Blake set to music – Adrian Leverkühn

Thomas Mann’s novel, Doktor Faustus, is a re-shaping of the Faust legend through the life of a composer, Adrian Leverkühn, supposedly narrated by his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, and set in the context of the first half of the twentieth century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. The novel was written between 1943 and 1947 while Mann was living in exile in America. German culture precedes the existence of the nation, which lends cultural life in Germany an extraordinarily definitive significance. Leverkühn is caught in the vortex of an entire culture’s self-destruction as Germany rushes towards the catastrophe of World War II.

In preparation for the work, Mann read widely in musicology and in biographies of composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. The fatal illnesses of Frederick Delius and Hugo Wolf are also relevant here, and in the death of the child Nepomuk there is perhaps an acknowledgment of the death of Gustav Mahler’s daughter, Maria, after he had (in Alma Mahler’s opinion) tempted fate by setting the Kindertotenlieder. Mann also communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hanns Eisler. The most important and direct contribution came from the philosopher and music critic Theodor W. Adorno, who acted as Mann’s adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann was heavily indebted to Adorno’s analysis of Schoenberg’s music (later published in Philosophie der neuen Musik, 1949) for his depiction of Leverkühn’s aesthetic education and experiments in composition. Adorno analyses aesthetic form as a carrier of ideological implications; his readings of musical form are consequently also critiques of broader socio-cultural discourses.

Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: the would-be composer is led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, contracting syphilis, the venereal disease that will later deepen his artistic inspiration through madness. At the exact centre of Mann’s novel, Leverkühn is visited by the Devil. Shivering in the cold, the fictional composer finds himself face to face with a figure who says, in effect, “That you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist”. Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with the Devil for twenty-four years of creative ability. Leverkühn’s own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany’s intellectual life in the 1920s as he becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, ridden by syphilis and insanity. The parallel between the opinions of proto-Nazi intellectuals, whom Leverkühn had encountered earlier in the novel, and his own aesthetic experiments can now be clearly situated in the mythic domain of the demonic.

Early in 1790, William Blake himself spoke with a Devil. Their conversation is recorded in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In 1935 W.H. Auden presented Mann (his father-in-law) with Geoffrey Keynes’s one-volume edition of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. The book carries Auden’s dedication on the fly-leaf (“an Thomas Mann / im freundlichsten Andenken / von / Wystan Auden / Oct 1935”), and is now in the Thomas Mann-Archiv in Zürich. Appended to Auden’s dedication is a specific reference to Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Auden directs Mann to “p. 190-198”). In the margins there are numerous pencil marks of the kind Mann frequently made when reading books that particularly interested him. Two sections of The Marriage have a large number of marginal pencil marks, the “Proverbs of Hell” and “The Voice of the Devil”. In the latter – to single out only one example – the following passage is marked: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. The voice of Blake’s Devil would certainly have been appropriate Stärkungslektüre (not the easiest of words to translate; literally “strengthening reading matter”) for Mann when planning Leverkühn’s dialogue with Mephistopheles, and the words quoted seem to echo the tragedy of the German composer, whose soul and artistic achievements are inextricably bound up with – and indeed destroyed by – the physical disease brought about by his contact with a “harlot coy”. Blake weds heaven and hell; but Mann’s Devil works havoc with beauty, and what he does to the individual is writ large in what he does to the culture and the nation.

Blake features in the novel as a poet of great significance to Leverkühn. During the summer of 1944 Mann worked on his Chapter XX, which describes the first compositions Adrian completed after making his pact with the Devil. Among them were settings of Blake [Fitch 751] – and the choice of Blakean texts is significant; it is not the sublime and childlike Songs of Innocence which appeal to him, but two of the deeply pessimistic Songs of Experience (“The Sick Rose,” “A Poison Tree”) and two other poems not published during Blake’s lifetime: “I saw a chapel all of gold” (which poem almost definitively evokes Leverkühn’s own growing terror, his horror of pollution, and his eventual renunciation of humanity) and “Silent, Silent Night” (with its harlot reference). In the case of the last two poems, Mann’s annotations include translations of various words and phrases. In “I saw a chapel…,” alongside “hinges” and “slimy” Mann writes Türangel and schleimig. And in “Silent, Silent Night” Mann translates inter alia the words “harlot” and “coy” as Dirne, and blode, scheu, sprode. Zeitblom notes that Leverkühn chose to set the “darkly shocking” verses of Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night”:

But an honest joy
Does itself destroy
For a harlot coy

to “very simple harmonies, which in relation to the tone-language of the whole had a ‘falser’, more heart-rent, uncanny effect than the most daring harmonic tensions, and made one actually experience the common chord growing monstrous”.

