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Musical Alchemy, Temporal Analogy: The Hidden Compositional
Models of The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus

Adviser: Maria A. DiBattista

Paavana L. Kumar

Comparative Literature

“It was largely through examining primary materials—Mann’s correspondence with composers, the notes and underlinings in the margins of his own novels and musical scores, and his diaries and letters—that I became convinced of my thesis’s merit.”


When I was a freshman, I had grand ideas for my thesis. Perhaps I would come up with a new theory of linguistic totalitarianism in my favorite book, George Orwell’s 1984! Or perhaps I’d uncover a secret document in the attic of some long-abandoned archive in Moscow, single-handedly paving the way to a radical new reading of Dostoevsky’s masterworks! At Princeton, it’s easy to believe that your thesis has to do something important, to mean something “big.” But in the end, the idea that became my thesis occurred to me quite suddenly, surfacing as nothing more than a random thought in the middle of a routine Christmas break assignment. And the thesis I found so rewarding didn’t lead to a sudden overhaul of all critical thought on the topic of modernist German literature. Instead, it made a small, yet very real, contribution to a unique field I was passionate about.

The thought was simply this: As a dedicated pianist and comparative literature major, I had spent years studying the structures and meanings of different musical forms in theory and performance, and had read literature that engaged with their representation in interesting descriptive and aesthetic ways. But what if music ceased to be the subject of narrative material, and became the structure of narrative in itself? I was midway through translating a Rainer Maria Rilke sonnet for my comparative literature junior seminar when I found myself writing the line: “a constellation of songs in the sky.” Rilke was visualizing a world in which songs were treated as building blocks—no longer represented, but representing.

I wrote a paper for that class on the “architectonics” of music in Rilke’s poetry, an endeavor that allowed me to look more deeply into music’s spatial qualities, and how those qualities lent themselves to analogies in narrative technique (for example, through flashbacks, fragmentation, or recurring linguistic “structures”). I went on to apply for a spring graduate seminar on “Exilic Time” in modernist literature with Maria DiBattista, whom I would later ask to serve as my thesis adviser. In that class, I explored musical ideas even further in a final paper on James Joyce’s deployment of musical terms and techniques in Ulysses. Through this extended engagement with the topic, I became immersed in the many ways in which a novelist or poet might parallel compositional techniques, melodies, and rhythms in writing to highlight or, even more interestingly, to undermine the themes of the prose. By the end of that class, I found myself gravitating toward the same issue—the ways in which musical forms could be deployed to pattern time, leading to new readings of temporal themes in narrative.

I was fascinated by the idea of further exploring music’s spatiotemporal role in modernist narrative, and discussed my interests with Professor DiBattista. We both thought immediately of Thomas Mann’s novels, which deal extensively with both music and time, as ideal subjects for more sustained and complex musicological study. At this stage, I didn’t expect to arrive at any particular “new readings” or conclusions about novels that had attracted so much attention from musicians and literary critics alike; I thought more of providing a comprehensive musical comparison of the techniques used in two specific novels, The Magic Mountain (which treated time as its primary theme) and Doctor Faustus (which primarily treated music), because a direct study of this sort did not already exist in the critical literature.

However, as I began to do more research and study the novels in preparation for my thesis proposal, I began to wonder if I was not equipped to bring a more radical claim. Mann’s novels described and engaged with specific genres of music in great depth (Wagner’s leitmotifs in The Magic Mountain, Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositions in Doctor Faustus), and yet I could detect resonances of numerous other musical movements in both works—musical movements taking place at the time of Mann’s writing after each of the world wars, ahead of the time of the characters and composers internal to his novels. If I read the works in light of those “hidden” musical movements, which engaged with divergent aesthetic histories and purposes, would I arrive at new conclusions about narrative themes? To this end, I wanted to inform myself more about Mann’s knowledge of modernist musical forms, the politics and intentions of those structures, and his attitudes toward integrating them into his writing. 

With the support of Professor DiBattista, I applied for funding from the Department of Comparative Literature and the Office of the Dean of the College for thesis research to travel to the Thomas Mann Archives in Zurich, Switzerland, where Mann’s diaries, personal books, letters, and specific correspondence with composers were housed. I did research there for three weeks, amassing an enormous amount of material. As predicted, the topic of music and Mann’s writing opened a Pandora’s box of notes, papers, and books (none of which, in the old-fashioned archive, were digitalized!). However, it was largely through examining primary materials—Mann’s correspondence with composers, the notes and underlinings in the margins of his own novels and musical scores, and his diaries and letters—that I became convinced of my thesis’s merit. Rather than focusing on the huge body of secondary writing discussing the works and composers most commonly associated with Mann’s novels (although these would be important once I narrowed my topic!), I looked at the composers that Mann knew of, admired, or was fascinated by, but who, for some reason, were never explicitly referenced in his writing. Though sometimes slow and tedious—not least because I had to parse a large number of almost exclusively German-language documents—this research was intriguing.

