Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Music Master

"Our former Music Master was your teacher, of course," Knecht said, "and you were very fond of him. Do you see him often nowadays?"

"No." Carlo replied. "That is, I see him fairly often, of course, when he is taking his walk, say, and I happen to becoming out of the library. But I haven't talked with him for months. He is more and more, withdrawing and no longer seems able to bear sociability. In the past he used to set aside an evening for people like me, those among his former subordinates who are officials in Monteport now; but that stopped about a year ago. It amazed us all that he went to Waldzell for your investiture."

"Ah yes," Knecht said. "But when you do see him occasionally, haven't you been struck by any change in him?"

"Oh yes. You mean his fine appearance, his cheerfulness, his curious radiance? Of course we have noticed that. While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing. We have grown accustomed to it. But I suppose it would strike you."

"His secretary Petrus sees far more of him than you do." Knecht exclaimed, "but he hasn't grown accustomed to it, as you say. He came specially to Waldzell, on a plausible excuse, of course, to urge me to make this visit. What do you think of him.

"Of Petrus? He has a first-rate knowledge of music, though he's more on the pedantic than brilliant side - a rather slow-moving if not slow-witted person. He's totally devoted to the former Music Master and would give his life for him. I imagine his serving the master he idolises is the whole content of his life; he's obsessed by him. Didn't you have that impression too?"

"Obsessed? Yes, but I don't think this young man is obsessed simply by a fondness and passion; he's not just infatuated with his old teacher and making an idol out of him, but obsessed and enchanted by an actual and genuine phenomenon which he sees better, or has better understood emotionally, than the rest of you. I want to tell you how it struck me. When I went to the former Master today, after not having seem him for six months, I expected little or nothing from this visit, after the hints his secretary had dropped. I had simply been alarmed to think that the revered old man might suddenly depart from us in the near future, and has hastened here in order to see him at least once more. When he recognised and greeted me, his face glowed, but he said no more than my name and shook hands with me. That gesture, too, and his hand, seemed to me also to glow; the whole man, or at least his eyes, his white hair, and his rosy skin, seemed to emit a cool, gentle radiance. I sat down with him. He sent the student away, just with a look, and there began the oddest conversation I have ever had. At the beginning, I admit it was very disturbing and depressing for me, and shaming also, for I kept addressing the old man, or asking questions, and his only answer to anything was a look. I could not make out whether my questions and the things I told him were anything but an annoying noise to him. He confused, disappointed, and tired me; I felt altogether superfluous and importunate. Whatever I said to the Master, the only response was a smile and a brief glance. If those glances had not been so full of good will and cordiality, I would have been forced to think that he was frankly making fun of me, of my stories and questions, of the whole useless trouble I had taken to come and visit him. As a matter of fact, his silence and his smile did indeed contain something of the sort. They were actually a form of fending me off and reproving me, except that they were so in a different way, on a different plane of meaning from, say, mocking words. I had first to wear myself out and suffer total shipwreck with what had seemed to me my patient efforts to start a conversation, before I began to realise that the old man could easily have manifested a patience, persistence, and politeness a hundred times greater than mine. Perhaps this episode lasted only 15 minutes or half an hour; it seemed to me me like half a day. I began to feel sad, tired, and angry, and to repent my journey. My mouth felt dry. There sat the man I revered, my patron, my friend, whom i had loved and trusted ever since I could think, who had always responded to whatever I might say - there he sat and listened to me talk, or perhaps did not listen to me, and had barricaded himself completely behind his radiance and smile, behind his golden mask, unreachable, belonging to a different world with different laws; and everything I tried to bring by speech from our world to his ran off him like rain from a stone. At last - I had already given up on hope - he broke through the magic wall; at least he helped me; at least he said a few words. Those were the only words I heard him speak today.

"'You are tiring yourself, Joseph,' he said softly, his voice full of that touching friendliness, and solicitude, you know so well. That was all. 'You are tiring yourself, Joseph.' As if he had long been watching me engaged in a too-strenuous task and wanted to admonish me to stop. He spoke the words with some effort, as though he had not used his lips for speaking for a long time. And at that moment he laid his hand on my arm - it was light as a butterfly - looked penetratingly into my eyes, and smiled. At that moment I was conquered. Something of his cheerful silence, something of his patience and calm, passed into me; and suddenly I understood the old man and the direction his nature had taken, away from people and toward silence, away from words and toward music, away from ideas and toward unity. I understood what I was privileged to see here, and now for the first time grasped the meaning of this smile, this radiance. A saint, one who had attained perfection, had permitted me to dwell in his radiance for an hour; and blunderer that I am, I had tried to entertain him, to question him, and to seduce him into a conversation. Thank God the light had not dawned on me too late. He might have sent me away and thus rejected me forever. And I would have been deprived of the most remarkable and wonderful experience I have ever had."

