‘The Ensouled Violin’ by Madame Blavatsky: Short Story Analysis
This story by revered Madame Blavatsky is certainly a masterpiece in all aspects be it philosophy, literature, history, psychology, mysticism, religion, and above all, music. It seems that this short story stemmed from one of the Madame’s nightmares. There are many themes, personalities, and topics that consist of this masterpiece of literature which does not in the least stagnate the horror story, but only accentuates it to a crescendo, quite in keeping with the musical theme of the narrative. More than anything else, however, the main theme of this story is ‘passion’, the passion that makes a person either rise to the summits of the highest mountains of heaven or sink into the cauldron of hell itself. It is the passion that makes Franz Stenio the young violinist to rival with the great musician Paganini; it is the passion for the beauty of the sound of the violin that makes Franz play to the imaginary onlookers he terms as the very gods and goddesses of Greece; it is the passion that makes Franz believe that he can rival the music of Orpheus’ lyre (Orpheus was a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth); it is the passion for fame and brilliance that makes Franz challenge Paganini to a violin duel; it is the passion for mortal acclaim that Franz in desperation uses the intestines of his beloved adopted father Samuel Klaus to string up his violin. But, most of all, it is the passion for the music itself that leads Franz Stenio to his ultimate doom for as the story rightfully shows, love always comes before perfection and adulation. Indeed, it was strangely the holy and righteous love of Samuel Klaus which lead to the ultimate end of Franz Stenio, the main character of this story.
The story by Madame begins with the arrival of Franz and his adopted father and teacher Samuel Klaus to the city of Paris. They start living in humble quarters and Samuel tries to bring up the career of his adopted son. Unknown to the devoted father, of course, is the past history and psychology of his pupil. The pupil, Franz Stenio is of a disposition most rare. He was brought up the narrative shows as a typical Styrian of those days (alluding to the years before 1828) surrounded by superstitious lore concerning ghouls, vampires, etc. as well as being a dabbler in ceremonial magic, sorcery, occult arts, and alchemy. The student, however, has little to do with these practices, his time, energy, and soul being totally devoted to music, especially his violin.
The ‘violin’ itself to me seems like a real-life character in this story. There have been many demonic stories and legends concerning the violin in general which are also mentioned in the story. Madame has mentioned rightly, the legend of the famous Tartini and his famous ‘Sonate du Diable’ which according to folklore was played on the violin by the devil himself to Tartini while the latter was asleep. The composition to date, as Madame mentions, remains a most unusual one which people consider to be the consequence of Tartini’s bargain with the devil. Paganini, who is also a main character in this short story of horror, is also mentioned to have strung his violin with the intestines of a very dear friend who loved him very much, thus his playing drove people into a sort of musical ecstasy or frenzy. Black magic plays a very important role here in this narrative indicating how through the black arts, human organs are used as powerful magical agents.
Franz Stenio, however, is unaware of this aspect of the black art and continues to play his violin. When his money runs short, he returns to his mother who is a firm Christian and is appalled with the knowledge that her son does not go to church. She, unfortunately, as the story goes dies in the bed of a chill while trying to supplicate heaven to bring back her son to the church. After this, Franz lives a Bohemian lifestyle only playing to the Greek gods until his tutor finds him. This tutor is none other than Samuel Klaus who beseeches his pupil to give up his current state of life and become his son.
It is at this point something very important takes place. For a long time, Franz was not really interested in worldly glory for his playing … it is Samuel Klaus his teacher who reawakened in his pupil this desire which ultimately leads to his doom, just the way the love for fame and glory without humility always leads to one’s doom.
Note that though during Franz’s three-month lifestyle after his mother’s death he spent his life like a bohemian, he was genuinely happy. He, in fact, as the narrative states, was leading a life full of bliss … until the greed for fame entered his mind. The evil of greed, therefore, is highlighted in this most extraordinary story.
The story goes on to show how adopted father and adopted son travel through several German cities and earned praise but when they reached Paris, they were hindered in their course of work by a musician of unparalleled excellence, Niccolo Paganini.
