"The editors have made an excellent selection, and the result is a book of great distinction."—Denis Donoghue, New York Review of Books
"The translators have proved fully equal to all the challenges of Hoffmann's romantic irony and his richly allusive prose, giving us an accurate and idiomatic rendering that also retains much of the original flavor."—Harry Zohn, Saturday Review
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A Recollection from the Year 1809
Usually there are still several lovely days in the late fall in Berlin. The cheerful sun breaks out of the clouds, and the moisture in the soft breezes that drift through the streets quickly evaporates. A gaudy stream of people wanders along the Lindenstrasse to the Zoological Gardens — dandies, solid citizens with their wives and adored children, all dressed in their Sunday best, clergymen, Jewesses, junior barristers, prostitutes, professors, milliners, dancers, officers, etc. Soon all the tables at Klaus's and at Weber's are occupied; the coffee steams, the dandies light their thin cigars; everyone chats, quarrels about war and peace, about Mademoiselle Bethmann'sshoes, whether they were recently gray or green, about the closed commercial state and the bad pennies, etc., until everything dissolves into an aria from Fanchon, in which a harp that is out of tune, a couple of untuned violins, a consumptive flute, and a spastic bassoon torment themselves and the people nearby. Close to the railing that separates the crowd at Weber's from the Heerstrasse are several small round tables and garden chairs. One can breathe fresh air here, observe those coming and going; one is remote from the cacaphonic racket of that execrable orchestra. That is where Isit, abandoning myself to playful reveries in which sympathetic figures appear with whom I chat about learning, art, everything that is supposedly dearest to man. The crowd of strollers weaves past me more and more gayly, but nothing disturbs me, nothing can scatter my imaginary companions. Only the damned trio from an extremely vile waltz drags me from my dream world. I hear only the screeching upper register of the violins and flute and the snoring bass of the bassoon; the sounds rise and fall, keeping firmly to octaves that lacerate the ear, and I cry out involuntarily like a person seized by a burning pain, "What insane music! What abominable octaves!" Someone murmurs next to me, "Accursed fate! Another octave-chaser!"
I looked up and only then became aware that a man had sat down at the same table, his eyes riveted on me; I could not take my eyes off him.
I had never seen a face, a figure, which had made such an impression on me so quickly. A gently curved nose was attached to a wide, open forehead, which had noticeable swellings above the bushy, partly gray eyebrows, beneath which eyes blazed forth with an almost youthful fire (the man was probably over fifty). The delicately formed chin was a strange contrast to the closed mouth, and a ludicrous smile produced by the curious play of muscles in his sunken cheeks seemed to rebel against the deep, melancholy seriousness which rested on his forehead. There were only a few gray locks of hair behind his large ears which stuck straight out from his head. A very wide, modern frock coat enveloped his large gaunt frame. Just as my glance met his, he cast down his eyes and continued the occupation that my exclamation had evidently interrupted. With evident satisfaction, he was shaking out some tobacco from various little paper bags into a large tin can that was in front of him and was dampening it with red wine from a quarter liter bottle. The music had stopped; I felt compelled to address him.
"It is a relief that the music has stopped," I said. "It was unendurable."
The old man cast a fleeting glance at me and shook out the last paper bag.
"It would be better not to play at all," I continued. "Isn't that your opinion?"
"I don't have an opinion," he said. "You are a musician and connoisseur by profession —"
"You are mistaken. I am neither. I once learned how to play the piano and the thorough bass, as one must as part of a good education; and at that time I was told, among other things, that nothing produced a more unpleasant effect than having the bass pace the soprano in octave intervals. I accepted that at that time as authoritative and I have since found it always verified."
"Really?" he interrupted me, as he stood up and strode slowly and thoughtfully towards the musicians while frequently striking his forehead with the flat of his hand, his face upturned, like someone trying to awaken a recollection. I saw him speaking to the musicians whom he treated with lordly dignity. He returned and had scarcely sat down when they began to play the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis.
With half-closed eyes, his folded arms resting on the table, he listened to the andante. Tapping his left foot gently, he signaled the entrance of the voices; then he raised his head — quickly casting a glance around — he rested his left hand with fingers spread apart on the table as if he were playing a chord on a piano, and he raised his right hand up high. He was the Kapellmeister signalling the orchestra the start of a new tempo — his right hand dropped and the allegro began! A burning glow flushed his pale cheeks; his eyebrows met on his wrinkled forehead; an inner storm inflamed his wild expression with a fire that increasingly consumed the smile that still hovered around his half-opened mouth. Then he leaned back and raised his eyebrows; the play of muscles around his mouth began again; his eyes shone; a deep inner pain was released in a voluptuous pleasure that convulsively shook his inner being. He drew a breath from deep within his lungs; drops formed on his forehead; he signalled for the entrance of the tutti and other major places; his right hand kept the beat, and with his left he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face. Thus he clothed with flesh and color the skeleton of the overture played by the pair of violins. I heard the soft, melting elegy which the flute utters when the storm of the violins and the bass viols has exhausted itself and the thunder of the drums is silent; I heard the softly played tones of the cello and the bassoon which filled the heart with ineffable sadness; the tutti returned, the unisono strode on like a sublime and lofty giant, the somber lament died away under his crushing tread.
