This is a novel about music. Mann’s main musical advisor in writing the novel was Theodor Adorno, one of the founders of critical theory, who had studied composition with Alban Berg, one of Schönberg’s first followers. Adorno saw atonal, dissonant, and polyphonic music as the only progressive way for the further development of musical material and as the adequate musical expression of the contradictions of advanced capitalist societies. Adorno was less convinced of the constraints that the twelve tone system imposes on the creative process, in that it prescribes literally every tone that may be used at a given place in the composition.
When I read the novel again last summer, I was thinking: What has remained of the Germany that Mann described in so desperate and still so loving terms, and what has changed? Germany is very different today, it would seem to me. Of course, the unparalleled crimes committed by Germans under the Nazi regime, are, and will forever be, central to the German collective memory. Any sign of renascent racism there is taken more seriously, at home and around the world, than in most other countries, and rightly so.
Still, the strain of irrationalism that Mann describes and that was so fraught with disaster has all but vanished in contemporary German culture. It would even seem that the national obsession with philosophy has ceased altogether. In the former “land of poets and thinkers”, philosophy has become the specialty of a small profession. 95 per cent of German university graduates of my, or the younger, generation, have probably never read a philosophical book, and if so, it was mostly Foucault, Habermas or Marx. Most books by Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most influential and most compromised philosopher in the 20th century, are not even available in paperback, for lack of popular demand. The love and high esteem of music, however, seems to have survived. Nearly half of the world’s opera houses, I am told, are in Germany – and mainly play Italian opera. There are good reasons to believe that, finally, democracy in Germany has been the success that Thomas Mann, in Zeitblom’s words, had already hoped for during the Weimar Republic. “It was an attempt, a not utterly and entirely hopeless attempt (the second since the failure of Bismarck and his unification performance) to normalize Germany in the sense of Europeanizing or “democratizing’ it, of making it part of the social life of peoples.”
While on the theme of novels about (Western classical) music; here is the review of a more recent work; Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Fugue.