When I left the archive in September of my senior year, I had a good idea of the direction of my thesis. It was to explore the importance of music—largely modernist music—as a spatiotemporal structuring force in both these novels, charting how the nature of these structuring principles morphed from the earlier work to the later. To do this, I had to demonstrate Mann’s incredibly deep knowledge of music and theory, as well as his attitudes toward a large range of musical movements as they related to aesthetics, ideology, temporality, and politics. Enabled by my own knowledge of music, I intended to excavate the “hidden compositional models” of the works, the implicit meanings that emerged through looking at music as narrative architecture, as well as the role of those architectural forms in the charged dynamics of modernist music and art after World War I and World War II. I then wanted to evaluate and assess those implicit meanings, especially those relating to temporal interpretation, against accepted professional interpretations of the novels to see how my reading might revise or radicalize those beliefs. I also believed that a heightened focus on Mann’s earlier novel would lead me to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the development of his narrative technique toward the later, more overtly musicological novel.

As I began to plan, I realized that undertaking an equal study of both novels would simply not be feasible, especially given the mammoth body of literature discussing the topic of “music and Doctor Faustus.” Both my adviser, Professor DiBattista, and my second reader, Professor April Alliston, expressed concern in December of my senior year that my topic was simply too broad and ambitious in scope. Through a number of meetings with Professor DiBattista, I decided that a more focused and original approach would be to excavate the “hidden” musical ideas already at work in The Magic Mountain, showing that conventional interpretations were somewhat limited. Then, I would undertake an informed “re-reading” of the two final fictional musical compositions created by the protagonist of Doctor Faustus, in light of my conclusions about Mann’s manipulation of modernist musical structures. I did not, however, revise the musical scope of my thesis, for I believed that the diversity of compositional considerations was key to its originality and to its conclusion. Ultimately, this revised approach allowed the “re-reading” section to crystallize and summarize the radical nature of the musical architecture underlying both novels, as well as to clarify the implicit new temporal meanings deriving from the political and aesthetic differences between the embedded musical forms.

As for the actual writing process, I approached my thesis somewhat like laying bricks, or building a model from the skeleton up! I divided my writing into three parts: musical background and sections for each of the novels, tackling each separately through a research and writing schedule that I began in January of my senior year. Having planned the layout of the thesis and apportioned approximate lengths to each section, I began to fill in my research, then wrote a rough draft, then a more refined one, and so on. Although my adviser had expressed some concern about the length of my thesis, I felt that this process allowed me to carefully consider the amount of space I really needed to treat the topic in the depth it deserved. It also allowed me to sift out potentially irrelevant research before beginning the process of final writing. With a topic such as mine, I would have been overwhelmed if I had attempted to start writing and synthesizing my research findings without a sufficiently narrow conception of the argument. Writing the footnotes, proofreading the German sections, and creating a bibliography all took significant amounts of time, so I was careful to budget weeks in for those tasks, especially as about 70 percent of my sources were in German.

As I worked throughout the spring, I would check in periodically with my adviser. I loved the nature of our working relationship: She was passionate about the topic; she genuinely cared about the development of my thesis; and she guided me to take the thesis in exciting new directions without being too “hands-on.” Advising, for me, was a tool to help me visualize and re-think the “big-picture” concepts and ideas behind my writing, while the actual organization of my writing, from chapter outlines to line-by-line edits and last-minute tweaks, were up to me. In fact, many of the most interesting “twists,” new ideas, and sub-arguments—including the title of my thesis, which coined the term “musical alchemy”—emerged within those last few crucial weeks before the deadline! In the weeks and days before my thesis was due, I remained open to new ideas, new sources, and different approaches to organization, relentlessly rewriting the prose by printing out the document and pencil-editing. I also took advantage of Princeton professors and colleagues in diverse disciplines (especially those with specialized knowledge of music) who were willing to read over a section or even just discuss the complex issues at play. This might be especially important to note if you are undertaking an interdisciplinary thesis, since it is easy to assimilate misconceptions into your work if you are not an expert on the integrated discipline (in my case, though I was deeply familiar with many aspects of music, I needed to be sure that I was correctly interpreting more technical and theoretical structures I might not have studied). Princeton is full of such resources, so don’t get so bogged down in your own writing schedule that you fail to take advantage of them.

A few final words: It is rare to have the opportunity to spend so much time focusing on one single topic you are passionate about. Do not write about a topic that does not have the potential to continue rekindling your interest, sparking new trails of thought! Frustration with your thesis is one issue that everyone experiences at some point—and boredom is another. It is also important to have fun with your writing, especially in a discipline like comparative literature. Although my thesis had many moments of dry musicological analysis, it also had moments of vivid description and creativity. I wanted to keep the writing alive, fresh, and interesting to read: If you are writing to “get it done” or to “power through another five pages,” it will show in the finished product. When the right idea comes to you (and it will!) you’ll be writing for yourself, not for the deadline.

Musical Alchemy, Temporal Analogy: The Hidden Compositional
Models of The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus

Paavana L. Kumar

Maria A. DiBattista

Professor of English and Comparative Literature

“The spirit of independence Paavana exhibited is one that can and should be encouraged in everyone.”

