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Dialogue of Cultures

The Question of
Motivic Thorough-Composition
in Schiller's Poetry

by Helga Zepp-LaRouche

Reprinted from FIDELIO Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 3, Winter 1995
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The answer to the ancient controversy, whether music developed from the rhythmical movements of dance or from Classical poetry, leads directly to the similarly epistemological and moral decision, whether the domain of sensual experience and manner of expression, hence the Dionysian--or the capacity of the human mind to develop and communicate ideas--should be appealed to through music.

It is easy to demonstrate that a simple Classical poem already contains precisely those rules of composition which must also be the basis of Classical music, i.e., it must have a poetic idea as subject, which in its development must lead to a paradox or a series of jointly bound transformations, which are finally resolved on a higher level.

It is this poetic idea, its development and its conclusion, which in Classical poetry, quite clearly and without needless frills, determines the beginning and end of the poem, a principle which has been consciously abandoned, for example, by the Romantics and the Modernists.

For Friedrich Schiller, on the other hand, the identity of poetic--as musical--composition, was a theme on which he repeatedly wrote. Thus did he speak of the "dark total idea" and the musical inspiration, which preceded conscious mental construction: "The musicality of a poem is far more frequently suspended before my soul, when I set myself to craft it, than the clear concept of its content, concerning which I am often hardly at one with myself."

Not only does the musical idea precede the elaboration, but for Schiller there is no doubt that the same lawfulness underlies all specific forms of art, since it only merits this name when it speaks to the highest quality of the human mind, the capacity for reason: "In fact, we consider every graphic and poetic composition also as a type of musical work, and subject them to some extent to the same laws. We also demand of colors a harmony and a tone and, in a way, also a modulation. We distinguish in each poem the unity of thought from the unity of feeling, the musical standpoint from the logical; briefly, we demand that each poetic composition, beside that which its content expresses, at the same time through its form, be an imitation and expression of feeling, and as music, work on us ... ."

Now, however, the whole effect of music (as beautiful and not only pleasant art) consists in accompanying and rendering perceptible to the senses the inner movements of the spirit, by means of analogical external movements. Now, since those inner movements (as human nature) proceed according to rigorous laws of necessity, thus the necessity and certainty also pass over into the external movements, through which they are expressed; and in this way it becomes intelligible how, by means of those symbolic acts, the common natural phenomena of sound and of light can participate in the aesthetical dignity of human nature. Now if the composer or the landscape painter enters into the secret of these laws, which rule over the inner movements of human hearts, and if he studies the analogy, which occurs between these movements of the spirit and certain external occurrences, then he will become, from a sculptor of common nature, a true painter of souls. He steps out of the realm of caprice into the realm of necessity, and may, without hesitation, place himself on the side, not of the plastic artist, who makes the external man his object, but of the poet, for whom the object is the inner man.

The composer and poet are therefore, for Schiller, in a similar manner, artists, who can trace the laws "of the inner movements of the human hearts," yes, even their necessity. There must accordingly be something, in the composition of Classical poetry or music, which corresponds to the secret of these laws.

And as well as all of Schiller's poems fulfill the demands imposed by him, these laws and, at the same time, the method of successful composition, are nowhere as well traceable as in his "The Song of the Bell," which represents, from the standpoint of harmony of content and form, nothing short of a completely masterful accomplishment.

That Schiller intended that this poem, with twenty-nine stanzas, "work on us as music," already becomes apparent by the fact that he himself put the word "song" in the title. And when the poet now depicts, artfully interwoven with each other, the process of the casting of the bell, the process of human life, and that of the moulding of the state, as three levels, in which, notwithstanding all the differences, yet the lawfulness and the phases of the processes are similar, then the bell thereby attains a nearly personal character, which is expressed also in the development of the language (the created, bestirred, lamenting bell). And thus also here, with the lament of the bell, the "common natural phenomenon of sound" becomes something which "participates in the aesthetic dignity of mankind," and indeed precisely through this is it, that the life and and history accompanying the bell trace the "inner movements of the heart," and, indeed, through the course of an entire human life.

The method with which Schiller was able to accomplish this, is the motivic thorough-composition of poetry, which is in no way inferior to the rigor of Classical composition since Mozart's discovery of this principle.

He placed as the motto of the poem, so to speak, the following words: "Vivos voco. Murtuos plango. Fulgura frango." ("I call the living. I mourn the dead. I break the lightning."). The use of the first person for the verbs points, in the first place, to the personal character of the bell. It is a reference, moreover, to the inscription on the bell of Schaffhausen, with which Schiller in all likelihood had been familiar since his youth.

