon-hued Sunday suit with gold-covered buttons—but what in the world can have happened to him to make him behave like such a confounded fool? Picture to yourself a respectable gathering of bachelor cousins and maiden aunts and lovesick young daughters, along with a handful of students who are strumming guitars at the windows and singing the praises of their kinswoman’s eyes. And into this company barges the spirit of drollery in the person of a mischievous ghost, and now everything is thrown into mad confusion, into all manner of outlandish leaps and demonic grimaces. An uncharted star has risen, and everywhere contingency begins setting its traps, in which the most respectable people are caught the instant they stick their noses out, however tentatively. In my opinion, it is precisely in this intrusion of demonic fortuitousness into everyday life, and in the conflicts that arise from it, that the essence of true opera buffa consists; and it is precisely their ability to impart plausibility to this otherwise seemingly far-fetched vein of the fantastic that makes the Italian actors such inimitable performers. They understand the playwright’s intentions, and their acting adds living flesh and blood to what in its bare written form can never be anything more than a skeleton.
Ferdinand: I believe that I have understood you perfectly. You are saying that in any opera buffa of merit and authenticity it is the fantastic element that takes the place of the romantic element that you have declared the indispensable desideratum of great opera; and that the art of the opera buffa librettist consists in making his characters not only completely rounded and poetically true but also exactly mimetic of the people one meets in everyday life, in making them seem so individual that the instant one sees them one says to oneself: look! that is my next-door neighbor whom I have spoken to every day for years! And that’s the student I see walking to class every morning, and sighing below the window of his kinswoman, etc. And once this semblance of quotidian existence is in place, demonic fortuitousness must arrive on the scene, and in discomposing these people’s lives or involving them in strange crises, it must make us feel as though some madcap ghost is tearing through our lives, and drive us ineluctably into the circle of its delightful high jinks.
Ludwig: You have taken the words of my exact opinion right out of my mouth, and I hardly need bother explaining to you how willingly and pliantly, in conformity with my principle, music accommodates itself to opera buffa; and how in this mode, as in the romantic one, a specific style, one that takes possession of the listener’s soul in its own peculiar fashion, comes spontaneously into being.
Ferdinand: But is music truly capable of expressing the comic in all its innumerable nuances?
Ludwig: I am firmly convinced that it is capable of such nuanced comical expression, and certain artists of genius have proved the soundness of my conviction a hundred times over. For example, that music can express the most delightful vein of irony has been admirably demonstrated by Mozart in his magnificent opera Cosi fan tutte.
Ferdinand: But now I cannot help remarking that according to your principle, the much-despised text of this opera is in fact admirably well-suited to serving as a libretto.
Ludwig: And it was precisely of Cosi that I was thinking when I earlier maintained that for his classic operas Mozart had always chosen texts that were perfect as opera librettos, although The Marriage of Figaro is really more of a play with sung dialogue than a true opera. The vicious attempt to adapt a sentimental drama as an opera must always go awry, and our Orphanages, Oculists, etc., are already well on their way to certain and total oblivion. Equally unsurpassably pitiful, as well as inimical to the spirit of true opera, was that entire series of singspiels promulgated by the likes of Dittersdorf, within which I certainly would not include such operas as Sunday’s Child and The Sisters of Prague. These may be termed authentic German opere buffe.
Ferdinand: At any rate, I have always derived enormous pleasure from these operas when they are well produced, having very much taken to heart something Tieck has his poet say to the audience in Puss in Boots: that if they wish to enjoy the play, they must set aside all their notions of what is and is not possible and become children once again, so that they will once again be able to take joy and pleasure in childish things.
Ludwig: Unfortunately these words, like so many others of the same kind, have fallen on to parched, sterile soil. But the vox populi, which in theatrical matters is generally a veritable vox dei, drowns out the few isolated sighs exhaled by supersensitive souls at the provocation of the appalling violations of natural law and good taste contained in these (in their view) silly pieces; and even many of these fastidious individuals, as if swept along by the madness of the crowd, have been seen bursting into appallingly uncontrollable laughter in the midst of their high-flown attitudinizing, and thereby certifying their complete non-comprehension of their own laughter.
Ferdinand: Is Tieck not the one poet who, if it pleased him to do so, would certainly be capable of furnishing to a composer a romantic libretto in perfect conformity with your desiderata?
Ludwig: Most assuredly, for he is certainly an authentic romantic poet; and I do in fact recall that I once managed to get my hands on an opera libretto that was fully and genuinely romantic in conception, but unfortunately it was far too densely crammed with characters and incidents, and also far too extensive in scale. If I am not mistaken it bore the title of The Monster and the Enchanted Forest.
