The Great Round

The enemy was at the gates, guns thundered all around, and grenades sizzled through the air amid showers of sparks. The townsfolk, their faces white with fear, ran into their houses; the deserted streets rang with the sound of horses’ hooves, as mounted patrols galloped past and with curses drove the remaining soldiers into their redoubts. But Ludwig sat in his little back room, completely absorbed and lost in the wonderful, brightly coloured world of fantasy that unfolded before him at the piano. He had just completed a symphony, in which he had striven to capture in written notation all the resonances of his innermost soul; the work sought, like Beethoven’s compositions of that type, to speak in heavenly language of the glorious wonders of that far, romantic realm in which we swoon away in inexpressible yearning; indeed it sought, like one of those wonders, itself to penetrate our narrow, paltry lives, and with sublime siren voices tempt forth its willing victims. Then his landlady came into the room, upbraiding him and asking how he could simply play the piano through all that anguish and distress, and whether he wanted to get himself shot dead in his garrett. Ludwig did not quite follow the woman’s drift, until with a sudden crash a shell carried away part of the roof and shattered the window panes. Screaming and wailing the landlady ran down the stairs, while Ludwig seized the dearest thing he now possessed, the score of his symphony, and hurried after her down to the cellar.

Here the entire household was gathered. In a quite untypical fit of largesse the wine-seller who lived downstairs had made available a few dozen bottles of his best wine, and the women, fretting and fussing but as always anxiously concerned with physical sustenance and comfort, filled their sewing-baskets with tasty morsels from the pantry. They ate, they drank, and their agitation and distress were soon transformed into that agreeable state in which we seek and fancy we find security in neighbourly companionship; that state in which all the petty airs and graces which propriety teaches are subsumed, as it were, into the great round danced to the irresistable beat of fate’s iron fist.

—E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Poet and the Composer (1813),
trans. Martyn Clarke, ed. David Charlton

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