Can art conquer evil? Can it stop an almost inconceivable crime like six-fold infanticide? In Hartmut Lange’s story, a world-renowned artist takes up this very fight.
“The Waldstein Sonata”, a 1984 novella, sees Franz Liszt appear in the Führerbunker on 1 May 1945. Though the pianist and composer died in 1886, Lange sends him belowground during the Battle of Berlin for a singular concert at the invitation of one Magda G. (Hitler had already committed suicide the day before.) That this piano performance could decide between life and death quickly becomes clear, as Liszt learns from Magda G. what she and Joseph G. – it is the Goebbelses who are implied here – have planned for their six children after the concert. Liszt decides to thwart the murder with Beethoven’s famous sonata.
It is a truly spooky scene that Lange, born in 1937 and living in Berlin, unfolds in just a few pages. With a chilling sobriety, he creates a breathless tension, depicting the old pianist’s sudden struggle to use his art to defend humanity itself.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Hartmut Lange was dramaturge at East Berlin’s Deutsches Theater, and in 1965 he fled the GDR for West Germany through Yugoslavia. Through his countless novellas and stories, he has developed into a grandmaster of the short form. In “The Waldstein Sonata”, Lange links German history and music, morality and inhumanity, crime and the sublime, creating a fascinating historical fantasy that is really a nightmare at heart. But his question behind it is yet farther-reaching: How much power does great art really have?
Translated by: Katy Derbyshire
Franz Liszt died on the 31st of July in the year 1886; he could not recall the finer details. Now, however, he found himself, in full possession of his senses and mental faculties, walking purposefully along a street – his destination revealed by an invitation held in his pocket, an invitation with the succinct message: ‘Mrs Magda G. requests your attendance at the Reich Chancellery bunker, on 1 May 1945.’
In the Reich Chancellery – apparently these facilities were located beneath the ground – he found himself sitting on a chair, not knowing how he had got there so quickly and without further ado. He examined the room, which was shaken back and forth by detonations at irregular intervals. He saw a long oak table, around it chairs with high, padded backrests, then a bust of a male head that was the exact same shade as the plaster trickling out of the gaps in the walls. This head exerted an irresistible draw upon him. Then, though, he saw a pianoforte in a remote corner, diagonally opposite him, its black varnish densely strewn with dusty mortar and lumps of brickwork.
On a stool behind it, in an entirely fearful poise – collapsed into herself but her gaze still fixed upon the new arrival with questioning – almost imploring attention, sat a middle-aged woman. She had fixed her blonde hair in a bun at the back of her neck and held her chin slightly too raised, red blotches showing here and there on her face.
‘I’m glad you came, sir,’ she said, barely audibly. ‘Countess d’Agoult was the mother of your children, is that not correct?’
Liszt was confused, so unexpectedly and directly reminded of earlier circumstances by a woman he did not know, but whom he had to assume was suffering. Then, after moments of indecisiveness that formed a notable contrast to the dignity of his age, he stood and approached the pianoforte.
‘Why are you crying, Madame?’ he asked. ‘For heaven’s sake, why are you crying?’
And as he reached out his arms and was almost tempted to take her hands, since she was now sobbing, he interrupted his laboured but friendly gesture, for he noticed in the doorway, which had opened and closed again with an unpleasant metallic clang, a delicate-looking man who nodded at the two of them with a blithe smile.
‘Talk to him,’ the woman implored, gripping Liszt’s right hand. ‘He wants me to kill my children.’
At the same time, though, she was clearly ashamed of exposing her husband, who was standing in the doorway and making an effort to appear composed, and exposing him to a stranger, even if that stranger was Franz Liszt.
‘I’m not claiming,’ she added, and her face was wet with tears, ‘I’m not claiming that this were not my wish as well. But you must understand, this wish is something I cannot possibly carry out.’
‘There’s no time, the doctor’s waiting,’ said Josef G. and smiled again. ‘I’m certain the immortal Franz Liszt will give you the strength to do the unavoidable.’
At that, he walked towards his wife, gently grasped her by the elbow and led her, barely resisting, to the door, and Liszt noticed that a deformity, an overly short leg, impeded his walking.
