Mann’s descent: the classical tradition and the downfall of German culture

This is an excerpt from a feature about early 20th century German music which appeared in issue 63 of The New European. Update 15 October 2017: the full feature is now available on The New European website.

The avant-garde composer Adrian Leverkühn was born in 1885 in the Bavarian town of Kaisersaschern.

He read theology at Halle and Leipzig before studying music privately with the pianist Wendell Kretzschmar.

Leverkühn’s early work was written in the late Romantic style of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss. He went on to pioneer the chromatic ‘twelve-tone system’ in which he wrote the masterpieces that established his reputation, including an oratorio after the Revelation of St John (1919) and an epic symphonic cantata, The Lamentation of Dr Faustus (1929).

Leverkühn’s incendiary career ended prematurely in 1930 when he suffered a complete mental collapse following contraction of neurosyphilis. He died 10 years later, insane, at home in Pfeiffering, near Munich.

His innovations helped shape the course of post-war classical music, influencing works such as György Ligeti’s Chromatic Fantasy (1956), Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (1983) and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Resurrection (1987).

Adrian Leverkühn, with his impeccable modernist biography and textbook death, can and has been mistaken for a real artist, one of those meteoric talents that burned briefly across the turbulent skies of the Weimar Republic.

But his story is fictional, the subject of Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann’s epic 1947 novel dramatising Germany’s spiritual decline during the first half of the twentieth century. In Leverkühn Mann created a character who influenced the course of the Western classical tradition he had been designed to comment upon.

Mann’s description of the atonal compositional method he attributes to Leverkühn, written in consultation with the philosopher and musical theorist Theodor Adorno, was so detailed that some of its real life practitioners, such as Ligeti, learned it from the novel rather than its true originator, Arthur Schoenberg.

Indeed Schoenberg, concerned that Mann the famous European novelist, would be remembered as the inventor of the technique, sent the writer an extract from an imaginary Encyclopedia Americana entry for the year 1988 defending ‘the established view’ that Mann was its designer against the claims of the opportunist Schoenberg. Mann subsequently inserted an author’s note into his novel stating that ‘it does not seem superfluous to inform the reader’ that the technique was pioneered by Schoenberg.

Mann’s story turns to one of the great themes of German literature, the medieval Faust legend, to try to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into fascism.

Read the full feature on The New European website.