A Reminiscence from the Year 1809


Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck
Painting by Duplessis

Usually, late fall in Berlin still has a few beautiful days. The sun appears from behind the clouds, and moisture quickly dries up in the mild air that is flowing through the streets.   Then, one can see a large procession comprised of people from all walks of life--dandies, burghers with their housewives and their darling children in their Sunday best, clergy, Jewish women, lawyers, prostitutes, professors, milliners, dancers, officers, and so forth--moving along the Linden towards the Tiergarten.  Soon, all seats are taken at Klaus and Weber; the surrogate coffee, brewed from carrots, is steaming, the dandies are lighting their cigarillos, one argues about war and peace, about Mme. Bethman's shoes, whether she wore gray or green ones the other day, about isolationist trade policies,  about bad money, etc., until everything flows into a hissing aria with which one badly tuned harp, a few equally badly tuned violins, a flute suffering from consumption, and a spasmodic bassoon torture themselves and their listeners.   Very close to the railing that separates the Weber district from the Heerstraße,  one can find a few round tables and garden chairs; here, one can breathe freely in fresh air, one can watch the to and fro and is removed from the cacophonic noise of that wretched orchestra; that is where I take a seat, following my fancy that presents imaginary friends to me with whom I can discuss science, art, everything that should be most dear to man.    The crowd that passes by me becomes ever more colorful; however, I am not bothered by anything, nothing can chase away my imaginary company.  Only the cursed trio of a very wretched waltz tears me away from my dream world.  The screeching upper part of  violin and flute, and  the creaking bass of the bassoon is all that I can hear; they move up and down, clinging close together in octaves that cut one's ears, and inadvertently, like someone who is seized by a burning pain, I cry out:

"What mad music! The horrible octaves!" - Next to me, I can hear someone mumbling:

"Cursed fate!  Another octave hunter!"

I am getting up, and only now do I become aware of the fact that, unbeknownst to me, a man has sat down at a chair grouped around my table, his look sternly fixed at me and not releasing me.

Never have I seen a head, a man, who has made such a deep impression on me so quickly.  His softly arched nose grew out of his broad, open forehead, with visible ridges above his bushy, half-gray eyebrows, under which his eyes looked out with an almost wild, youthful fervor (the man might have been older than fifty years). His softly formed chin stood in peculiar contrast to his closed mouth, and his comical smile that was a result of the peculiar muscle play of his sunken cheeks appeared to be revolting against the deep, melancholy seriousness that rested on his forehead.   Only a few gray curls stuck out from behind his ears.  A very wide, modern overcoat covered his tall, formidable stature.  As soon as my gaze rested on this man, he cast down his eyes and continued his business that my cry had probably interrupted.  With evident delight, he was busy pouring tobacco into a tin that stood before him and moistening it with red wine from a quarter bottle.  The music had stopped; I felt the need to address him. 

"It is good that the music is silent," I said, "that was hardly bearable."

The old man glanced at me and poured out his last bag of tobacco. 

"It would be better if one did not play, at all!" I continued.  "Don't you agree with me?"

"I have no opinion, at all," he said. "You are a musician, or a connoisseur by profession..."

"You are wrong; I am neither. I learned how to play the piano and thoroughbass, like something that one learns because it is part of a good education, and I was told that nothing makes a more dignified effect than when the bass and the upper part carry on in octaves.  At that time, I accepted that upon authority and have found it proven time and again, ever since."

"Really?" he interrupted me, rose and, slowly and with dignity, walked towards the musicians, while frequently tapping his forehead with his flat hand, like someone who wanted to remember something.  I saw him talking to the musicians whom he treated with commanding dignity.  He returned, and he had barely sat down when they began playing the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis.

His eyes half closed, his arms crossed and resting on the table, he listened to the andante; quietly moving his left foot, he signaled the different parts:  now, he lifted his head--taking a quick look around--his left hand, with widely spread fingers, rested on the table, as if it was playing a chord on a piano, he lifted his right hand up; he was a kapellmeister who was signaling to his orchestra the changes of the tempi--his right hand was falling, and the allegro began! --A burning red flame ran across his pale cheeks: he knitted his  eyebrows and frowned, an inner rage shot up like a flame and with a fire, consuming his smile that had been hovering around his half-open mouth.  Then, he leaned back; his eyebrows were moving upward, the muscle-flexing on his cheeks returned, his eyes were shining, a deep, inner pain dissolved in an ecstasy that took hold and shook him convulsively--from deep down in his breast he drew his breath, beads were appearing on his forehead; he signaled the beginning of the tutti and other major passages; his right hand never let go of the beat, with his left hand, he took out a cloth and wiped his face with it.--Thus he filled the skeleton with flesh and color, the skeleton that those few violins presented of the overture.  I heard the soft, plaintive wailing of the ascending flute--after the storm of the violins and of the bass had subsided and after the thunder of the kettledrums had fallen silent; I heard the softly ascending tones of the violoncello and of the bassoon that filled my heart with an unspeakable melancholy; the tutti returned, tall and noble like a giant, the unisono marched on, crushing under it the plaintive wailing.--

The overture had ended; the man's arms sank and he sat there with closed eyes, like someone who was weakened by an insurmountable task.  His bottle was empty; I filled his glass with Burgundy that I had ordered, in the meantime.  He  sighed deeply and appeared to be awakening from a dream.  I invited him to drink, which he did without hesitation, and while he gulped down his full glass with one sip, he exclaimed:  "I am satisfied with the performance!  The orchestra held its own!"

