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Dusk of the Gods by James Huneker

 

A MASQUE OF MUSIC

Stannum invited the pianist to his apartment several times, but concert engagements intervened, and when Herr Bech actually appeared his host did not attempt to conceal his pleasure. He admired the playing of the distinguished virtuoso, and said so privately and in print. Bech was a rare specimen of that rapidly disappearing order—the artist who knows all composers equally well. Not poetic, nor yet a pedantic classicist, he played Bach and Brahms with intellectual clearness and romantic fervor. All these things Stannum noted, and the heart of him grew elate as Bech sat down to the big concert piano that stood in the middle of his studio. It was a room of few lights and lofty, soft shadows; and the air was as free from sound as a diving bell. Stannum leaned back on his wicker couch smoking a cigar, while the pianist made broad preludes in many keys....

The music, from misty weavings, tentative gropings in remote tonalities, soon resolved itself into the fluid affirmations of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia. Stannum noticed the burnished, argent surface of an old-fashioned Egyptian mirror of solid tin hanging in front of him, and saw in leaden shadows his features, dim and distorted. Being a man of astrological lore he mused, and presently mumbled, “Tin is the sign of Jupiter in alchemy and stands for the god of Juno and Thunders,” and immediately begged Bech's pardon for having interrupted him. The pianist made no sign, having reached the fugue following the prelude. Stannum again speculated, his head supported by his hands. He stared into the tinny surface, and it seemed to take on new echoes of light and shade, following the chromatic changes of the music.... Presently rose many-colored smoke, as if exhaled from the enchantments of some oriental mage, and Stannum's eyes strove to penetrate the vaporous thickness. He plunged his gaze into its tinted steamy volutes, and struggled with it until it parted and fell away from him like the sound of falling waters. He could not see the source of the great roaring—the roaring of some cosmical cataract. He pushed boldly through the dense thunder-world into the shadow land, still knew that he lived. A few feet away was his chamber wherein Bech played Bach. Faintly the air cleared, yet never stopped the terrifying hum that attracted his attention. And now Stannum stood on the Cliff of the World, saw and heard the travailing and groaning of light and sound in the epochal and reverberating Void. A pedal bass, a diapasonic tone, that came from the bowels of the firmament struck fear to his heart; the tone was of such magnitude as might be overheard by the gods. No mortal ear could have held it without cracking and dying. This gigantic flood, this overwhelming and cataclysmic roar, filled every pore of Stannum's body. It blew him as a blade of grass is blown in a boreal blast; yet he sensed the pitch. Unorganized nature, the unrestrained cry of the rocks and their buried secrets; crushed aspirations, and the hidden worlds of plant, mineral, animal, and human, became vocal. It was the voice of the monstrous abortions of nature, the groan of the incomplete, experimental types, born for a day and shattered forever. All God's mud made moan for recognition; and Stannum was sorrowful....

Light, its vibrations screeching into thin and acid flame-music, transposed his soul. He saw the battle of the molecules, the partitioning asunder of the elements; saw sound falling far behind its lighter-winged, fleeter-footed brother; saw the inequality of this race, “swifter than the weaver's shuttle,” and felt that he was present at the very beginnings of Time and Space. Like unto some majestic comet that in passing had blazed out “Be not light; be sound!” the fire-god mounted to the blue basin of Heaven and left time behind, but not space; for in space sound abides not and cycles may be cancelled in a tone. Thus sound was born, and of it rhythm, the planets portioning it; and from rhythm came music, primordial, mad, yet music, and Stannum heard it as a single tone that never ceased, a tone that jarred the sun with mighty concussions, ruled the moon, and made rise etheric waves upon the rim of the interstellar milky way. Then quired the morning stars, and at their concordance Stannum was affrighted....

His ear was become a monstrous labyrinth, a cortical lute of three thousand strings, and upon it impacted the early music at the dawn of things. In the planetary slime he heard the screaming struggles of fishy beasts; in the tanglewood of hot, aspiring forests were muffled roarings of gigantic mastodons, of tapirs that humped at the sky, beetles big as camels, and crocodiles with wings. Wicked creatures snarled crepitantly, and their crackling noises were echoed by lizard and dragon, ululating snouted birds and hissing leagues of snaky lengths. Stannum fled from these disturbing dreams seeking safety in the mountains. The tone pursued him, but he felt that it had a less bestial quality. Casting his eyes upon the vague plateau below he witnessed two-legged creatures pursuing game with stone hatchets; while in the tropical-colored tree-tops nudging apes eyed the contest with malicious regard. The cry of the pursuers had a suggestive sound; occasionally as one fell the shriek that reached Stannum plucked at his heart, for it was a cry of human distress. He went down the mountain, but lost his way, his only clue in the obscurity of the woods being the tone....