"I see," Ferromonte said thoughtfully, "that you have discovered something akin to a saint in our former Music Master. A good think that you and none other has told me about this. I confess that I would have received such a story with the greatest distrust from anyone else. I am, taken all in all, not fond of mysticism; as a musician and historian I am pedantically given to neat classification. Since we Castalians are neither a Christian congregation nor a Hindu or Taoist monastery, I do not see that any of us qualify for sainthood - that is, for a purely religious category. Coming from anyone but you, Joseph - excuse me, I mean Domine - I would regard any such ascription as going off the deep end. But I imagine you do not mean to initiate canonisation proceedings for our former Master; you would scarcely find a competent consistory for them in our Order. No, don't interrupt me, I am speaking seriously; I don't mean that as a joke at all. You have told me about an experience, and I must admit that I feel somewhat ashamed, because neither I nor any of my colleagues her at Monteport has entirely overlooked the phenomenon you describe. No, we have merely noticed it and paid it little heed. I am reflecting on the reason for my failure and my indifference. One explanation of course is the fact that you encountered the Master's transformation as a finished product, whereas I witnessed its slow evolution. The former Magister you saw months ago and the one you saw today differed sharply from each other, whereas we, his neighbours, meeting him every so often, observed almost imperceptible changes. But I admit that this explanation doesn't satisfy me. If something like a miracle is taking place before our eyes, however quietly and slowly, we ought to have been more stirred by it than we have been, and would have been if we had been unbiased. Here I think, I've on the reason for my obtuseness; I was not in the least unbiased. I failed to observe the phenomenon because I did not want to observe it. Like everyone else, I noticed our Master's increasing withdrawal and taciturnity, and the concurrent increase in his friendliness, the ever-brighter and more ethereal radiance of his face when we met, and he responded mutely to my greeting, I noticed that, of course, and so did everyone else. But I fought against seeing anything more in it, and I fought against it not from lack of reverence for the old Magister, but in part out of distaste for the cult of personality and enthusiasm in general, in part out of distaste for such enthusiasm in this special case, for the kind of cult the student Petrus practices with his idolisation of the Master. I've only fully realised all this as you were telling me your story."

Knecht laughed. "That was quite a roundabout way for you to discover your own dislike for poor Petrus." he said. "But what now? Am I also a mystic and enthusiast? And I too indulging in the forbidden cult of personality and hagiolatry? Or are you admitting to me what you won't admit to the student, that we have seen and experienced something real, objective, not mere dreams and fancies?"

"Of course I admit it to you," Carlo replied slowly and thoughtfully. "No one is going to deny your experience or doubt the beauty and serenity of the Magister who can smile at us in that incredible way. The question is only: Where do we classify this phenomenon? What do we call it, how explain it? That sounds like the pedantic schoolmaster, but we Castalians are schoolmasters, after all; and if I want to classify and find a term for your and our experience, it is not because I wish to destroy its beauty by generalising it, but because I want to describe and preserve it as distinctly as possible. If on a journey I hear a peasant or child humming a melody I have never heard before, that is likewise an important experience for me, and if I immediately try to transcribe this melody as precisely as I can, I am not dismissing and filing it away, but paying due honour to my experience, and taking care that it is not lost."

Knecht gave him a friendly nod. "Carlo," he said. "it is a great pity we can so rarely see each other any more. Not all my friendships of youth survive reunions. I came to you with my story about the old Magister because you are the only person here whose knowing and sharing it matters to me. Now I must leave it to you to do with my story whatever you like, and to assign whatever term you will to our Master's transfigured state. It would make me happy if you would call on him and stay in his aura for a little while. His state of grace, perfection, wisdom of age, bliss, or whatever we want to call it, may belong to religious life. But although we Castalians have neither denominations nor churches, piety is not altogether unknown to us. And our former Music Master in particular was always a thoroughly pious person. Since there are accounts of blessed, perfected, radiant, transfigured souls in many religions, why should not our Castalian piety occasionally have this kind of blossoming?...It is late by now - I ought to go to sleep - I must leave early tomorrow morning. But I hope to come back soon. Let me just briefly tell you the end of my story. After he had said to me, 'You are tiring yourself,' I was at last able to stop straining at conversation; I managed not only to be still, but to turn my will away from the foolish goal of using words in the effort to probe this man of silence and draw profit from him. And the moment I gave up on that effort and left everything to him, it all went of its own accord. You may want to substitute terms of your own for mine, but please listen to me, even if I seem vague or confound categories, I stayed about an hour or an hour and half with the old man, and I cannot communicate to you what went on between us or what was exchanged; certainly no words were spoken. I felt, after my resistance was broken, only that he received into his peace and his brightness; cheerful serenity and a wonderful peace enclosed the two of us. Without my having deliberately and consciously meditated, it somewhat resembled an unusually successful and gladdening meditation whose subject might have been the Magister's life. I saw or felt him and the course of his growth from the time he first entered my life, when I was a boy, up to this present moment. His was a life of devotion and work, but free of obstructions, free of ambition, and full of music. It was as if by becoming a musician and Music Master he had chosen music as one of the ways toward man's highest goal, inner freedom, purity, perfection, and as though ever since making that choice he had done nothing but let himself be more and more permeated, transformed, purified by music - his entire self from his nimble, clever pianist's hands and his vast well-stocked musician's memory to all the parts and organs of body and soul, to his pulses and breathing, to his sleep and dreaming - so that he was now only a symbol, or rather a manifestation, a personification of music. At any rate, I experienced what radiated from him, or what surged back and forth between him and me like rhythmic breathing entirely as music, as an altogether immaterial esoteric music which absorbs everyone who enters its magic circle as a song for many voices absorbs an entering voice. Perhaps a non musician would have perceived this grace in different image: an astronomer might have seen it as a moon circling around a planet, or a philologist heard it as some magical primal language containing all meanings. But enough for now, I must be going. It's been a great pleasure, Carlo."

(The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse)

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