Hermann Bahr and Harmonic Thought
By Rudolf Haase
Translated by Ariel Godwin
Revised version of an essay from Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, yr. 31, vol. 3, Vienna 1976
Hermann Bahr is known to us today only as an author, and his name is also familiar from his plays, which are still performed. But the younger generation, at least, hardly knows that he was one of the most versatile and active Austrian thinkers of his time, and that he influenced the spiritual climate profoundly. He was born in 1863 in Linz, died in 1934 in Munich, brought about many changes, and played an important role throughout a decade of Austria's intellectual history, partly by giving it new momentum, partly by criticizing it sharply. He was always open-minded to new things and stood up vehemently and often enthusiastically for new aptitudes, and also for forgotten or misunderstood traditions.
This last quality of Hermann Bahr is the subject of this essay. He gave his support to harmonic thought for a long time, and sometimes very intensively, influencing far more people than can be enumerated today, with the result that especially between 1918 and 1923 in Austria, knowledge of this tradition can be assumed; this has become more strongly apparent in recent years. However, Bahr was not the only imparter of this knowledge. The composer Josef Matthias Hauer brought similar thoughts to light; the two had a close relationship, and through his zealous dedication to Hauer, twenty years his junior, Bahr impressed harmonic thought further upon the general memory.
Before we further discuss this great mission of Bahr's, we must briefly describe the circumstances of his enthusiasm for this harmonic tradition. In the West, harmonic thought began with the Pythagoreans; yet it is actually the common property of all sophisticated cultures, and merely a specialty among the ancient Greeks. The core of this harmonic Pythagoreanism is the study of the harmony of the spheres, which was handed down through legend but whose background should be taken in earnest: the assumption of laws of connection between nature, man, and music. These are the so-called interval proportions, simple number ratios existing in nature that are the basis of music and are also part of the predisposition of the human sense of hearing. The knowledge of these harmonies comes from the pre-scientific period of Greek intellectual history, and since it was not handed down in the form of scientific proofs, but only in garbled fragments, it was not taken very seriously over the centuries of modern times. Today, however, we know that the Pythagoreans' harmonic studies were correct and that actual laws of musical proportion play a great role in nature and in our ability to hear.
The history of this harmonic knowledge is complicated and still full of gaps, but it is known that Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer and mathematician, formed a high point of this intellectual current; it was he who scientifically proved the existence of laws of musical intervals in the planetary orbits, and was thus the first to give a solid basis to harmonic Pythagoreanism. This was published in 1619 in Linz, in his Harmonices mundi libri V (Five Books of Universal Harmonics), and it would be interesting to know whether Hermann Bahr, also from Linz, knew this; he gave no indication of it, as far as we know. Kepler's proof of harmonic planetary ratios was soon forgotten, and hardly anyone thought of Pythagoreanism anymore. However, this changed about a hundred years ago; because a book appeared with important content and considerable scope. It was entitled The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancients, the author was Albert von Thimus. We have chosen this work, which Hermann Bahr worshipped fanatically, and we will briefly discuss its content and significance before we summarize the further development of the harmonic tradition.
Albert von Thimus (1806-1878) was a highly talented misfit who occupied himself, outside of his career as a distinguished lawyer, with the study of ancient wisdom, and found common phenomena in the traditions of the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Hebrews relating to mathematics and music theory. He surmised that there was a central significance to them and that through this, one could illustrate symbolic correspondences between the macrocosm and the microcosm. He devoted especially close attention to Greek Pythagoreanism, in which most of the evidence for what he called “harmonic symbolism” was present.
The two volumes of The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancients were published in 1868 and 1876; the manuscript for a third volume was completed, but is now lost. The work of Albert von Thimus is unfortunately immensely difficult to read. The harmonic theorems of the ancients are extremely complex in themselves, the multi-lingual quotations make considerable demands upon the reader's education, and the author's style is anything but pedagogical. Therefore, this formidable work is little known, only sporadic reviews of it appear, and finally the greater part of the printing had to be pulped. The direct effects were therefore imaginably small, and the debate only reached its second wave, considerably more intensive than the first, after World War I. Here Hans Kayser should be named first; in the 1920s he laid the keystone for his “Kayserian harmonics,” with which he achieved the ultimate revival of harmonic Pythagoreanism. For this he built not only on Kepler's universal harmony, but even more on the studies of Albert von Thimus, whose Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancients was thus rescued and incorporated into the new foundation of harmonic thought.
