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OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Egon Gleicher," a story by Robert Wexelblatt.


Professor Krempe:  I intend to make my position clear from the start.  It is my opinion that the case of Egon Gleicher is indeed a case, one more suited to psychiatry than music criticism.  As to the two symphonies, the string quartet and the so-called Eberlin Variations, I believe them to be vastly, not to say perversely, overrated.  They are at once deranged and derivative and I personally cannot listen to them without profound discomfort; they make me squirm with pity and distaste.  That Gleicher had no real talent is obvious to all from his pre-War compositions.  What he wrote after the unfortunate event of 14 March, 1945 is indeed wholly different from what came before; yet it is also pathological and a kind of pretending.  To say that genius is akin to madness, ladies and gentlemen, is an excusable romantic cliché.  It is quite a different matter to claim that madness is genius.

Fraulein Waldman:  I only wish I could be as forthright as Professor Krempe has been. However, in my opinion the case of Gleicher is complicated, though Professor Krempe may say the case is simple and it is I who am muddled.  Well, I grant that Egon Gleicher’s  mind was disturbed by the trauma of 14 March, 1945; indeed, by far more than that shock.  However, the delusional state into which he fell is still not so simple. For one thing, his condition was intermittent and, I would argue, never more than partial.  Furthermore, there is evidence that Gleicher was himself aware of this delusion, in which case we may require another word for it.  As to the astounding musical compositions he produced between 1945 and his death in 1950, I am hardly alone in regarding them as masterpieces of the first order.  Professor Krempe dismisses them as derivative.  I agree they are derivative and that, normally, this would be against them.  But in this case derivative is precisely what they were intended to be, though in the most profound sense. Gleicher was explicit about this when, before his death, he wrote that they are the work of Beethoven who had lived through the dozen years of the Thousand-Year Reich.

Krempe:  The work of Beethoven?  Not of a Beethoven?  Not of an imaginary Beethoven?  Not music that appropriates some of Beethoven’s more obvious devices, but actually by Beethoven, Ludwig van?  Is that what Gleicher meant to say, Fraulein?  What you mean as well?

Waldman:  Precisely,  Professor.

•          •          •

The recent debate between Professor Gustav Krempe and Fraulein Julie Waldman was the brainchild of the new Chancellor of the Herrenstadt Conservatory.  Shortly after taking up his post, he received a proposal from certain citizens and faculty that a bust, or at the least a brass plaque, be installed to honor Egon Gleicher, who had taught at the school for fifteen years.  The Chancellor sincerely admired Gleicher’s final works, though the composer’s reputation gave him pause.  He considered the matter and decided to make use of the proposal to get the Conservatory, whose fame had so declined, some publicity.  He was certain the proposal would draw a protest from Adelbert Krempe who had famously ridiculed the adulation of Gleicher, and those who thought as he did.  So, the Chancellor seized the opportunity to make an event out of it.  He invited Krempe to debate the status of Gleicher’s late works and, to make the offer more attractive, promised that his opponent would be a young woman of no reputation, an adjunct instructor on his own staff.  “To debate such an individual might not burnish your fame, Professor,” he said suavely, “but it would furnish you an excellent chance to present your views.”  As for Julie Waldman, she was a musicologist working on her doctoral thesis and in no position to refuse the Chancellor’s request, which in any case was an order.  He even ventured a ponderous joke:  “Gleicher was trying to complete his book on Beethoven, so wouldn’t you agree that is altogether fitting that you, Fraulein Waldman, who are trying to finish a book about Gleicher, should defend him?”

•          •          •

Krempe:  Gleicher presents the most extreme imaginable instance of a scholar merging with his subject.  This identification was most likely always an unhealthy one; it certainly turned into an idée fixe, into madness.  The dissociation of personality suffered by Egon Gleicher should move us to pity, not admiration.  The compositions my colleague wishes to commend are, in fact, a form of pretending.  Gleicher, a mediocre musician, as everyone agrees, pretended to be a great talent.  Owing no doubt to the shock of March 1945, this pretense was persisted in beyond the frontier of sanity.  And so, what can one say?  You all know the story of Beethoven’s indignant letter to his patron Prince Lichnowsky, who had offended him?  No? It’s quite brief.  “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself.  There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”  A thousand Gleichers there may be, but there is only one Beethoven.

