The Ensouled Violin
(By Hillarion Smerdis, F.T.S.) 1
Theosophist, January, 1880
The almost supernatural or magic art of Nicolo Paganini—the greatest violin player that the world has ever produced—was often speculated upon, never understood. The sensation he produced upon his audience was marvellous, overpowering. The great Rossini wept like a sentimental German maiden, upon hearing him play for the first time. The Princess Eliza of Lucca, sister of the great Napoleon, though he was in her service as the director of her private orchestra, was for a long time unable to hear him play without fainting. In women he produced nervous fits and hysterics at his will; stout-hearted men he drove to frenzy. He changed cowards into heroes, and made the bravest soldiers become as nervous girls. Thousands of dreary tales circulated about this mysterious Genoese, the modern Orpheus of Italy. For besides his remarkable appearance—termed by his friends eccentric, and by his victims diabolical—he had experienced great difficulties in refuting certain rumours of his having murdered his wife, and after her, his mistress, both of whom loved him passionately. Their unquiet souls, it was whispered, had been made through his magic art to pass into his violin—the famous “Cremona:” superstition not utterly ungrounded in view of his extraordinary facility in drawing out of his instrument the most unearthly sounds, and positively human voices. These effects well-nigh startled his audiences into terror; and, if we add to it the impenetrable mystery connected with a certain period of his youth, we will find the wild tales told of him in a measure excusable; especially among a people whose ancestors knew the Borgias and Medici of black art fame.
We will now give a fact—a page from his biography—connected with, and based upon, such a tale. The press got hold of it at the time of its occurrence, and the annals of the literature of Italy preserve the record of it until now, though in many and various other forms.
It was in 1831. The great, the “diabolical” Paganini was creating at the house of the Paris Opera an enthusiasm unsurpassed by any triumph he had previously gleaned. After hearing him, several of the leading musicians of the noblest orchestra in the Western world, broke their instruments . . .
At that time, there lived at Paris another violinist gifted with an extraordinary talent, but poor and unknown, a German, whose name was Franz Stenio. He was young and a philosopher, imbued with all the mysticism of Hoffmann’s “Chant d’Antonia,” and nursed in the atmosphere of the old haunted castles on the Rhine. He had studied the occult arts and dabbled in alchemy, but otherwise was interested but little in the matters of this world. The whole of his aspirations mounted, incense-like, together with the wave of heavenly harmony which he drew forth from his four-stringed instrument, to a higher and a nobler sphere.
His mother, his only love on earth and whom he had never left, died when he was thirty. It was then that he found he had been left poor indeed; poor in purse, still poorer in earthly affections. His old violin teacher, Samuel Klaus, one of those grotesque figures which look as if they had just stepped out of some old mediaeval panel, with the speaking and piercing voice of a “show Punch,” and the fantastic allures of a night goblin, then took him by the hand, and, leading him to his violin, simply said:—“Make yourself famous. I am old and childless, I will be your father, and we will live together.” And they went to Paris.
Franz had never heard Paganini. He swore he would either eclipse all the violinists of those days, or break his instrument and at the same time put an end to his own life. Old Klaus rejoiced, and jumping on one leg like an old satyr, flattered and incensed him, believing himself all the while to be performing a sacred duty for the holy cause of art.
Franz was making himself reads for his first appearance before the public, when Paganini’s arrival in the great capital of fashion was loudly heralded by his fame. The German violinist resolved to postpone his debut, and at first smiled at the enthusiastic mentions of the Italian’s name. But soon this name became a fiery thorn in the heart of Franz, a threatening phantom in the mind of old Samuel. Both shuddered at the very mention of Paganini’s successes.
At last the Italian’s first concert was announced, and the prices of admission made enormous. The master and the pupil both pawned their watches and got two modest seats. Who can describe the enthusiasm, the triumphs of this famous, and at the same time, fatal night? At the first touch of Paganini’s magic bow, both Franz and Samuel felt as if the icy hand of death had touched them. Carried away by an irresistible enthusiasm which turned into a violent, unearthly, mental torture, they dared neither look into each other’s faces, nor exchange one word during the whole performance.
