Thursday, April 30, 2015


Death in Venice and Other Tales
Music and Literature

by Thomas Mann

“But the boredom of Frau Spatz had by now reached that pitch where it distorts the countenance of man, makes the eyes protrude from the head, and lends the features a corpselike and terrifying aspect. More than that, this music acted on the nerves that controlled her digestion, producing in her dyspeptic organism such malaise that she was really afraid she would have an attack.”  -  Thomas Mann, Tristan

Richard Wagner saw the premier of his revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting. It was revolutionary for the music was unlike any the audience had heard before; specifically the "Tristan chord" with which the opera begins and which remains unresolved until the final moments of the opera, and marked the beginning of a new age of music that would see the rise of composers from Mahler to Debussy, and Schoenberg with the second Viennese circle.

But this music, and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer with which it is imbued, influenced the artistic world beyond music. One of those influenced was a young author from northern Germany who, at the age of twenty-six in 1901, had just published a major family saga and a handful of short stories. This author, Thomas Mann, would write a novella entitled Tristan, setting it in a sanatorium called Einfried, "Enclosure", beside which "the mountains, massive, fir green, and softly rugged, tower toward the heavens."
Mann uses music as an integral part of this short story about a middle-class woman, Gabrielle Kloterjahn, who comes under the spell of a writer, Detlev Spinell, who in addition to his writing (he had published one book) was an affable, affectionate, and even enthusiastic aesthete. He was often "carried away in sheer admiration for something beautiful: the harmony of two colors, a vase with a noble shape, the mountains illuminated by the sunset." His response would be simply "How beautiful!" While he is a vain and pompous man, he is capable of great influence with is intense pursuit of his own aesthetic purity.

Gabrielle found herself alone in the sanatorium as her burger husband had departed and she was interested to find that there was a "writer" present for she "had never before met a writer face-to-face." It was not long before Herr Spinell was socializing with her and moved quickly from being merely "helpful" to being "devoted" to her. For Gabrielle was an artist herself, as a amateur musician who played the piano. She is at Einfried to rest and recover from a general malaise and weakness following giving birth to a child. She was prescribed a rest cure as part of her potential return to health. While this precluded playing the piano she could not resist the insistence of the charming Spinell to play the piano for him. What harm could there be in yielding to the enjoyment of a simple, yet beautiful, nocturne by Frederic Chopin.

This moment that seems so innocent is ironically the moment when the story turns; when the yearning of Gabrielle for something beyond reality, beyond "mere appearances", that has been suggested by her conversations with Her Spinell, becomes something much darker. Mann is not subtle with the coming of sunset yielding phrases like "darkness is already setting in." And Gabrielle observing that "yesterday we still had broad daylight at this time; and now it's already dusk." Thus playing a nocturne is quite appropriate, but she moves on to play another and another. Then Spinell offers her a piano transcription of Wagner's liebestod music from Tristan und Isolde.
"the yearning motif, a lonesome and wandering voice in the night, softly utters its anxious question. A stillness and a waiting. And lo, a response: the same timid and lonesome strain, only clearer, only more delicate. Another hush. And now, with that muted and wonderful sforzando, which is like passion rousing itself and blissfully flaring up, the love motif emerged, ascended, rapturously struggled upward to sweet interlacing, sank back, dissolving, and, with their deep crooning of grave and painful ecstasy, the cellos came to the fore and carried the melody away . . . ."

This moment, this music, is the signal that Gabrielle will not recover, that the love she and Spinell have will only last till her death. Her husband is asked to return and, is presented with a strange letter written by Spinell to Herr Kloterjahn, a letter in which Spinell describes his vision of beauty as experienced in and with Gabrielle, but also condemns Herr Kloterjahn as the enemy, the antithesis of true beauty and love. Herr Kloterjahn really has no idea what Spinell means, yet Spinell is also a sickly example, a pale imitation of the true aesthete. The beauty of Wagner's magnificent motif merging Eros and Thanatos is wasted on the merely melodramatic and overwrought pair. The novella ends not just with the death of Gabrielle, but also with Spinell trying to mentally escape from the aesthetic moment he had experienced at Einfried.

This is the second in a series on Music and Literature.  For the first part go here: Opera and Literature.


Brian Joseph said...

Great review as always James.

Some of the themes that you describe here sound fascinating.

I plan to finally get around to reading Thomas Mann soon.

James said...


Glad you liked the review. Mann was fond of Wagner's music and influenced by it and by Schopenhauer. This influence is never stronger than in this early novella that foreshadows his great novel, The Magic Mountain.