Friday, July 15, 2016

`Things of an Intolerable Intimacy'

A musician on modern warfare:

“My ear, accustomed to differentiate sounds of all kinds, had some time ago, while we still advanced, noted a remarkable discrepancy in the peculiar whine produced by the different shells in their rapid flight through the air as they passed over our heads, some sounding shrill, with a rising tendency, and the others rather dull, with a falling cadence.”

The Austrian-born violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) in his memoir Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist (1915) takes a scientific interest in analyzing the sounds of an artillery barrage. I knew from my reading that seasoned soldiers could differentiate various guns by their sounds, and I remember my father describing the distinctive sound of a German “eighty-eight.” One detects an almost aesthetic component in Kreisler’s account. By the summer of 1914, he was already an international musical star. My friend Amy Biancolli writes in Fritz Kreisler: Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy (Amadeus Press, 1998):

“. . . Kreisler was at the top of his profession and, it seemed, the civilized world. Wherever he toured, he packed houses; however he played, he earned raves. Nowhere was he more popular than in the United States, where his musical panache, combined with a movie-idol charisma, made him one of the most universally recognized celebrities on the concert circuit.”

By Aug. 1, 1914, Kreisler and his wife had left Switzerland and returned to Vienna. The violinist was an army reservist, and he rejoined his regiment at Graz. They were ordered to Lemberg, and by Aug. 10 were fighting Russian troops at the front. Amy quotes “Kreisler, Wounded, Tells of War,” a story published on Nov. 29, 1914, in the New York Times: “. . . when you hear the first shell burst, it is a terrible thing; the whining in the air, the deafening crash, and the death it spreads around it. That is what you think of your first shell. But you think less of the second and third, and after that they pass out of your mind.”

In Four Weeks, Kreisler claims his musician’s ears enabled him to pinpoint the position of enemy guns: “Every shell describes in its course a parabolic line, with the first half of the curve ascending and the second one descending. Apparently in the first half of its curve, that is, its course while ascending, the shell produced a dull whine accompanied by a falling cadence, which changes to a rising shrill as soon as the acme has been reached and the curve points downward again.”

On Sept. 6, Kreisler’s unit was attacked by Russian Cossacks, and he was knocked down by a horse. When another mounted Cossack struck him in the hip with a sword, Kreisler shot him with his revolver. He was shuttled among field hospitals and returned to Vienna on Sept. 10. Kreisler was discharged from the Austrian army due to permanent disability in October. His military service had lasted less than three months. When he toured the United States in November, Kreisler was hailed as a war hero, as well as a virtuoso. The U.S. wouldn’t enter the war for more than two years.

Kreisler quickly wrote his war memoir and it was published by Houghton Mifflin in the spring of 1915. Amy notes that “the violinist’s celebrity seemed to overshadow his musicianship,” and she compares his fame to a rock star’s.  About the memoir she writes:

“Read today, Four Weeks remains an energetic and astonishingly literate war story filled with advancing Russians and the agonizing cries of wounded men. Whether all of it is true (and there is reason to doubt that it is, considering Kreisler’s predilection for creative storytelling) is, in this regard, a moot point, since the book was widely accepted as fact and its effect on the public was obvious and real.”

There’s little sense of horror in Kreisler’s memoir. In his telling, the war is a brief, inconvenient interruption in a life otherwise filled with musical triumphs. His war story shares little with the better-known English accounts by Blunden, Graves, Sassoon and Ford Madox Ford. In No More Parades (1925), the second novel in his Great War tetralogy Parade’s End, Ford’s description of a German shelling on the Western Front is utterly different in tone from Kreisler’s:

“An enormous crashing sound said things of an intolerable intimacy to each of those men, and to all of them as a body. After its mortal vomiting all the other sounds appeared a rushing silence, painful to ears in which the blood audibly coursed.”

In July 1916, Ford was blown into the air by a high-explosive German shell. For three weeks the novelist lost his memory, even forgetting his own name, and suffered shellshock. In his poem “Remembering Ford Madox Ford and Parade’s End, Howard Nemerov writes:

“. . . yet we, who did the next
Big one entailed upon us at Versailles,
Read you and believe your word. They were,
As we are, a sorry lot; you made them good.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Kreisler gets a mention in Vera Brittain's memoir, when she recounts getting the news of her brother's death on the Italian Front in 1916:

I crept into the dining-room to be alone with Edward's portrait.
Carefully closing the door, I turned on the light and looked at the
pale, pictured face, so dignified, so steadfast, so tragically mature.
He had been through so much--far, far more than those beloved friends
who had died at an earlier stage of the interminable War, leaving him
alone to mourn their loss. Fate might have allowed him the little,
sorry compensation of survival, the chance to make his lovely music in
honour of their memory. It seemed indeed the last irony that he
should have been killed by the countrymen of Fritz Kreisler, the
violinist whom of all others he had most greatly admired.
And suddenly, as I remembered all the dear afternoons and
evenings when I had followed him on the piano as he played his violin, the sad,
searching eyes of the portrait were more than I could bear, and
falling on my knees before it I began to cry 'Edward! Oh, Edward!' in
dazed repetition, as though my persistent crying and calling would
somehow bring him back.
-- Vera Brittain, "A Brother's Death in Italy", _Testament of
Youth_, 1933