THE SYMPHONIC IMPROVISATIONS  OF
      
                       HEINRICH VON OFTERDINGEN


                  FIVE VIEWS OF THE MYSTERY TAPES


                            The Ofterdingen Gesellschaft,


                             Peter Ceniti, General Editor






It is as much with amazement as with pleasure that we the editors of the newly formed
Ofterdingen Gesellschaft find ourselves, a mere three months after the publication of our
inaugural issue (devoted to that watershed event in the annals of musicology, the
unearthing of the
Blue Flower manuscript in Germany) again offering the public a discovery
of no mean interest, replete with the trappings of industrious scholarship.  The notorious
“Ofterdingen Tapes” or “Mystery Tapes” or “Ofterdingen Mystery Tapes” (heretofore
abbreviated OMT)  - or simply “The Tapes” as they are  known among the cognoscenti,
have caused a stir, made a splash, raised a ruckus, in the pellucid waters of musicology;
while, rather than clearing up those issues provoked by the discovery of the
Blue Flower
they have only served to stoke the fire, to stir the kettle, to up the ante.  

The unlikely and romantic tale of the Tapes’ discovery may  briefly be summarized as
follows:  returning to the pleasant routine of work one fine Monday in late Spring, following a
rejuvenating weekend at a local wine-tasting event, the editors of this publication came
upon a collection of audio cassette tapes haphazardly strewn across the chief editor’s desk;
these tapes bore no indication of their content, and appeared aged and worn.  Fired by the
incessant flame of musicological zeal, we pounced as one, knowing not what surprise
awaited our ears, upon the mystery tapes, inserting them, one after another, into our ready
hi-fi system.

A crackling, hissing sound arose, suggesting the contact a  record needle with a very old LP
which had subsequently been re-recorded onto the present cassette.  Our hair (including
one colleague’s toupee) virtually stood on end with anticipation; a voice emanated from the
speakers:

“Ich bin Heinrich von Ofterdingen.”

In unison we gasped, unconsciously clutching at one another for support.  Ofterdingen -
pseudonym for the mystery composer of the
Blue Flower - here, live, speaking, introducing
what was to follow as a set of
Symphonic Improvisations for Piano.  Then no more words,
only music - a stream of pianistic fancy, an ambrosial delectation suited to some forgotten
race of gods. (I closed my eyes: an operatic curtain opened up.  A titanic blue angel with
broken wings sat pensively upon a boulder, staring down on the wreckage of Paradise;
gradually, behind him, a new Eden stirred to life, flowers formed, I heard a woman
singing…) - Nay, but aesthetic zeal must ever be held in check by the scholar, whose task it
is to lay before the reader as much as possible an objective description of his subject,
trusting that each on his own will discover (unprompted and thus with greater joy) the
artistic merit therein.
****
Improvisation resists notation, and this renders a definitive analysis of the  rhythmic
component in the OMT problematic.  Judging with our ears by the placement of accents, it
would seem our composer is partial to odd meters such as 5/8 and  7/8, both extremely rare
in the 19th century.  These irregularities, I believe, are part and parcel of a general attitude
toward rhythm that eschews the symmetrical principle.  Meanwhile the apparent
accelerando and ritardando  passages defy by their vary nature precise notational
representation.  

The harmonic language of the OMT yields the impression of being familiar in its constituent
parts (triads, 7th chords,
appoggiaturas) but  somehow derivative from an alternate
perspective.  Over numerous listenings  I have arrived at the hypothesis that Ofterdingen
employs a system of three (possibly four) scales, each of which he associates with four
keys, such that each tone in the chromatic spectrum possesses a single modality.  The four
forms of each scale are linked through modulations  (via special “gateway chords“) forming
a locus of tonalities arranged in thirds.  

The first of these scales which I designate the
Heroic Mode, is found in the keys of F, B, A
flat and D.  Its construction (from F): F, G, A, B, C, D, and E) is identical with our
Lydian
Mod
e.  

The second scale, which I call the
Lyric Mode, is found in the keys of B flat, E, D flat and
G.  From G its construction is: G, A, B, C, D, E flat, and F.  Here the Romantic tendency to
“mix modalities” finds diatonic expression, as laughter mingles with tears in transcendent
emotional union.

The third scale, or
Fantastic Mode, is found on C, F sharp, E flat and A.  It reads, from C: C,
D flat, E flat, F, G, A, and B (or B flat in some descending passages).

Notable in all these formations is the principle of intervallic symmetry.  More striking,
perhaps, is the affinity between this musical system and the theory of “modulation of tones”
espoused by the Romantic poet Holderlin, according to which a progression of emotional
states seems to energize and direct the flow of fantasy.

A variety of textures can be found: these tend to change with each phrase, and exhibit, I
would say, more imagination than virtuosity.  Meanwhile, the fluid, improvisatory forms, it
hardly need be said, approach the Romantic ideal of art mirroring existence (for what is life
but a cosmic improv’?).

