THE SECRET NOTEBOOK OF HEINRICH VON OFTERDINGEN
Pelle Bono Caridad, Acting Editor, Ofterdingen Gesellschaft
It is impossible to say anything about the fragments of manuscript which lie before me without
first addressing the controversy surrounding the (forced) resignation of our chief editor, Prof.
Peter Ceniti, his subsequent disappearance, and his alleged confiscation of a large portion of
the material formerly under consideration.
But first an explanation may be helpful, for those readers unfamiliar with the earlier
developments in what has come to be known as the Ofterdingen Phenomenon. The mystery
commenced in the Spring of 2004, when our erstwhile leader, vacationing in Germany,
happened upon a musical manuscript buried in a cave. The score, a single sheet (back and
front), comprising thirty three measures for solo piano, and bearing the title, The Blue
Flower, was signed, “Heinrich von Ofgterdingen,” the name of a character in a novel by the
Romantic poet, Novalis. Professor Ceniti’s study of the work provoked a flurry of controversy
of multi-disciplinary proportions. But that was nothing compared with the uproar that
attended Ceniti’s subsequent “miraculous discovery” of the infamous Ofterdingen Mystery
Tapes - recordings, according to Ceniti, of the “real” Ofterdingen performing Symphonic
The entire staff of the (newly formed) Ofterdingen Gesellschaft was set to work in a great
collaborative effort to come to terms with the issues of musical style and originality raised by
the find. Yet as we proceeded, my colleagues and I came increasingly to feel that we were
being misled, that the enigma before us was of another nature than what we had, in the first
flush of enthusiasm, presumed. We came to question the reliability, even the sanity, of
Professor Ceniti, and wondered if he had not succumbed to the lure of immortal fame. The
line between zeal and fanaticism is hard to draw. Ceniti’s behavior, at the end, was quirky,
his speech confused. Significantly, such vagueness is characteristic of the fragments of text
left behind from the Ofterdingen Notebook.
Ceniti’s claim is that the papers are taken from a diary of the elusive composer, a notebook
that documents the evolution of his musical style, while incidentally providing many precious
hints on his life and world. In reality, the diary entries before us more often read like the
musings (sometimes the ramblings) of an author (or quack) attempting to construct a fictitious
character from the detritus of Romantic culture, seemingly oblivious to his shifting between
first and third person.
The entire extant text is reproduced in what follows: the reader can decide for himself what
to make of this. Entries are given in chronological order, just as they appear in the
manuscript, beginning, as if in the midst of a dream, on July 10 and ending abruptly on
September 25. No year is indicated for these dates; any conjecture would hinge on the
question of whom we believe the true author to be. The final entry may be construed to
contain a farewell message, raising a question as to whether there exist, in fact, any
additional pages to search for. Where, indeed, has Ofterdingen gone?
There can be love, again.
Raises interesting questions about style, originality, quality.
At last (a la India): integrated music-making: mind, ears, fingers.
Addresses issue of relationship of art to world - a reciprocal one: change the nature of reality
and the music will be different; envision a better world (arcadian, utopian, eschatological),
build it in art, and let that inspire change in the world.
Self, mask, persona… the soul’s mission.
Celephais! The exquisite images (and Lovecraft's lovely language) furnish perfectly
suitable inspiration for an alternative world - the child encounters the world as magic,
neither protected nor diluted by “explanation”: thus its beauty and its terror. In this sense
Ofterdingen is (I am) uncivilized.
Is it possible to make something in an antique style that yet possesses originality? Yes, but
for the result to truly be music, I need to create an entire person, and in order to do that I
need to reconstruct an entire world. Insight (contra the “unbearable lightness of being”): with
150 years’ perspective, re-make Romanticism - better, kinder, lovelier, using various visions
for inspiration - Holderlin, Shelley, Lovecraft. From such a world (Tlon!) comes Ofterdingen,
and from this man comes the music - the modes, rhythms,
textures, improvisatory forms.
After a few days without playing, barely thinking of music, the Lyric Mode comes alive, with
chromatically shifting dominants and blossoming flowers taking us by surprise. The tonics,
long delayed or absent, give way to a magical ambience, a tonal “Never-Land.” And a
delicate 7/8 meter allows the rhythm, like the key, to float.
Then a brief, dramatic transition, and the Heroic Mode found its voice, with a theme in A flat,
passed then from key to heroic key, from voice to heroic voice.
