No 2 - 1974
A Sober Passion
Death in Venice: the libretto of the opera in the light of Thomas Mann's Nouvelle and its cultural perspective
THERE IS a fragment of Hölderlin’s — I hesitate to describe it right away as a love poem, for it avoids the lyric cry and instead presents the reader with situation, question and answer:
‘Holy Socrates, why always with deference
Do you treat this young man? Don’t you know greater things? Why so lovingly, raptly,
As on gods, do you gaze on him?’
Who the deepest has thought loves what is most alive,
Wide experience may turn to what’s best in youth,
And the wise in the end will
Often bow to the beautiful.
But it is a love poem, all the same. Simply to write about the all-pervading Platonic Eros, who holds the world together, is to conjure him up. This is what gives the gravity of this poem its peculiar intensity. Plato the poet knew what he was doing when he had Socrates talk about the nature of hove in the dialogue with Phaedrus. Socrates’ middle-aged disquisition to the young man in the wood near Athens modulates into flirtation with him, and even this Phaedrus, who seems a solemn enough fellow otherwise, is sufficiently captivated to respond. Eros, variously sublimated, has his place in the pedagogic situation too.
The Socrates of most of the other dialogues was very much more of a rationalist — indeed he was damned in the history of feeling by Nietzsche for being so — but here he acknowledges the power of the strange god. Of all the dialogues this is the most imaginative and rhapsodic. He laughs at himself for his poetic flights. Beauty is the only one of the transcendent forms that is visibly apprehensible to the senses. Beauty — absolute beauty as manifested and mediated in the beautiful boy, the beloved. With him and through him the lover may move, possessed by his divine madness, to a highly sublimated wisdom. Socrates mocks the Sophist’s utilitarian idea of love: love as enlightened self-interest; life conducted on principles of emotional hygiene — what blasphemy to the god! He turns to that other madness, the poet’s inspiration. This mantic possession of the poet’s is not necessarily a way to wisdom, but in the full tide of Socrates’ own inspiration in praise of love, this does not, for the space of this dialogue, matter in the least:
If any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then he and his works of sanity with him shall be brought to naught by the poetry of madness, and behold their place is nowhere to be found.
We draw near Death in Venice. This dialogue offers many ways to it. Through the centuries the Greek pedagogic Eros has been mask, veil, excuse, occasion, mythical model for the love of man for boy. For this mode of feeling has been an ingredient, in various degrees, in the sequence of Renaissance, Classical-revival, and Renaissance-revival — all those historical attempts by late periods to revive, reaffirm, renew, the classic beginnings of Western culture. And Thomas Mann’s Novelle, written in 1911 when the modern movement in art, poetry and music was about to explode, is heavy with the problem of what makes a classic in the modern world. Layer after layer of cultural memory is built into it. The shadows of two German poets, neo-Greeks and homosexuals both, lie across it: August, Graf Platen, who chased his Italian boys, maintained his pride, wrote Venetian sonnets, bleak and perfect, moving in classical metres, and died — of typhus — in nearby Trieste. And Mann’s contemporary Stephan George, high priest of beauty, master to acolytes, claiming authoritative control of his craft and his vision. Here is one distinct aspect of Gustav von Aschenbach, the officially recognised classic of modern times, the poet of will and control and authority, of the choice word, the elevated tone, the cult of beauty. Myfanwy Piper’s libretto seizes upon this in Aschenbach’s first expository recitative: ‘I, Aschenbach, famous as a master-writer . . .’. Here is one solution to the problem of how to write works of classic status in a late time: by the austere aestheticism of making it so, by an effort of will, by refusing to acknowledge the decadent elements of modern culture that have no place in the world of the choice word, the elevated tone, the cult of beauty.
Aschenbach’s career has been one in which the work has overshadowed the man, one of effort and strain and rigorous regularity. The shadow of Flaubert, even more than of George, lies over his scrupulous life’s work as life’s struggle, of his practice of his art as a martyrdom, as a soldier’s heroism.
Gustav Aschenbach was the poet-spokesman of all those who labour at the edge of exhaustion; of the over-burdened, of those who are already worn out but still hold themselves upright . . . who yet contrive by skilful husbanding and prodigious spasms of will to produce, at least for a while, the effect of greatness. There are many such. They are the heroes of the age.
