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The Glass Bead Game
By Hermann Hesse, Richard Winston, Clara Winston
PicadorCopyright © 1943 Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag AG Zürich
All rights reserved.
No knowledge has come down to us of Joseph Knecht's origins. Like many other pupils of the elite schools, he either lost his parents early in childhood, or the Board of Educators removed him from unfavorable home conditions and took charge of him. In any case, he was spared the conflict between elite school and home which complicates the youth of many other boys of his type, makes entry into the Order more difficult, and in some cases transforms highly gifted young people into problem personalities.
Knecht was one of those fortunates who seem born for Castalia, for the Order, and for service in the Board of Educators. Although he was not spared the perplexities of the life of the mind, it was given to him to experience without personal bitterness the tragedy inherent in every life consecrated to thought. Indeed, it is probably not so much this tragedy in itself that has tempted us to delve so deeply into the personality of Joseph Knecht; rather, it was the tranquil, cheerful, not to say radiant manner in which he brought his destiny and his talents to fruition. Like every man of importance he had his daimonion and his amor fati; but in him amor fati manifests itself to us free of somberness and fanaticism. Granted, there is always much that is hidden, and we must not forget that the writing of history—however dryly it is done and however sincere the desire for objectivity—remains literature. History's third dimension is always fiction.
Thus, to select some examples of greatness, we have no idea whether Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart actually lived in a cheerful or a despondent manner. Mozart moves us with that peculiarly touching and endearing grace of early blossoming and fading; Bach stands for the edifying and comforting submission to God's paternal plan of which suffering and dying form a part. But we do not really read these qualities from their biographies and from such facts about their private lives as have come down to us; we read them solely from their works, from their music. Furthermore, although we know Bach's biography and deduce his personality from his music, we involuntarily include his posthumous destiny in the picture. We conceive him as living with the knowledge, which causes him a silent smile, that all his work would be forgotten after his death, that his manuscripts would be treated as so much waste paper, that one of his sons instead of himself would be considered "the great Bach," and harvest the success he himself merited, and that after his work had been rediscovered it would be plunged into the misunderstandings and barbarities of the Age of the Feuilleton, and so on. Similarly, we tend to ascribe to Mozart, while still alive and flourishing, and producing his soundest work, some knowledge of his security in the hands of death, some premonition of the kindness with which death would embrace him. Where a body of work exists, the historian cannot help himself; he must sum it up, along with the life of the creator of that work, as two inseparable halves of a living unity. So we do with Mozart or with Bach; so we also do with Knecht, although he belongs to our essentially uncreative era and has not left behind any body of work of the same nature as those masters.
In attempting to trace the course of Knecht's life we are also attempting to interpret it, and although as historians we must deeply regret the scantiness of authenticated information on the last period of his life, we were nevertheless encouraged to undertake the task precisely because this last part of Knecht's life has become a legend. We have taken over this legend and adhere to its spirit, whether or not it is merely a pious fiction. Just as we know nothing about Knecht's birth and origins, we know nothing about his death. But we have not the slightest reason for assuming that this death could have been a matter of pure chance. We regard his life, insofar as it is known, as built up in a clear succession of stages; and if in our speculations about its end we gladly accept the legend and faithfully report it, we do so because what the legend tells us about the last stage of his life seems to correspond fully with the previous stages. We go so far as to admit that the manner in which his life drifts gently off into legend appears to us organic and right, just as it imposes no strain on our credulity to believe in the continued existence of a constellation that has vanished below the horizon. Within the world in which we live—and by we I mean the author of this present work and the reader—Joseph Knecht reached the summit and achieved the maximum. As Magister Ludi he became the leader and prototype of all those who strive toward and cultivate the things of the mind. He administered and increased the cultural heritage that had been handed down to him, for he was high priest of a temple that is sacred to each and every one of us. But he did more than attain the realm of a Master, did more than fill the office at the very summit of our hierarchy. He moved on beyond it; he grew out of it into a dimension whose nature we can only reverently guess at. And for that very reason it seems to us perfectly appropriate, and in keeping with his life, that his biography should also have surpassed the usual dimensions and at the end passed on into legend. We accept the miracle of this fact and rejoice in it without any inclination to pry into it interpretively. But insofar as Knecht's life is historical—and it is that up to one specific day—we intend to treat it as such. It has been our endeavor, therefore, to transmit the tradition exactly as it has been revealed to us by our researches.
