Sunday, March 1, 2015

Marx and Engels on Music: by Mark Lindley

In 1857 Charles Dana invited Karl Marx to contribute to the New American Cyclopaedia.  Marx was the European political correspondent for the daily New York Tribune, of which Dana was the editor; Dana and George Ripley, his former mentor at the utopian colony of Brook Farm, were co-editors of the encyclopedia.  In due time Marx supplied nearly seventy entries (and was paid two dollars per page).  Some were biographical, like "Bolivar y Ponte, Simon," but most were on military subjects and so may have been written by, or at least with help from, Engels, whom Marx's children used to call "the General" because of his presumed expertise on military topics.  Among the entries Marx was asked for but declined to write was "Aesthetics."  He remarked to Engels in a letter of May 23rd, "It is a puzzle to me how 'Aesthetics' should be treated 'fundamentally' on a Hegelian basis, on one page." On the 28th Engels replied, "Dana must be crazy to stipulate one page for aesthetics."

If Marx and Engels had written a comprehensive article on aesthetics, what would it have said about music?  Their available writings do not discuss music enough to give us a very good answer; but they do contain many suggestive hints, and exclude certain possibilities.
One could try to deduce Marx's and Engels's views on music from an analysis of what they said about art in general; but for clarity and reliability will here consider mainly the remarks they made explicitly about music.  Even rather casual remarks can reveal a significant attitude.  We will also find reflected some interesting differences between Marx and Engels in personality and intellectual style.  Let us begin with Engels.

Friedrich Engels was born and raised in Barmen, an industrial town where his father owned and managed a textile factory.  After graduating from high school in 1837, he appears to have spent a year in his father's firm before being sent, at the age of 17, to the port city of Bremen for nearly three years as a business apprentice, that is, a clerk in an export firm.  Of his 46 letters from Bremen which are known to have survived (mainly to his sister Marie and his school friends Friedrich and Wilhelm Graebner), twelve speak of music.  They show that young Engels not only attended concerts and the opera, but also performed in a chorus, cultivated a taste for music from the first half of the 18th century, and tried his hand, in a gentlemanly and very amateurish way, at composing.  The letters show a nice broadening of interest and growth of critical acumen...

He wrote to his sister from Berlin on January 6, 1842, "The local theatre is very fine -- magnificent sets, splendid actors -- but mostly bad singers. So I don't go very often to the opera." In another letter from Berlin (dated April 16), he told her

Mr. Liszt has been here and enchanted all the ladies by his piano playing.  The Berlin ladies were so besotted by him that there was a free fight during one his concerts for possession of a glove which he had dropped, and two sisters are now enemies for life because one of them snatched the glove from the other.  Countess Schlippenbach poured the tea which the great Liszt had left in a cup into her Eau-de-Cologne bottle after she had poured the Eau-de-Colonge on the ground.  She has since sealed the bottle and placed it on top of her writing-desk to his eternal memory, and feasts her eyes on it every morning, as can be seen in a cartoon which appeared about it.  There never was such a scandal.  The young ladies fought over him, but he snubbed them frightfully and preferred to go and drink champagne with a couple of students.  But there are a couple of pictures of the great, charming, heavenly, genial, divine Liszt in every house.  I will draw you a portrait of him. Liszt by Engels  Here is the man with the Kamchatka hair style.  By the way, he must have earned at least 10,000 talers here, and his hotel bill amounted to 3,000 talers -- apart from what he spent in taverns.  I tell you, he's a real man.  He drinks twenty cups of coffee a day, two ounces of coffee every cup, and ten bottles of champagne, from which it can fairly safely be concluded that he lives in a kind of perpetual drunken haze, which may also be confirmed.  He has now gone off to Russia, and one wonders whether the ladies there will also go as crazy...

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