At midnight, while the chosen delegates of the Musical Society of Paris, unhitching the horses, were dragging in triumph Paganini home in his carriage, the two Germans having returned to their obscure apartment, were sitting mournful and desperate in their usual places at the fire-corner. “Samuel!” exclaimed Franz, pale as death itself,—“Samuel,—it remains for us now but to die! . . . Do you hear me? . . . We are worthless . . . worthless! We were two mad men to have hoped that anyone in this world would ever rival . . . him!—” The name of Paganini stuck in his throat as in utter despair he fell into his arm-chair.
The old professor’s wrinkles suddenly became purple; and his little greenish eyes gleamed phosphorescently as, bending toward his pupil, he whispered to him in a hoarse and broken voice—“Thou art wrong, my Franz! I have taught thee, and thou hast learned all of the great art that one simple mortal and a good Christian can learn from another and as simple a mortal as himself. Am I to be blamed because these accursed Italians, in order to reign unequalled in the domain of art, have recourse to Satan and the diabolical effects of black magic?”
Franz turned his eyes upon his old master. There was a sinister light burning in those glittering orbs; a light telling plainly that to secure such a power, he too, would not scruple to sell himself, body and soul, to the Evil One.
Samuel understood the cruel thought, but yet went on with feigned calmness—“You have heard the unfortunate tale rumoured about the famous Tartini? He died on one Sabbath night, strangled by his familiar demon, who had taught him the way, by means of incantations, to animate his violin, with a human soul, by shutting up in it the soul of a young Virgin . . . Paganini did more; in order to endow his instrument with the faculty of emitting human sobs, despairing cries, in short the most heart-rending notes of the human voice, Paganini became the murderer of a friend, who was more tenderly attached to him than any other on this earth. He then made out of the intestines of his victim the four cords of his magic violin. This is the secret of his enchanting talent, of that overpowering melody, and that combination of sounds, which you will never be able to master, unless. . . . . . . .”
The old man could not finish the sentence. He staggered before the fiendish look of his pupil, and covered his face with his hands. “And, . . . you really believe . . . that had I the means of obtaining human intestines for strings, I could rival Paganini?” asked Franz, after a moment’s pause, and casting down his eyes.
The old German unveiled his face, and, with a strange look of determination upon it, softly answered. “Human intestines only are not sufficient for the purpose: these must have belonged to one that has loved us well, and with an unselfish, holy love. Tartini endowed his violin with the life of a virgin; but that virgin had died of unrequited love for him . . . The fiendish artist had prepared beforehand a tube in which he managed to catch her last breath as she expired in pronouncing his beloved name, and then transferred this breath into his violin. 2 As to Paganini—I have just told you his tale. It was with the consent of his victim though, that he murdered him to get possession of his intestines . . . Oh for the power of the human voice!” Samuel went on, after a brief pause: “What can equal the eloquence, the magic spell, of the human voice! Do you think, my poor boy, I would not have taught you this great, this final secret, were it not, that it throws one right into the clutches of him . . . who must remain unnamed at night?”
Franz did not answer. With a calm, awful to behold, he left his place, took down his violin from the wall where it was hanging, and with one powerful grasp of the cords tore them out and flung them into the fire.
The old Samuel suppressed a cry of horror. The cords were hissing upon the coals, where, among the blazing logs, they wriggled and curled like so many living snakes.
Weeks and months passed away. This conversation was never resumed between the master and the pupil. But a profound melancholy had taken possession of Franz, and the two hardly exchanged a word together. The violin hung mute, cordless, and full of dust, upon its habitual place. It was like the presence of a soulless corpse between them.
One night, as Franz sat, looking particularly pale and gloomy, old Samuel, suddenly jumped from his seat, and after hopping about the room in a magpie fashion approached his pupil, imprinted a fond kiss upon the young man’s brow, and then squeaked at the top of his voice, “It is time to put an end to all this!” . . . Whereupon starting from his usual lethargy, Franz echoed, as in a dream:—“Yes, it is time to put an end to this.” Upon which the two separated and went to bed.
