Buddenbrooks Chapter Six

“Oh, Bach, Sebastian Bach, dear lady!” cried Edmund Pfühl, Herr Edmund Pfühl, the organist of St. Mary’s, as he strode up and down the salon with great activity, while Gerda, smiling, her head on her hand, sat at the piano; and Hanno listened from a big chair, his hands clasped round his knees. “Certainly, as you say, it was he through whom the victory was achieved by harmony over counterpoint. He invented modern harmony, assuredly. But how? Need I tell you how? By progressive development of the contrapuntal style—you know it as well as I do. Harmony? Ah, no! By no means. Counterpoint, my dear lady, counterpoint! Whither, I ask you, would experiments in harmony have led? While I have breath to speak, I will warn you against mere experiments in harmony!”

His zeal as he spoke was great, and he gave it free rein, for he felt at home in the house. Every Wednesday afternoon there appeared on the threshold his bulky, square, high-shouldered figure, in a coffee-coloured coat, whereof the skirts hung down over his knees. While awaiting his partner, he would open lovingly the Bechstein grand piano, arrange the violin parts on the stand, and then prelude a little, softly and artistically, with his head sunk, in high contentment, on one shoulder.

An astonishing growth of hair, a wilderness of tight little curls, red-brown mixed with grey, made his head look big and heavy, though it was poised easily upon a long neck with an extremely large Adam’s apple that showed above his low collar. The straight, bunchy moustaches, of the same colour as the hair, were more prominent than the small snub nose. His eyes were brown and bright, with puffs of flesh beneath them; when he played they looked as though their gaze passed through whatever was in their way and rested on the other side. His face was not striking, but it had at least the stamp of a strong and lively intelligence. His eyelids were usually half drooped, and he had a way of relaxing his lower jaw without opening his mouth, which gave him a flabby, resigned expression like that sometimes seen on the face of a sleeping person.

The softness of his outward seeming, however, contrasted strongly with the actual strength and self-respect of his character. Edmund Pfühl was an organist of no small repute, whose reputation for contrapuntal learning was not confined within the walls of his native town. His little book on Church Music was recommended for private study in several conservatories, and his fugues and chorals were played now and then where an organ sounded to the glory of God. These compositions, as well as the voluntaries he played on Sundays at Saint Mary’s, were flawless, impeccable, full of the relentless, severe logicality of the Strenge Satz. Such beauty as they had was not of this earth, and made no appeal to the ordinary layman’s human feeling. What spoke in them, what gloriously triumphed in them, was a technique amounting to an ascetic religion, a technique elevated to a lofty sacrament, to an absolute end in itself. Edmund Pfühl had small use for the pleasant and the agreeable, and spoke of melody, it must be confessed, in slighting terms. But he was no dry pedant, notwithstanding. He would utter the name of Palestrina in the most dogmatic, awe-inspiring tone. But even while he made his instrument give out a succession of archaistic virtuosities, his face would be all aglow with feeling, with rapt enthusiasm, and his gaze would rest upon the distance as though he saw there the ultimate logicality of all events, issuing in reality. This was the musician’s look; vague and vacant precisely because it abode in the kingdom of a purer, profounder, more absolute logic than that which shapes our verbal conceptions and thoughts.

His hands were large and soft, apparently boneless, and covered with freckles. His voice, when he greeted Gerda Buddenbrook, was low and hollow, as though a bite were stuck in his throat: “Good morning, honoured lady!”

He rose a little from his seat, bowed, and respectfully took the hand she offered, while with his own left he struck the fifths on the piano, so firmly and clear that she seized her Stradivarius and began to tune the strings with practised ear.

“The G minor concerto of Bach, Herr Pfühl. The whole adagio still goes badly, I think.”

And the organist began to play. But hardly were the first chords struck, when it invariably happened that the corridor door would open gently, and without a sound little Johann would steal across the carpet to an easy-chair, where he would sit, his hands clasped round his knees, motionless, and listen to the music and the conversation.

