Pietro Kennedy, the Ofterdingen Gesellschaft

I am riding on a bus – the M4 – heading downtown in Manhattan, minding, as much as
possible, my own business.  Up ahead, out my window, a woman is walking; I follow her
with my eyes as I would a melody with my ears, enchanted, expectant (for my bus is gaining
on her).  Suddenly, she turns a corner; we come to red light: she’s gone.

I look down at my lap and find there the thin volume I began yesterday on the M4 heading
north, toward home: it is an account by Edmond Michotte of the famous meeting between
the aged, retired Rossini, the composer of
William Tell, and Wagner, the “musician of the
future,” whose
Tristan and Isolde  lay at this time unheard upon his desk.  Modern
scholarship is divided on the question of Michotte’s reliability as witness, with some even
questioning whether such an encounter ever took place at all.  For my part I prefer to give
the man the benefit of the doubt; besides, who among us can claim with complete sincerity
never to have promulgated a truth by means of some harmless exaggeration?

Now horns are braying: the light must have changed, and I am ensconced in a dissonant
aura evoking the evil tower of Klingsor up ahead, indistinct but menacing.  Disturbed by the
noise I raise my eyes from my book, glance out the window: and there she is again!  The
beautiful woman has caught up with us, is about to pass us… But is she beautiful indeed,
or is it her elusiveness I find so intriguing?  I strain to catch a glimpse of her face, and again
she slips out of sight.

“This is music,” I think.  “To pursue and never to attain, to see movement, pursuit, as love’s
true mode.  (For how unfortunate it would be,” I continue, my thoughts digressing, “were we
to meet, perhaps to become lovers, and then for her to ruin me with a fart.”)

I return to my book at this point; picking it up, I notice something has changed: whereas
before the title ran
Richard Wagner's Visit to Rossini , it now reads, Heinrich von
Ofterdingen's Visit to Rossini
.  I am delighted, though not greatly surprised: perhaps due
partly to the joltings  of the bus, it frequently happens that reality takes on an iridescent
shimmer, that parallel, alternate existences dance before my eyes, a sequence of
ephemeral mirages, each fleetingly, painfully real, each fated to fade, the sea-foam of a

So I think: “If I concentrate firmly, not allowing any distractions to reach me, perhaps I can
steal from this moment something permanent. ”  Besides, I know better than to be gazing at
strangers: Sophy is out there somewhere, among the masses; if she were to cast those
greenish brown eyes on another with amorous intent, my heart would surely break.  (She
says I have a double standard in such matters, and that’s true, but it’s a legitimate double
standard.  Artists, as you know, are notoriously sensitive about their own feelings while
generally being oblivious to the feelings of others.  Anyway nobody’s perfect.)

I place both my feet squarely on the arm of the seat perpendicularly before me (I’m sitting in
the back, in the corner); this lifts my knees to eye level.  I press Michotte’s book against my
nose for maximum focus, effectively blocking  the outside world.  

I begin to read: the author sets the stage for the famous encounter of Rossini and Wagner
by reminding the reader of the career of the great Italian, a career in equal measure
illustrious and strange -  his early successes and prodigious labors, his championship  of
the bel canto style, his abrupt and permanent retirement in the 1820’s, followed by a
protracted Epicurean existence.

All this seems quite normal, so I skim ahead, looking for what should be a description of
Wagner.  I find what I think is the right place, but the author, instead, is talking about
Heinrich von Ofterdingen – his modesty and reticence, his novel ideas on music and
theater.  Michotte accounts becoming acquainted with the mysterious composer, gradually
gaining his trust, and eventually convincing him to meet with Rossini in order that two
artists of such different styles and backgrounds (equally respectful of the other’s talents)
might entertain one another and posterity with lively discourse.  I read from Michotte that a
date was sent, with Rossini’s rooms (at that time located in Paris) designated for the
meeting; Michotte went along to ease introductions and to take notes.  Riding along on the
bus, I read:

At this moment the valet de chambre came to tell us that Rossini was awaiting us.  As
soon as we entered, “Ah, M. Ofterdingen,” he said, “like a new Orpheus you don’t fear to
enter this redoubtable precinct…”  And without giving Ofterdingen time to reply, “I know
that they have thoroughly blackened me in your mind…With regard to you they load me
with many quips that nothing could justify on my part.  As for slighting your music, I should
have to be familiar with it first, whereas in fact, though your name is much discussed
these days, I’ve yet to encounter a single soul who can  claim to have heard so much as a
note from you yet.”

