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Rereading Hermann Hesse’s futuristic novel Das Glasperlenspiel (translated as Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game), I am struck by the character of the magister musicæ, the music master. This novel is supremely a work about music and the power it has to engage, challenge, and provoke human thought. The glass bead game that it describes is, at its point of origination, a cult of music. Like philosophers from Pythagoras to Galileo, Hesse presents music as an alternative language for humankind, a language that transcends many of the limitations of human society and facilitates the reconciliation of science and art. He quotes Novalis’s lines from Heinrich von Ofterdingen: “in eternal metamorphoses, the secret power of song greets us here below” (“Im ewigen Verwandlungen begrüßt / Uns des Gesangs geheime Macht hienieden,” Zueignung vv. 15-16).
The music master’s role is focal to this novel. He schools the chief protagonist Joseph Knecht in the art of meditation, and, in addition to Knecht, he is one of the most sympathetic embodiments of the ideal of academic-scientific service to humanity that lies at the center of Hesse’s utopian vision.
To some extent, the Glasperlenspiel is a roman à clef. Pater Jacobus, for instance, is clearly Jacob Burckhardt; Thomas von der Trave is Thomas Mann. Scholars have differed over the identity of the music master. Perhaps he is the Swabian pietist Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, perhaps he is Hesse himself. But I can’t read these passages without envisioning a different man as the music master: Joachim Kaiser, the long-time music critic of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Hesse didn’t have Kaiser in mind when he wrote this book, of course; Kaiser was just launching his career when Hesse died. But in the end the music master is an office and not a person, and I see Kaiser as the current holder of this office.
His books Great Pianists in Our Time and Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas and Their Interpreters are masterpieces of the critic’s art and the most important works on the subjects they address. In Germany, Kaiser is often feted as the “music pope.” (To his credit, Kaiser himself disparages such accolades). Even more than Dr. Hanslick (the music critic whom Richard Strauss so cleverly skewers in Ein Heldenleben), Kaiser has long had the power to make or break music careers. But he wields his critical voice with care and humanity. There is never a malicious slight or cute phrase turned at an artist’s expense. Kaiser’s writing is about homage to music, appreciating its special powers and its ability to enrich the lives of performers and listeners alike.
In Hesse’s futuristic novel, the music master turns silent as he reaches old age, withdrawing entirely to the world of music. Fortunately for us, Kaiser, who turned 81 last Monday, shows no sign of following suit. Indeed, he has turned to a new outlet for reaching his public. Nearly every week, he takes a query from his worldwide audience and gives us an answer by video. The videos are accessible by YouTube and at the website of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and already number more than 30 installments. In them, you can learn about the license that Wilhelm Kempff takes with the texts or about Glenn Gould’s relationship to Mozart; you can get an assessment of the sonority of the tenor Fritz Wunderlich, hear a discussion of master conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, or learn about the etiquette of attending performances, including whether it’s appropriate to bring along the sheetmusic or close your eyes to listen. Kaiser’s Study of the Classics, as this series is dubbed, is one of the great goldmines in the YouTube library, a source of real insight and learning that defies the casual air with which the segments appear to be rolled out. Unfortunately, at present the Kaiser audience is limited to those with a working knowledge of German. It would be wonderful if the editors at the Süddeutsche reissued these tapes with some English subtitles, to insure a broader reach.
More from Scott Horton:
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature