Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

The Viola d'Amore in Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus,

A literary connection to a 1772 Eberle viola d'amore.

November 2005 update 2019

In the November 1993 issue of the Viola d'amore Society of America Newsletter, David Troutman wrote an interesting article about the appearance of the viola d'amore player in Thomas Mann's novel, Doctor. Faustus. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) published Doctor Faustus in German in 1947, and a year later, an English translation by H. T. Lowe-Porter appeared. In the novel, the narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, plays the viola d'amore as an amateur in social music settings, albeit among professional musicians like Adrian Leverkuehn, who is a composer, conductor and the hero of Mann's book.

In the newsletter, David asks the question, why does Serenus play the viola d'amore, instead of the violin or flute, or any number of other instruments? And he posits several possible answers, all having to do with the internal workings of the novel; among them, then is that "the d'amore is a graceful instrument, less bold and assertive than the violin, and that is the type of character Zeitblom is. Maybe Mann liked the sound of the d'amore, and that is the kind of writer Mann is. As the biography of Leverkühn is a labour of love by Zeitblom, is it not appropriate he plays the instrument "of love?"

A literary analysis of Dr. Faustus is beyond me. However, the appearance of the d'amore in the novel has attracted comment in the scholarly literature: please see Thomas Mann's Silvery Voice of Self-Parody in Doktor Faustus, by Parkes-Perret, The Germanic Review LXIV, No. 1 (1989 Winter) The abstract states that the Parkes-Perret speculates that the viola d'amore in Doctor Faustus serves "as a symbol for Zeitblom's love of Leverkühn.” But it also functions as a metaphor for the way Zeitblom conceives his relationship with Leverkühn."

For me, the appearance of the viola d'amore in Doctor Faustus raised not the why question but the how: how did Mann come by an acquaintance to the viola d'amore, and especially to the repertoire, with dates, even that he made references to through the novel. For example, at one point, Serenus says:

"I had always cultivated my music as an amateur, but I was almost always obliged to bring my instrument with me to the Briennerstrasse, to regale the company with a chaconne or a sarabande from the seventeenth century, a "plaiser d'amour" from the eighteenth, or to perform a sonata by Ariosti, the friend of Handel, or one of Haydn's written for the viola de bordone but quite possibly for the viola d'amore as well." Pg. 276. (The viola bordone might mean baryton. This is a conclusion I think Mann copied from the editor of the Nagels edition listed below.)

Two pages later: I was gratified when Excellence von Riedelsel, seconded at once by our long-legged elegant hostess, urged repeat the andante and minuet of Milandre (1770)...which I had once before played on my seven strings."

Thanks to a chance meeting with the former owner of my 1772 Thomas Eberle viola d'amore, during intermission at The Laughlin Music Center, Chatham College in Pittsburgh in October 2005, I can now draw a rough sketch of the viola d'amore in the family of Thomas Mann. The following information is paraphrased from conversations and e-mails I have had with the former owner, a former violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony who was in the 1950's a personal friend of Michael Mann, one of Thomas' sons. Michael played viola in the Symphony for a few years in the ‘50s, before leaving for graduate school in 1958. My Pittsburgh informant, Margie Steen, remembers glancing across the orchestra at him and his stand partner, Ann Bickford, at tedious times in rehearsals and during a six-week orchestral bus tour of the US south with Michael, listening to him expound on his musical favourites, Bruckner and Mahler.

Here is what Margie Steen wrote me:

"Mann has six children, one of whom was Michael; after 1936, the family left Germany for Zurich, Switzerland, where the family diaries describe "Bibi" as they called him, practicing in the basement or the garage. Michael studied at the Zurich Conservatory with Willen de Boer (1885-1962) Thomas Mann himself moved to the US to teach at Princeton and also in California during the war, and then in about 1947 moved back to Zurich.

After the Second World War William Steinberg was the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He brought many fine refugee musicians from Germany to the orchestra. One of them was a cellist, Karl Neumann, who also was a fine gambist (also the brother of Frederick Neumann, Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music). Frederick had escaped at Dunkirk and he and Michael were fast friends. Whether they had known each other before I'm not sure but in any case I think Michael was at loose ends and looking for a position. Michael was in the Pittsburgh Symphony for a few years. I seem to remember that Michael toured with Yaltah Menuhin sometime before he came to Pittsburgh.

I remember him playing well in a viola d'amore recital on the Chatham College campus. And whenever his involvement with the viola d'amore started, his family remained involved with it.In the case there was a receipt dated 20th Sept. 1956 from Hug in Zurich, made out to Frau Dr. Thomas Mann a. Landstrasse 39, Kilchberg, for a set of viola d'amore strings.

Finally Michael seemed to decide that he had had enough of music, and left with his wife Gret for Harvard. Before he left Pittsburgh he gave the Eberle to me, together with a box of music, saying "Here, I present you with the viola d'amore: It's a nice instrument, but not completely original. You learn it.

I was surprised, because although we were friends, we weren't really close, and initially all he had asked me to do was look after the instrument. I had quit the orchestra in ‘58 to start a family, and once my three children started coming, I had no time for the viola d'amore. I did a little work on the Goldis method, and that's all. After I sent Michael a card for his 40th birthday, he sent me a nice reply, but I never heard from him again.

Certainly the old privileged life in Europe was gone; his older brother Klaus took his own life in Cannes in '49 because of despair at "the hopeless situation of the Intellectual in post war Europe." In the Introduction to Michael's brother's Golo Mann "Reminiscences and Reflections, a Youth in Germany, " Peter Demetz of Yale says "Michael was happy as a performing musician in England and the U.S. for a long time before he took up, in his forties the study of German literature at Harvard and settled down as a professor of German literature at Berkeley; when he died the autopsy showed that he had mixed barbiturates with too much alcohol."

Margie Steen me a box of Michel Mann's viola d'amore music Here is a list of the contents:

First, the pieces that are mentioned in the novel:

Andante et Menuet Milandre Waelfelghem

Divertimento Haydn Nagels (a reprint of an 18th-century arrangement, possibly originally for baryton.)

The other works Serenus Zeitbloom plays in the novel are no longer in the collection if they ever were, but they are mentioned in the advertising on the fronts and backs of the other music. All of the information Thomas Mann needed to create the viola d'amore part of the Zeitbloom character is in this pile of music, and he was careful not to include works that hadn't been published yet in the time frame of the novel, that is, the kind of author he was. Of the two works above, only the Milandre shows signs of being practiced. Judging by the crossed-out double stops and pencilled-in fingerings, Michael, unlike Serenus, played the Milandre on the "normal" viola.