“Well, Hanno, so you want a little taste of music, do you?” said Gerda in a pause, and looked at her son with her shadowy eyes, in which the music had kindled a soft radiance.

Then he would stand up and put out his hand to Herr Pfühl with a silent bow, and Herr Pfühl would stroke with gentle affection the soft light-brown hair that hung gracefully about brow and temples.

“Listen, now my child,” he would say, with mild impressiveness; and the boy would look at the Adam’s apple that went up and down as the organist spoke, and then go back to his place with his quick, light steps, as though he could hardly wait for the music to begin again.

They played a movement of Haydn, some pages of Mozart, a sonata or Beethoven. Then, while Gerda was picking out some music, with her violin under her arm, a surprising thing happened: Herr Pfühl, Edmund Pfühl, organist at St. Mary’s, glided over from his easy interlude into music of an extraordinary style; while a sort of shame-faced enjoyment showed upon his absent countenance. A burgeoning and blooming, a weaving and singing rose beneath his fingers; then, softly and dreamily at first, but ever clearer and clearer, there emerged in artistic counterpoint the ancestral, grandiose, magnificent march motif—a mounting to a climax, a complication, a transition; and at the resolution of the dominant the violin chimed in, fortissimo. It was the overture to Die Meistersinger.

Gerda Buddenbrook was an impassioned Wagnerite. But Herr Pfühl was an equally impassioned opponent—so much so that in the beginning she had despaired of winning him over.

On the day when she first laid some piano arrangements from Tristan on the music-rack, he played some twenty-five beats and then sprung up from the music-stool to stride up and down the room with disgust painted upon his face.

“I cannot play that, my dear lady! I am your most devoted servant—but I cannot. That is not music—believe me! I have always flattered myself I knew something about music—but this is chaos! This is demagogy, blasphemy, insanity, madness! It is a perfumed fog, shot through with lightning! It is the end of all honesty in art. I will not play it!” And with the words he had thrown himself again on the stool, and with his Adam’s apple working furiously up and down, with coughs and sighs, had accomplished another twenty-five beats. But then he shut the piano and cried out:

“Oh, fie, fie! No, this is going too far. Forgive me, dear lady, if I speak frankly what I feel. You have honoured me for years, and paid me for my services; and I am a man of modest means. But I must lay down my office, I assure you, if you drive me to it by asking me to play these atrocities! Look, the child sits there listening—would you then utterly corrupt his soul?”

But let him gesture as furiously as he would, she brought him over—slowly, by easy stages, by persistent playing and persuasion.

“Pfühl,” she would say, “be reasonable, take the thing calmly. You are put off by his original use of harmony. Beethoven seems to you so pure, clear, and natural, by contrast. But remember how Beethoven himself affronted his contemporaries, who were brought up in the old way. And Bach—why, good Heavens, you know how he was reproached for his want of melody and clearness! You talk about honesty—but what do you mean by honesty in art? Is it not the antithesis of hedonism? And, if so, then that is what you have here. Just as much as in Bach. I tell you, Pfühl, this music is less foreign to your inner self than you think!”

“It is all juggling and sophistry—begging your pardon,” he grumbled. But she was right, after all: the music was not so impossible as he thought at first. He never, it is true, quite reconciled himself to Tristan, though he eventually carried out Gerda’s wish and made a very clever arrangement of the Liebestod for violin and piano. He was first won over by certain parts of Die Meistersinger; and slowly a love for this new art began to stir within him. He would not confess it—he was himself aghast at the fact, and would pettishly deny it when the subject was mentioned. But after the old masters had had their due, Gerda no longer needed to urge him to respond to a more complex demand upon his virtuosity; with an expression of shame-faced pleasure, he would glide into the weaving harmonies of the Leit-motiv. After the music, however, there would be a long explanation of the relation of this style of music to that of the Strenge Satz; and one day Herr Pfühl admitted that, while not personally interested in the theme, he saw himself obliged to add a chapter to his book on Church Music, the subject of which would be the application of the old key-system to the church- and folk-music of Richard Wagner.