The poem itself is a recitation, subdivided into ten speeches, by the Master, who comments on the construction and completion of the bell, and attaches to this his "reflections" on the coherence of the casting of the bell with human life.
[click here for full text of the poem]

Walled up in the earth so steady
Burned from clay, the mould doth stand
This day must the Bell be ready!
Fresh, o workmen, be at hand!

From the heated brow
Sweat must freely flow,
That the work may praise the Master,
Though the blessing comes from higher.

The form of all ten speeches of the Master is identical, with eight lines respectively, composed of the first four lines, which are trochaic, with four accented feet and with alternating end-rhyme; two short lines with three accented feet and a masculine ending; and finally another couplet with four accented feet.

The tight form of the short lines always corresponds to the orders or instructions of the Master, or his question (in the sixth speech of the Master), or as relief (seventh speech), or as cheerful admiration (ninth speech), and provides thereby the content of a corresponding expression.

If we wish to depict these stanzas, which represent, so to speak, through the exact nine-fold repetition of strophic form, a restful anchoring for the oft-times dramatically streaming poem, in schematic design, then the following picture ensues:

In the line "This day must the Bell be ready!" the motif begins to sound, from which the poetic idea is developed, to which the entire composition is devoted: the process of Becoming, according to which the process of casting the bell becomes the metaphor for the course of life and the construction of the state.

In the subsequent first "reflection," Schiller establishes the level of self-consciousness over the process of bell-casting.

This it is, what all mankind graceth,
And thereto his to understand,
That he in inner heart so traceth,
What he createth with his hand.

These four last lines of the stanza allow a beloved theme of Schiller to begin to sound. "What graceth all mankind," and distinguishes him consequently from all other creations, is his creative mind, which outlines the plan in accordance with which the realization can then ensue in the material realm, whose validity is verified not only in the realm of sensual perception, but which is also traced "in the inner heart."

This is a variation of the conception in the poem "Columbus":

Genius stands with Nature in everlasting union:
What doth promise the one, surely the other fulfills.

What Schiller meant by this, is the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, between the lawfulness of creative reason and the laws of the universe. Genius brings forth an adequate new idea--thus in the mental realm--which then causes a change in physical nature, which in the case of Columbus, led to the lawful discovery of a new continent.

In the poem "Hope," it is written:

It is no empty, fawning deceit,
Begot in the brain of a jester,
Proclaimed aloud in the heart is it:
We are born for that which is better!
And what the innermost voice conveys,
The hoping spirit ne'er that betrays.

This unwavering cultural optimism, that it is the reason-begotten ideal that is responsible for every advance, because it sketches the vision which inspires everything occurring in reality--this is a philosophical-poetic fundamental motif, which resounds in a whole series of Schiller's poetry and writings. The "inner voice," the "genius," as that which differentiates man from all other living creatures, "adorns him"; hence his creative reason, which constitutes his being in the image of God, is, in a manner of speaking, a Motivführung among the various compositions, which it unites together in a greater arc, precisely as one finds this in specific motivic ideas in the compositions of great composers.

Schiller's poem on the bell, to which he referred repeatedly in the twelve years between the first idea of the poem and its completion, as the planned "Bell-Casting Song," treated the working world as the concrete expression of the perfectibility of mankind. Caroline von Wolzogen stated in her biography, Schiller's Life, that during his first visit to Rudolfstadt on Dec. 6, 1787, he had already expressed a lively interest in bell-casting. In 1793, he himself then visited the Neubert bell foundry in Ludwigsburg.

The precise knowledge of the various steps in bell-casting, which Schiller demonstrates in the ten speeches of the Master, reveals an intensive occupation with the practical side of work procedures. He also found a thorough depiction of this, and the corresponding technical terms, in the then very famous Economic Encyclopedia of Dr. Georg Küunitz, Vol. 19, in which a detailed work primer was given.

While the first "reflection" was dedicated to the correspondence between the plan in the human mind and the actual casting of the bell, in the second "reflection" a second theme now sounds, namely, the idea of the bell as the companion of man throughout all the phases of his life.

What here below to son terrestr'al
The ever-changing fate doth bring,
Doth strike the crown which, made from metal,
Uplifting it doth sound its ring.