‘You want to kill your children?’ he asked, and both husband and wife turned around and saw the shocked benevolence in the face of this honourable man, and that he was dressed as a priest.
There followed a detonation so powerful that there was reason to fear it would reverberate to the earth’s innermost core. The light extinguished, and when the bulb hung from the room’s ceiling lit up again, Liszt was alone. He did not know whether he ought to follow the couple, who had obviously disappeared behind the door, and he attempted to comprehend the circumstances in which he found himself.
‘But how can this be?’ he thought. ‘It is impossible that I have been asked to this house to be made a witness to a crime. I must have misheard!’
And the reserve he had cultivated throughout his lifetime, the lack of obligation in observing the world as it presented itself on concert tours, the impossibility of seeing through his hosts’ customs or even perceiving them, as a much sought-after virtuoso, all this hindered him from taking action this time as well.
He decided to wait and see how things developed. He sat down at the pianoforte, having cleared the keyboard and paying no heed to the mortar, and played the first bars of the Waldstein Sonata up to the trill that attempts to turn the dark, melancholy prelude towards jollity. He did so again and once more, as though hesitating to disclose the precious delight his hands had so often created. But he played on, and as soon as he began to forget himself, what finally prevailed was his magic, that complete lack of distinction between artist and instrument which only a virtuoso can create.
Once again the iron door opened, more gently than the first time, and Mrs G. returned to the room. Liszt thought he made out children’s voices beyond the corridor hidden by the door, laughing in play, but the sound was vague and indeterminate and so distant that he was unsure his senses had not deceived him.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir,’ said Mrs G, and took a seat at the oak table.
‘I thank you, Madame,’ the pianist replied, interrupting his playing to bow in her direction.
The ensuing silence lasted rather too long. Mrs G. looked at the ground and said quietly, as if to herself and to excuse the lack of communication:
‘Please don’t think badly of my husband. He loves the children just as much as I do. But he too would like to spare them this life.’
‘Madame, what are you talking about?’ said Liszt, looking at the woman, who seemed lonely to the point of exhaustion, a woman who could be called neither old nor young, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither attractive nor repellent, but touching in her ultimate sadness, and who now returned his gaze. Her head was held high, her hands pressed together to find purchase, but it was her eyes, those widened eyes apparently helpless in their extreme agitation, that betrayed her as someone making great efforts despite knowing they had long since left every cause to do so behind.
‘I’d like to ask you to take care of my children,’ she said. ‘I’m worried about what will become of them once they’ve died. They’re still so young. I know,’ she added, ‘how kind a man you are, and I very much hope you won’t leave my children uncared for.’
Liszt stared at her hair and noticed that a strand previously fastened with a clip had come loose and now fell over her temple, and that she let this negligence go unheeded. He could not refrain from admiring the grace that had come about for an instant despite all desperation.
‘But your children are alive,’ he said. ‘And they have a mother who cannot possibly wish that were not so.’
She gave no answer.
He was about to ask her for an explanation of her seemingly incomprehensible words, but now Josef G. appeared in the doorway, apparently intending not to let his wife out of his sight as he mistrusted her state of mind.
‘When a man can no longer save his house it becomes his funeral pyre. When a man sacrifices himself and his children, he ennobles their demise,’ he said. As he spoke he went to the oak table and sat down, edging so close to his wife that their shoulders touched.
How long they sat that way, Liszt could not say. His gaze remained fixed upon the strange couple as he listened to the detonations coming closer and closer, and he saw Josef G. – a man who was long accustomed to such circumstances and tended to react to all external threats with disdain – flinch in response, but it was a reflex to which he paid no regard.
Only once, after the door jerked open as though torn from its hinges although no one had as much as touched it, did he assure them that the artillery blasts could not possibly endanger these rooms, as they were several metres below ground, and that the German soldiery, though exhausted, though bleeding from countless wounds, was by all means still willing and able to hold off the enemy until the evening.