Achievement not out of fullness, but in spite of emptiness. This is the charge that Nietzsche had thrown in Wagner’s teeth, in his revulsion from the composer’s histrionic hollowness. This was how almost a century earlier Schiller in his loving resentment had justified his own (modern) poetic achievement in face of Goethe’s easy richness. Mann had been quick to notice just this when he wrote his own little study of Schiller in 1903, when he stylised Schiller into a turn-of-the-twentieth-century sensibility. Not that he distorted. There, back at the height of German neo-classicism, Schiller made the definitive distinction between the classic and the modern, On naive and sentimental poetry, which rested on precisely this distinction between the spontaneity and fullness of the Greeks on the one hand and the reflective subjectivity of the moderns on the other. Aschenbach is even credited with a modern essay on the same dualistic lines that explicitly rivals Schiller’s.
This is Aschenbach’s cultural inheritance. This is where he places himself in cultural history. This is what makes plausible his daydream that he himself is Socrates, teaching his Phaedrus — and wooing him at the same time — about the dual nature of earthly beauty, spiritual and sensuous at the same time. Here is his cultural rationalisation of his love for the boy. He dignifies it with a noble philosophical tradition that assures him of a sweet sublimation. And at first, he seems to be right. His neo-Greek contemplation of the boy in the sun does produce a few pages of choice prose admired by the world, freely rendered as one of the few richly melodic passages in the opera. The sources of his imagination well up for a while, and the exhausted creativity that drove him south is briefly revived.
But Winckelmann and Platen and George and Aschenbach are not the only neo-Greeks; austere and statuesque detachment not the only artistic manner in which to restore ancient energies in a late time. Nietzsche intervened with his Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Greek culture had also had to absorb the cult of Dionysus, the orgiastic eastern religion of intoxication and savage sacrifice. It is an uneasy text to read, for none of the tidy labels fits it: anthropology, metaphysics, psychology, mythology — it is all of these. The burden of his argument is that the great achievement of Greek tragedy lay in the poise and balance it demonstrated between the irrational energies of the Dionysiac life force and the conscious shaping spirit he called Apolline. (How does music come into this? It is understood in the very partial way that Schopenhauer understood it, as irrational, non-verbal, non-conceptual, non-Apolline; music, as he put it, is the immediate, non-representational image of the will, the ultimate vital principle.) A poise then between the Dionysiac terror and the energy, and the Apolline form. Balance, not repression. The laughter of the gods on their Olympian magic mountain, not Aschenbach’s clenched fist; the metaphysical consolation of the tragic vision, not Aschenbach’s evasion of the ‘indecent psychologism of the time’. Nietzsche regarded this tension between energy and articulation as the prerequisite of all great art; castigated the art of his own age for its failure of energy, and with a wish-fulfilling wrench of his argument at the end promised the re-birth of tragedy from the spirit of music in the new total art form of (Wagnerian) opera.
And so we arrive at the opera Death in Venice. I have dwelt on the cultural perspective behind the Novelle because I think it will help to explain certain decisions Mrs. Piper has made in transforming it into a libretto, and why it turns out to be so astonishingly fit for such an adaptation. Both works are achieved tragedies (Thomas Mann specifically called his the tragedy of a master writer), but post-Nietzschean ones, which take as their manifest subject matter the destructive revenges of the irrational, while they themselves maintain full mastery of form. Perhaps it is only by this paradoxical brinkmanship that modern classics are made.
But there are differences, and they are not arbitrary. They depend on the fundamental distinctions between story and drama, and between words and music — words and music in Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s partial, antithetical sense in which words are rational, conceptual, articulate and music the immediate image of the will, or, as Ricarda Huch put it, in which words represent the conscious, and music the unconscious.
Appropriately, this is a distinction easily demonstrated in Britten’s Death in Venice. Aschenbach the honoured, self-disciplined writer is presented by the device of prose soliloquy, by means of analytic self-commenting recitative with a dry piano accompaniment. The language in these passages, though of course much simplified in comparison with the original, is far more intellectual and analytical than is customary in opera. The language moves into its more usual operatic function of short-hand signal for image and idea as Aschenbach’s life of feeling is restored, and the music, richer and warmer, assumes the upper hand. There are also, in good Schopenhauerian fashion, the occasions when the analytic word and conscious naming are inappropriate and inadequate. At the point where Aschenbach decides to stay, and celebrate his festival of the sun (a Greek echo even here, for the God enters at midday, when the senses are drowsy and receptive) he falls back rapt and silent as he gazes in delight on the dance of Tadzio and his companions on the beach. He transforms their games into a formal erotic dance, an austere athletic rivalry. Their expressiveness too is silent, and lies in movement not in words. The words in this scene do not belong to the participants, who are caught up in feeling beyond them. They are given — in Greek style again — to a chorus, who sing a hymn to Phoebus Apollo the sun, and to the god-inspired frenzy of love. They express Aschenbach’s glory in his Greek madness for Tadzio. He is Phoebus, Hyacinth, Phaedrus, Eros. And the voice of Apollo, latent only in the Novelle, rings out explicit as one of the presiding deities over them all. This is a bold, and right innovation in the libretto. It is the mythical and psychological dimensions that music is so fitted to express, and here seizes its opportunity to do so. The historical dimension in Aschenbach’s decline — the secularised protestant, Prussian nature of his self-discipline, which is so important in the Novelle, on the whole it leaves unemphasised, and wisely so. But that chorus nevertheless makes an astonishing and illuminating historical point. Someone at the Maltings — composer, librettist, producer ? — all three together? — has ensured that although there on the stage the naked bodies of the boys produce a sense of mythological timelessness, of the ever-renewed presence of the god, we are at the same time made aware that this god has been summoned in 1911 — the decade that turned such a threatening countenance on the European continent. This chorus, voicing Aschenbach’s illusion of eternal love and beauty, is dressed in picture hats for the ladies and white summer linen for the gentlemen. It is only a neoclassicism that Aschenbach and the European soul are capable of in 1911.
