Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575
On a beautiful fall afternoon, the first-person narrator, a passionate lover of music, sits in one of Berlin’s well-known cafés, desperately trying to escape from the loud racket of its obligatory music into the world of pleasant reveries. Brought back from his dreams by the offensive tune of a particularly vile waltz, he suddenly notices that an older man of strikingly mysterious countenance and demeanor has joined him at his table. In an ensuing conversation, the stranger disagrees with the narrator’s harsh criticism of the musicians and, to prove his point, asks them to play the overture to Christoph Gluck’s opera Iphigenia in Aulis (1774). The narrator is quickly caught up in his companion’s intense delight and is finally able to hear the heavenly beauty of the composition in spite of the pitiful performance it receives at the hands of the little orchestra.
At the end of the music, the stranger admits that he himself is a composer and proceeds to recount with ever-growing exaltation his way from his boyhood music lessons to the frightening but enchanting realms of music to his final, mystical encounter with the truth of all art. This truth revealed itself to him under the symbol of the sun as an ineffable harmony, a musical triad “from which the chords, like stars, shoot out and entwine you with threads of fire.” Overcome by the wild enthusiasm of his own story, the stranger abruptly gets up and vanishes.
That same night, the narrator runs into the mysterious composer for the second time. Fascinated by the extraordinary aura of this man, he invites him to his apartment for a further exchange of ideas. Now it is the older of the two who castigates with great bitterness Berlin’s theatrical practice of lavishing all care on the ostentatious production of operas while neglecting their musical integrity. The atrocious liberties directors have taken in the staging of Gluck’s works are singled out for particularly impassioned censure. Paroxysms of emotion, this time pain and frustration clearly dominant, finally drive the unhappy man back into the night. Again he departs without a good-bye.
A third meeting comes to pass several months later as the narrator finds his eccentric friend in a state of bewildering excitement outside a theater in which a performance of Gluck’s opera Armida (1777) is taking place. This time the curious stranger insists on inviting the narrator to his own apartment, which the visitor finds filled with old-fashioned furniture belonging to the era of Gluck rather than that of the early nineteenth century. The host now suggests that he will play the music to Armida on his piano and that his guest should turn the pages for him. These pages are, however, to the young man’s total consternation, completely blank. The agitated stranger proceeds, nevertheless, to play Gluck’s music from the empty pages and does so with a fervor and with numerous, brilliant variations that for the mesmerized listener seem to outshine the genius of Gluck’s original. When the performance has come to an end, the stunned visitor begs to know to whom he is talking. The host disappears for a while into an adjacent room, only to reappear in the embroidered court dress of an eighteenth century chevalier. The young man stands paralyzed at the sight. The last words belong to the mysterious man, who now politely introduces himself by saying: “I am Ritter Gluck!”
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