Music into Fiction

By Quantrill, Peter | Gramophone, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Music into Fiction


Quantrill, Peter, Gramophone


Music into Fiction

By Theodore Ziolkowski

Boydell & Brewer, HB, 260pp, 19.99[pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-571-13973-3

One can only applaud the endeavour of Theodore Ziolkowski, a Princeton professor of German and comparative literature, in treating a well-worn subject--the intersection of words and music--from a novel perspective. It is, evidently, a late work, a very personal approach to the subject and one informed by a lifetime's study and enthusiasm. The axis of the book turns from 19th- and 20th-century composers who also wrote imaginative prose, to modern attempts to render music within fiction, before twisting back to consider Adrian Leverkuhn, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and the most fully developed composer in fiction, from the unfamiliar angle of efforts to bring his music to life.

Attempts to skirt familiar territory have led to some special pleading and odd choices. It suits Ziolkowski's area of specialism to begin with ETA Hoffmann and Weber, though neither could be described as enjoying 'parallel careers' as both writer and musician. The Damnation of Faust is given a rough ride for failing adequately to represent its subject, but instead of setting Berlioz's treatment of Goethe side by side with the Scenes from Faust over which Schumann laboured for so long, Ziolkowski moves on to Genoveva. The Ring is entirely passed over in favour of a highly partial critique of Parsifal, which gets off to a bad start by announcing that the opera 'amounts to a pastiche of themes and motifs from all Wagner's previous works'. Nietzsche and Debussy are duly summoned as witnesses for the prosecution; Ziolkowski's own judgement must be inferred from the lack of a defence.

There is, too, more outline than picture when he turns to 'the musicalisation of fiction'. Analysis of a verbal 'fugue' in Ulysses usefully explains how comprehensively Joyce failed to understand the principles of the musical form, while remodelling it to his own ends. Skipping over the devices of rhetoric where musical comparison is often and aptly made--assonance, bathos, anaphora--Ziolkowski goes in search of more ambitious structural comparisons, and a fool's errand it turns out to be, piling up authors such as Hesse, Broch and Huxley and their almost interchangeable use of specific genres such as sonata, quartet and symphony: terms which on closer examination bear little contextual meaning beyond a perceived aesthetic value conferred by their noble abstraction, as though there were not almost as many bad piano sonatas as novels. …

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