The overture was over; he let his arms fall, and he sat there with his eyes closed like a person exhausted by excessive exertion. His bottle was empty; I filled his glass with Burgundy, which I had meanwhile ordered. He sighed deeply and seemed to be awaking from a dream. I urged him to drink, which he did without ceremony, and while he dashed off the glass in one swallow, he cried, "I am satisfied with the performance! The orchestra performed very nicely!"
"And yet," I interrupted, "and yet, only the pale outline of a masterpiece that has been composed with vivid colors was presented."
"Do I judge rightly? You are not a Berliner!"
"Quite right. I only stay here from time to time."
"The Burgundy is good. But it is getting cold here."
"Let's go inside and finish the bottle."
"A good suggestion. I don't know you; but on the other hand, you don't know me either. We will not ask each other's name; names are sometimes a nuisance. I will drink the Burgundy; it costs me nothing and we are comfortable together and that is enough."
He said all this with a good-natured cordiality. We had entered the room. When he sat down, he opened his frock coat and I noticed with surprise that he was wearing under it an embroidered waistcoat, long coattails, black velvet britches, and a quite small dagger. He buttoned the coat again carefully.
"Why did you ask me if I was a Berliner?" I began.
"Because in that case I would have been obliged to leave you."
"That sounds mysterious."
"Not in the least, as soon as I tell you that I — well, that I am a composer."
"I still can't guess what you mean."
"Then forgive my remark, for I see you do not understand anything about Berlin and Berliners."
He rose and paced violently up and down a few times; then he stepped to the window and scarcely audibly sang the chorus of the priestesses from Iphigenia in Tauris, while tapping on the window pane from time to time at the entrance of the tutti passage. With astonishment I noticed that he gave certain different directions to the melody that were striking in their power and novelty. I let him go on. He finished and returned to his seat. Quite taken by the man's strange behavior and the extraordinary signs of a rare musical talent, I remained silent. After a while he began.
"Have you never composed?"
"Yes. I have tried my skill; only I found that everything which I had written in moments of inspiration afterwards seemed to be flat and boring. So I gave it up."
"You acted wrongly. The very fact that you rejected your own attempts is no bad sign of your talent. One learns music as a boy because father and mother wish it. So one fiddles and bangs away; but without noticing it, one's senses become more receptive to melody. Perhaps it was the half-forgotten theme of a little song which one now sang differently, the first thought of one's own; and this embryo, laboriously nourished by strange powers, grew to be a giant which consumed everything around and was transformed into your blood and marrow. Ah — how to suggest the thousand ways by which one can come to composing! It is a wide highway; everyone romps around on it and exults and shouts, 'We are the sacred people! We have attained the goal!' One enters the kingdom of dreams through the ivory gate: only a few even see the gate, even fewer pass through! It looks strange here. Absurd figures hover here and there, but they have character — one more than the other. They cannot be seen on the highway; they can only be found behind the ivory gate. It is difficult to get out of this kingdom; monsters block the way as they do in front of Alzinen's castle — everything spins, turns — many dream away the dream in the kingdom of dreams — they dissolve in dreams — they do not cast a shadow any longer, for otherwise, by the shadow, they would know about the ray of light that passes through this kingdom; but only a few, awakened from the dream, arise and stride through the kingdom of dreams — they attain the truth — the highest moment is there: contact with the eternal, the ineffable! Look at the sun; it is the triad from which the chords, like stars, shoot out and entwine you with threads of fire. You lie as in a cocoon of fire until the soul swings up to the sun."
He jumped up at the last words, cast his eyes upward and raised his hand. Then he sat down again and quickly emptied his refilled glass. A silence arose which I did not want to break for fear of getting the extraordinary man off the track. Finally he continued more calmly.
"When I was in the kingdom of dreams, a thousand aches and worries tortured me. It was night and I was terrified by the grinning larvae of the monsters who dashed out at me and sometimes dragged me into the ocean's abyss, sometimes carried me high into the sky. Rays of light shot through the night and these rays of light were tones which encircled me with delightful clarity. I awoke from my pains and saw a large, bright eye that was looking into an organ; and as it looked, tones sounded forth and shimmered and entwined themselves in marvelous chords that had never before been conceived. Melodies streamed back and forth, and I swam in this stream and was about to drown. Then the eye looked at me and sustained me above the roaring waves. It became night again; two colossi in gleaming armor strode towards me: the Tonic and the Dominant. They snatched me up, but the eye said smiling, 'I know what fills your heart with yearning. The gentle, soft youth Tierce will walk among the colossi; you will hear his sweet voice; you will see me again and my melodies will be yours.'"
