The Role of Music in Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations

By Wolf, Werner | Style, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Role of Music in Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations


Wolf, Werner, Style


Introduction: Goldberg: Variations and The Tradition of Art "Aspir[ing] towards The Condition of Music"

"All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music"--like many sweeping aesthetic statements this famous dictum of Walter Pater's (45) constitutes more an instance of a particular aesthetic program than a characterization of art in general. Yet, at least as far as verbal art and in particular the history of the novel after Modernism is concerned, a development can be observed that justifies Pater's statement to a certain extent: as opposed to previous periods there is in fact an increasing number of authors of fiction who purport to approach "the condition of music" in their writings in some way or other: Thomas Mann (with "Tonio Kroger" and Der Zauberberg), James Joyce (with the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses), Virginia Woolf (with "The String Quartet" and The Waves), Aldous Huxley (with Point Counter Point), Anthony Burgess (with Napoleon Symphony), and Robert Pinget (with Passacaille), to name but a few. (1) This development is embedded in a more general tendency of avant-garde fiction written since the 1920s and notably affects the fiction published over the past few decades, which has been said to testify to an "intermedial turn": a marked trend to transgress the boundaries of fiction's own verbal and narrative medium by referring to other media in various ways (Lagerroth and Hedling 8, 13; cf. also Nunning 177-80).

One of the most recent corroborations of this general trend and also one of the most remarkable additions to the field in which fiction attempts to meet music is the recent novel by Gabriel Josipovici, who has justly been hailed as belonging to the "leading British authors of fiction" of out rime (Fludernik, preface) and whose writings have repeatedly been inspired by the other arts. (2) In Goldberg: Variations (2002), Josipovici not only discusses music, as countless other authors before him have done, mostly on the basis of fictional biographies of musicians and composers (recently, e.g., Rose Tremain in Music and Silence [1999], Vikram Seth in An Equal Music [1999], and Salman Rushdie in The Ground Beneath Her Feet [1999]), but he also aspires to the condition of music in his fiction in a much subtler way and moves beyond a merely plot-related concentration on music. In the following I propose to explore to what extent he does so and above all what role music plays in his novel.

Manifestations of Music in Goldberg: Variations

Music appears mainly in three different forms in Goldberg: Variations: in the indirect form of references to a composer's biography, in direct discussions of musical aesthetics and musical forms, and in structural analogies between textual and musical form. (3)

On reading the first chapter of the novel, entitled "Goldberg" (previously published as a short story (4)), the most immediate and obvious reference to music is an indirect, biographical one. This is at least true for anyone familiar with a famous episode in Johann Sebastian Bach's life, reported by his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. According to Forkel, Bach's Goldberg Variationen (composed presumably in the second half of the 1730s) were commissioned by the Russian ambassador in Saxonia, Count Kaiserling, who suffered from insomnia and wanted his harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of Bach' s, to play some of the master's compositions to help him through his periods of sleeplessness. (5) In Josipovici's novel the whole scene is clearly recognizable, albeit transposed from the Saxonia of the 1730s to an English country house around 1800. The insomniac is Tobias Westfield, a member of the landed gentry, and there is also a harpsichord player, although he has already been dismissed for having failed in his attempt to send Westfield to sleep. To replace him the eponymous character Goldberg arrives. However, he does not represent music, but rather literature, as he is a well-known Jewish novelist like Josipovici himself. …

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