Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ernst Bloch: The Muse of Restitution

It turned out that the old violinist lived and played after a fashion, for better or worse. Friends the recluse had none; unhappily married, he kept to himself at home as well. To his chair at the opera house he would still return somewhat punctually, but utterly morosely. More often he would drift far away during rehearsals, distracted and as though listening to something else. At his part he would saw away the more unwillingly, the more trivial some cliche or other seemed to him, which at that time— the story is from about 1750, and takes place at the court opera of a Ger­man capital—would have been Italianate. So the old musician, who promised to reform yet always showed renewed discontent, was repri­manded and demoted; his salary hardly still sufficed to keep his wife and his young daughter from hunger.

Only his wife's entreaties to the orchestra master momentarily prevented his dismissal. That his already unsuitable wife thereby became ever more quarrelsome is no surprise; perhaps only that she provoked even the girl against him, whom he had loved and once instructed in simpler songs; she even forbade her to speak with their shabby breadwinner.

After rehearsals, after an evening performance, the musician now locked himself completely in his room—unnoticed, so he imagined. There he cut his lonely capers, improvising on the violin, singing too, howling, shout­ing, stamping deep into the night. The daughter, who had slowly begun to blossom but remained timid, he would occasionally encounter on the stairs and assailed her. Clearly she was in league with that old rat bag of a wife, was spying at her behest in order to search his room tor money.

There he actually found her one evening too, as he came home early, upstairs; trembling, she sprang from his desk, with its drawers open. The night before had just borne a strange fruit of which he alone knew, and which he kept more secret than his missing money. The second act of a completely inaccessible, unmarketable, hopeless opera was finished; it was titled Siren.

The girl became even more cautious, staying in his chamber only when there was certain to be a performance, for many weeks on the lookout for the unhappy man. Until one day the musician was finally dismissed; he had refused to play along at rehearsals for the new opera by one of the fashionable composers he despised. Indeed he had fallen out so badly with the world that it cheered him not in the least to hear that his own daugh­ter had been discovered as the new vocal sensation, and would be trained as a future prima donna on the cardinal's orders. On the contrary, the sacked violinist now railed against himself too, the closer the new singer's debut approached. After all, his own flesh and blood was supposed to pre­sent the opera of the composer of the day for baptism. Completely barred in his chamber, he no longer heard all the rumors circulating outside: about the young star's moods, about the endless rehearsals for the new opera, about open scandals and intervention by the prince himself.

The evening of the premier arrived. The recluse had even draped the windows of his sanctuary. A stranger comes through the door, presenting himself as the emissary of the artistic director himself: His Excellency's coach is standing before the house to take him to the opera. Even now the man resists. They arrive at the theater; the opera has begun. Wild, jagged, deeply familiar music bursts from the hall; the old musician hastens for­ward—his daughter, as siren, is singing to the sea.

Such a story is rare, yet it does happen, and still moves us afterward. If I love you, how does that concern you? — This statement is not only inso­lent; it can be daughterly too. Certainly the nasty old man left the maiden no choice but not to ask about his love. On the other hand, though, her father concerned her extraordinarily much; no love could be more selfless. The girl, as she took the score to herself, copied it, always trembling for fear of discovery, and kept herself secret and inaccessible until the last mo­ment. Hardly any beloved could be so maidenly, in the most beautiful sense, no one so incognito and yet so strong.

As beloved, woman has always been celebrated fervently; as good wife, proudly and gratefully; as mother, reverently. But about daughters there are fewer good songs than familiar, stale ones. Yet the girl in this story is a spe­cial muse to the man, not one who brings fire from Parnassus, certainly, but one who is thoughtful, path-breaking, thereby hidden. It's already like a loyal posterity, not like a present, in this girl, and as one who has the right to be called posterity. An Italian saying goes: tempo é gentiluomo, meaning, time rights every wrong, even misrecognition. This noble daughter per­formed her office so graciously that the gentleman isn't even needed.

Ernst Bloch, Traces, Stanford University Press, 2006 translation by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University

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