And now he heard a strange noise, a noise of harsh stones bruised together and punctuated with shouts and sobbings. There was rhythmic rise and fall in the savage music, and soon he came upon a sudden secret glade of burial. Male and female slowly postured before a fire, scraping flints as they solemnly circled their dead one. Stannum, fascinated at this revelation of primeval music, watched until the tone penetrated his being and haled him to it, as is haled the ship to the whirlpool. It was night. The strong fair sky of the south was sown with dartings of silver and starry dust. He walked under the great wind-bowl with its few balancing clouds and listened to the whirrings of the infinite. A dreamer ever, he knew that he was near the core of existence; and while light was more vibratile than sound, sound touched Earth, embraced it and was content with its eld and homely face. Light, a mischievous Loge: Sound, the All-Mother Erda. He walked on. His way seemed clearer....

Reaching a mighty and fabulous plain, half buried in sand he came upon a great Sphinx, looming in the starlight. He watched her face and knew that the tone enveloped him no longer. Why it had ceased set him to wondering not unmixed with fear. The dawn filtered over the head of the Sphinx, and there were stirrings in the sky. From afar a fluttering of thin tones sounded; as the sun shone rosy on the vast stone the tone came back like a clear-colored wind from the sea. And in the music-filled air he fell down and worshipped the Sphinx; for music is a window that looks upon eternity....

Then followed a strange musical rout of the nations. Stannum saw defile before him Silence, “eldest of all things”; Brahma's consort Saraswati fingered her Vina; and following, Siva and his hideous mate Devi, who is sometimes called Durga; and the brazen heavens turned to a typhoon that showered appalling evils upon mankind. All the gods of Egypt and Assyria, dog-faced, moon-breasted and menacing, passed, playing upon dreams, making choric music black and fuliginous. The sacred Ibis stalked to the silvery steps of the Houris; the Graces held hands. Phoebus Apollo appeared; his face was as a silver shield, so shining was it. He improvised upon a many-stringed lyre made of tortoise shell, and his music was shimmering and symphonious. Hermes and his Syrinx wooed the shy Euterpe; the maidens went in woven paces: a medley of masques flamed by; and the great god Pan breathed into his pipes. Stannum saw Bacchus pursued by the ravening Mænads; saw Lamia and her ophidian flute; and sorrowfully sped Orpheus searching for his Eurydice. Neptune blew his wreathéd horn, the Tritons gambolled in the waves, Cybele clanged her cymbals; and with his music Amphion summoned rocks to Thebes. Jephtha's daughter danced to her death before the Ark of the Covenant, praising the Lord God of Israel. Behind her leered unabashed the rhythmic Herodias; while were heard the praiseful songs of Deborah and Barak, as Cæcilia smote her keys. Miriam with her timbrel sang songs of triumph. Abyssinian girls swayed alluringly before the Persian Satrap in his purple litter; the air was filled with the crisp tinklings of tiny bells at wrist and anklet as the Kabaros drummed; and hard by, in the brake, brown nymphs, their little breasts pointing to the zenith, moved in languorous rhythms, droning hoarse sacrificial chaunts. The colossus Memnon hymned; priests of Baal screamed as they lacerated themselves with knives; Druid priestesses crooned sybillic incantations. And over this pageant of woman and music the proud sun of old Egypt scattered splendid burning rays....