Waldman:  Neither Egon Gleicher nor I would dispute Beethoven’s uniqueness, Professor.  Had he believed otherwise, had he only sought to write in the manner of Beethoven, had he merely wished to pretend—or, as they say these days, to channel Beethoven—the case would be utterly different.  In Gleicher’s mind, when he wrote those last works, he was Beethoven.  Thus, he actually became deaf while he wrote.  His normally calm personality turned prickly.  Even his appearance changed.  With respect to Gleicher’s pretending, I should like also to quote Beethoven.  “Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart, and cannot make a good soup.”  Gleicher’s heart was pure; he was not telling a lie.

Krempe:  Certainly not, Fraulein.  A lie requires sanity, as soup does water.

•          •          •

            March 14, 1945 was a chilly, overcast day; the talons of that ferocious last winter of the war had yet to loosen their grip on the Swabian Jura.  Egon Gleicher was in the Eberlin Lecture Hall speaking in a politically reckless manner of Beethoven’s late quartets and piano sonatas.  The class was small; a third were young women, the rest men of military age (by then, what wasn’t?) who had lost limbs, suffered from fits, or had been declared unfit for service.  All were pale and undernourished.  The vice was closing on a ruined Germany.  Herrenstadt, however, isolated and of no military significance, had been spared.  The mountains rose above the valley as if they could protect the town.  Gleicher’s horror at what had become of his country and, still more, its culture, had driven him inward.  The only form of social interaction he could tolerate was with his students.  Years before he had given up composing, dissatisfied by his indifferent efforts and persuaded by the bad reviews, and took up teaching composition and scholarship.  For years he had worked away at his big book on Beethoven, which had seen him through the war.
            “Though Beethoven said all his music was for the future this is particularly true of these late works, written when he was more isolated than ever and not only by his deafness.  Ordinarily, this saying is taken to refer to Romanticism, which can indeed be understood as a century-long effort to digest the colossus.  However, my dears, I think otherwise.  How can we not think of Beethoven and his dashed hopes for humanity—the lost love, the feckless nephew, the liberator with clay feet, the brotherhood of the millions—when we look around us?  How can we not be in sympathy with the prophet who spoke from his heart in saying, ‘I despise a world which does not feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy’?  Far higher than politics and science, I would like to say.  Can any of us listen to the Adagio expressivo of Opus 131 or the prodigious Fuga that ends Opus 110 and not feel they are meant for us?  This is music for our own time, though not of it.  Beethoven teaches us struggle and lament, shows us how to battle through the tensions of the world and in our souls.  My dears, we must cleave to the best of our nation as the worst of it is purged ...”
            On its way to a daylight raid on a factory near Munich, a B-17 lost power in two engines, fell out of formation, and, in an effort to stay aloft, jettisoned its load.  Most of the bombs fell outside the town killing only three cows and demolishing an abandoned villa.  One fell on the Conservatory.  All but three of the human beings inside the Eberlin Lecture Hall were blown to bits or crushed to death by falling timbers and masonry.

•          •          •

Waldman:  I am saying that Gleicher was Beethoven and also that he wasn’t; that is, he both knew and didn’t know about his condition. 

Krempe:  Both dead and alive, sane and mad?  Like Schrodinger’s cat?

Waldman:  After the war, instead of completing his book on the composer, Gleicher became Beethoven.  Yes, in a sense.  This identity imposed on him what he felt to be a heavy responsibility, an almost crushing obligation.  What would Beethoven have written after the debacle and in response to what brought it about?  Gleicher replied to that question in the only possible way.  What is remarkable, and the reason why we are here, is that he not only did so, but did it so . . . majestically.