The Fantastic Mode is not yet yielding such satisfaction - fluttering octaves, dark triads and
whole tone fragments, but at least we’ve purged the minor chord of pathos, and are on the
way to replacing the major / minor duality with a threefold alternative.
Ofterdingen is taking shape as a living, creative force; a strange sensation - something like
patience - comes over me: I am calm in the inevitability of what is unfolding, peaceful in the
fullness each moment of a process brings.
(Reading from Novalis)
The night was warm and clear. Itself like a dream of the sun, the moon hovered over the
dream world, brooding within itself; and it led nature back to that primeval age when every
bud still slept by itself, lonely and untouched, yearning in vain to unfold the obscure wealth
of its own immeasurable existence. The fairy night mirrored itself in Heinrich’s soul. He
felt as thought the world lay unlocked within him, revealing, as to an intimate friend, all its
hidden charms, and a thousand recollections strung themselves on a magic thread.
Expression is beginning to merge with technique. Read a passage from Lovecraft's
Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath before playing, then made, in the Heroic Mode (but using
the “relative minors“), “supernal trumpets”, ascending, followed by cascades of dark
waterfall. Hands in alternation. Then a melody, still somber but on “strings”, building
(again). Then higher, tinkling thirds and broken octaves (!). Then sweeping arpeggios with
parallel and relative minors alternating (a la Schubert) building to a glorious climax, then
subsiding to a mysterious doorstep: Gateway chord to the Lyric mode.
(None of this sounds great yet, but it’s so exciting and full of promise!)
The plasticity of theses themes is poignantly contradicted their transformations:
They don’t so much alternate as melt, dissolve one into another. Ofterdingen, abashed in
the midst of his fecundity, creates a sonic universe whose destiny he cannot control.
Dinner last night with Bruckner and Alkan. A long, warm discussion on the nature of beauty
in music; the outside world seemed to fade….
I told them I’d like to salvage Bruckner’s rapturous themes from their stodgy orchestral
prisons, transforming them in Alkans’s scintillating pianism, while as for Alkan I’d like to purge
his scores of ironic excess, exalting them with Bruckner’s naïve fervor. They both seemed
Quiet, brassy majesty in the Fantastic mode, but improvable - an interesting task in the
context of improvisation.
Inspiration was lacking - this happens.
Two thoughts emerging:
1. The forms I’m making are neither developmental nor episodic; rather, successive parts,
for all their contrast, seem organically connected, as if a story were telling itself, writing itself.
2. How about a unifying element, an “idee-non-fixe”, a “Sophy-tune” perhaps, transposable
across the modes, as well as flexible in rhythm? Another name: The Ideal.
What does Ofterdingen eat?
“Rice and celery soup, boiled beans, fried squash and flowers " (As becomes a race whose
habits “remain austere and innocent, avoiding nervous and complicated moods”, whose
“sober but tasty cuisine” evokes “an ancient, golden age.”)
(Calvino, Invisible Cities)
Later on the 24th
Ofterdingen is from the race of Quarks, a people - like the music they make - lacking in
palpable substance, existing as “fogs of probability”. Were such an individual to announce,
“My habits remain innocent,” or “My music avoids excess and sentimentality,” this would
indicate a self-awareness only possible from the perspective of the already fallen, and he
would no longer be what he proclaimed. For, as with the subatomic particles for which his
people are named, the act of observation annihilates the object of scrutiny (a belief also held,
I am tempted to suggest, by certain reference librarians).
Sketch for a song (on Holderlin):
A “new” mode! Three transpositions possible (after which the original recurs) making a total
of four forms.
Major third mediants are now possible…
The diatonic limits that the modes impose restrict choice but unify expression. (Archetypal
gestures inhere in each mode.) Ultimately, Ofterdingen differs from the Romantics in being
less “free,“ less “original,“ more part of some (secret, venerable, esoteric) tradition…
Lying in bed last night, I thought:
“Gratitude, simply, fully, gratitude, for having had the opportunity to complete the work I’ve
done, to have searched through the world and my mind for ideas, to have breathlessly
conceived a thought, to have patiently perfected its form, to have arrived at a moment of
plenitude, oh, to have lived is so much cause for gratitude!”