On the following morning, when Franz awoke, he was astonished at not seeing his old teacher at his usual place to give him his first greeting. “Samuel! My good, my dear . . . Samuel!” exclaimed Franz, as he hurriedly jumped from his bed to go into his master’s chamber. He staggered back frightened at the sound of his own voice, so changed and hoarse it seemed to him at this moment. No answer came in response to his call. Naught followed but a dead silence . . . There exists in the domain of sounds, a silence which usually denotes death. In the presence of a corpse, as in the lugubrious stillness of a tomb, silence acquires a mysterious power, which strikes the sensitive soul with a nameless terror . . .
Samuel was lying on his bed, cold, stiff and lifeless . . . At the sight of him, who had loved him so well, and had been more than a father, Franz experienced a dreadful shock. But the passion of the fanatical artist got the better of the despair of the man, and smothered the feelings of the latter.
A note addressed with his own name was conspicuously placed upon a table near the corpse. With a trembling hand, the violinist tore open the envelope, and read the following:—
“My beloved Franz,
“When you read this, I will have made the greatest sacrifice your best and only friend and professor could have accomplished, for your fame. He, who loved you most, is now but an inanimate body; of your old teacher there now remains but a clod of cold organic matter. I need not prompt you as to what you have to do with it. Fear not stupid prejudices. It is for your future fame that I have made an offering of my body, and you would become guilty of the blackest ingratitude, were you now to render this sacrifice useless. When you shall have replaced the cords upon your violin and these cords—a portion of my own self,—will acquire under your touch my voice, my groans, my song of welcome, and the sobs of my infinite love for you, my boy,—then, oh, Franz, fear nobody! Take your instrument along with you, and follow the steps of him who filled our lives with bitterness and despair. . . . Appear on the arena, where, hitherto, he has reigned without a rival, and bravely throw the gauntlet of defiance into his face. Oh, Franz! then only wilt thou hear with what a magic power the full note of love will issue forth from thy violin; as with a last caressing touch of its cords, thou wilt, perhaps, remember that they have once formed a portion of thine old teacher, who now embraces and blesses thee for the last time.—SAMUEL.
Two burning tears sparkled in the eyes of Franz, but they dried up instantly under the fiery rush of passionate hope and pride. The eyes of the future magician-artist, riveted to the ghastly face of the corpse, shone like the eyes of the church owl.
Our pen refuses to describe what took place later on that day, in the death room, after the legal autopsy was over. Suffice to say, that, after a fortnight had passed, the violin was dusted and four new stout cords had been stretched upon it. Franz dared not look at them. He tried to play, but the bow trembled in his hand like a dagger in the grasp of a novice-brigand. He made a vow not to try again until the portentous night when he should have a chance to rival—nay, surpass Paganini.
But the famous violinist had left Paris and was now giving a series of triumphant concerts at an old Flemish town in Belgium.
One night, as Paganini sat in the bar room of the hotel at which he stopped, surrounded by a crowd of admirers, a visiting-card was handed to him which had a few words written in pencil upon its back, by a young man with wild and staring eyes. Fixing upon the intruder a look which few persons could bear, but receiving back a glance as determined and calm as his own, Paganini slightly bowed and then dryly said:—“Sir, it will be as you desire . . . name the night . . . I am at your service . . .”
On the following morning the whole town was startled at the sight of numerous bills posted at the corner of every street. The strange notice ran thus:—
“Tonight at the Grand Theatre of, and for the first time, will appear before the public, Franz Stenio, a German Violinist, arrived purposely to throw the gauntlet at, and challenge the world-famous Paganini to a duel—upon their violins. He purposes to compete with the great ‘virtuoso’ in the execution of the most difficult of his compositions. The famous Paganini has accepted the challenge. Franz Stenio will have to play in competition with the unrivalled violinist the celebrated ‘Fantaisie caprice’ of the latter, known as ‘THE WITCHES.’”
The effect of the notice proved magical. Paganini, who amid his greatest triumphs, never lost sight of a profitable speculation, doubled the usual price of admission. But still the theatre could not hold the crowds that flocked to it on that memorable night.