"And yet"--I continued--"and yet, only faint sketches of a colorful masterwork were presented."

"Am I right in my assumption?--You are not a Berliner!"

"Quite right; I only stay here, occasionally."

"The Burgundy is quite good:  however, it is getting cold."

"Then let us go inside and empty the bottle there."

"A good suggestion.--I do not know you: and you do not know me, either.  Let's not tell each other our names; names are sometimes a hindrance.  I drink Burgundy, it does not cost me anything, and we are enjoying each other's company, and that's that."

He said all of this with a well-meaning sincerity.  We had gone inside; when he sat down, he opened his overcoat, and I noticed with astonishment that under it, he was wearing an embroidered vest with long tails, black velvet stockings and a very tiny, silver dagger.  He carefully closed his overcoat.

"Why did you ask me whether I am a Berliner?", I began. 

"For in that case, I would have to leave you."

"That sounds puzzling."

"Not in the least, as soon as I tell you that I--well, that I am a composer."

"I still don't understand you."

"Then forgive my outburst, for I see that you do not understand anything about Berlin and Berliners."

He rose and walked up and down vigorously several times; then he moved to the window and, barely audible, he sang the Chorus of the Priestesses from Iphigenia in Tauris, while now and then tapping at the window at the entrance of the tutti.  With astonishment I noticed that he introduced different turns to the melodies that amazed me with their force and novelty.  I let him carry on.  He had ended and sat back down in his chair.  Totally moved by the man's peculiar behavior and by his display of his rare musical talents, I remained silent.  After a while, he began:

"Have you never composed?"

"Yes, I have; I have ventured into this art:  however, what I had written in moments of enthusiasm, I found dull and boring later; so I let it be."

"You have not done right; for, in that you have already discarded your own attempts, one can see a sign of your talent.  One learns music as a boy, since father and mother want it so; and one plays the piano and the violin:  however, with time, one's senses become more receptive to melody.  Perhaps, the half-forgotten theme of a song that one sang in a different way, was one's first own idea, and this embryo, carefully nourished by outside forces, grew into a giant who consumed all around him and transformed it into his own flesh and blood!--ha, how is it possible to even hint at the thousands of ways in which one arrives at composing! we have arrived at our destination! -- Through the ivory gate, one enters the realm of dreams; few see this gate, even fewer go through it!--It is adventurous here.  Wild creatures live here, yet they have character--one more than the other.  They can not be seen at the Heerstraße; only behind the ivory gate can they be found.  It is difficult to escape from this realm, just as in front of Alzina's castle, the monsters bar the way--there is a whirling--there is a turning--many dream their dream in the realm of tones--they melt away in their dream--they no longer cast a shadow, and, at the shadow, they see the ray that shines through this realm; yet only few, awakened from this dream, rise up and walk through the realm of dreams--they arrive at the truth--the highest moment has arrived:  they touch the eternal, the unspeakable!--Look at the sun, it is the triad out of which chords, like stars, shoot down and spin around you with their fiery threads;--pupated, you lie there, until Psyche rises up into the sun."

With the last words, he had jumped up, raised his head, raised his hand.  Then he sat down, again, and quickly emptied his glass.  A silence arose, that I did not want to interrupt, in order not to distract the extraordinary man.  Finally, he continued, more calmly:

"When I was in the realm of dreams, a thousand pains and fears tortured me! It was night, and the monsters' grinning masks frightened me; they were moving in on me, drowning me in the deep sea at one time, lifting me high up into the air at other times.  I saw lights of ray beaming through the night, and those rays were tones that surrounded me with lovely clarity.--I woke up from my pain and saw a large, bright eye that looked into an organ, and as it looked into it, tones emerged and glistened and surrounded each other in wonderful chords such as I have never conceived before.  Melodies streamed up and down, and I swam in this river and wanted to drown in it; then, the eye looked at me and lifted me up above the rushing waves.--It was night, again, and two giants with shining armor approached me: tonic and fifth! they raised me up, but the eye smiled: "I know what fills your breast with longing; the gentle, soft youth, the third, will step among the giants; you will hear his sweet voice, you will see me again, and my melodies will be yours."