Perhaps, before I was Ofterdingen, I was a graceful, flying insect; perhaps I will be. Then
again, perhaps if Ofterdingen (that's me) does good work, he will become such a being as
would disdain this his current labor, soaring far above human art. Then why trouble about
posterity? asks Ofterdingen. The moment well lived, the earnest improvisation, is truly
valuable for what it makes of us. Ofterdingen believes his immortal soul enacts a role in a
cosmic drama transcending his personal life, though expressed through it. So if Ofterdingen
is transparent, ephemeral, unreal to the world, so is this world to him.
Yet does he love shining things: melodies and scales, children and butterflies…The world’s
most ours when least desired, most lovely in its continual disappearance.
This crystalline new mode (that we call, perversely, the Antique mode) is taking shape: it is
descriptive, not of particulars, but generally of the world Calvino describes - sunny, by the
sea, glistening with fruit colors and undulant waves, redolent of fish fryers, open fires, lovely
ladies who cook and sew, bustling babes and men who harvest and then play flutes and tell
The music, devoid of sevenths and tritones, is iridescent, flickering between major, minor and
augmented triads, just as the rhythm ripples from 5/8 to 6/8 to 7/8. Water and light, with
breezy textures. The people: calm, lacking excess, but of deep feeling, brave in death’s
shadow, their pleasures tempered with vigilance.
Came upon Bruckner this morning, by surprise, at the old parish church. He was improvising
on the organ.
I thought I saw the stained - glass glow,
I think he made the flowers grow.
He revealed to me his theory of harmony - that the chromatic tones insinuate themselves into
the diatonic world like so many angels penetrating earthly life, enriching without obtruding. I
told him I was the embodiment of his Tenth Symphony (The “Unbegun”), but this made him
uncomfortable; he hurried off.
Can the Antique Mode express the essence of Bruckner, distilled to ephemeral pianism?
(The primordial nuggets, the chromatic eruptions, the soaring lyricism, the searching motifs,
the glimpses of heaven, the smoking silences!)
A short but ebullient, high energy session today, divided over three pianos. (I am a musical
hobo, moving with shy opportunism from one instrument to another.) Highlight: the new,
lapidary mode is yielding its own textures, appropriately flickering, an alternative to thirds and
sixths as double notes:
Here are the colors I see in this mode:
On G, E flat and B: grape purple and light blue.
On D flat, F and A: yellow and apricot with streaks of red and spring green.
Texture of fruit, texture of crystal.
Before I ever touched the keys, early in the morning, two ideas came to me:
1. (from reading Brahms’ Trio, op. 8, in the same chair, the previous night, a folksy tune:
2. From my Apocalypse of so many years ago:
It “works” in the Heroic Mode, thus is redeemed from oblivion and reveals itself as a
forecasting of my present self. Nothing is ever wasted, nor can we tell the consequences of
our acts (so do your best) .
Then “Fruhlingstrozt” by Brahms swept me away: this is him at his best - intimate. A splendid
In music and in words:
Something serious, rendered as jest,
something natural, colloquial, eliciting wonder, surprise,
something deeply contemplated, seeming improvised.
Not only to write but to live this way:
Without triviality and without preaching,
Avoiding both affectation and cliche,
Well-balanced but spontaneous.
Most important: the form that is emerging, that might serve as a paradigm: not a rounded,
recapitulatory shape, but a progression of states, from one mode to another, perhaps linked
by transformations of a single theme - and, depending on the order of the modes, various
types of forms may arise.
Last night dreamed of Beethoven, in mystery and solitude, as he dreamed of me. And I saw
the themes of his last years, soundless melodies in sunlit realms.
( a good day)
1. Song of the Sirens (Lyric).
2. Theme of the Waves (Antique).
3. Penelope’s Loom (Fantastic).
This is a typical form for one “section” :
1. Leisurely, diatonic phrases.
2. Phrase by phrase key changes.
3. Chromatic mixtures.
4. Iridescent key regions, leading back to some quasi-diatonic peroration.
“Kennst du das Land?” … Took out this anthology of German 19th century poetry, and in the
introduction read of some obscure poet who “avoided the dangers of a generalized nature -
worship,” a too - idealized, misty and potentially escapist and sentimental tone. The poet
avoids the snare by virtue of the loving attention he bestows on details, particulars.
So my solution is staring me in the face: Ofterdingen’s world, a kinder, lovelier, more magical,
less mundane but REAL world, is the world of such poetry, where fairy tales live! Hell,
Ofterdingen is already the poetic invention of Novalis. These poems, these vivid “re-
creationings” can each inspire a pianistic improvisation.
