Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann)

Sources and origins

Mann published his own account of the genesis of the novel in 1949.[5] The novel's title and themes are inseparable in German literature from its highest dramatical expression in the Faust I and Faust II of the poet Goethe, and declares Mann's intention to address his subject in the light of that profound, authentic exploration and depiction of the German character. Yet the relationship is indirect, the Faustian aspect of Leverkühn's character being paralleled in the abnormal circumstances surrounding Nazism. Helen Lowe-Porter, the novel's first English translator, wrote of its themes,

'Readers of Faustus will and must be involved, with shudders, in all three strands of the book: the German scene from within, and its broader, its universal origins; the depiction of an art not German alone but vital to our whole civilization; music as one instance of the arts and the state in which the arts find themselves today [sc. 1949]; and, finally, the invocation of the daemonic.' [6]


The trajectory of Leverkühn's career is modeled partly upon the life of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). From his supposed contraction of syphilis to his complete mental collapse in 1889 proclaiming the Anti-Christ, and his death in 1900, Nietzsche's life presents a celebrated example imitated in Leverkühn. (The illnesses of Delius and Wolf also resonate, as does the death of Mahler's child after he had tempted fate (as Alma Mahler thought) by setting the Kindertotenlieder.) Nieztsche's 1871 work The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, presents the theme that the evolution of Art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian Hellenic impulses,[7] which the novel illuminates. Perhaps the 'serene' Zeitblom and the tragical Leverkuhn personify such a duality between impulses towards reasoned, contemplative progress, and those toward passion and tragic destiny, within character or creativity in the context of German society. [8] Mann wrote, "Zeitblom is a parody of myself. Adrian's mood is closer to my own than one might – and ought to – think."


Theodor Adorno acted as Mann's adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann also read chapters to groups of invited friends (a method also used by Kafka) to test the effect of the text. In preparation for the work, Mann studied musicology and biographies of major composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. He communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. In Chapter XXII Leverkühn develops the twelve-tone technique or row system, which was actually invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg lived near Mann in Los Angeles as the novel was being written. He was very annoyed by this appropriation without his consent, and later editions of the novel included an Author's Note at the end acknowledging that the technique was Schoenberg's intellectual property, and that passages of the book dealing with musical theory are indebted in many details to Schoenberg's Harmonielehre.[9]

Models for the composer-legend

Leverkühn's projected work The Lamentation of Dr Faustus echoes the name of Ernst Krenek's Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae, an oratorio of 1941–1942 which combines the Schoenbergian twelve-tone technique with modal counterpoint. As a model for the composer-legend Mann was strongly aware of Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina, premiered at Munich in 1917. Leverkühn's preoccupation with polyphonic theory draws on the opera's theme of how the composer Palestrina sought to preserve polyphonic composition in his Missa Papae Marcelli. The tenor Karl Erb (also very famous as Evangelist narrator in Bach's St. Matthew Passion) created the role in Pfitzner's opera, and the singer-narrator in Leverkühn's Apocalysis cum Figuris is named 'Erbe' (meaning 'heritage', i.e. inheritor of the tradition) in reference to him.

Two other German operas of the time, the Berlin-based Ferruccio Busoni's Doktor Faust (left unfinished in 1924), and Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (about Matthias Grünewald), completed 1935,[10] similarly explore the isolation of the creative individual,[11] presenting the ethical, spiritual and artistic crises of the early 20th century through their roots in the German Protestant Reformation.


Throughout the work personal names are used allusively to reflect the paths of German culture from its medieval roots. For examples, Zeitblom's father Wohlgemut has the resonance of the artist Michael Wohlgemuth, teacher of Albrecht Dürer. Wendell Kretzschmar, the man who awakens them to music, probably hints at Hermann Kretzschmar, musical analyst, whose 'Guides to the Concert Hall' were widely read. The doomed child's name Nepomuk, in the 19th century quite popular in Austria and southern Germany, recalls the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel and the playwright Johann Nestroy. Reflecting the (Counter-Reformation) cult of John Nepomuk, it therefore also evokes the high rococo, the 're-echoing of movement', in the St John Nepomuk Church architecture by the Asam brothers in Munich, and probably the descriptions and interpretations of it by Heinrich Wölfflin.[12]

The character of the violinist Rudi Schwerdtfeger is modelled on Paul Ehrenberg of Dresden, an admired friend of Mann's. But in general the characters and names echo philosophies and intellectual standpoints without intending portraits or impersonations of real individuals. They serve the many-layered, multi-valent allusiveness of Mann's style to underpin and reinforce the symbolic nature of his work.

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