KrempeMajestically?  Now, now, Fraulein, I fear you have been carried away by a romantic notion.  You are either taking madness for genius or, if you really believe these works to be masterpieces, then you are excusing the madness.  But please tell me, honestly, when you listen to the Eberlin Variations do you really hear the Beethoven of Diabelli?  Can you really say it is Beethoven’s music to which you are listening?

Waldman:  I believe you wish to make me look foolish, Professor.   I would remind you of what the respected musicologist Adelbert Steiner said of the Eberlin Variations.  He wrote that “they are worthy of Beethoven.”  Isn’t it obvious that something extraordinary happened to Gleicher?  I agree that his earlier work is negligible; I willingly grant his lack of talent.  Is it too much to say that this man became what he imagined himself to be, that simile transgressed into metaphor?  That is, I suppose, my point.  How, except by virtue of what you call his idée fixe, could the talentless Egon Gleicher have written such music?

Krempe:  I do not agree with Doctor Steiner and would like to point out that he made that unfortunate remark prior to learning that the composer was in an asylum when he wrote them.  I regard the Variations as a kind of impersonation of Beethoven, second-hand, with superficial modernisms tossed in—that is to say, wrong notes.

Waldman:  Few lunatics who believe they are Napoleon can win at Austerlitz.

Krempe:  On the contrary, Fraulein.  In their poor, disturbed minds, every last one of them is a conqueror.

•          •          •

Notes of Dr. Wilhelm Schottinger, Staff Psychiatrist, Institüt Wenzel Hartmann
            6 January, 1948
            Patient 772, Gleicher, Egon

            Patient was clean and shaved, altogether proper, dignified, and self-controlled.  He was not “deaf.”  Patient described himself as “well” then asked two things:  for more music paper and whether I am able to play the piano.  I told him I would see to the paper and admitted I am an amateur. “Oh, that is good,” he said with enthusiasm, treating me to his first smile.
            Patient became expansive, and I permitted him to lead the conversation.  Of course it was about music.  The more the patient spoke, the more he appeared at ease.  The initial stiffness gave way to fluid motions, lively hand gestures freely made.  During this conversation there came a moment of particular significance.  Patient quoted Beethoven as Beethoven and on a revealing subject.  “Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked his backside more.”  There is a double significance here.  First, the act of quotation demonstrates that Gleicher is able to dissociate himself from his delusion—a phenomenon with which I am unfamiliar—and also that he connects artistic achievement to punishment.  The guilt of being the survivor Egon Gleicher, the guilt of watching those young people die before his eyes, the guilt of being—by his lights—a German, cries out for expiation.  To the patient, without punishment there can be no release.  There is nothing but guilty mediocrity. 
            So far as I have been able to determine, patient’s childhood was pleasant.  In response to my question, patient said with a smile that his mother may have favored his younger brother.  His father was an insurance attorney.  They often went fishing together.  Beethoven’s relation to his own father, of course, was quite different, as patient is certainly aware.  Johann Beethoven was a second-rate musician but a first-rate alcoholic.  After his mother’s death, while still in his teens, Ludwig petitioned the prince to award him custody of his two siblings and secured half the father’s salary for their support.  Beethoven’s father was a disgrace; he was publicly ridiculed.  Notably, this father was Ludwig’s first teacher and, according to the source I consulted, turned violent when his son’s playing failed to please him.
            At the close of the interview, alluding to the Rossini story, patient’s manner altered again.  He became morose and said that perhaps after all it was a good thing that his father had beat him so.