Orderlies came bringing news contradicting that confidence. Nobody, they stated, was in a position to defend these embattled streets, that narrow territory between Tiergarten and Vossstrasse that was all that remained to the powerful men of the Third Reich, not for longer than one or two hours.
‘So it shall be,’ said Josef G. ‘We shook the world because it was about to suffocate in its languor, shook it with iron fists, and we did not embark upon this battle in order to be victorious. For what is victory? It is a cheap win if one does not aim to challenge the entirety of fate, bring destiny to its knees.’
And once again Liszt had the sense that he heard children’s voices, more clearly than the first time, even thinking he could make out the difference in their ages. He rose to his feet.
‘These insane people,’ he thought. ‘They are waging a war, they wish for their own demise. But I must prevent them from making their children atone for their sins.’
He thanked his hosts for the invitation, regretted that he could do nothing at all about their desolate situation, but told them he was nonetheless willing to play the pianoforte, should they so wish, and that he would not mind if the children… Indeed, he would be delighted by their presence, for, he assured them several times with increasing urgency, he knew no greater pleasure than performing for children.
‘Yes, play, do play!’ Magda G. exclaimed.
But as soon as Josef G. had taken her hand, holding it in a gentle but unequivocally firm grip and smiling, it seemed to Liszt as though she too were triumphant for a moment, her eyes fixed upon the man as upon a magician, one capable of making their own and their children’s demise amidst a burning fortress appear a victory.
This troubled Liszt.
‘But,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you won’t be so impolite as to leave the room while I am playing the pianoforte. In my lifetime, I would never have experienced such a thing.’
To himself, he thought, ‘If this war is to end in a few hours’ time, the music must entrance them. Beethoven! Beethoven will save the children’s lives. He is more powerful than anything else. The person who can resist the Waldstein Sonata is yet to be born.’
He began to play. Before he did so, however, he scrutinized his listeners once more, as was his wont, his hands resting on the keyboard. It was a moment of extreme concentration. And as he hit the first chords, he saw Magda G. shift away from her husband, almost imperceptibly, by removing a handkerchief from the belt of her dress and raising it to her lips with the slightest possible motion, and Josef G. took no notice of her movement.
He, though, Franz Liszt, did indeed see it and took it as proof of how quickly the magic of his virtuosity began to take effect. It encouraged him.
‘Keep going, keep playing,’ he thought. ‘I can get through the sonata in twenty-three minutes if necessary, but they’ll be amazed when this brief eternity lasts until the evening.’
He repeated the opening, making the chords particularly gentle in an attempt to assuage the couple’s dark determination. Then he interrupted his playing before he began the variations, but did not look up so as not to encourage applause. Minutes later, he felt his plan was coming to fruition.
Josef G. sat there like someone for whom the state of the world, which was after all only his own state, had been miraculously repaired by the music. He looked only at Liszt, at his hands, not seeing how Magda G. was trying to master her emotions somewhat by constantly occupying herself with her handkerchief.
She was suffering at the thought that the children might approach the room, despite being prohibited from doing so, and – drawn by the music, oh, such wonderful music – seek their parents’ proximity, that proximity in which they could always feel safe and which they had never been denied. She could not bear the thought that, before the evening set in, she would have to abuse this closeness to deceive her children. Yet for her too, the interplay of chords, the back and forth of contradictory and then conciliatory tones that expanded the space around her beyond all limits, made that pain desirable, for her too the music so curiously made the certainty of death, which was to be brought about so hastily and without dignity, an object of longing.
Liszt could not lift their mood, yet his art solidified their desire for their unhappy state to remain unchanged, indeed, they veritably wished to remain in their desolation for all eternity, a desperation that now seemed just as indispensible to them as the pianoforte.
‘How wonderfully you play, sir!’ exclaimed Magda G.
‘I thank you,’ Liszt responded, not bowing to her but continuing his playing, now firmly convinced the children must be able to hear him, although they were kept so thoroughly hidden.
Once again the iron door opened, and a middle-aged man entered the room. He wore a black uniform, the sleeves of his jacket rolled up to his elbows, the collar gaping, his cropped hair unkempt, a small suitcase in his left hand. He appeared not to notice the piano playing, his attention still focused on the corridor from whence he had come, and responded to a voice as though he wanted to make sure of some matter. Then he glared at Josef G. with extreme impatience. It was the doctor. And Liszt felt that this was someone whom he had cause to fear.
