Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Then I play from inspiration - Franz Grillparzer's poor musician

Despite my mockery of its terrible title, German Novellas of Realism I is a first-rate anthology.  Besides two good Stifter stories, it contains The Jews' Beech Tree by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, and the sparkling gem, Mozart's Journey to Prague by Eduard Mörike.  There was one story, besides Stifter's Granite, that I had not read before, The Poor Musician (1848) by the Austrian playwright (and friend of Beethoven) Franz Grillparzer. 

The Poor Musician is the least of the stories in German Novellas of Realism I, and not exactly recommended, not too strongly.  The narrator, at the St. Bridget's Day festival in Vienna, is intrigued by a puzzling street musician, and extracts his life story.  It involves a girl who sings a beautiful song and a stolen inheritance and who cares what else.

The aesthetics of the musician caught my attention.  He spends the morning practicing, the day performing on the street, and the evening:

"In the evening I remain at home, and" - at this his voice dropped lower and lower, a flush came over his face and his gaze became fixed upon the ground - "then I play from inspiration, without any score and for myself alone. Improvisation, I believe, is the term given to it in books of music." (219-20)

Like the narrator, I wanted to hear his improvisations.  Is the poor musician, not quite competent on the street, a Chopin or Paganini on his own?

A soft sound which certainly came from a violin grew very loud, sank, and died out, immediately rising gain to the shrillest of shrieks: in fact, it was always the same note repeated with a kind of joyful insistence.  At last there came an interval - a fourth.  (222)

And so on, "repeated again and again with a rapid whirl, with the same intervals every time and the same notes."  What kind of avant gardist, exactly, is this violinist?  A Steve Reich-like minimalist?  A precursor of Ornette Coleman? 

The musician plays scored music, too, the classics, but in his own way:

Rather than emphasize a piece of music according to sense and rhythm, he stressed and prolonged the notes and intervals that were pleasing to the ear, not hesitating to repeat them capriciously, while his face would often take on a look of ecstasy  He rid himself of the dissonances in a short a time as possible, whereas, out of conscientiousness, he did not miss a note of the passages that were too dificult for him, but rendered them in a time far too slow when set against the entire piece... (224)

So Coleman, no, since the violinist prefers euphony over cacophony.  Minimalism, yes: see Norwegian minimalist Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch, which pulls and prods Beethoven's 9th Symphony until it is twenty-four hours long.  Grillparzer's "poor" musician, like Balzac's painter Frenhofer, is simply too far ahead of his time, ahead, even, of the author who created him.


  1. This is a sort of wonderful character, though not probably wonderful enough to make up for your unrecommendation. Fortunately I get to hear his improvisations through you instead!

  2. You've got it. Save this one for a "Musicians in literature" project.