Notes of Dr. Wilhelm Schottinger, Staff Psychiatrist, Institüt Wenzel Hartmann
            13 January, 1948
            Patient 772, Gleicher, Egon

            In contrast to last Tuesday, patient’s appearance was slovenly, hair uncombed and unclean, shirt not tucked in.  He also seemed to be suffering from a head cold.   On the other hand, he held himself unusually erect with head so high that his double chin vanished.  Patient’s eyes were sparkling and clear.  Patient arrived squeezing papers in his fist and held on to them through the interview.  Patient appeared frustrated, angry, at times furious.  When I spoke to him he furrowed his brow and looked hard at my mouth then shook his head.  “Deaf” once more.  Patient found it impossible to sit still.  He rose three times during our brief session and paced the office.   Someone seeing him for the first time might well be anxious about his committing a violent act.
            Before leaving, patient handed me the roll of paper.  It is music for the piano, far from neat, full of blots.  It is far too difficult for me.

•          •          •

Krempe:  The Second Symphony is simply an imposture.  With that four-note motif in the allegro and the seven—or is it nine?—false endings, it reminds me of a slapdash fake of an old master, one made to look as if he had lived last week, so crude that even a rich American would not be taken in.  There is no mystery about such work, at best only mystification.  Gleicher underwent an episode of dissociation and this is unfortunate.  But he persisted in it perversely, as one might leave one’s costume on after the masked ball has long ago ended.

Waldman:  Professor, your rhetoric is dazzling and I admire it.  I fear, though, that we can never agree because you refuse to open your ears to Gleicher’s work; in fact, you condemn it a priori.  Little wonder you can’t hear it without squirming.  For those of us without prejudice, however, like Adelbert Steiner, the Second Symphony is a whole world compacted of the best and worst of the last century.  The finale takes chromaticism over the limit until tonality itself dissolves.  It is as if Gleicher means to lead us to the edge of the stratosphere and show us where the true blackness begins, the emptiness all around us.  Gleicher is no different from other great artists, no different from Beethoven.  That is, his anguish was mastered as he expressed it, by expressing it.  Only in music of this order of seriousness could he find release, and relief.  To me, the Second Symphony is a great smashed cathedral, a war monument free of chauvinism and sentimentality.

•          •          •

Notes of Dr. Wilhelm Schottinger, Staff Psychiatrist, Institüt Wenzel Hartmann
            21 June, 1948
            Patient 772, Gleicher, Egon

            Patient is to be released this afternoon.  He came to bid me farewell, though he is aware the decision was made over my strenuous objections.  I informed him myself.
            Clothing clean, demeanor calm, but hair rather wild and grayer than when he arrived half a year ago.
            “Where will you go?” I asked.
            “Do you believe that wise?”
            Patient shrugged.
            I said, “It’s the first day of summer.”
            Patient shook my hand and said, “I hope you can make a good soup, Doctor.”

•          •          •

Krempe:  An old rabbi observed that the one thing that cannot be imitated is the truth; for, the instant it is imitated, it ceases to be the truth.  The same may be said of genius.  Gleicher’s case is an oddity, a melancholy medical anecdote.  The Conservatory may choose to put up a plaque, even a bust in the Roman style, but by doing so it will gain no honor.  I am thinking of Beethoven’s last words, “Friends, applaud.  The comedy is over.”

Waldman:  Identity is a construct.  We believe we are always the same—ourselves, we say by way of convenience.  But can adults recall themselves as they were as children, as adolescents, and honestly assert that they are the same today?  Egon Gleicher’s story is indeed an oddity—for all I know, unique—but I insist that there really is truth in those late works of his.  Why else would they be performed all over the world and counted among the glories of German music?  They are the beginning of a recovery, a foundation for the reconstruction of our culture’s ruined temple.
            A plaque?  A bust?  Absolutely.  But with or without them, Herrenstadt will forever be known as the home of Egon Gleicher.
            I see the Chancellor is anxious that we have gone on too long.  I will conclude then with the epigraph Gleicher chose for his unfinished book. 
            “Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, "Life in the Temperate Zone" and "The Decline of Our Neighborhood", a book of essays, "Professors at Play", and the novel "Zublinka Among Women", winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.

His work in Offcourse: "The Story", in #41, "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in #39, "Ostbrück" in #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik " in #34.

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