From distant strands and hillsides came the noise of strange and unholy instruments with sweet-sounding and clashing names. Nofres from the Nile, Ravanastrons of Ceylon, Javanese gongs, Pavilions from China, Tambourahs, Sackbuts, Shawms, Psalteríes, Dulcimers, Salpinxes, Keras, Timbrels, Sistras, Crotalas, double flutes, twenty-two stringed harps, Kerrenas, the Indian flute called Yo and the quaint Yamato-Koto. Then followed the Biwa, the Gekkin and its cousin the Genkwan; the Ku, named after the hideous god; the Shunga and its cluttering strings; the Samasien, the Kokyu, the Yamato Fuye—which breathed moon-eyed melodies—the Hichi-Riki and the Shaku-Hachi. The Sho was mouthed by slant-haired yellow boys; while the sharp roll of drums covered with goat-skins never ceased. From this bedlam there occasionally emerged a splinter of tune, like a plank thrown up by the sea. Stannum could discern no melody, though he grasped its beginnings; double flutes gave him the modes, Dorian, Phrygian, Æolian, Lydian and Ionian; after Sappho and her Mixolydian mode, he longed for a modern accord....

The choir went whirling by with Citharas, Rebecs, Citoles, Domras, Goules, Serpents, Crwths, Pentachords, Rebabs, Pantalons, Conches, Flageolets made of Pelicon bones, Tam-Tams, Carillons, Xylophones, Crescents of beating bells, Mandoras, Whistling Vases of Clay, Zampognas, Zithers, Bugles, Octochords, Naccaras or Turkish castanets and Quinternas. He heard blare the two hundred thousand curved trumpets which Solomon had made for his temple, and the forty thousand which accompanied the Psalms of David. Jubal played his Magrepha; Pythagoras came with his Monochord; Plato listened to the music of the spheres; the priests of Joshua blew seven times upon their Shofars or Rams-Horns. And the walls of Jericho fell.

To this came a challenging blast from the terrible horn of Roland—he of Roncesvalles. The air had the resonance of hell, as the Guatemalan Indians worshipped their black Christ upon the plaza; and naked Istar, Daughter of Sin, stood shivering before the Seventh Gate. Then a great silence fell upon Stannum. He saw a green star drop over Judea, and thought music itself slain. The pilgrims with their Jews-harps dispersed into sorrowful groups; blackness usurped the sonorous sun: there was no music upon all the earth and this tonal eclipse lasted long. Stannum heard in his magic mirror the submerged music of Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin Deprès and Orlando di Lasso, Goudimel and Luther; the cathedral tones of Palestrina; the frozen sweetness of Arezzo, Frescobaldi, Monteverde, Carissimi, Tartini, Corelli, Scarlatti, Jomelli, Pergolas, Lulli, Rameau, Couperin, Buxtehude, Sweelinck, Byrd, Gibbons, Purcell, Bach: with their Lutes, Monochords, Virginals, Harpsichords, Clavicytheriums, Clavichords, Cembalos, Spinets, Theorbos, Organs and Pianofortes and accompanying them was an army, vast and formidable, of all the immemorial virtuosi, singers, castrati, the night moths and midgets of music. Like wraiths they waved desperate ineffectual hands and made sad mimickings of their dead and dusty triumphs.... Stannum again heard the Bach Chromatic Fantasia which seemed old yet very new. In its weaving sonant patterns were the detonations of the primeval world he had left; and something strangely disquieting and feminine. But the man in Bach predominates, subtle, magnetic and nervous as he is.

A mincing, courtly old woman bows low. It is Haydn, and there is sprightly malice in his music. The glorious periwigged giant of Halle conducts a chorus of millions; Handel's hailstones rattle upon the pate of the Sphinx. “A man!” cries Stannum, as the heavens storm out their cadenced hallelujahs. The divine youth approaches. His mien is excellent and his voice of rare sweetness. His band discourses ravishing music. The tone is there, feminized and graceful; troupes of stage players in paint and furbelows give startling pictures of rakes and fantastics. An orchestra mimes as Mozart disappears....

Behold, the great one approaches and the earth trembles at his tread—Beethoven, the sublime, the conqueror, the demi-god! All that has gone before, all that is to be, is globed in his symphonies, is divined by the seer: a man, the first since Handel. And the eagles triumphantly jostle the scarred face of the Sphinx.... Then appear Von Weber and Meyerbeer, player folk; Schubert, a pan-pipe through which the wind discourses exquisite melodies; Gluck, whose lyre is stringed Greek fashion, but bedecked with Paris gauds and ribbons; Mendelssohn, a charming girlish echo, Hebraic of profile; Schumann and Chopin, romantic wrestlers with muted dreams, strugglers against ineffable madness and stricken sore at the end; Berlioz, a primitive Roc, half monster, half human, a Minotaur who dragged to his Crete all the music of the masters; and then comes the Turk of the keyboard, Franz Liszt, with cymbalom, [vc]zardas and crazy Kalamaïkas. But now Stannum notices a shriller accent, the accent of a sun that has lost its sex and is stricken with soft moon-sickness. A Hybrid appears, followed by a vast cohort of players. The orchestra begins playing, and straightway the Sphinx smiles....