At the terrible hour of the forthcoming struggle, Franz was at his post, calm, resolute, almost smiling. It was arranged that Paganini should begin. When he appeared upon the stage, the thick walls of the theatre shook to their foundation with the applause that greeted him. He began and ended his famous composition “The Witches” amid uninterrupted bravos. The cries of public enthusiasm lasted so long that Franz began to think that his turn would never come. When at last, Paganini, amid the roaring applause of a frantic public, was allowed to retire behind the scenes, and his eye fell upon Stenio, who was tuning his violin, he felt amazed at the serene calmness, and the air of assurance of the unknown German artist.
When Franz approached the footlights, he was received with an icy coldness. But for all that he did not feel in the least disconcerted: he only scornfully smiled, for he was sure of his triumph.
At the first notes of the Prelude of “The Witches” the audience became dumb struck with astonishment. It was Paganini’s touch, and—it was something else besides. Some—and that some the majority—thought that never, in his best moments of inspiration had the Italian artist himself, while executing this diabolical composition of his, exhibited such an equally diabolical power. Under the pressure of the long muscular fingers, the cords wriggled like the palpitating intestines of a disembowelled victim, the Satanic eye of the artist fixed upon the soundboard, called forth hell itself out of the mysterious depths of his instrument. Sounds transformed themselves into shapes, and gathering thickly, at the evocation of the mighty magician, whirled around him, like a host of fantastic, infernal figures, dancing the witches’ “goat dance.” In the emptiness of the stage background behind him, a nameless phantasmagoria produced by the concussion of unearthly vibrations, seemed to draw pictures of shameless orgies, and the voluptuous hymens, of the witches’ Sabbath . . . A collective hallucination got hold of the public. Panting for breath, ghastly, and trickling with the icy perspiration of an inexpressible terror, they sat spellbound, and unable to break the charm of the music by the slightest motion. They experienced all the illicit enervating delights of the paradise of Mohammed that come into the discorded fancy of an opium-eating Mussulman, and felt at the same time the abject terror, the agony of one who struggles against an attack of delirium tremens . . . Many ladies fainted, and strong men gnashed their teeth in a state of utter helplessness! . . .
Then came the finale ————— The magic bow was just drawing forth its last quivering sounds—imitating the precipitate flight of the witches saturated with the fumes of their night’s Saturnalia, when the notes suddenly changed in their melodious ascension into the squeaking, disagreeable tones of a street punchinello, 3 screaming at the top of his senile voice: “Art thou satisfied, Franz, my boy? . . . Have I well kept my promise, eh? . . . . .” And then, the slender graceful figure of the violinist suddenly appeared to the public as entirely enveloped in a semi-transparent form, which clearly defined the outlines of a grotesque and grinning but terribly awful-looking old man, whose bowels were protruding and ended where they were stretched on the violin!
Within this hazy, quivering veil, the violinist was then seen driving furiously his bow upon the human cords with the contortions of a demoniac, as represented on a mediaeval Cathedral painting!
An indescribable panic swept over the audience, and, breaking through the spell which had bound them for so long motionless in their seats, every living creature in the theatre made one mad rush to the door. It was like the sudden outburst of a dam; a human torrent, roaring amid a shower of discordant notes, idiotic squeaking, prolonged and whining moans, and cacophonous cries of frenzy, above which, like the detonations of pistol shots, was heard the consecutive bursting of the four cords upon the bewitched violin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When the theatre was emptied of its last occupant, the terrified manager rushed on the stage in search of the unfortunate performer. They found him dead and stiff, behind the footlights, twisted up in the most unnatural of postures, and his violin shattered into a thousand fragments . . . . . . . . . . . .
Cyprus, October 1st, 1879.
1. This same story, in an expanded version, appears in H.P.B.’s “Nightmare Tales” (1892). This shorter version was apparently written either by the Master Hillarion, or in collaboration with H.P.B. (which is likely the case). [ED.]
2. Giuseppe Tartini, the great Italian composer and violinist of the XVIIth century, produced such an impression by his inspired performance that he was commonly styled the “Master of Nations.” He eloped with a high-born young lady of great beauty. His most marvellous composition was the “Sonate du diable,” or “Tartini’s Dream” which he confessed to have written “on awakening from a dream, in which he had heard it performed by the devil, in consequence of a bargain struck with him.”—ED. THEOS. [H.P.B.]
3. Punch and Judy show—an old and very popular street amusement among Western nations.