The arrival of this rival sets the tone of despair in the hearts and minds of Samuel and Franz who were the worshipers of fame. They realize for themselves at a concert after pawning their watches to buy tickets that it was true; Paganini was a much better player than Franz Stenio. However, Samuel Klaus makes his fatal mistake by stating that Paganini’s talent was not of this world and that he had made a pact with the devil to play so well. Furthermore, Samuel also informed Franz of the theory of human intestines being used as strings for Paganini’s violin. Possibly, the tutor was only trying to make Franz feel better and not to let his wounded pride fester indicating to him indirectly that at least Franz was not a devil worshiper. However, instead of making Franz feel better, it drove Franz insane. A sinister look immediately came upon his face as it does on someone who is desperate. Franz immediately declares to his adopted father that to gain human adulation, he too would be willing to sell himself, body and soul to the evil one..
Here, Madame shows us how the craving for human glory can derange a person’s mind and indirectly recalls to our mind how only humility and simple day to day living can only make us true free citizens away from devilish and evil bondage.
Franz immediately goes into a sort of brain fever and is cared for by his loving tutor Samuel Klaus. During this time, Franz starts to rave aloud, indicating that he would only become a great musician if he managed to string his violin with the intestines of his beloved tutor for human intestines was not all that was important as the legend goes. It is important also that those intestines should have belonged to someone who had loved the violinist with unselfish and holy love. We do however realize that Franz does not want to kill Samuel that’s why he feels like a prisoner. In the narrative, Franz describes himself as Prometheus (the Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel who was entrusted with the task of molding humankind out of clay) whose arms and legs are bound with the four strings of the violin … made of intestines. All this and much more is heard by Samuel which brings out two other aspects of this story that surpasses pride, self-glory, and fame … these are love and sacrifice.
Samuel Klaus being the person he was devoted as a mother to his adopted son and self-sacrificing as a Christian martyr kills himself for the sake of Franz, so that the young man could use his intestines to string his violin. It is Samuel’s holy and perfect love for Franz that makes him do this. I quote here from the narrative itself which forms part of the last letter which Samuel hands over to Franz:
Take your instrument with you and dog the steps of him (Paganini) who filled our lives with bitterness and despair … then only wilt thou hear with what a magic power the full notes of unselfish love will issue forth from thy violin. Perchance, with a last caressing touch of its chords, thou wilt remember that they once formed a portion of thine old teacher.
Madame shows here how unselfish true love can be and one cannot ignore the choke in one’s throat after reading the above immortal line. Yet, fooling with the devil is not wise and this leads to the untimely and horrific death of Franz.
Indeed, Franz strings his instrument with the intestines of his beloved teacher and even challenges Paganini to a violin duel. However, before the duel, Franz grows restless and queer. The devil seems to be acting up and tries to force Franz in the voice of his teacher FROM THE VIOLIN BOX to unstring the intestines. Franz refuses to do so forgetting the legend of Tartini who apparently according to his teacher died one fine Sabbath night, strangled by his familiar demon who had taught him how to endow his violin with a human voice (Tartini died on February 26, 1770, after a long illness it is officially recorded).
During the duel, it is true, Franz seems to be outbeating Paganini but at the last moment, from the sounding board of the violin comes out squeaking, jarring tones which ruin the whole performance and make Franz a laughing stock. To add to this, a voice is heard from the sounding board saying:
Art thou satisfied, Franz, my boy? … Have not Gloriously kept my promise, eh?
Whether it is the sarcastic voice of Samuel’s spirit or a devil, no one would know for immediately Franz is killed on stage after being surrounded by a grey mist.
This story is full of meaning and has a lot of moral depth. It shows us how one simply can lose oneself in one’s ambition. It also shows us how great literature can be written. I salute Madame.
Copyright © 2013 Fiza Pathan
Image courtesy: Google Images, Wikipedia
It has been many years since I read this, but I remember thinking that his beginnings in the black arts were early and long before his bargain with the devil. He had “stuck a toe in” if you will and in so doing prepared himself for a tragedy to come. Anyway, great review and thanks for reminding me about a work of which I had forgotten. HF
Thank you. Fiza
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