The two first "reflections" were written in iambic quadrameter and alternating end-rhyme. In the third "reflection," the mood of joy over the birth of the beloved child, proclaimed by the bell, is elevated to the highest bliss of first love. The lively, joyful mood will, through constant shifts between rhymed couplets and alternating end-rhymes, emphasize and culminate finally in the jubilant lines:

Oh! gentle longing, sweetest hoping,
The first love's time of goldenness!
The eye doth see the heavens op'ning,
So feasts the heart in happiness--
Oh! That it lasts forever greening,
The beaut'ous time of love's beginning.

In the fourth speech of the Master, the Master gives thought to whether, in the alloying for the "bell-metal," a mixture of the first-heated copper with the quickly liquescent and therefore later-added tin, will produce the right compound.

If the brittle with the nimble
Join together 'tis good symbol.

Now the same idea is transferred to another voice, namely, to the level of reflection on love and marriage in human life.

For where the rough is with the supple,
Where strong itself with mild doth couple,
The ringing will be good and strong.
So test therefore, who join forever,
If heart to heart be found together!

Not only does the transfer of this idea from one to another voice create an interesting ambiguity, but in this fourth "reflection," the form is especially beautiful, but rigorously fits the content. At the beginning the iambic quadrameter still stands, with the festive mood of the wedding changing the meter to trochaic, while with the mood change in the fifteenth line, "The passion doth fly./Love must be enduring," it goes over to amphibrachic.

The lively portrayal of the industrious striving of the man and the love-filled work of the wife, further in amphibrachic, leads the way into a wonderfully flowing rhythm and finds, with the two-footed iamb--"And resteth never"--a splendid closure, which, in a sense, holds fast the movement.

In the last part of the fourth "reflection," the meter goes over to anapestic:


This is followed by lines with three accented feet in dactyllic-trochaic form:

Then goes over to a pure trochaic:

It is informative how Schiller in this last part of the "reflection," not only content-wise but also purely in the form, constructs here a dramatic tension, which is also reflected in the relatively swift change of meter. Joy and pride reach a high point over the fruits of their own production. Yet then it comes to the first real discontinuity, to an anomaly in the poem.

Up to this moment, the course of things was found in a joyful construction: The casting of the bell, the life course of the family--everything strived toward its perfection. Yet now a dissonance sounds, in accordance with Schiller's belief that man is the architect of his own fortune only to a certain degree, that there is a greater destiny outside the will of man, over which he has no influence:

Yet with mighty fate supernal,
Is entwined no bond eternal,
And misfortune strideth fast.

A mood change enters. Dark clouds brew together over the idyll of happy family life, an unearthly higher power is suddenly present. At this point in every potential musical composition, a register change must occur, and in whatever form "The Song of the Bell" is recited in performance, at this point the reciter must bring another dimension into his delivery--perhaps that he suddenly turn aside to directly face his listeners.

In the following fifth speech of the Master, the action turns back indeed yet again to the ostensibly practical level of bell-casting, at which nevertheless it comes, directly at this moment, to a dramatic sharpening: The actual casting of fire-hot fluid, a moment of highest danger ("God protect the house"), occurs.

With the subsequent "reflection," Schiller now reaches, with the painting of the fire's passion, a heightened dramatic escalation, which is moved skillfully forward through metrical form in the tightest fashion.

"Benef'cent is the might of flame," the beginning of this section, is in iambic, but since the dissonance in the preceding "reflection," the positive assertion can also never more be brought to mind without ambiguity. Yet already with the cries of woe, the meter shifts to trochaic, and at this point, "Woe, when it is liberated," a register shift must occur once again.

It is no accident that precisely this phrase--"Woe, when it is liberated"--has become one of the numerous bewinged words (loslassen) which originated with Schiller, and which even those know, who have no idea from whence it comes. For it represents the principle of destruction, of unleashing, of senseless force, experienced at some time by every man.

In "The Song of the Bell," it is set against the constructive theme, which is transferred through all three voices, as counter-theme, so to speak, which is likewise transferred through all the voices. In a behavioral sense, one could consider the constructive theme as an interval, and the destructive as a second, and the entire tension in the poem results from the ambivalence at the time between the two in the various phases of composition in which a transformation occurs.

In his description of the catastrophe caused by the fire, longer four-foot lines and shorter two-foot lines are interchanged, three of them consisting of only a single word--Riesengross (giant-tall), Hoffnungslos (hopeless all), Leergebrannt (all burnt out)--and confer through this change and a supporting onomatopoeia an absolutely gripping rhythm, for instance, through the alliteration of the "w"--wachsend ohne Widerstand (Growing such that none withstand); the generation of fear through the "u"-vocalization--Turm (tower), Sturm (storm), Blut (blood), Flut (flood); or flight, through the use of assonance of the "i" vowels--klirren (quav'ring [literally, clinking]), Kinder (children), irren (wand'ring), Tiere wimmern (whimp'ring cattle [literally, animals whimpering]; and the alliteration of the "r" and "t"--Alles rennet, rettet, flüchtet (all is running, saving, flying).