Stannum saw what man had never seen before—the tone-color of each instrument. Some malign enchanter had seduced and diverted from its natural uses the noble instrumental army. He saw strings of rainbow hues, red trumpets, blue flutes, green oboes, garnet clarinets, golden yellow horns, dark-brown bassoons, scarlet trombones, carmilion ophecleides while the drums punctured space with ebon holes. That the triangle had always been silver he never questioned; but this new chromatic blaze, this new tinting of tones—what did it portend? Was it a symbol of the further degradation and effeminization of music? Was art a woman's sigh? A new, selfish goddess was about to be placed upon high and worshipped—soon the rustling of silk would betray her sex. Released from the wise bonds imposed upon her by Mother Church, music is a novel parasite of the emotions, a modern Circe whose feet “take hold on hell,” whose wand transforms men into listening swine. Gigantic as antediluvian ferns, as evil-smelling and as dangerous, music in the hands of this magician is dowered with ambiguous attitudes, with anonymous gestures, is color become sound, sensuality in the mask of Beauty. This Klingsor tears down, evirates, effeminates and disintegrates. He is the great denier of all things natural, and his revengeful, theatric music is in the guise of a woman. The art nears its end; its spiritual suicide is at hand. Stannum lifted his gaze. Surely he recognized that little dominating figure directing the orchestra. Was it the tragic-comedian Richard Wagner? Were those his ardent, mocking eyes fading in the mist? A fat cowled monk marches stealthily after Wagner. He shades his eyes from the fierce rays of the noonday sun; more grateful to him are moon-rays and the reflected light of lonely pools. He is the Arch-Hypocrite of Tone who speaks in divers tongues. It is Johannes Brahms, and he wears the mask of a musical masker.... Then swirled near a band of gypsies and moors, with guitars, tambourines, mandolins and castanets, led by Bizet; Africa seemed familiar land. Gounod and his simpering “Faust” went on tiptoe; a horde of Calmucks and Cossacks stampeded them, Tschaïkowsky and Rimski-Korsakoff at their head. These yelled and played upon resounding Svirelis, Balalaïkas, and Kobzas dancing the Ziganka all the while; and as a still more horrible uproar fell upon Stannum's ears, he was aware of a change in the face of the Sphinx: streaked with gray, it seemed to be crumbling. As the clatter increased Stannum diverted his regard from the great stone and beheld an orgiastic mob of men and women howling and playing upon instruments of fulgurating colors and vile shapes. Their skins were of white, their hair yellow, and their eyes of victorious blue. “Nietzsche's Great Blond Barbarians, the Apes of Wagner!” exclaimed Stannum, and he felt the earth falling away from him. The naked music, pulsatile and drowsy, turned hysterical as Zarathustra-Strauss waved on his Übermensch with an iron hammer and in frenzied, philosophic motions. Music was become vertiginous; a mad vortex, wherein whirled mad atoms, madly embracing. Dancing, the dissonant corybantes of the Dionysian evangel flitted by, scarce touching earth in their efforts to outvie the Bacchantes. With peals of thunderous and ironical laughter the Sphinx sank into the murmuring sand, yawning, “Music is Woman.” ...

And then the tone grew higher and ultra-violet; the air darkened with vapors; the shrillness was so exceeding that it modulated into Hertzian waves and merged into light; this vibratile, argent light pierced Stannum's eyes. He found himself staring into the Egyptian mirror while about him beat the torrential harmonies of Richard Strauss.... Herr Bech had just finished his playing, and, as he struck the last chord of “Death and Transfiguration,” acidly remarked:

“Tin must be a great hypnotizer, lieber Stannum!”

“In alchemy, my dear Bech, tin is the sign of Jove, and Jove, you know, hath power to evoke apocalyptic visions!”

“Both you and your Jove are fakirs!” The pianist then went away in a rage because Stannum had slept while he played.

 
 
 

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