He stopped.

"And did you see the eye, again?"

"Yes, I did, I saw it again!--For years, I was sighing in the realm of dreams--there--yes, there!  I sat in a beautiful valley and listened how flowers sang to each other.  Only the sun flower was silent and bent its head sadly down to the ground.  Invisible ties pulled me towards it--it lifted its head--it opened, and from inside of it, the eye shone at me.  Now, tones moved like rays of light out of my head towards the flowers that drank them up eagerly.  The leaves of the sun flower grew bigger and bigger--blazes streamed out of it--they enveloped me--the eye had vanished and I was sitting in the cup of the flower."

At the last words, he jumped up and hurried out of the room with fast, youthful steps.  In vain, I waited for his return; therefore, I decided to walk into the city. 

I was almost close to the Brandenburg Gate when I saw a tall shape walking in the darkness and soon recognized my peculiar friend.  I addressed him: 

"Why have you left me so suddenly?"

"It became too hot, and the Euphon began to sound."

"I do not understand you!"

"All the better."

"All the worse, since I want to understand you, completely."

"Don't you hear anything?"

"No, I don't."

-- "It is over!--Let us go.  Generally, I do not like company;--but--you do not compose--you are not a Berliner."

"I can not imagine what makes you dislike Berliners so much?  Here, where art is respected and practiced to a high degree, I would think, that a man of your artistic mind would feel at home!"

"You are wrong!--To my despair, I am condemned to wander through empty space like a written-off ghost."

"Through empty space, here, in Berlin?"

"Yes, it is empty around me, since no kindred spirit joins me.  I am alone."

"But the artists! The composers!"

"Off with them! They complain and complain--refine everything up to the minutest measurability; turn everything upside down, only to find one poor thought; over their chatter about art, of a sense of art, and whatnot--they cannot get down to being creative, and if they ever feel that they are about to bring forth a few ideas, then their terrible cold shows their remoteness from the sun--it is polar work that they bring forth."

"Your judgment seems much too harsh to me.  At least, the wonderful performances at the theatre must satisfy you."

"Once, I had overcome my reservations and wanted to go to the theatre, again, in order to hear an opera of my young friend--what is it called, again?--Ha, the entire world is in this opera!  The spirits of the orkus are sweeping through the colorful crowd of dressed-up people--here, everything has voice and a powerful sound--Devil, I mean 'Don Juan!'  But I could not even hear out the overture, which was played prestissimo, without any sense and understanding; and I had prepared myself with fasting and prayer, since I know that the Euphon will be moved too much by these masses and will sound unclean!"

"Even if I have to admit that Mozart's masterworks are, by and large, neglected in an inexplicable manner, here, I have to admit that Gluck's works are enjoying a dignified performance here."

"Do you think so?--Once, I wanted to hear Iphigenia in Tauris. When I entered the theatre, I heard, the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis playing. Well--I thought, I must have been wrong; they are playing t h a t Iphigenia! I was amazed, when the andante set in, with which Iphigenia in Tauris begins, and which is followed by the storm.  Twenty years lie in-between!  The entire effect, the entire, well-planned exposition of the tragedy was lost.  A calm sea--a storm--the Greeks are washed ashore, the opera is here!--How? Has the composer written the opera in such a way that one can play it wherever and whenever one wants, like a little piece for the trumpet?"

"I admit, that was a mistake.  However, one is trying everything to elevate Gluck's works."

"Oh, well" he replied quickly and then smiled bitterly and ever more bitterly.  Suddenly, he shot up, and nothing could hold him back.  All of a sudden, he had vanished, and for the next couple of days, I was looking for him, in vain, in the Tiergarten. --


The Royal Opera House and the new Promenade (in Berlin)

A couple of months had passed, when I, on a cold and rainy evening, was late in returning from a remote district of the city and tried to reach my quarters in the Friedrichstraße. I had to pass by the theatre; the sound of trumpets and kettledrums reminded me that Gluck's Armida was performed, and I was about to enter the theatre, when a peculiar soliloquy attracted my attention.

"The King is entering--they are playing the march--oh, keep on pounding the kettle drums--it is quite lively! Yes, yes, they have to do it eleven times today, otherwise, the procession will not march in with enough vigor--ha ha--maestoso--tarry on, children.--Look at that, one of the extras got stuck with his shoe tie.--Right, for the twelfth time! and always beat on the dominant.--Oh, you eternal forces, this will never end!  Now, he is making a compliment--Armida is thanking him most graciously.--Once more?--Right, two soldiers are still missing!  Now, they are stumbling into the recitative.--What evil spirit has tied me to this?" 

"The spell is broken," I said.  "Come!" 

I took my peculiar Tiergarten friend by his arm--for, it could not have been anybody else but the soliloquist--and quickly pulled him away.  He seemed surprised and followed me silently.  We had just arrived at the Friedrichstraße, when he suddenly stood still.  

