Music Into Fiction: Composers Writing, Compositions Imitated

Theodore Ziolkowski. Camden House, 2017. 242 pages. $34.95.

By John McWilliams

To begin with two not-so-humble admissions: First, by the author, discussing James Joyce’s Ulysses: “It is difficult, in a work so vast and one that explicitly yet so casually uses such other forms as the fugue, to determine with any precision a specific sonata form or larger sonata model underlying or intended in Joyce’s novel.” Second, by your reviewer, who remains a struggling amateur pianist and 40 year professor of literature who happens to love music, but who dares to practice it as a private avocation only. More of the first admission to follow; the less said about the second, the better. 

Ziolkowski’s book is aptly described by his own summary of the writings of Anthony Burgess as “a brilliant spectrum of possibilities.” Any reader will find much to learn about the interface between opera and libretto, about musical references in literature, and especially about attempts to convey musical forms in fiction. A few examples of revelations, some of which have escaped even Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians: the fiction of Carl Maria von Weber; the extensive musical compositions of E.T.A. Hoffman; the six passages Berlioz selected from the Aeneid in composing Les Troyens; Schumann’s opera Genoveva; ten late 20th century fictions focusing on Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the wake of Glenn Gould’s epochal recording; an appreciative account of the influence of Exodus, Der Biblische Weg, and Zionism on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron; and a sometimes comic account of the dispute as to whether Parsifal is holy art or, in Nietzsche’s words, “a work of guile, of vengefulness, of stealthy poison-blending against the premises of life, a bad work.” 

Ziolkowski is especially insightful about the many early 19th century societies of young male aesthetes who, scorning philistinism of all kinds, debated the relations of art and literature in ways that anticipated Wagner. Ziolkowski seems always open to the “full spectrum of possibilities,” including recent works already fallen into near-total obscurity. Nonetheless, he is able to maintain a clear outline of the two-century transition from the presumably separate roles of composer and librettist, to composers writing their own librettos based upon literary works, to the single artist-genius creating original text and music, and thence to high modernist improvisation on all kinds of literary and musical forms. His book is open-minded, capacious, and dauntingly informed. 

Wagner’s Ring Cycle proves to be the missing ghost of Ziolkowski’s narrative of these changes in literary and musical form. His pages on Parsifal, lively though they are, are not enough. Ziolkowski’s early chapters lead us up to Wagner’s paradigm of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and his later chapters lead away from it, but the Ring Cycle itself is not there. However one may judge Wagner’s massive tetralogy, it is surely the one indispensable work in the history Ziolkowki is tracing. Its absence here is a disappointment. 

For reasons, Ziolkowski does not fully explain, he studies only attempts to recreate musical form in fiction, not in poetry. Masterpieces such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, or sometimes embarrassing lyrics like Poe’s “The Bells,” can therefore have no place here. This exclusion leaves Ziolkowski’s reader with a fundamental question. What is involved when a writer of fiction strives to render musical forms in words that do not proceed in metrical, rhythmic sequence? In the course of his book, Ziolkowski applies all of the following terms, here listed in alphabetical order, to the process of turning musical forms into fiction. The writer of fiction creates an “adaptation,” an “appropriation,” an “arrangement, ” an “imitation,” a “postfiguration,” a  “realization,” a “systematic rendition.” These diverse terms carry significantly different implications. Exactly what is being argued about this transformative process remains, therefore, a confusing muddle. Although it is surely true, as Ziolkowski argues, that many modernist writers pursue T.S. Eliot’s notion of using myth to order and control the chaos of the twentieth century world, Eliot’s familiar, profound idea does not begin to answer the generic question about the relation of music to fiction that Ziolkowski has re-raised. 

The question may have no affirmative answer. Ziolkowski describes many attempts to render fugue, chaconne, passacaglia, rondo, theme and variations, sonata and symphony etc. into prose. His yield is often frustrating. The resemblance of Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements to Beethoven’s Eroica, a resemblance half-facetiously advanced in Burgess’s concluding “Epistle to the Reader,” is rarely apparent within the novel’s sprawling biographical and historical narrative. Ziolkowski can prove that Thomas Mann intended Tonio Kroger, and Burgess intended A Clockwork Orange, to incorporate or perhaps even exemplify sonata form, but how exactly they do so never quite emerges from Ziolkowski’s needed summaries of plot and musical references. What is sonata form anyway? If a Mozart piano sonata, with its three movements of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda, is the model for the sonata, then surely Chopin’s glorious second and third piano sonatas, to say nothing of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas or Liszt’s b minor, are not “sonatas” at all. 

Perhaps such questions, important though they are, must remain secondary to the primal question of whether it is ever possible to convey musical experience in prose–or even in poetry? From Bach biographies to theoretical analyses of Beethoven, to newspaper reviews, and on down to compact disk blurbs, the inadequacy of musicology whenever it tries to describe music through words is striking. Ziolkowski devotes an entire chapter to Thomas Mann’s attempts to describe Adrian Leverkuhn’s (Schoenberg’s or perhaps Berg’s) music as evoked in Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus. While doing so, Ziolkowski quotes Anthony Burgess’s dictum that although “Mann commits not even a minimal error” in his musicology, “we never learn exactly what Adrian Leverkuhn’s music sounds like.”  Among novelists, no one could be better positioned than Anthony Burgess to know the discomfiting possibility underlying that statement.  Is it true that the effect of music cannot be expressed in words? 

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.