‘Brutal ceaseless music’: Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters

I’d considered using this blog to plot my timid route through classical music (I may still do just that), but this proved a more interesting idea: to stumble upon, present, and consider the ways in which music – mainly classical music – is spoken about in literature. Google tells me that this has been done over four and half million times already, and Wikipedia offers a list of examples – which would be helpful if it didn’t completely ruin the fun. I want this to be a means by which to think about my writing, but also through which to think about music more deeply and to try to be precise about both my thoughts and the music to which I listen.

Thomas Bernhard: the Austrian novelist known primarily for his humour, his long – as in book-length – paragraphs, and his suicide. Old Masters is a book in which an elderly man, Reger, who spends every other day sitting in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in front of Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man. He remembers, thinks, talks, and presumably to some extent studies the Portrait of a White-Bearded Man. More accurately, this is a book in which a younger man, Atzbacher, writes about Reger sitting in front of the Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, and transcribes from memory – again, presumably – the comments made and opinions proffered by Reger. We are not told a thing about where or for what purpose Atzbacher might be writing, only that he ‘records’ Reger’s monologues – diatribes – in what ultimately constitutes one of Bernhard’s characteristically long – book-length – paragraphs.

Nothing much happens, and then we slowly realise that Atzbacher’s voice is not so different to Reger’s, and that Atzbacher’s is not so different to Irrsigler’s – the museum guard – and that Irrsigler’s is not so different to Reger’s. If we come to realise that Irrsigler and Atzbacher have ‘appropriated verbatim many, if not all, of Reger’s sentences’, this realisation is second only to our realisation that Reger repeats his own words with as much regularity as with which he completes his weekly routine. Caught up in this dance of self-citation, we reach the end of the novel – and still nothing very much has happened.

Reger is a music critic, for The Times, and he has strong opinions about everything – politics, toilets, schnitzels, Bach, Bruckner, Heidegger. When speaking about what he claims to be the incompetence and mediocrity of contemporary musicians and composers, his – or Bernhard’s – doom-leaden vitriol reaches a particularly doom-leaden, vitriolic pitch:

I can already see people totally destroyed by the music industry, Reger said, those masses of music-industry victims eventually populating the continents with their musical cadaverous stench, my dear Atzbacher, the music industry will one day have the population on its conscience, it will most probably ultimately have the whole of mankind on its conscience. […] The music industry is the murderer of human beings, the music industry is the real mass murderer of humanity which, if the music industry continues on its present lines, will have no hope whatever within a few decades, my dear Atzbacher, Reger said excitedly (222-3).

It’s not difficult to make out, in amongst the loosely rendered vision of a bizarre, inadvertent genocide, the importance of music for Reger, the character, the music critic: his is a vision (and this is admittedly only one vision among many) that attributes the future death of every human on the planet to a hopelessly naive, unwitting music industry – but one that gives music the power of life and death, hope and complete annihilation.

In this world which ‘is through and through pervaded by total music,‘ it is only Reger, apparently, who still lives his life unscathed, spending his life in a museum not yet contaminated by this music: ‘it is a downright miracle, Reger said, that ceaseless music is not yet to be heard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum as well, that would be the last straw.’ And if people ‘have been stuffed full of music every day for so long that they have long lost all feeling for music’ (221), it is only Reger, in his refuge in front of Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, that has retained his musical sensitivity.

Thus his musical judgments come thick and fast, usually vitriolic, usually damning. So Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) – to whom Reger incidentally claims to be related – is ‘no genius […]. His music is confused and just as unclear and bungled’; he is ‘slovenly’ and his music all ‘sentimentality and false pompousness’ (57). Meanwhile, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is ‘ridiculous’: ‘Austrian music reached its absolute low with Mahler […]. Purest kitsch, generating mass hysteria’ (178). Neither do Beethoven nor Mozart escape the attacks:

But even Mozart did not escape kitsch, especially in the operas there is so much kitsch, the coy and the frisky often turn somersaults in the most unbearable way in those superficial operas. A turtle-dove here, a turtle-dove there, a raised forefinger here, a raised forefinger there, Reger said, that too is Mozart. Mozart’s music is also full of petticoat and frilly undies kitsch, he said. And the state composer Beethoven, as the Tempest Sonata above all demonstrates, is positively ridiculously serious (153-4).