"I know you," he said. "You were in the Tiergarten--we talked a great deal--I was drinking wine--I got quite hot--after that, the Euphon was sounding for two days--I had to endure a lot--it is over!"

"I am glad that coincidence brought us together, again.  Let us get acquainted.  I live not far from here, how about it ..."

"I can not visit anyone."

"No, you will not escape me, I will go with you."

"Then you will have to walk a few hundred steps more with me.  But you wanted to go to the theatre?"

"I wanted to hear Armida, but now--"

Silently, we walked along the Friedrichstraße; quickly, he turned into a side-street, and I could barely follow him, so fast did he run down that street, until he finally stopped in front of an unsightly house.  He had to knock rather long before someone opened.  Moving around in the dark, we reached the staircase and a room on the upper floor, the door of which my friend closed very carefully.   I still heard another door open; soon, he entered with a burning light, and the sight of the peculiarly furnished room did not fail to greatly surprise me.   Old-fashioned, richly decorated chairs, a clock hanging on the wall, with golden casing, and a large, heavy mirror gave this interior the lack--luster look of a bygone era.  In the middle of the room, there stood a piano, and on it, a large porcelain ink pot,  and next to it lay a few sheets of music paper.  However, a closer look at these composers' utensils convinced me that they had not been used for a long time, since the paper was quite yellow and the ink pot was covered with  a thick layer of cobwebs.  The man stepped in front of an armoire in a corner of the room that I had not noticed, yet, and when he opened the drape, I saw a row of beautifully-bound books with golden lettering: Orfeo, Armida, Alceste, Iphigenia, and so forth, in short, I saw Gluck's masterworks lined up next to each other.

"You own all of Gluck's works?" I exclaimed.

He did not answer, however, his lips were curved in an awkward smile, and for a moment, the flexing of muscles in his sunken cheeks transformed his face to a horrible mask.  His stern look directed at me, he took one of the books--it was Armida--and solemnly stepped towards the piano.  I quickly opened it and lifted up the folded-up note stand; he seemed to like that.  He opened the book, and--who can describe my amazement!--I looked at lined music sheets with not a single note written on them.

He began: "I shall play the overture now!  Turn the sheets, at the right time!" I promised it, and now, he played wonderfully and masterfully, with powerful chords, the majestic tempo di marcia with which the overture begins, almost faithful to the original; however, the allegro was only interwoven with Gluck's main ideas.  To my growing amazement, he added many new, inventive turns.  His modulations were excellent and surprising, without being garish, and he knew how to add so many melodious melismas to basic ideas that they seemed to be recurring in rejuvenated form.  His face was glowing; soon, he knitted his eyebrows, and a long-held-back anger seemed to break out violently; then, his eyes were in tears.  He sang the theme with his pleasant tenor voice, and both of his hands were working at creating artful melismas; he also knew, in a very special way, how to imitate with his voice the dull sound of the kettledrum.  I eagerly turned the pages while following his facial expressions.  The overture had ended; exhausted, he sank back into his arm chair, with his eyes closed.  However, he soon pulled himself up again, and, while hastily turning over several empty pages of the book, he said with a dull voice :

"All this, dear Sir, I have written, when I was in the realm of dreams.  However, I conveyed the sacred to the infidels, and a hand as cold as ice reached into this fiery heart!  It did not break; then, I was condemned to walk among the infidels, like a lonely ghost--without a shape, so that no-one would recognize me, until the sun flower will lift me up to those who dwell in eternity.--Ha--now, let us sing Armida's scene!"

Now, he sang the final scene of Armida with an expression that shook my innermost.  Here, too, he digressed from the actual original, but his different music virtually represented Gluck's scene at a higher level.  Everything that can express hatred, love, despair, rage, in the strongest possible manner, he powerfully combined in his play.  His voice seemed to be that of a young man, since it rose up from its dullness towards a penetrating strength.  I was trembling and shaking from inside out--I was beside myself.  When he had finished, I threw myself into his arms and said with a compressed voice:  "What is that? Who are you?" 

He rose and measured me with his serious, piercing look; however, when I wanted to continue my line of questioning, he had vanished from the room, with the light, and had left me behind in the dark.  This took almost fifteen minutes; I was desperate to see him again, and tried to find the door by orienting myself by the position of the piano, when he suddenly entered, dressed in his gala suit, with a richly embroidered vest, his sword at his side, holding the light in his hands.

I froze; solemnly, he walked towards me, gently took me by my hand and said, with a peculiar smile: "I  a m  R i t t e r G l u c k !"

(Source: Musikalische Novellen und Aufsätze
von E.T.A. Hoffmann Insel-Bücherei, Leipzig)

(Translation Copyright: Ingrid Schwaegermann, 2001)