But it would not be Schiller if this exquisite depiction of wild terror, and of the succeeding unearthly horror faced with the burned-out abode, weren't followed by another, brighter motif. The man casts a last look back, and "His wanderer's staff then gladly seizes," because no member of his family has come to harm.

Also here, with the shift from fear to unexpected cheerfulness, a register shift is necessary, because an important new idea should be conveyed, which is not expressed in words, but rather should come forth more significantly as a message: However much in the past, the entire joy of the family and their pride was located in the work of earning domestic wealth and the improvement of their living conditions, confronted with the question of the value of human life in relation to these material goods, the answer is indubitable: Life is the much higher Good and man can yet confront his destiny in a sovereign manner--"joyfully."

In the following sixth speech of the Master, the shorter lines with c-c rhyme occur for the first time in question form: "Should the cast not take?/Should the moulding break?" in order to lead then to the fearful, ominous lines: "Ah! perhaps whilst we are hoping,/Harm is us already gripping."

If one has the entire leading ideas of the poem in one's head, it is obvious that this is one of the points where, with respect to the content, it applies on each of the three levels--on the immediate level of the bell-casting; on the level of the family's life process; and on the level, which has not yet been introduced at all, but on which this theme will be more significantly and dramatically developed: the process of the construction of the state.

The reciter of the poem must bring to expression these threefold possibilities of interpretation, through a corresponding alteration of inflexion; a composer could perhaps indicate the different dimensions through allusion to the possibility of modulation at this point to more varied keys.

In the sixth "reflection," which commences with iambic quadrameter, the sorrowful tone begins to sound the death of the mother. The modulation to deepest sorrow, "From cathedral,/Anxious, long,/Bell is sounding/Funeral song," occurs in trochaic.

It is truly masterful how Schiller does not in the least need today's modern psychological style, yet brings about an astonishing insight into the ability of mankind to cope with the most frightening blows of fate: After the account of the tragic loss of the beloved mother, the return to concrete work and the well-deserved rest in the bell-casting are also comforting for the reader or listener.

The seventh "reflection" paints a small idyll, in which man and beast conclude the day, and, leading to the presupposition on which the peaceful life of the citizen depends, the words "Holy Order, blesséd richly,/Heaven's daughter ..." now creates a transition to the third level of the poem, the formation of the state. The choice of words leaves no doubt, that the poet means the order which is based on natural law. It is also noteworthy that he depicts love of the fatherland as the most important relationship into which man can enter.

The two last lines of the eighth speech of the Master--"If the Bell be now awoken,/Be the frame in pieces broken."--and the first two lines of the eighth "reflection"--"The Master can break up the framing/with wisen'd hand, at rightful hour,"--touch on a universal theme with Schiller, namely, that every expansion, every progress in knowledge, always requires that the previously existing structures of knowledge be demolished and replaced with new, more perfect ones. But he was at the same time also deeply convinced, that such a loosening of old ideas could never happen by simply throwing existing rules overboard, but rather that a change of laws, in a lawful manner, had to happen.

As the self-liberating, red-hot bronze brings destruction: "Where senseless powers [literally, raw powers senselessly] are commanding," so does this also hold true for the events in the affairs of states. Schiller leads once again from his first theme of bell-casting to the third, of the state, whereby the "raw powers" hold true for both voices.

Schiller's historical point of reference was clearly the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution, which abruptly disappointed the expectations of the republican-minded contemporaries for a constitutional alteration of Absolutism, and buried the hope, which the poet had still characterized in the "Letters on Don Carlos" as the "favorite subject of the decade," namely, the discussion about the construction of the state with the greatest possible freedom of the individual.

The transition from the previously described idyll and the peaceful order to disaster and tumult--from the line, "But woe, whene'er in brooks a-flaming"--must be expressed once again through a change in the delivery or a register shift in the composition. In this passage the tension of the line, which is kept in iambs, grows dramatically.