‘The same head as I see on the bust over there,’ he thought. ‘He is as pale as marble, without kindness, utterly unreachable. He doesn’t hear the music.’
He saw that the uniform’s collar was decorated with a skull, and he could not refrain from admiring the lack of distinction between the face, the uniform, and the insignia of death. Having been fascinated for so many years by the beauty of benevolence, he now faced the beauty of evil and felt how his hands’ playing – previously a matter of no effort, almost automatic – faltered, how he resisted by pitting the bass notes and the extreme heights against one another, across the octaves, again and again.
The doctor remained unmoved, however, and Josef G. stood slowly and walked to the door, carefully placing his feet on the hard concrete, still looking back at Liszt and the pianoforte, and then, having reached the door, he raised his right arm as if in greeting, with an expression of regret.
‘I am still playing!’ the pianist exclaimed. ‘Good manners dictate that the artist must be the first to leave the room. Madame,’ he turned now to Magda G., ‘is there any reason to disrespect my playing in such a manner?’
But she was looking at the door too, watching Josef G. and the doctor withdraw, and as she attempted to stand likewise, she now dropped the handkerchief she had clung to for so long. She wanted to go after the two men but her knees could not bear the fast movement they were to perform, and so she fell back onto the chair mere moments after rising, hitting her elbow hard against the table.
‘Help me, sir. He’s going to the children. Quickly, give me your arm.’
‘No,’ answered Liszt and went on playing, playing on and on. ‘No,’ he answered and he tried to lend strictness to his voice, ‘as long as you’re listening to me, nothing can happen to the children.’
‘You’re wrong, sir. If I don’t take pity on them the doctor will kill them. We are guilty. We must not fall into our enemies’ hands,’ she said, immediately shocked at her admission and trying to take it back. ‘No,’ she added and rose from her seat. ‘No,’ she repeated almost imploringly as she approached Liszt, ‘we are not guilty.’
She came so close to him that he felt compelled to interrupt his playing, and when she asked him, this time most forcefully, whether he too believed they were not guilty, he said:
‘Madame, I do not know. But as you say it is so, I am inclined to believe you.’
‘I thank you,’ she answered and then fell silent.
Liszt felt the lamp above their heads, the furniture around them, indeed the entire room begin to vibrate, and he was surprised that it happened in absolute silence. And as Magda G. also remained silent, simply standing in remarkable indecisiveness, and he did not know how to interpret her behaviour or whether it would be appropriate to return to playing the pianoforte, he began to speak quietly and urgently:
‘Madame,’ he said, ‘you should not be unjust towards life, and above all: One must not always want something at any price. I had two children from my first marriage, Cosima and Blandine; that is, they were in fact born out of wedlock but I took care of them nonetheless. Blandine died very young, sadly, but Cosima, as you know, was the wife of von Bülow and then Richard Wagner and did not pass away until 1930. What a long and eventful life! Of course, I too had reasons for dissatisfaction, and I never approved of Cosima’s infidelity to von Bülow or her fondness for Wagner, yet nor can I claim that my worries over Cosima were considerable. You, Madame, are desperate, but no desperation, not even such that longs for death, must seduce us into seeing everything solely through our own eyes. Nothing exceeds one’s own misfortune, and yet: Madame, one must let the world, and that includes one’s own children, take its course.’
She listened to him, only now noticing how old the man was, indeed that he was on the brink of decrepitude, and his measured, almost leisurely way of speaking did her good, and now it made perfect sense to her that he was wearing a priest’s gown. Whether she agreed with his words, he could not say. She seemed to be far, far away in her thoughts, and even when a girl’s voice called tentatively for her mother, she seemed not to notice.
‘How many children do you have?’ Liszt asked.