"And you saw the eye again?"
"Yes, I saw it again. For many years I sighed in the kingdom of dreams — there — indeed, there — I sat in a marvelous valley and listened to the flowers singing together. Only a sunflower was silent and sadly bowed her closed calyx to the ground. Invisible bonds drew me to her — she raised her head — the calyx opened and shone toward me from within the eye. Now tones, like rays of light, flowed from my head to the flowers, which greedily drank them. The leaves of the sunflower grew bigger and bigger — fire streamed from them — encompassed me — the eye had vanished and I was in the calyx."
With the last words he sprang up and hurried out of the room with a quick, youthful stride. I awaited his return in vain; I decided, therefore, to go back to the city.
When I was near the Brandenburg Gate, I saw a lanky figure striding along in the darkness and immediately recognized my odd friend. I spoke to him.
"Why did you leave me so quickly?"
"It got too hot and THE 'EUPHON' began to sound."
"I don't understand you!"
"All the better."
"All the worse, for I would like to understand you completely."
"Don't you hear anything?"
"It is gone! Let us go. Usually I don't like company, but — you do not compose — you are not a Berliner."
"I cannot fathom why you are so prejudiced against Berliners. Here, where art is respected and practiced widely, I would think a man with your artistic soul would feel happy."
"You are mistaken! I am damned to wander here as my torment in barren space, like a departed spirit."
"In barren space, here, in Berlin?"
"Yes, it is barren around me, for no kindred spirit joins me. I am alone."
"But the artists! The composers!"
"Away with them! They carp and niggle — refine everything to the smallest measure; rake through everything just to find one wretched thought. From chattering so much about art and artistic sensitivity and what have you — they never get around to creating, and if they do happen to feel as if they had to bring a few wretched thoughts to light, the fearful coldness reveals their great distance from the sun — it is Laplandish work."
"Your criticism seems much too harsh to me. At least the splendid productions in the theater must satisfy you."
"Once I prevailed upon myself to go to the theater to hear the opera of my young friend — what is it called? Oh, the whole world is in this opera! The spirits of hell stride through the bright crowd of elegant people — everything in it has a voice and an all-powerful sound — the devil, I mean Don Juan! But I couldn't last through the overture, which was spewed forth prestissimo, without meaning or understanding; and I had prepared myself for it with fasting and prayer because I know that the 'Euphon' is much too moved by these masses and has an impure appeal."
"Even if I have to admit that Mozart's masterpieces are mostly neglected here in a way scarcely explicable, still Gluck's works certainly enjoy a dignified performance."
"You think so? I wanted to hear Iphigenia in Tauris once. As I entered the theater, I heard how the overture of Iphigenia in Tauris was being played. Hm — I think, a mistake. This Iphigenia is being given! I am astonished when the andante with which Iphigenia is received in Tauris begins and the storm follows. Twenty years lie in between! The whole effect, the tragedy's whole well-planned exposition is lost. A quiet set — a storm — the Greeks are cast on land, the opera is there! Well, do you think the composer tossed out the overture so that one can blow it how and where one wants to, like a little trumpet piece?"
"I admit the blunder. Still, everything is done to promote Gluck's works."
"Oh, yes indeed!" he said curtly and then smiled bitterly and ever more bitterly. Suddenly he rose, and nothing could stay him. He vanished in a moment, and for several days I sought him in vain in the Zoological Gardens.
Several months had passed. One cold rainy night I had been delayed in a remote section of the city and was hurrying to my home in the Friedrichstrasse. I had to pass the theater. The sound of music, of trumpets and drums, reminded me that Gluck's Armida was being performed, and I was on the point of going in when a strange soliloquy by the windows, where almost every tone of the orchestra could be heard, aroused my attention.
"Now the king is coming — they are playing the March — Drum away! Just drum away! That's very gay! Yes, they have to do it eleven times today — otherwise the parade isn't enough of a parade. Ah ha! — maestoso — poke along, boys. Look, there's a super with a shoelace dragging. Right, for the twelfth time and always striking the dominant. O ye eternal powers! It is never going to end! Now he is making a bow — Armida very humbly acknowledges the applause —. Once again? Right. Two soldiers are still missing. Now they are banging into the recitative. What evil spirit holds me here in his spell?"
"The spell is dissolved," I cried. "Come along!"
I quickly seized my odd friend from the Zoological Gardens — for the soliloquist was none other — by the arm and dragged him off with me. He seemed surprised and followed me in silence. We had already reached the Friedrichstrasse when he suddenly stopped.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann"
Copyright © 1969 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
The Golden Pot
The Mines of Falun
Mademoiselle de Scudéri