I am in the early stages of an Arthur Schnitzler binge, intoxicated by his Mahlerian mix of neurosis, melancholy, and Viennese Jewishness. The original German of many of his works is, miraculously, online, which means I don’t have to troll the bookstores for dog-eared paperbacks. The opening of his novella Leutnant Gustl finds the inner monologuer of the title sitting in a concert. His temper, bad to begin with, gets progressively fouler, leading to disastrous consequences.
How long is this going to last? Must look at my watch. Probably shouldn’t do that in such a serious concert. But who would see? Anybody who noticed would probably be paying about as much attention to the music as I am, so I don’t have to worry about being embarrassed. Only quarter to ten? It feels as though I’ve been sitting in this concert for three hours. I’m not used to this. What am I hearing, anyway? Have to glance at the program. Oh, yes: an oratorio! I thought it was a mass. Such things belong in church. The good thing about church is that at any moment, you can leave. If only I were sitting on an aisle. Well, patience, patience! Even oratorios have to end. Maybe this one is very beautiful, and I’m just not in the mood. And why should I be the mood? When I think that the reason I came was to amuse myself! I should have given Benedek my ticket. He enjoys this kind of thing. He himself plays the violin. But then Kopetsky would have been offended. He was really very kind, and he meant well: a good man, Kopetsky. He’s the only one you can really count on. His sister’s up there, singing with all the rest. Must be a hundred virgins, all dressed in black. How am I supposed to pick her out? Since she was singing, Kopetsky got a ticket, but why didn’t he go himself? They sing very nicely, by the way. Quite impressive. Definitely. Bravo! Bravo! Fine, I’ll applaud along with everyone else. The guy next to me is clapping like an insane man. Could he really have loved it so much? The girl up there in the loge is very pretty. Is she looking at me or at the gentleman over there with the full blond beard? Ah, a solo! Who’s that? Alto: Miss Walker. Soprano: Miss Michalek. This one’s probably a soprano. I haven’t been to the opera in a long time. In the opera I always have a good time, even when it’s boring. Day after tomorrow, I could actually go back to “La Traviata.” Yes, but by then I could be a dead body. Oh, nonsense. I don’t even believe that myself.
I quote this passage at length because I am impressed with the mixture of empathy and irony with which Schnitzler, a man who knew from music, describes the reactions of a character who dutifully goes to hear some and is thoroughly bored and distracted. He has a good reason for this, and for thinking that he might be dead before the next "Traviata" rolls around: The good lieutenant has a duel in the offing. He does not appreciate the way in which the unnamed oratorio provides the soundtrack for his foreboding, but the reader does - in retrospect, at least.
Literary devices, aside, I think it would behoove all of us who love classical music (or profess to) to try to understand the Gustls of the world – by which I mean not Hapsburg army officers with morbid fixations, but those who schlep to concerts only to feel narcotized by decorum and swaddled in reverence. What richly meandering interior monologues lie behind the glazed eyes of that gentleman in Row S, the one in the tweed suit? Surely part of the musician’s task is to break through that defensive haze of thought. And you never know: the right music just could save that person's life.
(The translation, by the way, is mine. If you have the time and inclination to check it, you should probably get a real job. If you already have one and you still have the time and inclination to check it, the original German is here.)