“That is easy to explain,” my friend replied in his characteristic, childlike  manner, mixing
diffidence and enthusiasm.  “Since most of what I do takes the form of improvisation,    
you’d have to be there at a live performance to hear me.  However, in contradistinction to
this tendency, I am currently at work on a project, the special nature of which requires that
it be fully notated; if it pleases you we could look it over.”

“The pleasure would be mine indeed,” Rossini responded.  “Is this an instrumental piece
or, perhaps (as I suspect), a work for the stage?”

“You have guessed correctly, maestro.”

“An opera, then?”

“I call it a Hybrid Genre, with operatic elements as well as features of other forms.  

“Hmm,” Rossini mused, “wondrously strange.”

“But you’re omniscient!” Ofterdingen cried, “that’s the title!  The action takes place in the
future – the early 21st century.  Caedmon, the protagonist, inhabits an eerie dystopia that
emerged through historical developments in this, our 19th century – developments I would
wish to avoid.”

“So your work serves as a warning.  By imagining a bleak future you call on contemporary
men to avoid the path that would lead there.  But what is this path, my friend?  What evils
do you fear lie hidden, or half-exposed, in this, our happy time?  And do these cultural
issues have an effect on musical style?”

Ofterdingen paused, considering his words, then said, “In the alternate 19th century that is
Caedmon’s inheritance, certain trends are apparent which yield bitter fruits in the next
generation.  There’s excessive national pride leading to bigotry, there’s a sentimental
attachment to generalities inviting the cruel treatment of individuals, there’s the rise of
industry, depriving men, in one stroke, of meaningful jobs and nature’s inspiration, and
there’s the cult of the individual, culminating in selfishness,  the denial of social values
and artistic incoherence.”

Here the old Italian laughed, more from discomfort than amusement.  “Not a pretty
picture,” he remarked.  “And the music of this bizarre, negative paradise - which, frankly, I
find a little hard to imagine -   surely you exaggerate the danger?”

“Mozart dies at 36, possibly poisoned by Salieri, having completed only 41 symphonies.  

“Stop!” Rossini exclaimed, “no 56th symphony in F sharp?  But then Schubert’s late works
are inconceivable.  The whole Romantic movement must be skewed.  And Salieri – why,
that’s unthinkable!  The Salieri I knew possessed neither the bile nor the guile for such a
task, and besides was a steadfast admirer of Amadeus, when he wasn’t completely
absorbed with his endless canonic melodies.”

“Mozart is not the only artist who exits the world prematurely in Caedmon’s reality,”
Ofterdingen continued.  “Arriaga dies at 20…”


“…and, perhaps most crucially, Holderlin, though he lives long, goes insane, broken by a
combination of internal and external conflicts, and falls silent for thirty years. “

“But without the influence of his theory of the ‘modulation of tones’…”

“19th century music never emerges from the simplistic dualism of the major / minor
system, never evolves into our cherished tripartite modal system.  Keys lose their
connotations, modulations become ubiquitous, chromaticism pervasive, lyricism and
improvisatory forms are replaced by endless, turgid, highly “personal” works, this
culminates in a crisis of “Modernity” – a crisis of values, musical mirror of the incoherent
world inhabited by Caedmon.

“Then Caedmon’s gift, if I follow you, is his ability to see his world as fallen, to intuit a
kinder, lovelier reality?”

Speaking with animation, Ofterdingen responded:  “It is the poetry of Holderlin – and
others – that affords him a glimpse of deeper beauty, though, you understand, in
Caedmon’s world Holderlin’s is a broken voice, ‘crying in the wilderness’.  Nonetheless,
this dim echo  of lost happiness instills in  our composer a disenchantment with the
approach to vocal music prevalent in his world.”

Rossini asked, “In that world does the bel canto model so dear to my early years still have
meaning?  (I fear from what you’ve said so far that this ‘modern movement’ has left such
music in the dust.)”

Ofterdingen answered: “The great innovation in Caedmon’s world was the development of
an integrated type of theater in which text and music, costumes and scenery, were
organically united.   The voice, liberated from thematic considerations, followed the text in
endless declamation.   Symphonic discourse was restored to the orchestra, while
conventional formal divisions were largely abandoned."