Ferdinand: You have just given me an excuse to mention a particularly nettlesome difficulty imposed on us would-be librettists by you composers. I am referring to the norm of incredible brevity that you prescribe to us. All the laborious pains we take to comprehend and depict this or that dramatic situation, the eruption of this or that human passion, in intelligible, meaning-bearing words, are in vain; for the whole blessed business must be dispatched in a handful of verses, which are supposed in turn to be ruthlessly whittled and winnowed down to practically nothing to suit your compositional fancy.
Ludwig: I would prefer to think of it in this way—that the librettist must work like the painter of scenic backdrops; that, using correctly proportioned sketches as his model, he must dash off the entirety of his tableau in a few strong, bold lines; for it will only be with the addition of music, which will impart the appropriate lighting and accurate perspective to all its elements, that everything in this tableau will stand out in living relief, and the isolated and seemingly haphazard brush-strokes combine to form vivid three-dimensional shapes.
Ferdinand: So what you really want from us is just an outline rather than a completely elaborated dramatic poem?
Ludwig: By no means. It certainly goes without saying that the librettist must remain ruthlessly loyal to the proportional disposition, the economical distribution, of the whole, to the naturally ordained rules of the drama, but he must also take especial care to make sure that his scenes are arranged in such a fashion that the opera’s subject-matter develops clearly and distinctly before the spectator’s eyes. The spectator must be able to grasp the import of what he is witnessing while perhaps scarcely understanding a single word of what is being sung. In no genre of dramatic poem is this distinctness more exigent than in an opera libretto, for even aside from the fact that the most precise vocal articulation in the world cannot prevent the words from being less intelligible than when spoken, the spectator is so easily transported to other regions by the music that it is only by being unflaggingly guided to the point in which the dramatic effect is meant to be concentrated that he can be kept attentive to that point. So as far as the words go, the ones that please composers best are those that express the dramatically pertinent passion or situation with great vigor and concision; there is no need for any special embellishment, and least of all is there any need for imagery.
Ferdinand: So what about the metaphor-crammed Metastasio?
Ludwig: Indeed, he was genuinely of the bizarre opinion that especially in arias the opera composer ought not to write a note without first being inspired by some poetic image. Whence his endlessly reiterated initial strophes: Come una tortorella, etc., come spuma in tempesta, etc. And in the operas set to his librettos one does often actually hear attempts to imitate the cooing of doves, the foaming of the sea, etc.; at least in the accompaniment.
Ferdinand: But are there not other practices besides poetic embellishment that we should forego; should we not likewise be spared all those moments in which a character dwells descriptively on the interesting situation he finds himself in? For example, our young hero is about to go off to war, and is taking leave of his age-stooped father, the old king, whose kingdom is being shaken to its very foundations by a conquering tyrant; or some horrible catastrophe is about to separate the lovesick youth from his beloved: in each case shouldn’t he really just say “Farewell,” and nothing else?
Ludwig: In the first situation, the hero may say a few words about his courage, of his conviction that right will be prevail; in the second, he may briefly speak of his mistress: he may say something to the effect that life without her will be a slow death; but even your simple “farewell” on its own will enable the composer, who must be inspired not by words but by actions and situations, to depict the inner spiritual condition of the young warrior or bereft lover in bold, powerful strokes. To stick firmly to your example: consider with what profoundly soul-penetrating accents the Italians have sung that little word addio on innumerable occasions! Of what thousands upon thousands of nuances is musical expression capable! And indeed the miraculous mystery of the art of musical composition consists precisely in the fact that it is only once the wretched resources of ordinary speech have run dry that this art’s inexhaustible well-springs of expressive means begin to flow!
Ferdinand: Hence the librettist should strive for the utmost verbal simplicity, and need only hint at the dramatic situation with noble and vigorous laconism.
Ludwig: Indeed, for as I said earlier, it is the subject-matter, the plot, the situation, and not flashy words, that must inspire the composer; and in addition to so-called poetic images, each and every instance of ratiocinative dilly-dallying is an outright mortification to the musician.
Ferdinand: But don’t you understand that I find it genuinely and painfully difficult to write in a manner that meets all your criteria for a good opera libretto? This requirement of verbal simplicity in particular--
Ludwig: --may indeed prove fairly taxing to you, who take such delight in painting with words. But even though Metastasio has, in my opinion, furnished us with textbook examples of how not to go about writing librettos, there are by the same token many Italian poems that could be virtually institutionalized as models for authentic song-lyric writing. What verses could be simpler than those of the following famous quatrain:
Almen se non possio
seguir l'amato bene
seguite lo per me!
