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Eighty years ago, in 1943—two years before the end of World War II—Thomas Mann started working on Doktor Faustus. The novel has composer Adrian Leverkühn bargaining away his soul with the devil in exchange for unparalleled creative energies. Arnold Schönberg was unhappy that Mann cast Leverkühn as an atonal composer working in his twelve-tone method. Mann’s devil speaks in a German of the 16th century.
Germany made its deal with national socialism long before the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In 1930, three years before Hitler came to power, Mann denounced the “wave of anomalous barbarism, of primitive popular vulgarity” that was destroying decency in his country. He warned of “a state of feeling that may become a world menace.”
In Doktor Faustus, before Leverkühn’s descent, Mann had Leverkühn composing in the style of shimmering, impressionistic Debussy. But Wagner, and the pushing and stretching of boundaries—the pre-Schönbergian moment—was on the march. On one occasion, Mann wrote:
A passion for Wagner’s enchanted work has been a part of my life ever since I first became aware of it and set out to make it my own, to invest it with understanding. . . . hours filled with frissons and delights for the nerve and the intellect alike.
But then he also added:
[Wagner] had so much ability and talent and interpretative skill—more than words can say. Yet so much affection with it, such lordly pretension, self-aggrandizement and . . . self-dramatization—again, more than words can say or patience can bear.
Toward the end of the 19th century, orchestras and choruses swelled in size. Composers used increased chromaticism for richer and more complex harmonies. Full-on dissonance was no longer taboo in late romanticism. Some like Wagner turned to literature, poetry, and the visual arts for inspiration. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 for orchestra and chorus—composed in southern Austria in the summer of 1906—became known as the “Symphony of a Thousand.” Mahler played with unconventional structure. Instead of several movements, he divided the work into two parts. He mixed Latin and German, with Part II using the text from the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.
Thomas Mann (1875–1955) was preoccupied with music. In Magic Mountain (1924), protagonist Hans Castorp loves music for its narcotic effect. This is exactly what troubles his friend, the Italian humanist Settembrini. “Let music assume its most high-minded pose,” says Settembrini, “[but] then our emotions are inflamed. . . . the real point should be to inflame our reason.” That was on the eve of World War I.
In Buddenbrooks (1901), Mann’s tale of a merchant family in decline over four generations, there are leitmotifs in prose adapted from the musical technique of Wagner. In the figure of Hanno, the musical son of the outwardly successful yet fragile Thomas and his neurotic wife Gerda, there’s a path from stability to experiment to decadence and finally madness.
Mann finished his Doktor Faustus in 1947, two years after World War II. He had his main character, Adrian Leverkühn—born on June 6, 1885, near the fictional town of Kaisersaschern—expire on August 25, 1940. But the career of the composer had ended a decade earlier with a mental breakdown, twenty-four years after his pact with the devil.
Mann was fixated on musical detail. Leverkühn’s humanistic friend Serenus Zeitblom plays viola d’amore in social settings. That’s the soft, sweet-sounding instrument—with six or seven strings compared to the four of the viola or violin—Mann’s son Michael played in the Pittsburg Symphony after the war.
Mann was in Switzerland when Hitler came to power in 1933. He was in southern California, in Pacific Palisades, when he began work on Doktor Faustus. Mann suffered and flourished and fought for his causes through his exile years. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazis. By 1947, when he finished Faustus, he was a U.S. citizen in Los Angeles active in opposing hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Richard Wagner (1813–83) became known for opera productions that explode in sound and sense, in depth and duration. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg runs roughly five hours. His “world-conquering artistry” would become appropriated by the Nazis. Hitler was obsessed with Wagner at the age of twelve.
It all came from somewhere. Here’s Wagner’s Symphony in C Major—his only complete symphony, a musical form that was going out of fashion at the time—written when the composer was nineteen years old.
Here’s a string quartet by post-Romanticist, anti-modernist Hans Pfitzner. The Nazis liked him, until they hated him (Pfitzner insisted on remaining close to Jewish conductor Bruno Walter). Pfitzner’s contemporary Gustav Mahlerappreciated his work (Alma Mahler couldn’t stand him). Mann befriended him, and undoubtedly absorbed musical lessons from countless conversations with him.
Mann quarreled with musical revolutionary Arnold Schönberg. They had both taken refuge in southern California. You can read their correspondence in this book.
Schönberg came from a lower middle-class Jewish family in the district in Vienna called Leopoldstadt. That’s the name of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning play that just, incidentally, premiered in Moscow. In Leopoldstadt, the renowned Czech (Moravian-born) playwright tells the story of a Jewish family—survivors of pogroms, strivers, and strugglers for belonging and identity—from 1899 to 1950.
Schönberg’s break with the musical past came from somewhere. Here’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) from 1899, a work for strings in one movement. You can hear influences of Wagner. There were kudos for inventiveness at the time. The pushing of chromatic boundaries raised the eyebrows of audiences and some critics. Shock and atonal scandal were still to come.