Rossini remarked,  "Well, I suppose that's on the right track, but the genius of our age has
been to go farther in the distinction between  instrumental and vocal practice: on the
piano, while still  utilizing equal temperament, we've divided the three modes among the
twelve keys, while, with our ensembles that accompany the voice, we've dissolving these
distinctions in a single "combination-scale" that dispenses with temperament and the
flexibility of modulation if favor of pure intervals."

"Through that choice,"  Ofterdingen answered, " it became possible to imagine a new
relationship between singers and instruments characterized by extremes of both
separateness and togetherness."

"While the standard orchestra had to be abandoned, " Rossini offered, " in favor of
chamber groups in which each instrument, representing a distinct class of sound,
expressed itself in a characteristic manner.  This much I know from hearsay: that your
work features strummed harps, clanging bells, noodling flutes and singing strings.  But
please explain what you man by 'extremes of separateness and togetherness'."

Ofterdingen answered:  "At times I use the harp to create sonic webs in unpulsed
glissandi of fluctuating range.  From this ur-spring the melodic parts, especially the voice,
arise, nymph -  like, on the surface of the water. At other times there is only melody, but
the tune as it is sung is not quite the same as on the flute with ornaments, or on the bells
with an aura of resonance, or on the harp with haloed harmony: these all strive to be one
thing, but it is their irreducible differences that make the texture shine."

At this point Rossini inquired whether Ofterdingen could be persuaded to provide a
musical demonstration.

"The closing scene of Act One from the Hybrid Genre will serve,"  Ofteredingen
responded.  "You will recall that Caedmon, trapped in his futuristic dystopia, dreams of a
liberating beauty.  In this scene he invents the musical system I've been describing.  A
rather lengthy song accompanied by violin and harp ensues; at its conclusion  a shadowy
figure becomes discernible toward the back of the stage.  Gradually it becomes apparent
that this is Holderlin, summoned by sounds that his poetry inspired in the first place. "

"Ah!" Rossini exclaimed.

"But the poet, confused and inarticulate, appears to be in a large cage, part of an aviary,
surrounded by noisy birds.  Caedmon and his companions approach the 'patient' - and
now it seems we're in a 19th century asylum for the insane.  They speak to one another of
the unfortunate poet; at the mention of his tragic beloved - Diotima - Holderlin becomes
lucid, the birds, silent and statuesque, and we hear 'voices and sweet song, as from
distant times, music of strings...'  

Across from me on the bus a boom - box is blaring; a young man with braided hair is
moving his head back and forth in rhythm to the music.  A confrontation with other
passengers seems imminent; the bus driver seeks to intervene.  I take refuge deep within
my book, where...

One by one the instruments are silenced by the doctors who, in their blindness to (or fear
of ) Holderlin's epiphany, reveal themselves as truly lost, trapped, unwell.  The poet is
swallowed in darkness and a chaos of birds...

....which becomes a crush of bodies struggling to exit the overflowing bus on which I've by
now lost all track of time.  Bewildered, I glance out the window and find that not only have I
missed my stop (so again I'll be late for work), but I've actually passed the last stop going
downtown and I am now returning in the direction I set out from.  

But what's this?  As I continue gazing out the window - it seems impossible, but there she is
again: the beautiful woman, coming towards me!  This time I have no choice: I'll actually
see her face.  (And fine, I think: maybe that will be a good thing, like a cold splash of water
to wrest me from the murky domain of Platonic Ideas.  And besides...)

But suddenly she is upon me, and lo and behold: of all the's you, Sophy, my
own Sophy, my dear, my real - life Diotima, accompanied, as I imagine, by "Stimmen und
sussen Sang" and "saitenspiel."  Sophy, the only true thing, your brown eyes tinged with
green, dancing with mischief.  And all at once this fallen world, product of Caedmon's
strange delirium, seems a most blessed place, and I its most fortunate inhabitant, "where
the Muses are still, and Heroes and Lovers... / And Spring remains beautiful longer / And
another, a new year of our souls can begin."

But in my excitement I forgot to press the stop button, and so we drive right by, leaving her
standing in the street with her packages.  And the thought comes to me: was that
mischievous look  a smile of recognition, or is it possible she didn't see clearly through my
window, that she was being indiscriminately flirtatious?  I am torn with doubt and grief;
stumbling, I reach for the button to exit the bus in order to run back to you; my books and
papers come tumbling off my lap across the floor.  Emerging on the sidewalk I think, for an
instant, it's you I see, climbing into a yellow taxi.  The traffic light turns green, the cab
speeds off, and you are gone.