How pithily these few, simple words adumbrate a soul stricken by love and heartache; and by mustering the power of musical expression in all its strength the composer can bring this adumbrated spiritual condition to dramatic life. Indeed, the specific dramatic context in which the words must be sung will so powerfully stir his imagination that he will impart an unmistakably individual character to the vocal line associated with them. Accordingly, you will often find composers with poetic insight setting downright lousy verses to truly magnificent music. But in such a case the composer has been inspired not by the verses, but by the authentically opera-worthy romantic subject-matter. As an example of this I would cite Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Ferdinand was on the point of saying something in reply, when the drummer’s tattoo for the regular march of the assembled army was heard just on the other side of the window they were sitting next to. He seemed disconcerted; with a deep sigh, Ludwig pressed his friend’s hand to his breast. “Ah, Ferdinand, my dear, bosom friend! What is to become of art in this harsh, tumultuous age? Will it not perish like a tender plant vainly stretching its withered crown towards the dark pall of clouds behind which the sun has long since vanished? Ah, Ferdinand, whither has the golden age of our youth fled? Everything of superior merit is being drowned in the sudden, cataclysmic, torrential inundation of every field and meadow in the world; from out of this flood’s black billows blood-oozing corpses peep forth as we slide helplessly ever deeper into the maw of the horror that has taken hold of us; we have no prop, no stay, to cling to; our cries of terror expire unheeded in the cold, sterile air; as sacrificial victims of implacably indomitable rage we sink irredeemably into oblivion!” Ludwig fell silent, for by now he was entirely immersed in his own thoughts. Ferdinand rose; he slung on his saber and donned his helmet; armed cap-a-pie for battle like the god of war, he stood facing Ludwig, who gazed at him in astonishment. Then a sudden blaze of anger spread over Ferdinand’s face; his eyes shone with incinerating fire, as in a voice made loud and sonorous by passion, he said: “Ludwig what has become of you? Has the stifling, prison-like air that you seem to have to been inhaling here for so long really debilitated you so severely that in your hebetude and sickliness you can no longer feel the touch of the vernal breezes sweeping through the dazzlingly dawn-gilded clouds outside? The children of nature used to wallow in slothful inactivity, and rather than accepting with reverent filial piety the superlatively fair gifts offered to them by their mother, they trampled them underfoot with wanton ingratitude. Now enraged by her offspring’s brattish behavior, nature awoke the spirit of war, who had long lain slumbering in her fragrant flower garden. Like a bronze colossus the spirit strode into the midst of the crowd of puny degenerates, and at the sound of his dreadful voice, which echoed from the very mountaintops, they fled in search of the protective bosom of the mother they had long since ceased to believe in. But with the return of belief came knowledge—the revelation that strength alone begets vitality, that the divine flows from conflict, just as life flows from death. Yes, Ludwig, we have witnessed the dawning of a portentous age, and from the gruesome profundities of the old myths, which reverberate across the ages to us like miraculous rumblings of thunder in the distant twilight, we are once again learning to listen clearly and attentively to the voice of our eternal sovereign, Power—indeed, by striding into our lives in visible, corporeal form, Power is awakening in us the belief under whose auspices the mystery of our existence will be disclosed. Crimson dawn is breaking and bliss-enraptured singers are already vaulting into the aromatic skies; they proclaim the advent of the divinity and sing its praises in their ascent. The golden gates have swung asunder, and in a single jet of flame science and art are igniting the sacred impetus of ambition, which will bring all of mankind together under the roof of a single church. Therefore direct thy gaze heavenward, my friend. Courage, faith, belief!” Ferdinand pressed his friend to his bosom. Ludwig raised his undrained glass in a toast: “To our eternal bondage to a higher existence in life and death!” “To our eternal bondage to a higher existence in life and death!” replied Ferdinand, and within minutes his fleet-hoofed steed had borne him to the troops, who were whooping with savagely jubilant battle-lust as they rushed to meet the foe.
The friends were all deeply moved. Each of them was recalling that period in his life when a crushing sense of impending disaster perpetually weighed upon him and seemed to be irretrievably robbing him of his very will to live. Then he recalled the moment when the gloomy pall of clouds was pierced by the first beams of light from the fair star of hope, which with ever-increasing brightness and splendor began to revive his spirits and revivify his strength; the moment when everything and everyone was jubilantly astir and afoot in the joyous riot of military conflict; the moment when courage and faith alike were crowned with the supremely noble wreath of victory!
“In point of fact,” said Lothar, “each of us has lectured himself in the same manner as this true Serapionian, Ferdinand, and it is lucky for us that instead of annihilating us the menacing storm that thundered over our heads has only fortified and revivified us like a bracing sulfur bath. I myself feel as though I am have only just now, in your company, completely recovered my health and discovered a new capability of relishing life; I feel as though now that the storm has completely passed over, I am finally engaging once again with the realms of art and science. I know that Theodor is likewise engaging with two realms at once, and quite boldly at that; he is once again surrendering himself unreservedly to the music of yesteryear, while at the same time not unreservedly disdaining to engage in literary composition, whence I infer that he will soon surprise us with a first-rate opera, an opera that he alone, as a joint adept in music and poetry, is capable of composing. For however plausible all his sophistical assertions about the impossibility of writing the libretto and the music of an opera single-handedly may sound, they have never convinced me.”
