Doctor Faustus

A friend in Germany, a viola d’amore player, asked me to compose something for a program she is planning based on Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, whose narrator is a viola d’amore player. Hunting around the house, I found an old, worn copy of the novel, probably Renee’s, as I don’t remember reading it before. Starting into its early pages, I am already hooked, after finding that, in addition to its many-layered themes, it is practically a music theory treatise.

In a chapter describing the music lessons given to the protagonist in his youth, Mann writes that half of each lesson was given over to discussions of philosophy and poetry. It was the teacher’s belief that “music itself, the goal of his teaching, if it were pursued one-sidedly and without connection with other fields of form, thought, and culture, seemed to him a stunting specialization, humanly speaking.”

Sharing that thought, as it is a good one. I remember thinking, when a conservatory student, the same thing – although not nearly as clearly. All everyone thought about or spoke about was music, music, music – but where was the rest of life? Both Renee and I, at the time, went outside the school to study at nearby universities and transfer the credits, so we could broaden our education. How could the music be any good if it was not informed by the rest of life – and knowledge and experience of other things. And, as focused as I am today on music, I’m so glad I did that back then. My music world is as much informed by ideas, by stories, by literature, by the swirl of world events, by history, by myth, as it is by anything purely musical. It is all of that together that breathes life into the music, which then music can breathe back into life.