In these connections, however, a fair place must also be given to Hermann Bahr, although he did not make harmonics the main part of his life like Kayser. He was, however, acquainted with the work of Albert von Thimus before Kayser, and he devoted himself to it so intensively that it is surprising that no new harmonic awakening arose from his ideas-at least no remaining aftereffects can be discerned.
Bahr became acquainted with The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancients through the painter Carl Anton Reichel, who was born in Wels in 1874 and later lived in Salzburg. The two were friends, and Bahr describes him as a “man adventurously experienced in the mysteries,” although Reichel was some ten years younger than Bahr. We do not know exactly when this encounter with the work of Thimus took place. From entries in Bahr's journal, we find only that it must have been between 1904 and 1917; because on January 1, 1918, he notes: “My companion of the last few weeks, the lost work of Baron von Thimus on the 'harmonic symbolism of the ancients,' the most profound German book since Goethe's theory of colors, will lead me yet further.” The connection with Goethe's color theory, incidentally, keeps coming up as a theme in Bahr's journals whenever he writes about “harmonic symbolism,” and it is not known whether his knowledge or his intuition should be regarded as more astounding here; much later, in fact, Goethe's color theory was described by scholars as the sixth book of Kepler's universal harmony! Hermann Bahr must have delved deeply into the material and background of Thimus's work, which demands great respect in view of the considerable difficulties involved.
Between 1919 and 1923, Hermann Bahr mentions Albert von Thimus in his journals often, in greater or lesser depth but always emphatically, i.e. in the articles on this topic in Neuer Wiener Journal, which also appeared in book form later, so that up to 1925, when the last volume was printed, his readers were constantly reminded of Thimus. These references were soon connected with references to Josef Matthias Hauer, for the following reasons. At the end of March 1918, the Vienna Institute for Cultural Research sent Bahr an invitation to a lecture by Hauer on music theory, and at the same time, on March 27, Hauer himself wrote to Bahr, whom he had not known previously; at the time Hauer was only 35 years old and had only spoken a few times in public, and not as a musicologist. The subjects of the lectures fascinated Bahr greatly, as he mentioned twice extensively in his journal,and we immediately see why: the subjects were mathematics in connection with musical principles, colors in connection with intervals and tones, Goethe's color theory, Oriental music, and so forth. This was precisely the realm of thought to which Bahr had been initiated through Albert von Thimus, and which he also sought to connect with Goethe's color theory. Hauer appeared to him as if sent by fate, and in his journal he wrote: “There I realized that I had sought in vain for years for a musician who was able to read Goethe's color theory with me and translate the optical into the acoustic for me paragraph for paragraph; because I take it for granted that the eye and ear are ruled by the same Law.” Bahr must have immediately made Hauer aware of The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancients. Unfortunately his letter, like most of Bahr's letters to Hauer, is lost; but Hauer's reply from April 11, 1918 is preserved, and we reproduce it here in full due to its documentary value:
I must introduce you to my color theory. If only I were not so inept at written communication! But as an inveterate musician I must always yodel and play to make myself understood. I am most enormously grateful to you for directing my attention to Baron von Thimus's magnificent book. I found it at the university library and have leafed through it page by page. At some passages in this book, tears came to my eyes, and at other passages I rejoiced inwardly. In this book, everything is brought together with an adamantine diligence, summing up my whole wretched life, the struggle of the mathematician with the musician in me. Nothing in the book was completely unknown to me, since all my experiences in music and in thought appeared in it. I have always perceived everything in the world through hearing, and I was able, despite a sorely lacking education, to grasp the interrelation of appearances mathematically. I always say: mathematics begins where arithmetic stops. Now I am proud that I have made it possible through my discoveries to read and understand two enormously valuable books: Goethe's color theory and Albert Baron von Thimus's harmonic symbolism. Truly: in the latter work, what Thimus says matters less than the directions of thought and perception of musical humanity stipulated there. The good Baron von Thimus leans more to the side of the mathematician; he has no hearing-oriented person within him to overcome. All mathematicians have long combated tempering, that can be seen plainly from Thimus's book; and all practical musicians have heard a finer play of colors in tempering than in the pure intervals with the rational numbers. My entire study of tone always attempts to put everything in its proper place, and this straightforwardness was rewarded through the discovery of my system of coordinates, which makes it possible for any layperson to reach into the deepest secrets of the art of tone. Admittedly, when one's physiological hearing