The tradition of independent work may not be unique to Princeton, but the particular form it takes and the role it plays in undergraduate life certainly are. The junior year is partly dedicated to exploring what it means to think and write outside the confines of a class assignment; virtually the entire senior year to an extended, ideally exciting but nonetheless often nerve-wracking engagement with a single topic. I can’t count the number of advisees who quailed at the prospect of such a labor and doubted their ability to complete it. Yet, somehow, they do.

But they do so, naturally, in their own way. This sounds simpler than it is in fact. Finding your own way is partly what independent work is all about. Different disciplines have different understandings of the very concept of independence. In mathematics, independence is a function or value that is not dependent for its value on another; in logic, independence is attributed to propositions that are not deducible from other propositions; in grammar, independence is a syntactical self-sufficiency, indicating a sentence, for example, that can and does stand on its own. All of these uses, however different, stress the singularity and apartness of independent mathematical functions, logical propositions, or grammatical expressions. In literary criticism, independence is less easily qualified and codified. But I would offer Paavana Kumar as an example of someone whose work was independent in the way she brought together ideas and arts that even in a proudly interdisciplinary environment of the University are not often in conversation with each other. In her case, she brought her love of music (Paavana is an accomplished pianist who has performed in Berlin and St. Petersburg); her gifts as a linguist, especially her fluency in German; and her skills and ingenuity as a reader together in a senior thesis on the “musical” structures and motifs of Thomas Mann’s most challenging works, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

I was lucky enough to witness the birth of this project and oversee its completion. I first met Paavana when she approached me when she was a rising junior to see if I would admit her into my graduate seminar. I am extremely reluctant to admit undergraduates to my graduate classes, for all the reasons you can imagine. But after reading the work she sent along with her request, I decided to take a chance on her. I never regretted that decision. There was no discernible difference between her performance in the seminar and those of even the more seasoned graduate students. Her final essay for the seminar was on musical motifs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It became clear in that essay that Paavana had an extraordinary knowledge of music, which served her well in analyzing how Joyce exploits and adapts musical structure not only to “Sirens,” the explicitly musical chapter of Ulysses, but also to the novel as a whole.

In late spring of that year, we began talking about possible topics for her senior thesis and Paavana revealed her longstanding fascination with Mann’s relation to the musical arts. That following summer, Paavana, with the aid of University funding for senior thesis research, visited the Thomas Mann archives in Zurich. In an age when everything is or seems about to be digitalized, Paavana experienced what it means to encounter original writings as they issue from the hand of the author. At no other time, I think, does a writer seem so living and so real; at no other time is the sense of discovery so thrilling. Emerging from these encounters, Paavana had a wealth of archival material—and personal impressions—to absorb. She also faced the critical task of relating her own musical knowledge to the evidence she had acquired of Mann’s compositional strategies. Her initial attempts at synthesizing all that she had discovered and learned in the course of her research and rereadings were generally ungainly and disorganized. This was not alarming, although I think Paavana might have been alarmed at how long it took to see her way clear. The best work often does begin with broad gestures, sweeping generalizations, and mounds of evidence that seem to defy systematic and coherent argument. So with Paavana’s work. Her first chapter drafts were detailed, but cumbersome and at times overwhelming; they were not, to use a word both musicians and writers share, composed. Reading those early drafts was to feel in the presence of a tsunami that was moving with unquestionable force, but as pure onward motion. What she needed was to sort through and begin to control and shape her materials rather than merely present them. This entailed not just rewriting but deciding what she actually wanted to say. And to say it in her own way. This she managed, and managed with extraordinary delicacy, as well as power, in the final stages of revision.

Here are my official remarks on the result. They are necessarily a bit formal, even stuffy, but I think they represent what was striking and impressive about Paavana’s work:

Drawing on Mann’s own private archives, the voluminous commentary on Mann’s novels by astute and musically knowledgeable critics, and her own impressive understanding of musical techniques, Kumar excavates the heretofore unrecognized or “hidden” compositional models. In so doing, she convincingly demonstrates that the “movement” from the “leitmotific” strategies so ingeniously mobilized in The Magic Mountain to the confrontation with Schoenberg’s twelve tone modernism in Doctor Faustus represents a continuous engagement with the musical ideas of a line of composers stretching from Wagner, Debussy, and Ravel to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Webern, Berg, and Auteuil. With impressive authority—and critical composure—Kumar meticulously traces Mann’s debts, borrowings, and ingenious transformations of an array of musical ideas from composers with different aims, methods, techniques, and politics, while showing us, with exemplary precision, both the similarities and differences among them.

In other words, this was independent work that explored the unique alchemy of interdependencies in a personal and original way. Not all senior theses will be this ambitious, this successful in drawing upon the various interests—often the passions—that undergraduates bring to their work and that, indeed, give meaning and direction to their lives. But the spirit of independence Paavana exhibited is one that can and should be encouraged in everyone.