The meter of the line, "Liberty, Equality! Men hear sounding," bursts the meter adhered to so far (nearly every syllable is stressed!) and supports thereby appropriately the contents of the description of the tumult. The lines follow, which at least until the educational reforms of the Brandt era were familiar to everyone in Germany:

Then women to hyenas growing
Do make with horror jester's art,
Still quiv'ring, panther's teeth employing,
They rip apart the en'my's heart
Naught holy is there more, and cleaving
Are bonds of pious modesty,
The good its place to bad is leaving,
And all the vices govern free.
To rouse the lion, is dang'rous error,
And ruinous is the tiger's bite,
Yet is most terrible the terror
Of man in his deluded state.

Is not this description of the total licentiousness, the complete disintegration of all morals, a highly up-to-date image still today? And does not something consoling lie precisely in this exact description, as if the frightful were bearable, by the fact that a name has been given to it?

Yet already in the following ninth speech of the Master, Schiller has man speak already once again on the luminous height, which is his alone: "Joy unto me God hath given!," proclaims the first line, which reveals the successful casting of the bell, and with which a new register shift is appropriate.

The joyful voice defines the entire ninth and final "reflection," whose last eight lines represent a coda, so to speak, for the poem.

Her tongue to destiny is lending,
Herself has heart and pity not,
With nothing but her swing attending
The game of life's e'er-changing lot.
And as the ring in ears is passing,
Sent by her mighty sounding play,
So let her teach, that naught is lasting,
That all things earthly fade away.

After the entire "Song of the Bell" has traversed all the phases of man's very rich life, and the poet has cultivated, so to speak, all the registers, these lines fulfill the same objective which the coda achieves in musical composition. The poet makes us once more consciously comprehend what we have previously heard to a very detailed extent. And thus is generated a higher degree of self-consciousness about the poetic composition, and the process of Becoming, of perpetual change, for which the "Bell" also stands as a metaphor, is once again made quite directly the theme.

Now the reader or listener knows that what he has experienced and suspected during the entire poem, has been brought to the point. In this poetic completion lies intellectual beauty; it would not be superfluously said, the poetic idea is now realized. With the word-play "Freude-Friede" (joy-peace), the song of the bell rings out "Concordia."

The unity of poetic composition of this poem lies not only in the coherence of the process of the three different levels and the transfer of ideas associated with the various phases from one level to another, but also this unity springs above all from the rigorous motivic thorough-composition, which is the higher idea of the poem itself.

The process of Becoming, through which "all things earthly fade away," this continuously-following-one-after-another transformation of change, in which each phase follows necessarily from the previous one, gives the poem the compactness which distinguishes a Classical work. What makes the "Bell" so perfect, relative to the accord of content and form, is the concrete working-out of a principle, of which Plato speaks in his Parmenides dialogue, that is, the principle of Becoming and of Change, which drives from one element to another. This succession is the unity in the multiplicity, it is the selfsame development process, and indeed on all three levels, bound one with the other, which expresses the poetic idea of the poem.

The rigorous form in which "The Song of the Bell" is written, also clearly reflects the fact that the "secret of the laws which rule over the inner movements of the human heart" consist of not less than the principle of motivic thorough-composition, for the creative mind thinks in accordance with this and no other principle, and is conscious of the "inner voice." Schiller succeeds, in this poem, precisely in rendering transparent the "analogy which exists between these emotions and certain outer appearances," and for this reason, "The Song of the Bell" is of a perfection which seeks its own example.

In a letter to Caroline von Wolzogen, Schiller wrote: "It is somewhat mysterious in the effect of music, that it moves our innermost, so that it becomes a copula between two worlds. We feel ourselves broadened, heightened, devout--what is that called, other than drawn into the universality of nature, toward God? Music is a higher, finer language than words. In moments when, to the heightened soul, each expression appears too weak, when it despairs of capturing the fine nuances of its feeling in words, there begins the art of music. Every first song had this foundation."

Schiller's poetry is best captured under the category of song. The bell-casting song represents now especially the proof of the thesis, put forward at the outset, that music has developed from Classical poetry, and not from dance rhythms, because, as it has been shown, the principles of the two are the same.

It is Andreas Romberg, who in 1809 crafted a musical composition to "The Song of the Bell," taking credit for having attempted at all to compose as complex a work as Schiller's: But he did not make use of the method of this poem, which already embodied in itself so completely the principle of motivic thorough-composition, to himself now once more motivically thorough-compose.

The basis for doing so lies in the reflections which Beethoven communicated to his student Czerny: "Schiller's poems are of the uttermost difficulty for music. The composer must know how to elevate himself far above the poet. Who can do this with Schiller? With Goethe it is much easier."


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