Concerning his childhood before he entered the elite schools, we know only a single incident. It is, however, one of symbolic importance, for it signifies the first great call of the realm of Mind to him, the voice of his vocation. And it is characteristic that this first call came not from science or scholarship, but from music. We owe this fragment of biography, as we do almost all the recollections of Knecht's personal life, to the jottings of a pupil of the Glass Bead Game, a loyal admirer who kept a record of many of the remarks and stories of his great teacher.
Knecht must have been twelve or thirteen years old at the time. For quite a while he had been a scholarship pupil in the Latin school of Berolfingen, a small town on the fringes of the Zaberwald. Probably Berolfingen was also his birthplace. His teachers at the school, and especially his music teacher, had already recommended him two or three times to the highest Board for admission into the elite schools. But Knecht knew nothing about this and had as yet had no encounters with the elite or with any of the masters of the highest Board of Educators. His music teacher, from whom he was learning violin and the lute, told him that the Music Master would shortly be coming to Berolfingen to inspect music instruction at the school. Therefore Joseph must practice like a good boy and not embarrass his teacher.
The news stirred the boy deeply, for of course he knew quite well who the Music Master was. He was not to be compared with the school inspectors who visited twice a year, coming from somewhere in the higher reaches of the Board of Educators. The Music Master was one of the twelve demigods, one of the twelve supreme heads of this most respected of Boards. In all musical affairs he was the supreme authority for the entire country. To think that the Music Master himself, the Magister Musicae in person, would be coming to Berolfingen! There was only one person in the world whom Joseph might have regarded as still more legendary and mysterious: the Master of the Glass Bead Game.
Joseph was filled in advance with an enormous and timorous reverence for the impending visitor. He imagined the Music Master variously as a king, as one of the Twelve Apostles, or as one of the legendary great artists of classical times, a Michael Praetorius or a Claudio Monteverdi, a J. J. Froberger or Johann Sebastian Bach. And he looked forward with a joy as deep as his terror to the appearance of this mighty star. That one of the demigods and archangels, one of the mysterious and almighty regents of the world of thought, was to appear in the flesh here in town and in the Latin school; that he was going to see him, and that the Master might possibly speak to him, examine him, reprimand or praise him, was a kind of miracle and rare prodigy in the skies. Moreover, as the teachers assured him, this was to be the first time in decades that a Magister Musicae in person would be visiting the town and the little Latin school. The boy pictured the forthcoming event in a great variety of ways. Above all he imagined a great public festival and a reception such as he had once experienced when a new mayor had taken office, with brass bands and streets strung with banners; there might even be fireworks. Knecht's schoolmates also had such fantasies and hopes. His happy excitement was subdued only by the thought that he himself might come too close to this great man, and that his playing and his answers might be so bad that he would end up unbearably disgraced. But this anxiety was sweet as well as tormenting. Secretly, without admitting it to himself, he did not think the whole eagerly anticipated festival with its flags and fireworks nearly so fine, so entrancing, important, and miraculously delightful as the very possibility that he, little Joseph Knecht, would be seeing this man at close quarters, that in fact the Master was paying this visit to Berolfingen just a little on his, Joseph's, account—for he was after all coming to examine the state of musical instruction, and the music teacher obviously thought it possible that the Master would examine him as well.
But perhaps it would not come to that—alas, it probably would not. After all, it was hardly possible. The Master would have better things to do than to listen to a small boy's violin playing. He would probably want to see and hear only the older, more advanced pupils.
Such were the boy's thoughts as he awaited the day. And the day, when it came, began with a disappointment. No music blared in the streets, no flags and garlands hung from the houses. As on every other day, Joseph had to gather up his books and notebooks and go to the ordinary classes. And even in the classroom there was not the slightest sign of decoration or festivity. Everything was ordinary and normal. Class began; the teacher wore his everyday smock; he made no speeches, did not so much as mention the great guest of honor.
But during the second or third hour the guest came nevertheless. There was a knock at the door; the school janitor came in and informed the teacher that Joseph Knecht was to present himself to the music teacher in fifteen minutes. And he had better make sure that his hair was decently combed and his hands and fingernails clean.
Knecht turned pale with fright. He stumbled from the classroom, ran to the dormitory, put down his books, washed and combed his hair. Trembling, he took his violin case and his book of exercises. With a lump in his throat, he made his way to the music rooms in the annex. An excited schoolmate met him on the stairs, pointed to a practice room, and told him: "You're supposed to wait here till they call you."