This one scene, the climax to the first act, is a wonderful achievement — a little self-indulgent perhaps, those timeless athletic bodies, senior prefects and junior school, do go on rather — but words, music and movement are so integrated and so purposeful that one member of the audience at least was wanting to conjure with Wagner’s formula for the totality of opera: Ton, Ticht und Tanz — sound, words and movement — while at the same incongruous time this disparity between mythological dancers and historical chorus calls up the grinning ghost of Bertolt Brecht.
There comes a time of course, at the climax to the second act, when rational articulation fails entirely: in Aschenbach’s tumultuous dream, when Dionysus himself appears and the forces of the unconscious are unleashed, destructive now, not lifegiving, and Apollo gives way to chaos, fading, crying ‘No’. Now it is that the shrouded and formless followers of the dark god let out their primordial howl — Aou, accompanied by the drums and the flute. This inarticulate cry is a modulation of Tadzio’s name. Hearing the children’s call on the beach — Adgio Adgio — sweet as Britten’s music for children always is — Aschenbach articulates it to himself as the boy’s name, Tadzio, which has a classical-seeming form, Taddeus. It is also echoed in the twilight cry of the gondoliers across the Stygian canals, Aou, heavy with love and death; and again in the farewell cry of the children off.
Now this modulation from name to howl, from the classical-sounding Taddeus to chaotic cry, from word to music as the direct expression of the will is given in Mann’s Novelle. It is a bit of musical score already. It may sound strange — and this remark is not intended as a non-musician’s underestimation of the opera — but there is a sense in which it only needed a composer to provide the notes. We can be grateful that it is as austere and economical a composer as Benjamin Britten who has provided them (I daren’t imagine what Wagner would have done with that howl). For it is the paradox of this opera as it is of Mann’s Novelle — and most acute in this dream-scene — that the subject of one creator’s disintegration is successfully presented by means of the shaping power and sober passion of another.
It is not for me to talk of how complete the thematic integration is in musical terms. But it is present in the verbal texture, even where Mrs. Piper has had to invent. When the strolling players come to sing to the hotel guests, her parody love song and grotesque laughing song are all too painfully close to Aschenbach’s dilemma. ‘For you forgotten honour, love and duty; how shall I save my soul’, sing He and She. Then comes the nonsense song from the leader of the troupe, with its seeming random and absurd images, further confused because they come across blurred in a foreign language, but nevertheless pointing to Aschenbach’s dilemma: to his creative sterility. ‘Do roses flower in the midst of ice? Can a tired bird whistle?’ he asks — ’No’, one is tempted to answer, ‘weather-cocks rattle in the wind.’ And it also points to his topsy-turvy love: ‘does a pretty girl wish to marry an old man?’ Did Mrs. Piper know — I wonder — that this story with its theme of the passion that disintegrates first started out in Mann’s imagination as an account of the aged Goethe’s crazy last love in Marienbad for a girl still in her teens? I’m sure she did.
The occasion for this operatic elaboration is again given in the original — Mann put the mocking song there. All — all! — it needed was someone to supply the words and music. Again, the symbolic identity in the Novelle of the four figures, traveller, gondolier, fop and player, linked by their shared characteristics of grinning teeth, snub nose, straw hat, who come to represent temptation and death to Aschenbach, offered itself from the start as a multiple role for one singer.
