Music into Fiction: Composers Writing, Compositions Imitated

By Markx, Francien | German Quarterly, October 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Music into Fiction: Composers Writing, Compositions Imitated


Markx, Francien, German Quarterly


Ziolkowski, Theodore. Music into Fiction: Composers Writing, Compositions Imitated. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2017. XI + 248 pp. $34.95 (hardcover).

In recent years, comparative studies concerning music, literature, and the other arts have increasingly focused on the theory and history of intermediality, at the expense of textual analysis, whether the "text" be literary, musical, or visual. Ziolkowski's study breaks with this trend and brings the text back into the center of attention. While his interest lies in the relation between literature and music, his book does not deal with the "musicality" of literature, matters of synesthesia, or the various forms in which both arts are combined, such as program music, Lieder, and opera. Instead, and as the book's title already indicates, the author sets out to explore composers who also wrote fiction or other prose (e.g., libretti or music criticism), and fictional works that imitate musical forms or specific compositions. Ziolkowski's study is thus organized around literary texts, beginning in the earlier nineteenth century with such double talents as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber. The book's first part (chapters 1-5) outlines an increasing tendency of composers to apply their literary talents to write libretti for their own operas, namely Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann, culminating in the example of Richard Wagner as an exemplary figure who inspired many generations to come. With the discussion of Anthony Burgess's attempts to render compositions in his literary works, Ziolkowski transitions to the book's second part, or movement, as he playfully calls it (chapters 6-7). The sixth chapter explores the adaptation of musical "forms" such as the fugue, rondo, and sonata in works of fiction, ranging from Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger (1903) and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), to Jonathan Littell's novel Les bienveillantes (2006). Imitations of specific compositions is the focus of the penultimate chapter, particularly of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. Chapter 8 ("Finale") finally turns to musical compositions inspired by music as described in a fictional work, Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus (1947). Ziolkowski's study thus covers two centuries of writings intended for or inspired by music, addressing significantly different genres from criticism to libretti to literary fiction. With an admirably light hand, the author selects and organizes his materials from this vast topic in one book, which is written in a pleasant style. Yet, the observant reader will also notice an imbalance between the chapters, and the rather loose connection between them. Given the book's title, there is hardly a more fitting example than E.T.A. Hoffmann's critical and literary oeuvre. However, Hoffmann's fictional works dealing with music are merely mentioned in passing. This is all the more regrettable as, for example, the Goldberg Variations already figure in the first essay of Kreisleriana. Moreover, the novel Kater Murr, featuring a "contrapuntal" interweaving of the philistine tomcat's autobiography with the fragmentary biography of the composer Johannes Kreisler, could have established meaningful connections to the book's second part. Although some of Hoffmann's music criticism is briefly discussed, there is no reference to the English translation of Hoffmann's musical writings with David Charlton's excellent introductions (E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, ed. by David Charlton, trans. by Martyn Clarke [1989]). The discussion of Hoffmann, Weber, Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner as music critics would have gained significantly by including reflections on the genre of music criticism itself, common practices and trends at their time, and the place they occupy in this tradition.

A more in-depth account is offered in chapter three, aimed at a "demystification" of Richard Wagner's libretto for Parsifal. Ziolkowski explores Wagner's motivations, the libretto's motivic origins and development, and the broader thematic context, concluding that "Parsifal is much closer to mummery than to the mystery that Wagner hoped to attain" (82). …

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