Reconsidering the above, in light of readings in history:
All that’s beautiful is mingled with evil, it all emanates from a fallen world, or worse, inspires it.
Ofterdingen seeks to avoid thematic plasticity in the small and preservation of his work in
the large through the strategy of improvisation. This artistic attitude mirrors his self-image:
gliding gently through the world. For him the challenge is to create, within limits, personality,
as man and as music - a sense of character, lacking in self-indulgence but alive: clean,
smooth, lithe, a passing wave.
Ofterdingen’s definition by limitation:
A minimum of repetition and recapitulation, and no written scores.
No diminished (hysterical) seventh chords.
No bombastic octaves or gratuitous virtuosity.
Away from symmetry of meter and phrasing.
Beauty of texture.
Form as progressions of states and modes.
…Is it possible that these simple, sunny folk have a great secret - that the transparent
objectivity of their ways springs from a disbelief in this world? That God and World are false,
(they are, after all, made up), that the true creator is The Architect (me), their true homeland
And strangest of all, that this transcendent “Author” has created them all in his image - he too
is born, suffers and dies, and even wonders, as they do, he broods eternally on the
inscrutable nature of his being. (God as Romantic poet.) God the Twin, who embodies in
one being all dualities - Light and Darkness, Evil and Good, Spirit and Matter. Ofterdingen
as microcosm. The world won’t yield to lucidity because he who made it isn’t lucid.
Gnostic Symphony (Improvisation for piano)
1. Primordial Realms of Light and Darkness (“The Mind of the Architect”)
(Archaic mode, 5/8, free tempo, major and minor triads - “The Mingling”)
2. Cosmic Cataclysm (“The Inception of the Game”)
(Fantastic mode, 6/8, fast.)
3. Intoxication: Love of the Earth, Love of Woman
(Lyric mode, 7/8, slow.)
4. Call From Beyond: Prince of Light
(Heroic mode, 4/4, maestoso - Apocatastasis.)
A smaller piece in one movement (Heroic) based on Ludwig Upland’s “Das Schloss am
Mer”. Parallel and relative majors and minors at the service of his dialogue format.
This is a great, new (old) form for improvisation: Theme and Variations on a folk melody.
(Focus on textures.)
Ofterdingen has been away (cosmic time traveler) on musicological research on distant
planets. An excerpt, to be read at some future symposium:
…utilize, as the basis of their musical system, not the octave, but the space of the perfect
fifth, reproducing the interval content identically in each fifth-space. This interval content is
not arrived at by temperament or symmetrical division, but reflects natural intervals from
the upper levels of the harmonic series (a natural and, apparently, universal
phenomenon). It seems plausible that both the shortened interval of duplication (the fifth)
and the extreme microtonal character of the music are related to the fact that the
performers in question are diminutive by human standards (reaching only a few
centimeters in height), while possessing a hearing gamut of less than three octaves, not to
mention the fact that, on the average, an inhabitant of this world exists for merely six or
seven weeks - human time. Of course this is all relative, since, to the natives, time is
measured according to a system where the home world revolves around its sun every nine
minutes (again, our time). The effect this has on rhythm is to render all the music so rapid
that melody becomes, to our ears, a blur, a sound - smudge. (The intervallic observations
above are achieved by recording and then slowing down the playback so that the individual
tones emerge clearly.)
In fact, to be frank, all of the above represents conjecture, due to the impossibility of really
communicating with the inhabitants: for all we know the “music” I witnessed might have
been a disquisition on politics, or an argument over methods of garbage disposal. For that
matter, judging by the (admittedly fleeting,) perplexed expressions on what I assume to be
the faces of the inhabitants, the sounds I uttered, in an effort to communicate, seemed so
ponderous and abysmal as to elude all understanding; they seemed never to get out from
the “hell” of my innocent “hello”, trapped in a halo, as it were, of dissonant overtones that I
could not even hear.
Went to sleep last night thinking about Alkan’s descent into obscurity. The sentence,“ A
symphony in B minor was completed but has not survived,“ haunted me. I dreamt of a
wondrous work, by turns darkly heroic, plaintively melodious, sardonically playful, ending in
tragic collapse. Perhaps it sounded something like...
Spent all day and half the night in the company of a most extraordinary person. Dionisio
Scarlatti y Aldama (born 1812) is the great - grandson of Domenico Scarlatti who abandoned
his native Naples and composed those bizarre and magnificent harpsichord sonatas to divert
a queen from apathy and a prince from lurking madness.