Beyond their restraint, their never-excessive asperity, the thing that makes these comments particularly devastating – for someone with no particular commitments or loyalty to classical music – is their articulation, by one of the ‘elect’, of exactly the things that put people off classical music in the first place. Ridiculously serious sonatas; tacky, garish operatic stage-images; pomposity, sentimentality, and willful obscurity. To have these vices identified by a music critic, by someone expected to indulge exactly these flaws, makes Reger’s mercilessness appear more so in its honesty, its betrayal.

(And there is a feeling of liberation consequent to this realisation: any desiring initiate into the world of classical music must first relinquish the compulsion to ‘get’ or like everything. Reger hardly seems to like anything at all.)

Whilst Reger is all spittle, scorn, and condemnation, Bernhard ameliorates this, disavows it almost, in his containment of Reger’s voice within the novel’s metatextual apparatus. Firstly, yes, Atzbacher ‘records’ Reger’s monologues, and he does so in a monologue of his own whose temporal structure may be as ‘confused[, …] unclear and bungled’ as Bruckner’s music. But Bernhard also preempts any potential offense with the novel’s discreetly slipped-in subtitle: Old Masters: A Comedy. We don’t see this generic designation on the book’s front cover – but only on the title page, a repetitive page we surely pass in our dismissive paths to the ‘text itself’. But this subtitle, this disclaimer, only really says, ‘don’t take anything in this book too seriously, do not take it to heart’: with this, Bernhard pushes the novel’s evaluative judgments into the distance, he cleans from his hands their scandal.

‘You have to understand that in my writing the musical component comes first, and the subject matter is secondary.’ Apparently (see Hofmann, 2010), Bernhard had this to say about his writing: the ‘musical component’ is primary. (To an English-speaking pedant, this ‘music’ perhaps is encased far off in German. From an English-speaker happy to pass in silence through the grim theoretical swamps of translative authenticity, let’s investigate this ‘music’ that inheres within the English.) Bernhard in this context is developing the age-old dichotomy between form and content, in which, for Bernhard, the form – in contradistinction to the ‘subject matter’ – is prior. In other words, the opinions, the invective, the ‘plot’ which the novel imagines and mobilises is less significant than the way that these ideas are presented. This may corroborate the distancing effect offered by the novel’s subtitle: to lower the impact, or diminish the scandal, of the opinions expressed.

Yet we may move further with the distinction that Bernhard thus runs with. It has become fashionable in some quarters (contemporary poetics, philosophy of science, and surely elsewhere) to scrutinise critically the efficacy of this distinction. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze, for example, has turned away from what he calls the ‘matter-form model’, in which material content is shaped and defined by the form imposed upon it. Rather, following Gilbert Simondon, a philosopher known for his critique of ‘hylomorphism’, his name for the conceptual apparatus that maintains this form-content distinction, Deleuze argues that form and content are ‘the ends of two half-chains whose connection can no longer be seen’ (476). Here, in the words of a literary critic, the dichotomy is resolved into a situation in which ‘form is, inextricably, content. Likewise, content is inextricably form. The two cannot be separated’ (Hair, 2014: 192).

I rehearse this here because in music, at least for Deleuze, content and form are most evidently conjoined, inextricably. In music there is no content – verbal, semantic, symbolic, material – that is immediately distinguishable from the form in which it is received: as the composer Igor Stravinsky wrote, ‘music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all’, with the exception, we might note, of its form.

Consequently, this ‘musical component’ of Bernhard’s writing is perhaps more complicated than it appears. It is not merely the looping, unravelling spools of repetitive phrasing, nor the cadences of rhythm and rhyme – as Hofmann suggests in the article cited above. Rather the whole unity of content and form becomes Bernhard’s ‘musical component’: a resonance of idea and sound, of rhythm and opinion, expressing itself – literally itself, nothing more than the fact of its being expressed – in a brutal, ceaseless music.


Bernhard, Thomas, Old Masters (London: Penguin, 2010)
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2015)
Hair, Ross, ‘Models of Order: Form and Cosmos in the Poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ronald Johnson’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 56.2 (2014), pp. 181-225
Hofmann, Michael, ‘Reger Said’, London Review of Books 32.21 (November, 2010)


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