Such is a brief description of the musical content of the OMT.  What follows is my summary
of the reactions of the five scholars at the Gesellschaft, each of whom has formulated a
distinctive interpretation of the present work.collectively serving to reinforce my conviction
that, with the passage of time, art serves scholarship as much as scholarship art.

(But first I feel constrained to add, as some great bull, of a summer’s day, might flick his tail
insouciantly at little gnats that pester him - I say I should add that we the editors give
absolutely no credence to the insinuation - itself proof of the scope and fame of the
controversy - that the Mystery Tapes are an elaborate hoax designed by those who would
mock us, those same mean-spirited, untenured pseudo-scholastics who expressed
skepticism over the original find of the
Blue Flower.  “Since they want their dear
Ofterdingen to exist so badly,” they laugh, “let us give them more of a feast - on which to
choke themselves!”  Unfortunately, my infinitesimal friends, you have neither the talent nor
the ambition to carry off such a feat; indeed, were such music yours, you’d not be
floundering, impoverished, in obscurity.  We turn our backs to you, and bask in the warm
glow of tolerant, mutually respectful scholarship.)

The eminent, senior member of the Ofterdingen Gesellschaft, Prof. Pablo Cookie, is of the
opinion that the Ofterdingen whom we hear in the recording was a genius and a recluse,
and that the eccentricities we encounter therein are less innovation and more ignorance of
tradition.  Prof. Cookie makes the interesting point that the improvisatory form of the music
may be accountable to the composer’s inability to notate his own ideas.  Truly, the image of
the rustic visionary, the noble savage, has great appeal for us.  But I must remind Prof.
Cookie that there already exists a manuscript for that earlier Ofterdingen work,
The Blue
Flower,
the handwriting of which gives evidence of a thorough theoretical background.

Prof. Pietro Kennedy, ever the upstart in our little community, has contrived, with disarming
freshness, to view the same quirks of style found in the OMT not as touches of genius but
rather as signs of ineptitude.  For Kennedy, Ofterdingen is a failure, a “Bad Shepherd”
whose themes refuse to obey his wishes, wandering, desultory, in dim pastures to blurred
horizons.  (I paraphrase freely from a recent conversation.)  Likewise those harmonic
moments Cookie finds most intriguing Kennedy explains as wrong notes, or, to use his
charming Celtic colloquialism, “clinkers”.  Ofterdingen had a “tin ear”, probably “a day job
as well” and at certain moments of rhythmic unsteadiness sounds positively “stewed to the
gills”.  

By contrast (and contrast is what marks our group as broad - minded) the ever- serious,
quietly industrious (and darkly handsome) young Prof. Pelog Slenderoso offers a unique,
ethno-musicologically inspired interpretation of the OMT.  Slenderoso detects, in certain of
the sprightlier sections of the recording, an exotic flavor, stemming from the use of
pentatonicism, a feature largely absent from the European common-practice period,
indicative of a certain “holistic” quality foreign to the fervid chromaticism of the era.

Slenderoso’s conjecture, admittedly based on aesthetic rather than empirical evidence, is
that, at a tender age, his artistic  sensibilities but half  formed, Ofterdingen was ship-
wrecked, cast away, stranded (we do not say kidnapped, that would be irresponsible) as
likely the sole survivor somewhere among the islands of Southeast Asia.  There he was
raised, certainly not by wolves, but by gentle natives, and learned to sing with the plaintive
voice of his swarthy soulmates.  At a certain time, his growing renown leading him inevitably
toward more civilized parts, he encountered the Dutch, who would have afforded him the
opportunity to become reacquainted with the pianoforte.  The resulting stylistic hybridization
anticipates the exoticism of the  Impressionists, while happily it avoids the condescending,
self-conscious snobbery of the French.  So far so good, young zealot, but may I inquire, with
all due modesty, whether you have not unknowingly fallen into the trap of using the OMT as
a cultural mirror through which you can see and understand, as it were, a reversed image of
your own, equally intriguing, destiny?

Let us leave my Indonesian friend to ponder the advice of one who would be to him  a help-
mate, a steadying sage, and let us turn with eagerness to that most unusual fellow, that
soccer star turned scholar, he of nimble feet and pen, Prof. Pelle Bono Caridad, for a most
peculiar insight on the Ofterdingen question.  According to Bono (as we call him at work) or
Pelle (as his mother still says, fondly, over a steaming plate of beans and rice) or Caridad
(as appears on his certificate of birth -
caridad, that is, “charity” - for all the unforced
“giveaways” he committed as a sportsman - I jest, dear friend, you are a king!) - Pelle Bono,
then, let us say, is of the opinion that Ofterdingen lived, worked and died long ago -  but in
another universe, parallel to ours.  The miraculous appearance of the tapes amounts to an
incursion of one plane of reality into another, and was  most likely the result of a momentary
rift in the continuum of time and space.  