fails, that will not help; one is, in fact, blind to sound and color. And since Richard Wagner, most people, especially composers, have been blind to sound and color, and so my whole speculation in music theory is only the attempt to reopen the ears of my countrymen and lead them to perceive the finer differences between the tone-colors. It is merely secondary that with this I made the discovery that in the tempering of the pure intervals with equal tempering, the same process occurs as with the splitting up of light into rainbow colors. I do not at all insist on these things; but I would still like people to hear and absorb my melodies, which have been present in me since my childhood and can only be properly expressed in equal tempering with their color-tonality. But the organized din of the post-classical orchestra gets in the way. The primal musical experience has been lost to the Germans, and Richard Wagner, through the “word,” has opened the door to many who by nature have nothing to do with music. A small change of heart, however, can already be observed. People are slowly beginning to reevaluate and establish the order: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. But it will still be a while before people get to the “well-tempered clavier.” And it will be a long time before the “well-tempered clavier” is something one can elicit by tempering. This much is now certain, that people are slowly beginning to catch on to the fact that Beethoven, in his escape from himself (in nature: the Pastoral Symphony; theater: Leonore Overtures) established those possibilities upon which “Wagneritis” was able to spread far and wide. My dear friend Ferdinand Ebner once said: “Wagner is the greatest disappointment and disgrace for humanity, but especially for the Germans.” I beg your forgiveness for writing that; but I had to show my true colors and say it sooner or later. I also entreat you not to repeat it to your dear wife, the greatest Wagner singer of all time. She has entirely exhausted herself with this Wagner. There was also a time in my life when I was obsessed with Wagner. But that was a good long time ago (I attended my last Wagner opera performance in February 1904). There is a large gap between Wagner and Bach's “well-tempered clavier.” Poor Bruckner perished from “Wagneritis.” If he, instead of Reger, had written for the organ, we would have authentic and religious church music today instead of Reger's organ engineer constructions. In this age of Wagner, however, in which even the Church is infected with theatrics, such a “deep” genius as Bruckner naturally had to be killed. Gustav Mahler I treasure very highly as a person. The composer Mahler speaks only to the musical psychologist in me. In him I hear someone screaming for productivity; from his compositions I hear all the beautiful sounds of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, carried forth with a great deal of effort, the attempt to achieve the superhuman, to rebuild the ruined temple. It is the same from the Wagner side of things, the idea of redemption and this rank sacrilege: Jesus Christ is a genius. A “true musician” does not bother with such things; he knows that even when he cannot do so much and does not know so much, he relies on the grace of God. In hindsight there is really only one artist who, so to speak, got beyond his art, and thus cursed it near the end of his life, Michelangelo. The good Hans-Jakob once said: “Christianity has taken the scepter from the hand of art.” Whoever does not believe that should read Thimus more carefully; it is between the lines there, between all those secret symbols and formulae. Christianity is of divine origin and art and Aryan philosophy are of heathen origins. Again, my dear friend Ebner says: “Our heathen belief system is the Chinese Wall, over which we cannot see our Lord God.” Let us be content, as long as we are scuttling about on earth, with being competent, honest workers. As such we can also still give science a piece of our minds. (Here I wish to refer you respectfully to Ferdinand Ebener's journal entries in the Jahrbuch der Lehrmittelzentrale.) Should I, after all my previous points, also give a verdict for Richard Strauss and Schönberg? For Richard Strauss, it simply doesn't add up. I will only say this: If foreigners dismiss us as barbarians at hearing the organized noise of Richard Strauss, they are right. Of Schönberg I think differently: he cannot separate himself from the sensory effects of the orchestra, and thereby sinks ever deeper in the mud. His stuff is true swinishness. These cooing songs, and all the garbage still coming out, it all oozes with lazy, stinking sensuality. Schönberg is right to be opposed to my color theory. He should abjure his orchestral idols with all means possible, then he would cease existing as a composer; because he is entirely unmusical. Schönberg is a typical example of a man who walked through the Wagner gate into education in music, for which he has absolutely no natural aptitude. Today people compose who would be much happier earning a lot of money working in a bank or a factory; but they believe that they must aim “higher.” All this Wagner is the very expression of our inner dishonorableness and dishonesty with ourselves. I also cannot forget Debussy. He is currently played assiduously in Vienna. Are the people of Vienna atoning for their sins in this manner? It is highly amusing to watch an old geezer chatting up a young woman. This Debussy gropes for music like his dying nation for new life.