“I,” said Cyprian, “am of the opposite opinion. But let us refrain from engaging in any fruitless quarrelling, which would be all the more fruitless in that Theodor is the only person who can vindicate or disprove either of us by actually composing such an opera, regardless of whether he now believes it to be impossible or not. It would be much better for Theodor to open his pianoforte and, now that he has regaled us with some delightful tales, to treat us to a performance of some of his latest compositions.”
“On many occasions,” said Theodor, “on many occasions Cyprian has accused me of setting too much store by form, of rejecting any poem that cannot be smoothly slotted into the most conventional musical forms. I deny this accusation and will disprove it by declaring that I have undertaken to set to music a poem that enjoys the distinction of flouting the rules of every conventional genre and shopworn form in the book. I am referring here to no other poem than the night-song from Müller the Painter’s Genoveva. All the bittersweet melancholy, all the pain, all the longing, all the spectral intuition, of a heart torn by love without hope, is contained in the words of this noble poem. On top of all this, its verses possess a certain heart- piercingly archaic character that leads me to believe that any musical setting of them must be a composition in the style of old Alessandro Scarlatti or the later Benedetto Marcello, in other words, a composition for human voices alone absent the gaudy pageantry of accompanying instruments. The entire work is already complete in my mind, but I have committed only the beginning of it to paper; here is the music, absent the vocal line; if you still see some value in our old exercise of singing to invisible notes and are up to the task, I would very much like us to sight read the part of the poem that I have so far set.«
“Ha!” cried Ottmar, “I remember very clearly that exercise that you call singing to invisible notes. You would outline the chords on the keys of the piano without striking them, and each person would sing the pertinent note of his assigned part without having heard it played on the instrument beforehand. Those bystanders who failed to observe the chords being delineated at the keyboard could not comprehend how we managed to sing several multi-voiced pieces of music extemporaneously, and people with a highly developed talent for being easily impressed take genuine delight in the thing as a kind of musical juggling act. For my part I continue to sing in my old, gravelly mediocre baritone and have no more lost the knack for the exercise than has Lothar, who with his ever-trusty bass remains capable of laying down a sturdy foundation upon which tenors like you and Cyprian may safely build as high as you please.”
“My work,” said Theodor, “is in fact perfectly suited to the smooth tenor voice of my Cyprian; therefore I am assigning him the first tenor part, while I myself shall undertake the second one. Ottmar, who can always be trusted to hit the right notes, can sing the first bass part and Lothar the second, but please, whatever you do, do not thunder the notes out; rather, sing them softly and tenderly in conformity with the character of the poem.” Theodor played a few introductory chords on the pianoforte, whereupon the four men’s voices began singing the chorus of long sustained notes in A flat major:
“Limpid star of love
Thou shin’st far up above
In heaven’s vaulted azure.
To thee we all address this call
To love we are alike in thrall
To be near love has been our only pleasure.”
Next the two tenors launched into the duet in F minor:
“Silent lofty night,
The earth-bound eye’s delight,
Has seen its dance expire.
O love’s nocturne that gently swells
Soar high above like peals of bells
Knock hard at heaven’s gate with ardency’s desire.”
At the words “Soar high, etc.” the key of the song had changed to D major; now Lothar and Ottmar sang the following in B major:
“Ye who blaze up on high
And virgin flames descry,
Ye sainted souls with tongues untainted,
Ah, sanctify our hearts below;
We suffer--suffer bitter woe;
With strife we’re well acquainted.”
Finally the four united voices sang the following in F major:
“Knock gently, wielding both your wings;
Knock gently and ope the gate swings!”
All three friends, Lothar, Ottmar, and Cyprian, were touched by Theodor’s really quite wonderfully restrained composition in the simple and deeply soul-penetrating style of the old master. Tears stood in their eyes; they embraced this composer who was so brimful of heart and soul; they pressed him to their breasts. The clock struck midnight. “Blessed be this day on which we have found each other together again!” cried Lothar: O noble Serapionian affinity that clasps us all together in an eternal bond! Yea, thou exquisite Serapionian club, bloom and flourish for evermore! Although henceforth, as today, our mutual endeavor to enliven and elevate our minds in every conceivable manner is to be strictly voluntary, let us pledge ourselves to join our beloved Theodor in this very place eight days from now.”
And to such a reconvention the friends gave one another their word as they dispersed.
END OF PART III
Translation Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson