Contemplating and plotting

My favorite painting of male friendship is the heavenly second version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819 and ca. 1830) which illustrates both my blog and my Facebook page.

The painting depicts two friends, seen from the back, pausing in their evening walk through a forest in late autumn, and looking at the floating moon and the evening star.  Writing about its different interpretations I highlighted the political one, which notes that [quoting an earlier post] “from the outset of the French Revolution, clothing was a principal way in which people showed their political affiliations. The two men in Friedrich’s painting wear medieval Old German attire that had been adopted in 1815 by members of the Jena Student Association. Radical students and other intellectuals opposed post-Napoleonic ultra-conservativism represented by the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) and its chair, Austrian statesman Prince Metternich. However, in 1819 repressive decrees placed universities under surveillance, banned all student associations, and declared this kind of dress illegal because it was considered the “demagogues’ uniform.” Friedrich ignored the law and used in his paintings the Old German dress until his death. He alluded to this political choice when he told visitors to his studio that the two men were “plotting demagogic unrest.”’

If the two friends and comrades are plotting unrest in the evening, what is their political activity during the day?  If associations are banned and universities are under surveillance, how do the two comrades operate?  I have found a splendid answer in a recent post by the “filokritos” Eric Ball which offers a complementary political interpretation to a contemporary musical work, Schubert’s Impromptu op. 90, no. 2 (1827), composed in the years between the two versions of the Friedrich painting.

Ball (Professor of Humanities and Arts at SUNY’s Empire State College) was inspired by a bold paper by Susan McClary where, after a musicological analysis of the piece, she ventured into narrative speculation to suggest that Schubert’s piece shares a pessimistic trajectory similar to that of a famous tale by H. C. Andersen.  Treating “music as fiction,” Ball offers his own narrative for the Impromptu, one that fits perfectly well with the political interpretation of the painting that I favor [here heavily edited]:  ‘It is Schubert’s dramatization of how some of the most “gifted” individuals of a people who are suffering under the yoke of tyrants pass secret messages to one another out in the open (so as not to risk being caught red-handed in the dark by the tyrants’ spies). The specific message that is being dramatized as being passed around might be this: That sometimes a subjugated people manages to find a little move that it can make that appears innocuous, innocent, and legal—i.e., one that flies under the radar of the tyrants—but carries within it the potential to set in motion the toppling of the self-satisfied tyrants.’

I would like to think that, in their at-tunement/Stimmung to one another and to the evening mood/Stimmung enveloping them, the two friends in Friedrich’s painting are plotting how to pass next morning “secret, subversive, liberatory messages out in the open via music” (Ball) which may sound quite like Schubert’s piano Impromptu.  I shall tell pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” next time we take one of our evening walks, contemplating the crescent moon and making plans to work together next morning.

September 18, 2017

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