Mann has always been fond of drawing attention to the affinity between his writing and music. The surprise is that his works have had to wait so long for a transposition into that other medium which meant so much to him. He often thought of himself as a musician manqué. He went almost as far as a master of words can go in imitating musical forms in his own works. One major novel, The Magic Mountain, is constructed out of modulations and associations of verbal phrases as Wagner had constructed operas out of modulations and associations of musical leitmotive. He is capable of virtuoso translation into words of actual musical pieces-one thinks of his rendering of Beethoven’s last piano sonata in Doktor Faustus. In this novel he even takes the most ambitious risk of all and presents elaborate descriptions and analyses of compositions of his own — or his own composer’s — invention. His own scrupulous sense of craftsmanship he once expressed in musical terms: — ‘my works were always good scores’. A maestro indeed.
His own musical taste is characteristic of the turn of the century — uncharacteristic only in its ambiguity: he was a passionate Wagnerite, but one who had passed through Nietzsche’s savage criticism of Wagner, and for whom the emotional impact of that flamboyant musical magician was undercut by scepticism — a dual vision which is his characteristic attitude. When we think of Mann, we think of a set of contradicting attitudes that are not fought out in conflict, but are held in the poise of irony.
At its best this emotional and intellectual tight-rope walking has the deep wisdom of seeing both sides of a question — ’love towards both sides’, as an early hero of his put it — earlier than Aschenbach. But the obverse side of this wisdom was the distress and tension the writer might experience between the destructive debunking of spontaneous feeling by understanding — to the point of disgust and revulsion at the cleverness of mind in paralysing life. Tonio Kröger had surmounted his disgust with his love. Aschenbach evaded his disgust by closing his eyes to what knowledge could offer; he willingly rejected the ‘indecent psychologism’ of the time, with its concomitant moral — or non-moral, certainly unjudging — attitude of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner’. ‘Abjure the knowledge that forgives’, cries Mrs. Piper’s Apollo. Aschenbach declares himself a classicist and a traditionalist, wins a new establishment readership, a place in the school text books — and an honorary von to his name, one which Britten’s hotel manager, at least, knows most melismatically how to value.
It is surprising how much of all this is still present, though necessarily simplified, in the opera — largely in Aschenbach’s self-reflective soliloquies. Indeed altogether, the faithfulness of this opera to the original is remarkable. But in the transposition from one medium to another, from story told to action performed, one all-important element has, necessarily, vanished. And in vanishing, has altered the moral and psychological perspective profoundly. I mean of course the discreet presence of a story-telling voice. It is no loss that the vision of the swamplands and the crouching tiger that sends Aschenbach south should be put into the mouth of the mysterious traveller and not left to Aschenbach’s day-dreaming. It is appropriate for the more explicit medium to externalise it. But for one who has had the dubious courage to refuse knowledge, the operatic Aschenbach knows too much about himself. He undertakes the narrator’s analysis for us, can place himself and understand himself from the beginning. Can even be ironical about himself, this master-writer. We lack a distinction between Aschenbach’s self-deceptions and the discreet irony of the story-teller’s reflections. We lack the increasing harshness of the narrator s moral judgments — and Mann is in no doubt that his is a ‘moral fable’. We lack the exposure of Aschenbach’s decline to irony as a moral force. Listen to this, from the last pages of the Novelle, in which the hollowness of Aschenbach’s achievement and the deception of his public are revealed.
There he sat, the master: this was he who had found a way to reconcile art and honours; who had in a style of classic purity renounced bohemianism and all its works, all sympathy with the abyss and the troubled depths of the outcast human soul. This was he who had put knowledge underfoot to climb so high; who had outgrown the ironic pose and adjusted himself to the burdens and obligations of fame; whose renown had been officially recognized and his name ennobled, whose style was set for a model in the schools.
The non-moral mode passes a moral judgment.
On the other hand, in order to provoke a moral judgment on the operatic Aschenbach — for we are easily seduced into the knowledge that forgives — the librettist has to put an explicit and appalling fantasy into Aschenbach’s mouth: ‘What if all were dead, and only we two left alive.’
But before his death, Mann’s Aschenbach does attain a tragic self-knowledge, the gravity and serenity of which seem to undermine the narrator’s condemnation. Beauty may be the one Platonic transcendent apprehensible by means of the senses; sensuous apprehension may be the one approach the artist can take towards the world of spirit, but, he now knows, it is a way fraught with danger and temptation which he, at least, was not able to transform. In the equivalent passage in the opera, Aschenbach expresses his self-knowledge no longer in terms of dry recitative, but in an aria of tender melody.
But this is beauty, Phaedrus,
Discovered through the senses
And senses lead to passion, Phaedrus
And passion to the pit.
Both Aschenbachs experience a last intensification into knowledge about themselves and their art. No Socratic sublimation for them, only a belated understanding. It seems it is only the wise who in the end can turn to beauty.
Translations: Hölderlin — Michael Hamburger
Death in Venice — H. T. Lowe Porter
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper
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