Zeitblom describes the Blake settings in some detail:

As for Blake’s extraordinary poesy, he set to music the stanzas about the rose, whose life was destroyed by the dark secret love of the worm which found its way into her crimson bed. Then the uncanny sixteen lines of “A Poison Tree,” where the poet waters his wrath with his tears, suns it with smiles and soft deceitful wiles, so that an alluring apple ripens, with which the thievish friend poisons himself: to the hater’s joy he lies dead in the morning beneath the tree. The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music. But I was even more profoundly impressed at the first hearing by a song to words by Blake, a dream of a chapel all of gold before which stand people weeping, mourning, worshipping, not daring to enter in. There rises the figure of a serpent who knows how by force and force and force to make an entry into the shrine; the slimy length of its body it drags along the costly floor and gains the altar, where it vomits its poison out on the bread and on the wine. “So,” ends the poet, with desperate logic, therefore and thereupon, “I turn’d into a sty / And laid me down among the swine.” The dream anguish of the vision, the growing terror, the horror of pollution, finally the wild renunciation of a humanity dishonoured by the sight – all this was reproduced with astonishing power in Adrian’s setting.

Leverkühn’s decision to set Blake (and Keats and Shakespeare) in their original language is a break with the prevalent practice of German composers. Of course, Haydn and Beethoven set English words in their folksong arrangements, and the woman composer Nina d’Aubigny von Engelbrunner set French, Italian, and English texts, including poems by John Fletcher and Robert Bloomfield. But Nina d’Aubigny’s contemporary, Schubert, set Ossian in German translation, as Schumann did Thomas Moore (“Das Paradies und die Peri”).  Among early twentieth-century composers, Arnold Schoenberg set Albert Giraud’s French poems in German translation for Pierrot Lunaire; Alexander Zemlinsky used a German translation of Rabindranath Tagore for his Lyric Symphony; Alban Berg added a stave for soprano voice to the last movement of his Lyric Suite, setting Baudelaire’s “De profundis clamavi” but in Stefan George’s translation. Only in exile did German composers begin setting English texts: Schoenberg with Byron in his Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41, and Paul Hindemith [Fitch 589, 590], Ernst Krenek [722], Ernst Toch [1264] setting Blake.

In 1977, the BBC commissioned the poet and novelist Robert Nye to write The Devil’s Jig, not a dramatisation of Doktor Faustus, which would have been more or less impossible, but a radio feature exploring its principal ideas, in the form of a narration interspersed with quotations from Leverkühn’s biographer in the novel, the egregious Serenus Zeitblom, from the Devil, and from Leverkühn himself. Humphrey Searle was commissioned to “realise” the works attributed to Leverkühn, following Mann’s indications as far as possible. The two Blake songs included were “Silent, Silent Night” and “The Sick Rose”, for voice and piano [Fitch 1101]. Searle finished the music in November 1977, but it was some time before the BBC was able to arrange for it to be recorded for broadcast. Finally recorded two days after the end of the Promenade season in 1979, it was transmitted on BBC Radio 3, on 9 March 1980; repeated on 26 June 1983.

Another realisation of Leverkühn’s Blake is by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Jeney. A setting of Blake’s “In a Mirtle Shade” [Fitch 651] is included in his 12 Songs: for female voice, violin and piano, to poems by e. e. cummings, Tandori Dezso, William Blake, Weores Sandor and Friedrich Holderlin (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1985). It carries the ascription “Adrian Leverkühn’s song”.

There is one final point to be made in connection with Leverkühn’s music. In a letter to Benjamin Britten dated 14 September 1970 (mainly concerned with the Mann family’s positive response to Britten’s desire to compose Death in Venice) Thomas Mann’s son Golo wrote, “My father … used to say, that if it ever came to some musical illustration of his novel Doktor Faustus, you would be the composer to do it”.