While the objections one may raise to Bono’s theory are obvious, it must be admitted that,
once his premise is accepted, much falls into place.  Another Earth, another Europe,
another Age of Romanticism, where people chose differently, resulting in another reality -
what child, nay, what man, has not mused a hundred times, “Had I but done that instead of
this…”?

A musical world then, without sonata form (spared its tedious developments), a musical
world of rhythmic elasticity to replace our dull, mechanistic periods and pulsations, a
musical world of evanescent textures and iridescent forms… Indeed, Bono’s theory resolves
all the apparent stylistic incongruities we find; for example, in our world  the harmonic
language of the OMT seems late Romantic, at times positively Bruknerian, while the
sentiment it conveys has all the innocence and  of the very dawn of the era; it is somehow
both too advanced for 1825 and too naïve for 1885, as if, by some act of angelic will,
nostalgia had been transcended, as if with a fond gaze the wisdom of age could reach back
and embrace lost innocence while yet remaining wise -  a veritable
Fruhling in Sommer (to
invoke the title of an especially lovely lied by that nearly forgotten genius, Peter Cornelius).
But this is to reason from the wrong end, according to our scholar.  We must begin with a
proper image of Ofterdingen’s world, and this we find by accepting the stylistic elements of
his sound as compatible parts of an aesthetically consistent whole.  Bono, while avoiding
particulars, suggests that this parallel Romantic universe was a gentler place than ours, a
world less heavy with memory and history, an era populated by men and women for whom
life was less a storm to struggle through, more a river to ride along.  To such an
unselfconscious, “natural” world-view the pernicious idea of industrialization with its
attendant alienation probably never occurred; daily contact with nature helped avoid the
dangers of misty idealism and sentimentality that grew to plague our less fortunate cosmos.  

As for the supposed rift in the time-space continuum through which the OMT materialized
we can say nothing except that, lacking an explanation as to its cause, we cannot rule out
the possibility of more material, one fine day, “passing through” again!  For that matter we
cannot be sure that certain musical works (or books, or vegetables) from our universe have
not leaked into Ofterdingen’s; while if there is in fact more than one universe in existence
simultaneous with ours, the total number may be very large (perhaps infinite, with infinite
permutations of choices occurring endlessly forever, a divine improvisation).  But this is
enough about that.

Lastly ( for modesty’s sake) I briefly present my own humble peregrinations on the
Ofterdingen issue.  The motivations of man, dear readers, are multitudinous.  The body
speaks and we listen: hungry, we seek food; cold, shelter.  The mundane is the domain of
the obvious.  But what of those subtler senses, those voices that whisper in our heads,
those inexplicable urges that draw us towards career, life-work, destiny?  What makes a
painter paint, a pianist play?

What if a man, all the years of his life, felt ill at ease in the modern world, and out of tune
with its acerbic, heartless music?  As a youth perhaps he wrote enthusiastically, in the
grand Romantic vein, but coming of age was chastised for his backwardness, his
sentimentality, until he despaired even of aspiring to greatness, to beauty, to the expression
of love.  Modest by nature, he would seek solace in the quiet obscurity of scholarship,
passing his days in nostalgic reverie, dreaming of his Homeland in the Past.  Then a
magnanimous desire to share with mankind what is bursting from his fecund heart would
lead him to publish some trifle, some vignette - and he would be dashed to earth, cajoled to
silence, put in his proper place, the sterile domain of the professor, whose allowance it is to
speak learnedly on the greatness of the Brahmses and the Wagners but who must remain a
little person, a servant, not a master, of his art.

Could we blame him, then, were he to exclaim to himself, “I am born out of my time, and will
never be appreciated for what I truly am.  Let me put on, then, the persona, the mask, the
guise, of a Romantic genius, let me weave about my work a garment of mystery; then we
shall see how they jump and take notice and applaud!  Indeed,” our hypothetical
musicologist might continue, “who can say but that this deep inner compulsion that drives
me is not an earnest of my soul’s awakening - behold: I am Ofterdingen come back to
complete my unfinished work!”

I do not say this has occurred; I do not deny it.  I know full well the meaning of your sly
winks, oh night security watchman, since I tumbled noisily in the dark through our office
window on a certain evening.  I know as well the indulgent smiles of those whose
professional jealousy for my position causes them to cry out for an investigation as to my
whereabouts during a certain portion of that notorious wine-tasting weekend.  Besieged by
critics and doubters I neither admit to their accusations nor condescend to refute them.  And
so a haze of ambiguity descends upon the OMT, thanks to which, like so much of the best
in Romantic art, it becomes the richer by raising more questions than it answers.

Peter Ceniti

June, 2005.