Friday, May 05, 2017

Stefan Zweig on the writing of "La Marseillaise"

From "The Secret of Artistic Creation," written in 1938 by Stefan Zweig and translated from the German by Will Stone:
Rouget de l'Isle is not a poet proper, nor a composer. He was an officer of genius who during the French Revolution found himself in Strasbourg. On 25h April 1792 at midday came the news that the Republic had declared war on the kings of Europe. An atmosphere of drunken exaltation flooded the city. In the evening the mayor laid on a dinner for the officers. During the meal he turned to Rouget d l'Isle, to whom he said: why not write some jubilant verses, and in friendly fashion asked him to compose a song which the troops could sing as they marched into battle. And why not? Until midnight the officers remained assembled, then Rouget de l'Isle set off for home. He had fully participated in the general merriment and had drunk enough; his head rang with toasts and speeches, words such as "Allons, enfants de la Patrie!" and "Le jour de gloire est arrivé." He sat at the table and wrote straight out the required lines. Then he took up his violin and struck a melody. In two hours it was finished. The next morning at six, he went to find the mayor and presented him the finished song, the completed composition. Ignoring fatigue, and in a kind of trance, he had somehow created one of the most immortal poems in the world, one of the most immortal melodies, through sheer inspiration. it was not of course he himself who was author, but rather the genius of the hour.

You can read more about Rouget de l'Isle here.

This essay, which is part of a collection called Messages from a Lost World (published by the Pushkin Press) is outdated at times, especially when it comes to music (I don't know if anyone still subscribes to the idea that Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn never made sketches, for example), but much of it is terrific. Here's another morsel:

The true artist is then as occupied by his creation as the believer by his prayer, the dreamer by his dream. As a result, in contemplating the internal, he is unable to see clearly the external, or himself. This is why artists, poets, painters, [and] musicians are incapable, whilst they are creating, of observing themselves, still less of explaining themselves, or by what manner they have produced the work. They are bad witnesses, useless witnesses for the creation courtroom, and, like inceptions criminologists, it would be a mistake on our part to rely blindly on their testimony.

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