So, those are more or less my beliefs. I am happy to have it out. I had to confess these things to you before possibly meeting you in person. Now I feel better. I wish you
And signed yours respectfully
Hauer's long and confessional letter also includes the important difference that separates his later writings in the philosophy of music from the harmonic tradition that progressed from Thimus to Kayser, a tradition from which Hauer had strongly distanced himself. This is not entirely obvious; when Hauer writes, “The atonal melody is sung by the life of languages, of the visual arts, but also that of nature-of the universe; it is the purest, clearest source of knowledge and wisdom, the form, movement itself,” these could almost be the words of Kayser. The difference, however, is that harmonic research is based upon interval proportions and therefore deals with laws of nature, whereas Hauer proceeds through tempering to atonality and forms universal connections in a purely spiritual manner.
But Hauer obviously saw the same ideal background in both ways of thinking, as he indicates in the above letter, and he paid further respect to the work of Albert von Thimus, even quoting it in his first theoretical publication, which was released in the same year with the title On Sound-Color. Also, the differences-above all mathematical-between Hauer's path and the path of harmonic tradition appear to have been negligible for Hermann Bahr, although Hauer informed him exhaustively of his specific concerns in many letters from then on; because Bahr continually mentions Thimus and Hauer together in his journal, and identifies, so to speak, their concerns with each other.
Bahr finally came in contact with Kayserian harmonics after he had seen Kayser's works on Böhme and Paracelsus in the collection Der Dom - Bücher deutscher Mystik, and mentioned them many times in his journals. Kayser's first harmonic work, Orpheus, must have been in his possession-unfortunately we do not have any more precise information-and he was thrilled with this book, writing to the book's publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer, a few months after the publication of the work, on Oct. 2nd, 1926:
The very name of the author whom we must thank for important writings on Paracelsus and Böhme promises a significant work, and when I found out that he is familiar with the Baron von Thimus's enormous work on harmonic symbolism, I was certain that he was headed in the right direction. A shame for the Germans that Thimus is forgotten, that his work, this fundamental book of the nature of music, in which everything is there for the musician, has remained without impact. Nothing is successful. This complaint of Goethe's I found reconfirmed here; the formidable work was heedlessly set aside. That Kayser reawakened it is a service that cannot be praised too highly. But he did not content himself with that, he draws out the conclusions; he reveals once again the hidden great, old way into the primal secret of nature, and all trendy daily babble must fall silent before the great solemnity that grips us when we are able to witness, if you will, the birth of music, its birth from number, from the same eternal laws that show us both the movement of the stars and the inner view into crystals. Kayser's book, in the hands of the right reader, can have an impact for music equal to that of Goethe's color theory for optics. I wrote also to the Prussian journals, to bring the eminent significance of this work to the attention of the publisher Dr. Hegner.
With greatest respect
This letter was part of a pamphlet with reviews of Kayser's harmonic works appearing up to 1932, meaning that Hermann Bahr's effort for the renewal of harmonic Pythagoreanism was effective two years prior to his death.