The present Scarlatti is the driving force, both as composer and as impresario, behind
Spanish opera; he also writes poetry and history. Upon request he showed me some
charming zarzuelas of his; later we spoke of the family's tempestuous fortunes stretching
back beyond Domenico, beyond Domenico's father, the great Alessandro, to ancient roots in
Together we looked through dozens of sonatas by Domenico, the chronological
contemporary of our great Bach, but (one would conclude on a musical basis) the inhabitant
of another world. The extravagant virtuosity, the startling modulations, the forms that seem
to unfold in response to an impulse for poetic contrast...
As I spoke with the man and listened to his ancestor's music, the landscape and spirit of
Spain unfolded before me - from the noisy streets with their exuberance and panache to the
gentle melancholy of moonlit gardens. There was a glitter of gold and a scent of spice, a
bubbling of pagan blood in Catholic veins.
I am presently occupied with the attempt to capture something of this in my improvisation:
Should symmetry be sacrificed? Is this not the Choice, the Beginning of all, the Happy Fault
(Felix Culpa, shortstop, New York Mets), that which commences the game?
Pondering lowering the seventh degree of the Fantastic Mode, at least in descending form.
What results is a Dorian / Phrygian hybrid. Great harmonic possibilities result, along with the
thought of reconsidering the character of this mode as more serious, less scherzo-like. This,
in turn, fits nicely with the growing conviction that the Antique Mode can be light and quick.
Improvisation is the eloquent musical analogy to the view of humanity as a work in progress.
Habitual patterns of sound, chosen in the stillness of contemplation, growing in unforeseen
Yet in truth I'm never satisfied with the results. I suppose if I were, the game might be over.
Still, it's disconcerting: even as the notes spill from my fingers a voice seems to proclaim:
"No, that is not what I meant at all."
The almost inaudible, fleetingly felt regrets of the multitude of the Not-Chosen.
The symmetry of the Heroic Mode is not self-evident as it is in the other modes. This quality
is found only when the direction is reversed by precise inversion, which transforms it to a
tritone transposition of itself.
But this can also be construed as the Locrean mode, the inverse of Lydian both structurally
and emotionally. An almost unbearable agony arises from a soft, crystalline chord.
Where is Ofterdingen going?
Ofterdingen’s sudden disappearance was mysterious - where did he go? Perhaps he
despaired, searching among “crudities of sound,” perhaps, near death, he “dreamed of
unknown cities” where subtler senses better symbolized soul-states. And perhaps that
dreaming made those cities true, made utopia his place, the soul’s next habitation.
Or was it the bells from the Invisible City of Kitezh that he heard, tolling deep within the fairy
tale forest of ancient Russia? It is true, after all, that the Antique Mode is found in
Rimsky-Korsakov, in whose diary is also found this remarkable entry:
During that season one more member, Nikolay Lodyzhenski, joined our circle. Lodyzhenski,
an erstwhile wealthy landowner gone to ruin, was a young man of education, queer, easily
carried away, endowed with a strong, purely lyric talent, and a fairly good pianistic
technique in the performance of his own compositions. These consisted of a huge number
of improvisations, mostly unrecorded, Among these were to be found separate numbers,
beginnings for symphonies, as well as musical fragments belonging nowhere in
particular. All of this, however, was so graceful, expressive and even technically correct
that it won the attention and goodwill of all of us.
Is this an apparition of Ofterdingen, in disguise? None can say for certain, but the careful
listener may have noticed, in the previous few excerpts, a shift in musical idiom toward folkish
tunes, spinning upon themselves with variegated ornaments, or wordlessly but soulfully
By the way, unhappy with the texture of your improv? Try practicing with the left hand
Ofterdingen is gone; Lodyzhensky has taken his place. And with the new perspective comes
a fresh new world of sound - and that’s 19th century Russia - unburdened by history and
tradition, impulsively ingenious.
Just as the Heroic Mode revealed its antithesis at the tritone in the form of the Locrean Mode
(see Sept. 17) so our pianist discovers a reciprocal form for both the Lyric and Fantastic
Modes. The Lyric, itself a mixture of Ionian and Aeolian tetrachords, when taken from its fifth
degree, yields a Dorian / Phrygian hybrid:
The Fantastic Mode, taken from its fourth degree, reveals a Lydian / Aeolian mixture:
The new scales possess unique, exotic flavors which Lodyzhensky explores, one after
another, in rapturous improvisation.