She could not answer. She was ashamed. It appeared impossible for her to explain that she had seven children but only one of them was safe from her care. It seemed inconceivable to her too that one might kill six children of such different ages and in such a short time. The smallest ones, yes, what would be so appalling if one were to let them fall asleep close to her, as they were accustomed, this time forever? But the older ones who had some understanding of things, full of mistrust, who had only after ever renewed assurances that nothing could happen to them bravely held out in their nursery for days, how was one to visit such an extreme act upon them, after having promised to protect them?
She was surprised that these thoughts, which she found unbearable, did not almost crush her and force her to lie down, as so often, so as at least to settle her heart to some extent. Everything in her grew light, the ground beneath her feet moved like a shadow, and all at once she remembered earlier, much earlier circumstances in which she might have almost fainted with happiness and joy, and she had to swiftly grip the pianoforte, but without Liszt noticing, so as not to fall. And because she smiled as she did so, yet could not permit herself to and feared she was losing control of her senses, she said:
‘I thank you. I must go to my children. You can hear them yourself, they’re calling for me.’
Liszt wanted to help her. He had noticed full well that she was swaying and struggling to let go of the pianoforte, but as he took the two or three steps required to reach her, his shoes caught in the hem of his soutane and he was barely able to prevent himself from tripping, and when after this clumsiness he at last tried to offer his arm with a word of apology, she was gone. He stared at the corridor, the iron door wide open like a precipice at the end of the world, and now he realized he had neglected to play.
‘Wait,’ he wanted to call. ‘Please excuse my negligence! Leave the children in peace, I haven’t finished playing! We haven’t reached the end of the sonata!’
But he sensed how pointless it all was, merely murmured a few hasty words, and stood there like a man forced to watch as the very disaster he had meant to avoid unfolded because of him and, as he believed, because of his babbling. He felt his back grow cold and his hands, those precious hands schooled for extreme discipline, begin to tremble, and he was unable to obey the panicked desire to return to the pianoforte immediately, irrevocably, so as to rectify his failure. But then he did reach the keyboard, though with the impression that he had forced his arms and legs into the act, and began to play.
‘Thank heaven,’ he thought, ‘this instrument makes everything vibrate, if only one works magic upon it.’
And it really was so: the guilty conscience that drove him on, the desperate hope that he might drive everything underneath the earth closer to him again if only he were heard everywhere, but also the thought that if he did not play the children might scream with horror in their despair and he would be condemned to hear them, all this made him start the adagio with such agitation and surging energy that it seemed as though the all too cramped room, the iron door, and even the corridor were being blown apart through the force of a trombone. But he did not leave it at that.
‘Don’t you dare!’ he called out. ‘Don’t you dare harm those children! They are God’s creatures!’ And: ‘I don’t presume to judge the world, I am just as base as you are, but anyone who murders their children shall neither live nor die in all eternity, shall be called neither father nor mother!’
And the more he raised his voice, the less reserved his threats grew, the more urgently he wished to prevent the children’s misfortune at any price, the more clearly he felt that his strength was no longer sufficient for such great rage. For a while he seemed to hold out, until a cough he was unable to suppress robbed him of breath, and he had to turn away from the pianoforte, keeping the sonata going with this right hand as the left now lay motionless on the keyboard.
He wheezed and struggled for air, unable to rid himself of the weakness that had come over him. He hoped someone would appear, or, if that were too much to ask, at least a voice would ring out, not necessarily even addressing him. But all remained silent.
He folded the music stand back, closed the pianoforte.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘fine. Then I have done what I could, and now all heavens are closed.’
He sat there, collapsed, his head bowed, his hands resting on his knees, and as his breathing gradually slowed he was overcome by a feeling of indifference. He thought of the Countess d’Agoult and remembered he had not attended her burial.
That was what he thought of now. And also that he had asked too much of the Waldstein Sonata, asked the impossible.
Above the earth, seven or eight metres closer to heaven, the spring began. The horse chestnuts blossomed. They struggled to assert themselves over the scent hanging over the burning city.
*This story is taken from: Die Waldsteinsonate by Hartmut Lange, Copyright © 1984, 2017 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich, Switzerland, all rights reserved.
Image: from “The Pied Piper from Hemelin”, Illustration by Kate Greenaway
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