Kafka, Schönberg, a Piano and the Question of Fear

No entry. © Charles Thibo

Not so long ago I visited the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. The exhibition follows a transparent concept, it provides the geographical context of both Kafka’s life and his novels through audio-visual installations, historic pictures and reproductions of original documents i.e. Kafka’s letters, guide-lines he wrote for the insurance company that employed him, first editions of his novels. Two elements stand out: the scale model of the torture instrument in “The Penal Colony” and a video-installation about the novel “The Castle”. This short and scary black-and-white movie, accompanied by equally scary piano music send a couple of shivers down my spine. A castle with high walls, hostile looking people, a menacing isolated figure in a tavern… fear. I felt the inspiration for a post coming, focused on the subject of fear.

Fear is a powerful emotion, responsible for so many man-made disasters, large and small. Arnold Schönberg’s piece “Klavierstück” (Op. 33) recreates a little the atmosphere of that video-installation. In Kafka’s novel, a surveyor tries and fails to gain access to a castle, he is confronted with the hostility of the local population. He is an alien and aliens are not welcome. Aliens disturb the established order. At the same time the surveyor becomes a victim of auto-suggestion in a way people fall victim today to conspiracy theories. He imagines a battle with the invisible inhabitants of the castle and interprets events only within this mental framework. The unfinished novel deals with social isolation, loss of control, the feeling of being manipulated by an opaque system, elements that today trigger fear among the vulnerable parts of Western populations and contribute to the success of populists and extremists.

Schönberg wrote this piece in 1929, Kafka’s novel was published in 1926, after the writer’s death. Schönberg was an outsider in Vienna, Kafka suffered the same fate in Prague and Berlin. “Klavierstück” exists in two versions: the impulsive, brilliant Op. 33a, published in 1929, and the more lyrical Op. 33b, composed in 1931 during a stay in Barcelona. Schönberg employed in both pieces the technique of 12-tone-serialism*. Two series of notes are being used, and while the piece is deliberately modern, the roots in the late Romantic era remain visible, or rather audible. Schönberg venerated Johannes Brahms, and the compactness and shortness of “Klavierstück” echoes Brahms’ late piece “Intermezzi” (Op. 117).

The era in which Schönberg wrote this piece and especially the year 1929 was a frightening one. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia formed Yugoslavia under a dictatorial rule. Mussolini consolidated his power in Italy. In October the financial bubble in the US bursted, it was the beginning of a world-wide economic crisis. Ordinary folks had good reasons to fear. Their financial existence was under threat and with it a fragile social order. There is nothing wrong with fear if it does not lead to paralysis or resignation. Evil can only triumph in a void. Today I see to many fearful, resignated or paralysed people. I don’t like that. Peace, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech – those are fundamental values and they are not for free. Powerful people, companies and governments need to be kept in check. Kafka knew it, Schönberg knew it. Many people in 1929 knew it. Today, it our turn.

Op. 33 has been recorded by Hardy Rittner.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.