Hanno sat quite still, his small hands clasped round his knees, his mouth, as usual, a little twisted as his tongue felt out the hole in a back tooth. He watched his mother and Herr Pfühl with large quiet eyes; and thus, so early, he became aware of music as an extraordinarily serious, important, and profound thing in life. He understood only now and then what they were saying, and the music itself was mostly far above his childish understanding. Yet he came again, and sat absorbed for hours—a feat which surely faith, love, and reverence alone enabled him to perform.

When only seven, he began to repeat with one hand on the piano certain combinations of sound that made an impression on him. His mother watched him smiling, improved his chords, and showed him how certain tones would be necessary to carry one chord over into another. And his ear confirmed what she told him.

After Gerda Buddenbrook had watched her son a little, she decided that he must have piano lessons.

“I hardly think,” she told Herr Pfühl, “that he is suited for solo work; and on the whole I am glad, for it has its bad side apart from the dependence of the soloist upon his accompanist, which can be very serious too;—if I did not have you, for instance!—there is always the danger of yielding to more or less complete virtuosity. You see, I know whereof I speak. I tell you frankly that, for the soloist, a high degree of ability is only the first step. The concentration on the tone and phrasing of the treble, which reduces the whole polyphony to something vague and indefinite in the consciousness, must surely spoil the feeling for harmony—unless the person is more than usually gifted—and the memory as well, which is most difficult to correct later on. I love my violin, and I have accomplished a good deal with it; but to tell the truth, I place the piano higher. What I mean is this: familiarity with the piano, as a means of summarizing the richest and most varied structures, as an incomparable instrument for musical reproduction, means for me a clearer, more intimate and comprehensive intercourse with music. Listen, Pfühl. I would like to have you take him, if you will be so good. I know there are two or three people here in the town who give lessons—women, I think. But they are simply piano-teachers. You know what I mean. I feel that it matters so little whether one is trained upon an instrument, and so much whether one knows something about music. I depend upon you. And you will see, you will succeed with him. He has the Buddenbrook hand. The Buddenbrooks can all strike the ninths and tenths—only they have never set any store by it,” she concluded, laughing. And Herr Pfühl declared himself ready to undertake the lessons.

From now on, he came on Mondays as well as Wednesdays, and gave little Hanno lessons, while Gerda sat beside them. He went at it in an unusual way, for he felt that he owed more to his pupil’s dumb and passionate zeal than merely to employ it in playing the piano a little. The first elementary difficulties were hardly got over when he began to theorize, in a simple way, with graphic illustrations, and to give his pupil the foundations of the theory of harmony. And Hanno understood. For it was all only a confirmation of what he had always known.

As far as possible, Herr Pfühl took into consideration the eager ambition of the child. He spent much thought upon the problem, how best to lighten the material load that weighed down the wings of his fancy. He did not demand too much finger dexterity or practice of scales. What he had in mind, and soon achieved, was a clear and lively grasp of the key system on Hanno’s part, an inward, comprehensive understanding of its relationships, out of which would come, at no distant day, the quick eye for possible combinations, the intuitive mastery over the piano, which would lead to improvisation and composition. He appreciated with a touching delicacy of feeling the spiritual needs of this young pupil, who had already heard so much, and directed it toward the acquisition of a serious style. He would not disillusionize the deep solemnity of his mood by making him practise commonplaces. He gave him chorals to play, and pointed out the laws controlling the development of one chord into another.

Gerda, sitting with her embroidery or her book, just beyond the portières, followed the course of the lessons.

“You outstrip all my expectations,” she told Herr Pfühl, later on. “But are you not going too fast? Aren’t you getting too far ahead? Your method seems to me eminently creative—he has already begun to try to improvise a little. But if the method is beyond him, if he hasn’t enough gift, he will learn absolutely nothing.”

