No Comment, Quotation — August 23, 2009, 8:26 am

Rilke – To Music

whistler-at-the-piano

Musik: Atem der Statuen. Vielleicht:
Stille der Bilder. Du Sprache wo Sprachen
enden. Du Zeit
die senkrecht steht auf der Richtung
vergehender Herzen.

Gefühle zu wem? O du der Gefühle
Wandlung in was?— in hörbare Landschaft.
Du Fremde: Musik. Du uns entwachsener
Herzraum. Innigstes unser,
das, uns übersteigend, hinausdrängt,—
heiliger Abschied:
da uns das Innre umsteht
als geübteste Ferne, als andre
Seite der Luft:
rein,
riesig
nicht mehr bewohnbar.

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The quiet of images. You, language where
languages end. You, time
standing straight from the direction
of transpiring hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O, you of the feelings
changing into what?— into an audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You chamber of our heart
which has outgrown us. Our inner most self,
transcending, squeezed out,—
holy farewell:
now that the interior surrounds us
the most practiced of distances, as the other
side of the air:
pure,
enormous
no longer habitable.

Rainer Maria Rilke, An die Musik (Munich, Jan. 11-12, 1918) from Gedichte aus dem Nachlaß in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2, p. 111 (E. Zinn ed. 1956)(S.H. transl.)

This poem, which might make a good pairing with an earlier poem Rilke wrote called simply Musik, gives us a good sense of the poet’s metaphysical appreciation of music. Rilke was not only a superlative poet, he was also a very serious student of other art forms, as his writing about Rodin and Cézanne demonstrates. But his attitude towards music has puzzled me. References to concerts appear occasionally in his works and his correspondence—hearing a choral work performed in a great cathedral, perhaps, a trip to hear Mozart’s Zauberflöte (which he prefers to follow with his eyes closed, curiously), an afternoon performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and a limited number of other encounters. But, unlike E.T.A. Hoffmann or Thomas Mann, for instance, his writings reflect very little in the way of a substantive engagement with the literature of music. Only in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) do we get a more earnest discussion of musical text—it occurs in the course of a portrayal of Ludwig van Beethoven—and there it is the instrumental work that comes through, especially the Hammerklavier. And Rilke sees more evidence in Beethoven’s correspondence—“only in Beethoven’s letters can such consciousness of Music be found,” he writes his publisher, making the case for a popular edition. Still, Rilke’s attention focuses much more on the theoretical role that music can play as a medium of art and communication.

This poem in particular points to his major insight on that point. Rilke was strongly influenced by Islamic concepts of spirituality, and occasionally he contrasts them with Christian equivalents, always to the advantage of Islam. This poem can be unfolded and understood using that approach. The Sufi mystics, like Rumi, incline to see a universe divided between a physical world of immediate perceptions and a spiritual world beyond. Their particular quest focuses on the portals through which a seeker can pass between these worlds, however fleetingly. For Rilke, that is the special function of great art, namely transcendence of the purely physical world and entry into a broader communion of the spiritual that links past and future. These elements are all present in the poem. First, he calls music a “language where languages end,” pointing to the potential universality of music as a medium of communication. And he equates it with a sphere in which the rules of normal physical conduct are suspended—statutes breathe, he writes. (Note that he is also referencing sculpture as an art and pointing to its power to give animate force to the inanimate.) And he points to the suspension of the normal perception of time: time arises out of the direction of hearts transformed, he tells us. Is this not the same message that flows though much of the metaphysical poetry of the Elizabethan age? “Time stands still,” writes John Dowland, for instance. Rilke is identifying music as a portal and also pointing to it as a vehicle for the suspension or extension of time. Those who bring the proper skills to the concert, that is, those who truly understand how to listen, will pass through the portal to another world which will shape and extend their understanding of the universe. But, particularly when we contrast this poem with its predecessor, we see that there is also an aspect of danger, a threat of seduction and misdirection that goes with music. We can think back to examples of classical antiquity in which music may calm frayed nerves and bring peace, but equally can produce insanity or blind passion—music, in other words, can deaden or mute the function of reason which is essential to man’s success in the physical world. This may be called the “dark side” of music, something Thomas Mann charted beautifully in Doktor Faustus.

But if we plot Rilke’s discourse over time, he appears to surmount his fears and stand ready to embrace music for its powerful properties in the end. He sees it as a medium of art inherently more powerful than the art that involves words and thus is bound to a specific language. Music comes to reflect not the threat of an unknown world, but rather the process of maturity, growth and entry into a larger and richer world of perception. It is the medium for dissolution of a barrier between worlds.


Listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata no. 29, the “Hammerklavier,” opus 106, in a 1970 performance by Alfred Brendel.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2017

The Monument Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Defectors

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the River

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

House Hunters Transnational

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lords of Lambeau

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Window To The World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Over the River·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Brian Frank
Article
A Window To The World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
Article
The Lords of Lambeau·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley

Months after Martin Luther King Jr. publicly called the U.S. the “world’s greatest purveyor of violence ‚” that he was killed:

2

Temporary, self-absorbed sadness makes people spend money extravagantly.

In Colombia, U.N. delegates sent to serve as impartial observers of the peace process aimed at ending the half-century-long war between the FARC and the Colombian government were chastised after they were filmed dancing and getting drunk with FARC fighters at a New Year’s Eve party.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today