The wait was short, but seemed to him an eternity. No one called him, but a man entered the room. A very old man, it seemed to him at first, not very tall, white-haired, with a fine, clear face and penetrating, light-blue eyes. The gaze of those eyes might have been frightening, but they were serenely cheerful as well as penetrating, neither laughing nor smiling, but filled with a calm, quietly radiant cheerfulness. He shook hands with the boy, nodded, and sat down with deliberation on the stool in front of the old practice piano. "You are Joseph Knecht?" he said. "Your teacher seems content with you. I think he is fond of you. Come, let's make a little music together."
Knecht had already taken out his violin. The old man struck the A, and the boy tuned. Then he looked inquiringly, anxiously, at the Music Master.
"What would you like to play?" the Master asked.
The boy could not say a word. He was filled to the brim with awe of the old man. Never had he seen a person like this. Hesitantly, he picked up his exercise book and held it out to the Master.
"No," the Master said, "I want you to play from memory, and not an exercise but something easy that you know by heart. Perhaps a song you like."
Knecht was confused, and so enchanted by this face and those eyes that he could not answer. He was deeply ashamed of his confusion, but unable to speak. The Master did not insist. With one finger, he struck the first notes of a melody, and looked questioningly at the boy. Joseph nodded and at once played the melody with pleasure. It was one of the old songs which were often sung in school.
"Once more," the Master said.
Knecht repeated the melody, and the old man now played a second voice to go with it. Now the old song rang through the small practice room in two parts.
Knecht played, and the Master played the second part, and a third part also. Now the beautiful old song rang through the room in three parts.
"Once more." And the Master played three voices along with the melody.
"A lovely song," the Master said softly. "Play it again, in the alto this time."
The Master gave him the first note, and Knecht played, the Master accompanying with the other three voices. Again and again the Master said, "Once more," and each time he sounded merrier. Knecht played the melody in the tenor, each time accompanied by two or three parts. They played the song many times, and with every repetition the song was involuntarily enriched with embellishments and variations. The bare little room resounded festively in the cheerful light of the forenoon.
After a while the old man stopped. "Is that enough?" he asked. Knecht shook his head and began again. The Master chimed in gaily with his three voices, and the four parts drew their thin, lucid lines, spoke to one another, mutually supported, crossed, and wove around one another in delightful windings and figurations. The boy and the old man ceased to think of anything else; they surrendered themselves to the lovely, congenial lines and figurations they formed as their parts crisscrossed. Caught in the network their music was creating, they swayed gently along with it, obeying an unseen conductor. Finally, when the melody had come to an end once more, the Master turned his head and asked: "Did you like that, Joseph?"
Gratefully, his face glowing, Knecht looked at him. He was radiant, but still speechless.
"Do you happen to know what a fugue is?" the Master now asked.
Knecht looked dubious. He had already heard fugues, but had not yet studied them in class.
"Very well," the Master said, "then I'll show you. You'll grasp it quicker if we make a fugue ourselves. Now then, the first thing we need for a fugue is a theme, and we don't have to look far for the theme. We'll take it from our song."
He played a brief phrase, a fragment of the song's melody. It sounded strange, cut out in that way, without head or tail. He played the theme once more, and this time he went on to the first entrance; the second entrance changed the interval of a fifth to a fourth; the third repeated the first an octave higher, as did the fourth with the second. The exposition concluded with a cadence in the key of the dominant. The second working-out modulated more freely to other keys; the third, tending toward the subdominant, ended with a cadence on the tonic.
The boy looked at the player's clever white fingers, saw the course of the development faintly mirrored in his concentrated expression, while his eyes remained quiet under half-closed lids. Joseph's heart swelled with veneration, with love for the Master. His ear drank in the fugue; it seemed to him that he was hearing music for the first time in his life. Behind the music being created in his presence he sensed the world of Mind, the joy-giving harmony of law and freedom, of service and rule. He surrendered himself, and vowed to serve that world and this Master. In those few minutes he saw himself and his life, saw the whole cosmos guided, ordered, and interpreted by the spirit of music. And when the playing had come to an end, he saw this magician and king for whom he felt so intense a reverence pause for a little while longer, slightly bowed over the keys, with half-closed eyes, his face softly glowing from within. Joseph did not know whether he ought to rejoice at the bliss of this moment, or weep because it was over.
Excerpted from The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, Richard Winston, Clara Winston. Copyright © 1943 Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag AG Zürich. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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