As Adrian begins to plan his second oratorio The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus in 1928, his sister’s child Nepomuk, who calls himself “Echo”, is sent to live with him. Echo is an enchanting small boy, half-Hermes (like Tadzio in Der Tod in Venedig), half-Christ, a vision of “adorable loveliness which was yet a prey to time, destined to mature and partake of the earthly lot”, such as Britten would surely have warmed to as readily as Leverkühn. But part of Leverkühn’s covenant with the Devil is that he is not permitted to warm to anyone; and because he does, Echo dies, horribly, of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Echo is one of those young sacrificial victims, agents of salvation, that people Britten’s scores – Lucretia, Billy, Isaac, Miles, there are so many – all Angels from Heaven, but, as Vere says, “the Angel must hang”. Tadzio is a destroyer, bringing Aschenbach to ruin and death in abject humiliation. But so in their way are Billy and Miles – and Echo. Billy kills Claggart, dies, and condemns Vere to a lifetime of self-laceration; Miles dies, after (we imagine) driving the Governess insane and irremediably corrupting Flora. Echo dies – but his death causes Leverkühn to commit his ultimate act of creative negation, the “taking-back” or “un-writing” of the Ninth Symphony, in the form of his last work, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus. The score of the Lamentation is completed in 1930, Adrian summons his friends and guests, and instead of playing the music he relates the story of his infernal contract, and descends into the madness which is to last until his death ten years later. Zeitblom visits him occasionally, and survives to witness the collapse of Germany’s “dissolute triumphs” as he tells the story of his friend.

It is remarkable that these two creative artists, Mann and Britten, who never met nor worked together, should turn to the same poetic texts at virtually the same time: Britten included “The Sick Rose” in his Serenade, op. 31, written in 1943 just when Mann started to write Doktor Faustus. Furthermore, another Blake poem which Mann has Leverkühn set – ”A Poison Tree” – was also set by Britten, both earlier in 1935 [Fitch 181] and much later in the 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake, op. 74 [Fitch 182]. Mann’s comments on Leverkühn’s treatment can also be applied to Britten’s: “The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music”.

Further reading.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik (Tu?bingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1949).
Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster: Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; edited with an introduction & commentary by Michael Phillips (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011).
Includes a complete facsimile of the copy in the Bodleian Library, a transcription, and partial facsimiles of other copies.

William Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake; edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Centenary edition (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927).
When citing Blake I have here followed the Keynes text.

Benjamin Britten, Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. Vol. 3: 1946-1951; edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and Mervyn Cooke (London: Faber, 2004).
Another version of the Golo Mann anecdote.

Patrick Carnegy, Faust as Musician: a Study of Thomas Mann’s Novel Doctor Faustus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).

Evelyn Cobley, “Decentred Totalities in Doctor Faustus: Thomas Mann and Theodor W. Adorno”, Modernist Cultures, vol. 1, no 2 (October 2005), 181-91.

John F. Fetzer, Music, Love, Death, and Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Studies in German literature, linguistics, and culture; 45 (Columbia SC: Camden House, 1990).

Donald Fitch, Blake Set to Music: a Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn erzählt von einem Freunde (Stockholm: Bermann Fischer, 1947).
Translated by Helen Lowe-Porter: Doctor Faustus: the Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), and more recently by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Woods’ translation is in a more modern vein than the Lowe-Porter, and does not attempt to mirror the original’s use of dialect and archaic German.

Thomas Mann, Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans (Amsterdam: Bermann-Fischer, 1949).
An autobiography of Mann’s later years which was originally planned as an account of how he came to write Doktor Faustus. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston: The Genesis of a Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961).

Christopher Palmer, “Towards a genealogy of Death in Venice”, in Philip Reed, ed., On Mahler and Britten: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on his Seventieth Birthday (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995).
The source of my final paragraphs.

Anthony W. Riley, “Notes on Thomas Mann and English and American Literature”, Comparative Literature, vol. 17, no. 1 (Winter, 1965), 57-72.
My source for details of the collected Blake that Auden gave to Mann.