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Chapelmaster Kreisler
by [?]

But the time came when the world, which had lived off prose most heartily ever since the Middle Ages, grew sick of such coarse mental food, and longed for unsubstantial poetic ambrosia; the fact is, it was morally sick, and took its strong intellectual food in disgust, and fancied and yearned for impossible things, as sick men do. And in its loathing for the common, the simple, the healthy, the world took to eating the intellectual opium of romanticism; it enjoyed and was plunged for awhile in ineffable delights, such as only weakness can feel and poison afford; the universe seemed to expand, the imagination to grow colossal, the feelings to become supernaturally subtle; all limits were removed, all impossibilities became possibilities; the fancy roamed over endless and ever varying tracts, and soared up into the clouds of the unintelligible, and dived into the bottomless abyss of chaos: all things quivered with a strange new life, with a life in other lives, with an unceasing, ever changing life; everything was not only itself but something else: all was greater, higher, deeper, brighter, darker, sweeter, bitterer, more ineffable than itself; it was a paradise of Mahomet, of Buddha, of Dante; it was enjoyment keen, subtle, intoxicating, which made the fancy swim, the senses ache, and the soul faint. Then came the reaction, the inevitable after-effect of the drug–depression, langour, palsy, convulsion.

About seventy years ago a great humourist, who frittered away a quaint and fantastic genius in etching grimacing caricatures, and scribbling gaunt ghost stories, the once popular, now almost forgotten, Hoffmann, looked on at this crisis in musical history, at this first intoxication of romanticism; sympathised with its poetry, its ludicrousness, and its sadness; embodied them all in one grotesque, pathetic figure, and for the first and last time in his life produced a masterpiece. The masterpiece is his poor, half-mad musician, Johannes Kreisler, “chapelmaster and cracked musicus par excellence,” as he signs his letters, the artist of incomplete genius, of broken career, of poetic dreams and crazy fancies, who used to go about dressed in a coat the colour of C sharp minor, with an E major coloured collar. And of all the glimpses Hoffmann has given us of Chapelmaster Kreisler, none is so weirdly suggestive as that in which we see him improvising on the piano at his club of friends. The friends had met one evening expressly to hear Kreisler’s extemporary performance, and he was just on the point of sitting down to the instrument, when one of the company recollected that a lever had on a previous occasion refused to do its duty. He took up a light, and began his search for the refractory lever; when suddenly, as he leaned over the interior of the piano a heavy pair of brass snuffers crashed down from the candlestick on to the strings, of which half a dozen instantly snapped. The company began to exclaim at this unlucky accident, which would deprive them of the promised performance; but Chapelmaster Kreisler bade them be of good cheer, for they should still hear what was in his mind, as the bass strings remained intact.

Kreisler put on his little red skull cap and his Chinese dressing-gown, and sat down to the piano, while a trusty friend extinguished all the lights, so that the room remained in utter darkness. Then, with the muffling pedal down, Kreisler struck the full chord of A flat major, and spoke:

“What is it that murmurs so strangely, so sweetly, around me? Invisible wings seem to be heaving up and down. I am swimming in perfume laden air. But the perfume shines forth in flaming, mysteriously linked circles. Lovely spirits are moving their golden pinions in ineffably splendid sounds and harmonies.”

Chord of A flat minor (mezzo forte). “Ah, they are bearing me off into the land of eternal desire, but even as they carry me, pain awakes in my heart, and tries to escape, tearing my bosom with violence.”