“He has enough gift,” Herr Pfühl said, and nodded. “Sometimes I look into his eyes, and see so much lying there—but he holds his mouth tight shut. In later life, when his mouth will probably be shut even tighter, he must have some kind of outlet—a way of speaking—”

She looked at him—at this square-built musician with the red-brown hair, the pouches under the eyes, the bushy moustaches, and the inordinate Adam’s apple—and then she put out her hand and said: “Thank you, Pfühl. You mean well by him. And who knows, yet, how much you are doing for him?”

Hanno’s feeling for his teacher was one of boundless gratitude and devotion. At school he sat heavy and hopeless, unable, despite strenuous coaching, to understand his tables. But he grasped without effort all that Herr Pfühl told him, and made it his own—if he could make more his own that which he had already owned before. Edmund Pfühl, like a stout angel in a tail-coat, took him in his arms every Monday afternoon and transported him above all his daily misery, into the mild, sweet, grave, consoling kingdom of sound.

The lessons sometimes took place at Herr Pfühl’s own house, a roomy old gabled dwelling full of cool passages and crannies, in which the organist lived alone with an elderly housekeeper. Sometimes, too, little Buddenbrook was allowed to sit up with the organist at the Sunday service in St. Mary’s—which was quite a different matter from stopping below with the other people, in the nave. High above the congregation, high above Pastor Pringsheim in his pulpit, the two sat alone, in the midst of a mighty tempest of rolling sound, which at once set them free from the earth and dominated them by its own power; and Hanno was sometimes blissfully permitted to help his master control the stops.

When the choral was finished, Herr Pfühl would slowly lift his fingers from the keyboard, so that only the bass and the fundamental would still be heard, in lingering solemnity; and after a meaningful pause, the well-modulated voice of Pastor Pringsheim would rise up from under the sounding-board in the pulpit. Then it happened not infrequently that Herr Pfühl would, quite simply, begin to make fun of the preacher: his artificial enunciation, his long, exaggerated vowels, his sighs, his crude transitions from sanctity to gloom. Hanno would laugh too, softly but with heartfelt glee; for those two up there were both of the opinion—which neither of them expressed—that the sermon was silly twaddle, and that the real service consisted in that which the Pastor and his congregation regarded merely as a devotional accessory: namely, the music.

Herr Pfühl, in fact, had a constant grievance in the small understanding there was for his accomplishments down there among the Senators, Consuls, citizens, and their families. And thus, he liked to have his small pupil by him, to whom he could point out the extraordinary difficulties of the passages he had just played. He performed marvels of technique. He had composed a melody which was just the same read forward or backward, and based upon it a fugue which was to be played “crab-fashion.” But after performing this wonder: “Nobody knows the difference,” he said, and folded his hands in his lap with a dreary look, shaking his head hopelessly. While Pastor Pringsheim was delivering his sermon, he whispered to Hanno: “That was a crab-fashion imitation, Johann. You don’t know what that is yet. It is the imitation of a theme composed backward instead of forward—a very, very difficult thing. Later on, I will show you what an imitation in the Strenge Satz involves. As for the ‘crab,’ I would never ask you to try that. It isn’t necessary. But do not believe those who tell you that such things are trifles, without any musical value. You will find the crab in musicians of all ages. But exercises like that are the scorn of the mediocre and the superficial musician. Humility, Hanno, humility—is the feeling one should have. Don’t forget it.”

On his eighth birthday, April 15th, 1869, Hanno played before the assembled family a fantasy of his own composition. It was a simple affair, a motif entirely of his own invention, which he had slightly developed. When he showed it to Herr Pfühl, the organist, of course, had some criticism to make.

“What sort of theatrical ending is that, Johann? It doesn’t go with the rest of it. In the beginning it is all pretty good; but why do you suddenly fall from B major into the six-four chord on the fourth note with a minor third? These are tricks; and you tremolo here, too—where did you pick that up? I know, of course: you have been listening when I played certain things for your mother. Change the end, child: then it will be quite a clean little piece of work.”

