“Remarkable”, Louise said, “as soon as Wager’s music sounded, the cat walked towards the radio, his ears pricked up. Now it is sitting on it.” 

Immovable, strangely fixed, Poeli was sitting there as if he was really listening. Chilly shivers went up my spine.

“There is something wrong with that animal, throw it out, it’s bringing bad luck.”

Frans Pointl, Poelie, The Terrible.

Karl used his quotes only in the Client-Info. In his talks with clients he tried to appear clever, experienced and optimistic … Face to face with another human being each human being should praise the world. Otherwise everything would end. Despairing – that is allowed each one for himself.

Martin Walser, Fear Blossoms


Reading Martin Walser is reading anything but Martin Walser. His novel’s protagonists are always plural and representing more perspectives at the same time, none of which is Walser’s perspective. Or at least the reader is never sure about it.

Exhausting such reading, for sure.

In Fear Blossoms one Gundi is the slick presenter of a television show. Postmodern she is. While having the viewers listen to her chosen tune of the day, Gundi tells them that “this music is what I would like to be, what I try to be. Someone who watches us for the first time should not have to guess all too long…”

This time she is playing the overture of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, yet in an arrangement for string quartet, written in 1925 by Paul Hindemith.

Now, I like Hindemith, though ’liking’ needs to be taken with a pitch of salt, like with the ‘liking’ of Walser’s novels. Ludus Tonalis for solo piano was one of his first pieces that I heard. As I said: exhausting as well as exacting.

So, while I reside in La Roche at the moment of reading Walser’s Fear Blossoms, I travel to the nearest little town where – by way of wifi and a laptop – I order the First and Fourth Quartet by Hindemith, music which to my surprise I had not listened to before.

Hindemith’s idea was that a string quartet should perform his version of Wagner’s overture in such a manner that it must sound like “it is played by a bad Kurort band, at seven o’clock early in the morning, and played from the score.” Somehow, it is in his Fourth Quartet that I had decided that the Wagner ‘quotation’ must be hidden. Why? Don’t ask me.

Now, at least once in my life I have listened to each of Wagner’s operas live – this out of sheer duty as a ‘cultured person’. I do hate his music, a distaste which has nothing to do with that man’s anti-Semitism, nor with his doglike behavior in the presence of his Maecenas, fancy King Ludwig of Bavaria.

Wagner’s music I find dull, long-winded and flat as a coin. I once bought a recording of a series of his overtures as transcribed for piano – the best way to listen to the complexity of a piece. All conservatory students who produce a symphony have it transcribed for piano. Thus it is presented to their examiners.

Listening to that piano version of Wagner, the phrase ‘thin as a coin’ is even to thick. It should read ‘wafer thin…’ But then, I am not a very musical person and I do not know anything about musical composition. There are musical friends, however, who violently disagree with me on the issue of Wagner. Whatever!

After all, the subject of this little essay is Hindemith’s version. The fact that it refers to a Dutchman is also quite irrelevant, even though I am one, and even though the story of that poor compatriot who never found a friendly harbor is surely touching.




Subsequently I had an English friend in France listen to the two quartets, in one of which she thought she recognized a Wagner theme. Sadly enough for her, once back in The Netherlands, I discovered that the Hindemith Overture is a separate piece, indeed written for a string quartet, yet consisting of but one part only lasting about seven and a half minutes.

Thus I ordered yet another disc.

Now in the notes to the disc I read that Hindemith’s version should be interpreted and heard as a ‘parody of Wagner’ and even as a ‘bold act of political subversion’. Yet, as another critic remarked, “it is not clear whether Hindemith is satirizing Wagner, or incompetent performers, or ostentatiously dissonant composers, or the introduction of popular elements into serious music.” I would say: All things together.

Whereas I simply dislike Wagner’s music, Hindemith may very well have aimed at that composer’s ‘dissonant’ anti-Semitism. After all, Hindemith’s wife was Jewish and it was widely known that he had Jewish musicians continue to play in his orchestra. The Nazi’s called his music ‘the filthiest perversion of German music’. So,…

As to Walser: I am quite sure that he would support my version. He has that silly bitch Gundi seriously comment on Hindemith’s piece: “Time and again I am completely charmed by this admiration for Wagner…” So, most probably, Walser also ‘reads’ Hindemith’s Flying Dutchman as pure criticism. Whether merely as political disapproval or also musically, that is another question.

Mysterious ways of the mind. We shall never be sure. Which is what makes us re-read Walser and re-listen to Hindemith – and why not, even re-listen to Wagner.

Sierksma, 16.2.17


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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