june 2012

J.S. Bach, Ludwig Van Beethoven and Richard Wagner: Musical brows for the ages

Pleasures of Music

Musical Brows

Who, on looking at Bach’s face, would ever think of his occiput?

By Rudolf Kassner

A freelance philosophical writer, Rudolf Kassner (1873-1959) wrote about music, intellectual history and English poetry. He was born in 1873, long resided in Vienna and was at one time a close friend of Rilke. Although stricken as an infant with poliomyelitis, Kassner traveled widely to northern Africa, the Sahara, India, Russia, Spain, and throughout Europe. His translations of William Blake introduced this English romantic poet to German-speaking audiences. His literary career covered six decades, including a period of isolation during the Nazi years in Vienna. His writings on physiognomy reflect his effort to understand the problems of modernity and humankind's subsequent disconnectedness from time and place. His later autobiographical writings suggest a brilliant literary mind attempting to make sense of a chaotic post-nuclear world. Kassner himself divided his work into three periods: aestheticism 1900-1908; physiognomy 1908-1938: and after 1938 autobiographical writings, religious and mystical essays, and "meta-political" interpretations of world events. Kassner rejected rigid philosophical systems and thus preferred looser literary forms such as essays, aphorisms, prose sketches, parables, and allegories. Nevertheless, his works revolve around certain coherent contexts and returns again and again to the same themes. The following essay, from his physiognomy period, was published in his 1946 collection, Der Grösste Mensch.


I have tried to show at several points in my works on Physiognomy that the so-called “musical brow,” which stretches from ear to ear in a beautiful curve highly arched toward the middle, is the peculiarity not so much of the creators of music as of the mere performers, that is, the great conductors or executants on violin or piano. In other words, the creative musicians possess a physiognomy of the Eye-type no less than that of the Ear-type; they are Eye-men as well as Ear-men. I find, to be sure, an exception in Mozart’s face, but it is due, as I think, to absolute genius, which in his case makes use of the creature as a tool or, indeed, as a plaything. Mozart, to put it paradoxically, could have had any face whatever. His uncontested genius appeared most truly incognito or cloaked in the manner of the gods when they tread the earth. Everything about him, including his death, is as it were mythic, just as everything about Beethoven is human and dramatic.

Richard Wagner’s ‘Parsifal,’ Act 1 Prelude, as performed by the Weiner Philharmoniker as conducted by Sir George Solti

Nothing in the study of Musical Physiognomy strikes me as so fascinating, and at the same time fruitful, as a comparison of the three brows of Bach, Beethoven and Richard Wagner. Bach’s brow is immobile, towering, plane--like the tablets of the law or like one of his scores engraved with failing eyes--all in immediate contact with the Ear. It is as when a person high placed in government or business has a private wire through which to speak at will, without switchboards or intermediaries. Another comparison: I [once]…looked up and saw how the summit of a mountain, stony and externally snow-clad, towered ever higher than the clouds by which I had believed it was hidden; I ceased wondering and merely closed my eyes, for they were filled with tears. Just so is Bach’s brow compared to Beethoven’s, over which storms pass with blasting bolts but which does not invariably tower above the clouds, as is true of the image before us.

As for Richard Wagner’s brow, it forms but one piece with his occiput. It begins at the root of the nose and goes all the way back to the nape of his neck. Who, on looking at Bach’s face, would ever think of his occiput? In Beethoven likewise it is of no importance. In Bach’s world heaven and earth are two separate realms; in Beethoven’s they are at strife with each other. Richard Wagner’s world would be tottering, it would be pure agitation without the stage. Richard Wagner’s world would go astray in the Infinite, were it not enabled to make continually fresh starts through the stage or the means of staging. That is how I interpret this brow which reaches from the root of the nose all the way back to the nape of the neck.



Pleasures of Music

César Franck Is Inspired

By Vincent d’Indy

Pupil of Franck, composer and co-founder (with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, in 1894) of the famous Paris music school, the Schola Cantorum, d’Indy was the master’s chief confidante and solicitous biographer. As a follower of Franck, d'Indy came to admire what he considered the standards of German symphonism. D'Indy taught at the Schola Cantorum and later at the Paris Conservatoire until his death. Among his many students were Isaac Albéniz, Leo Arnaud, Joseph Canteloube (who later wrote d'Indy's biography), Pierre Capdevielle, Jean Daetwyler, Arthur Honegger, Eugène Lapierre, Albéric Magnard, Rodolphe Mathieu, Darius Milhaud, Cole Porter, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie, Georges-Émile Tanguay, Otto Albert Tichý, and Xian Xinghai. Xian was one of the earliest Chinese composers of western classical music. Few of d'Indy's works are performed regularly today. His best known pieces are probably the Symphony on a French Mountain Air (Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français, also known as Symphonie cévenole) for piano and orchestra (1886), and Istar (1896), a symphonic poem in the form of a set of variations in which the theme appears only at the end. The following piece is from his study César Franck, published in 1912.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs one of Franck’s most enduring compositions, the communion anthem Panis Angelicus.

“Father Franck” was one of those who--like many others--need stimulants in order to find ideas, but it was not by artificial means that he tried to spur his inspiration: he had recourse to music itself.

How many a time have we not seen him in a scrimmage with his piano, pounding out in a jerky yet constant fortissimo the overture to Meistersinger, or some other piece by Beethoven, Bach, or Schumann!? After a shorter or longer time, the deafening racket would dwindle into a murmur, then nothing--the master had found his idea.

All his life, whenever he could, Franck used this method of enticing inspiration by means of musical noise. One day, in the course of composing one of his last works, a pupil came upon him during one of these struggles with some piano piece which he was remorselessly butchering. The pupil expressed surprise at the choice of such music, to which the old master rejoined, “Oh, that’s only for a workout; when I want to find something really good, I play over my Beatitudes (1); in the long run that’s what serves me best.”

César Franck, from the Third Beatitude, ‘Christus and Heavenly Choir of Angels.’ Gilles Cachemaille, bariton (Christus); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling, conductor.

Franck completed his most ambitious work, the oratorio Les Beatitudes 1869-1879, though its premier came after his death in 1891. The work of an ardently religious man, this massive oratorio sets out to provide a musical expression for Christ's eternal message (according to Matthew 5, 3-12)--the Sermon on the Mount. Scored for considerable resources including six singers, choir, organ, and a large orchestra, Franck's musical vision rises to the level of his exalted subject matter. The aesthetic problem Franck faces seems parallel to that of Dvorak for his Stabat Mater: how to generate musical drama from relatively static adagios and texts of spiritual contemplation. The music divides into eight sections, inverting the second and third Beatitudes, but following the wording and order of the Bible. Christ (Gilles Cachemaille) is represented by a bass-baritone surrounded by an eight-bar leitmotif, who assures us that misery on earth shall beget a better future in Heaven. Near the end of each section, the Heavenly Chorus or Vox Christi informs the devout how they rise above misfortune. In the Sixth Beatitude, Franck creates a New Testament Bible scene, wherein Pagan Women, Jewish Women, three Pharisees, and the Angel of Death confer, and all are counseled by Jesus that the pure of heart shall see God. Satan appears in the course of the drama, only to realize the limits of his power. If the work has any spiritual forbears other than Beethoven, it could well be Liszt's Christus of 1872; even the key of F-sharp Major (for the vice of Jesus) is Liszt's favorite key for transcendence.

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