But it appeared that Hanno laid the greatest stress precisely on this minor chord and this finale; and his mother was so very pleased with it that it remained as it was. She took her violin and played the upper part, and varied it with runs in demi-semi-quavers. That sounded gorgeous: Hanno kissed her out of sheer happiness, and they played it together to the family on the 15th of April.

The Frau Consul, Frau Permaneder, Christian, Clothilde, Herr and Frau Consul Kröger, Herr and Frau Director Weinschenk, the Broad Street Buddenbrooks, and Therese Weichbrodt were all bidden to dinner at four o’clock, with the Senator and his wife, in honour of Hanno’s birthday; and now they sat in the salon and looked at the child, perched on the music-stool in his sailor suit, and at the elegant, foreign appearance his mother made as she played a wonderful cantilena on the G string, and then, with profound virtuosity, developed a stream of purling, foaming cadences. The silver on the end of her bow gleamed in the gaslight.

Hanno was pale with excitement, and had hardly eaten any dinner. But now he forgot all else in his absorbed devotion to his task, which would, alas, be all over in ten minutes! The little melody he had invented was more harmonic than rhythmic in its structure; there was an extraordinary contrast between the simple primitive material which the child had at his command, and the impressive, impassioned, almost over-refined method with which that material was employed. He brought out each leading note with a forward inclination of the little head; he sat far forward on the music-stool, and strove by the use of both pedals to give each new harmony an emotional value. In truth, when Hanno concentrated upon an effect, the result was likely to be emotional rather than merely sentimental. He gave every simple harmonic device a special and mysterious significance by means of retardation and accentuation; his surprising skill in effects was displayed in each chord, each new harmony, by a suddenly introduced pianissimo. And he sat with lifted eyebrows, swaying back and forth with the whole upper part of his body. Then came the finale, Hanno’s beloved finale, which crowned the elevated simplicity of the whole piece. Soft and clear as a bell sounded the E minor chord, tremolo pianissimo, amid the purling, flowing notes of the violin. It swelled, it broadened, it slowly, slowly rose: suddenly, in the forte, he introduced the discord C sharp, which led back to the original key, and the Stradivarius ornamented it with its welling and singing. He dwelt on the dissonance until it became fortissimo. But he denied himself and his audience the resolution; he kept it back. What would it be, this resolution, this enchanting, satisfying absorption into the B major chord? A joy beyond compare, a gratification of overpowering sweetness! Peace! Bliss! The kingdom of Heaven: only not yet—not yet! A moment more of striving, hesitation, suspense, that must become well-nigh intolerable in order to heighten the ultimate moment of joy.—Once more—a last, a final tasting of this striving and yearning, this craving of the entire being, this last forcing of the will to deny oneself the fulfilment and the conclusion, in the knowledge that joy, when it comes, lasts only for the moment. The whole upper part of Hanno’s little body straightened, his eyes grew larger, his closed lips trembled, he breathed short, spasmodic breaths through his nose. At last, at last, joy would no longer be denied. It came, it poured over him; he resisted no more. His muscles relaxed, his head sank weakly on his shoulder, his eyes closed, and a pathetic, almost an anguished smile of speechless rapture hovered about his mouth; while his tremolo, among the rippling and rustling runs from the violin, to which he now added runs in the bass, glided over into B major, swelled up suddenly into forte, and after one brief, resounding burst, broke off.

It was impossible that all the effect which this had upon Hanno should pass over into his audience. Frau Permaneder, for instance, had not the slightest idea what it was all about. But she had seen the child’s smile, the rhythm of his body, the beloved little head swaying enraptured from side to side—and the sight had penetrated to the depths of her easily moved nature.

“How the child can play! Oh, how he can play!” she cried, hurrying to him half-weeping and folding him in her arms. “Gerda, Tom, he will be a Meyerbeer, a Mozart, a—” As no third name of equal significance occurred to her, she confined herself to showering kisses on her nephew, who sat there, still quite exhausted, with an absent look in his eyes.

“That’s enough, Tony,” the Senator said softly. “Please don’t put such ideas into the child’s head.”