A Fictional Analogy

In conclusion we turn not to another musical composition but to a fictional oddity: MacDonald Harris’s Tenth (1984). The appropriation of fictional figures for (usually satirical or parodistic) use in someone else’s plot is a familiar literary device that can be found in novels ranging from Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews to Hermann Hesse’s Morgenlandfahrt (Journey to the East).40 A related device takes a well-known literary figure and, in a different work, presents us with accounts of his earlier (Pawel Huelle, Castorp, 2004) or her later life (Hella S. Haasse, Een gevaarlijke Verhouding [A Dangerous Liaison], 1976, and Alexandra Ripley, Scarlett: The Sequel, 1991). Harris—the pen name of Donald Heiney (1921–93), a professor of English and creative writing at the University of California at Irvine and author of many earlier novels—modifies this device and takes it a step further.

“Tenth,” alluding to the superstitious “curse of the ninth” which allegedly causes composers to die in the course of attempting to create a tenth symphony, refers in the novel to an unfinished tenth symphony by Adrian Leverkühn. In other words, the novel takes Leverkühn’s historical reality for granted and posits that he died in an asylum in 1945 in the course of writing his tenth symphony. The novel’s Leverkühn, as Harris presents him in a few brief references, has little except his madness and musical genius in common with Mann’s figure. Otherwise he is quite different: he lived five years longer than the hero of Doktor Faustus and was allegedly the father of a daughter named Birgit through an extramarital relationship with Serenus Zeitblom’s young second wife; and Mann’s Leverkühn, while he composed several “symphonic” works, certainly did not complete nine symphonies. However, Harris’s work refers only peripherally to Leverkühn. It is concerned much more with the alleged Tenth Symphony and its completion by Julian Coates, a musicologist who, like Harris, teaches at a university near Los Angeles.

On the basis of an article in Music World about Leverkühn’s “Tenth,” Coates is invited by a producer at BBC to come to London for a radio show featuring his ideas, which are based on the two completed movements of the planned five-movement symphony and on scattered notes by Leverkühn. (Again one wonders if Harris was inspired by an acquaintance with BBC’s 1980 presentation of The Devil’s Jig.) The composer’s daughter, the now thirty-five-year-old Birgit, is present for the occasion, as is the director of Cosmic Editions, which publishes Leverkühn’s works. On the basis of his performance, which includes recordings of the first two movements as well as piano improvisations on his ideas for the later movements, Julian is given a contract to complete the symphony. In that connection Birgit invites him to Munich, where he is given access to the mysterious hundred-page Blue Notebook, in which Leverkühn jotted down his own ideas about the completion of the symphony, to which she controls the complete rights.

The novel is filled with incidental subplots—Julian’s relationships with three different women, with his father and mother, and with a mysterious Dutchman who stalks him and tries to dissuade him from attempting the completion of Leverkühn’s work. Basically, however, it revolves around his ultimately successful effort to complete the symphony, which enjoys a triumphant premiere in Los Angeles, attended, among others, by “a German professor named Dr. Mann from Pacific Palisades who had written a book on Leverkühn” (266). At Julian’s radio performance we are given a description of the completed portions, where “the poignant lament of the first movement now gave way to a solider, more aggressive music” in which the expanded brasses play energetically “like a German Biergarten trio while the strings, aghast, stole away to whisper and confer among themselves,” until the movement ends with “three sharp tutti chords punctuated with blows of the kettledrum—Zeitblom called these the Three Strokes of Fate”—symbolizing the cannon shots opening the First World War (50). Later we follow Julian’s own composition of the later movements: for instance, based on Leverkühn’s almost undecipherable notes, the fourth, Allegro con brio, which ends “with a trumpet-scream, clawing its way upward until it burst out, like fireworks, in three loud drum-notes” (245). Julian decides to anticipate that passage with “a kind of grotesque parody of a chaconne in the classical manner,” which turns out to be a passacaglia he himself had written for classroom demonstrations and which he now inserts as “Leverkühn’s sarcastic comment on the banality of the baroque, of the classic, of the whole convention of European music up to his time” (246). The irony is intensified by the fact that the critics single out passages composed by Julian as typically Leverkühnian.

There is no need to recapitulate further the extended verbal music created by Harris for the purposes of his work. What we have here, in the last analysis, is not “figures on loan” from another work but “music on loan.” That is to say, Harris takes not only Leverkühn but also—and this is his unique contribution—his compositions as the fictional reality upon which his own work is based: not only its figures—Leverkühn’s daughter Birgit, his biographer Dr. Mann, his admirer Julian, the radio producers and publishers—but also its music. Harris mentions none of the compositions actually cited and described in Doktor Faustus, only the imaginary Tenth Symphony. But along with the various musical realizations discussed above, the novel exemplifies in yet another medium the effective power of Mann’s verbal music and the varied manner of its realizations. The next step would be some future composer’s realization of Julian Coates’s “Tenth.”

From Ziolkowski, Theodore. Music into Fiction: Composers Writing, Compositions Imitated (Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture)