Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: Rath Krespel/The Cremona Violin

The latest in my Hoffmann series is "Rath Krespel," sometimes known as "Councillor Krespel," and other times as "The Cremona Violin," first published in 1819.

It's an odd tale, even for Hoffmann. It tells the tale of Krespel, an excellent violin-maker, who is also eccentric...almost to the point of insanity. There's a story told in the tale of how he was building a house, and had the mason build blank stone walls until they reached the height he felt appropriate, then walked around the blank walls until he decided where a door should go, and had them cut a hole in the wall right there. Yeah, that level of eccentric.

Krespel spends his time making violins and acquiring violins made by other great makers which he takes apart to learn their secrets. However, there is a Cremona violin, from an unknown maker, that he is unable to disassemble; instead, he keeps it on the shelf.

A unnamed narrator observes how Krespel disappears for a while, then shows up with a young woman in tow. She turns out to be Antonia, who has a magnificent singing voice. Krespel shelters her and tries to prevent visitors. The narrator takes an interest, because Antonia is so gorgeous, and worms his way into Krespel's house. It goes well until he tries to get Antonia to sing, at which point he is hustled out of the house and told he is no longer welcome.

The narrator leaves town for a few years, and returns to find a funeral going on. Yup, Antonia is dead, and the narrator suspects foul play and confronts Krespel. It turns out Krespel had been married to an opera singer whom he was separated from, although they were fond of another, and who had borne him a daughter, Antonia. Antonia was blessed with her mother's voice, but also had an "organic defect" in her chest that meant that singing could bring about her death. He prevented her marrying a young composer, and kept her at home. Their greatest pleasure was the Cremona violin, which had a sound resembling Antonia's voice, so he played it often. Then one day, after a strange, surreal dream in which he sees and hears Antonia singing and embracing her former fiance, he wakes and rushes to her room, to find her dead.

That's it. No apparitions, no surreal demons, precious little supernatural content except the dream and the sense of a sort of curse hanging over poor Antonia. But this was one of Hoffmann's more popular stories, and there is something rather memorable about it.

There is a sort of air of abusiveness about Krespel's treatment of Antonia; he will not allow her self-determination. She truly desires to sing, and has an amazing talent and ability, but he fears that it will take her from him. The story of many overprotective parents, eh? I suppose that's the key to the story's enduring popularity: the old recurring story of the overbearing parent who can't let go, taken to an extreme.

It also has some interesting psychological insight. Krespel acts oddly, especially in the wake of Antonia's death, but when the narrator wonders about having him put in an asylum or similar, he is told by a friend that Krespel is no crazier than anyone else, but simply acts on the insane thoughts and impulses that people normally do not act on, and is thus more honest about his inmost thoughts than most people. That's food for thought right there: are so-called "crazy" people simple acting on thoughts and impulses that the rest of us repress?

Also, this is notable for being the basis of one of the acts of the opera, "Tales of Hoffmann," and depending on the version you saw, it could be the second or third act. For many years it was performed as the third act, as it was felt to be the most accomplished musically, but in later reconstructions of Offenbach's original plans for the opera (he died before it was complete), it's played as the second act, which actually makes more sense in the character arc that's played out for the Hoffmann character.

Here's her death scene from the opera; the music is actually quite remarkable...

More Hoffmann on the way!

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