Text by by Gustavo Artiles
Franz Kafka was not a music lover. But his old school friend and literary executor, Max Brod was, and he wanted to convert Franz to the glories of great music, high brow or classical music. But Franz says to him “I am not able to perceive the complexities of a large scale work”, and when Max takes him to hear the première of Gustav Mahler´s seventh symphony, which the composer himself conducted in Prague, where both friends live, on September 19th, 1908, Franz (then 35) still can not capture the secret threads of symphonic structures.
Brod tells us that Kafka was “an exception within the realm of genius… that he strained to vanish the last dissonance engendered by geniality”. But he kept that handicap, perhaps something insurmountable in spite of his intellectual efforts. It is equally possible that Kafka wanted to approach Mahler, the major symphonist of the period — “the greatest since Brahms and Bruckner”, a contemporary critic called him – because he knew him to be another Jew, as Max was too, and he might expect to find some affinities in him. But his reluctance towards the harmonic and structural complexities would hold him back, and they are especially acute in Mahler´s case!
Franz also says: ´I like American marches very much´. Which ones, he does not specify, perhaps he was not interested in registering their title or the name of the composer, but all points out to the marches already enjoyed and played in all open air concerts of military bands of Europe and, of course, the United States, i.e. those by John Philip Sousa, still enormously popular.
Sousa directed the Marine Corps Band for several years, then formed his own band which he led most of the rest of his life
The reason why Kafka felt attracted to Sousa is easy to understand, and I believe it has a connection with his work. One can detect a reflection of it specifically in his unfinished novel America, where we meet Karl, a young immigrant (i.e. the same young dreamer, K) who, at the end of the 19th century, arrives in the US searching for new horizons. An uncle of his, Jacob, is already there, but he does not know his address. After a series of events, Karl discovers one day a poster announcing a fantastic circus, the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma, also one of Kafka´s greatest inventions. What can a Great Natural Theatre be? It is Kafka´s conception of what that nation is like. The metaphor fits perfectly with a somewhat remote and diffuse perception of that country that was already becoming the proverbial melting pot, where boats from many parts of Europe and Asia, loaded with thousands of hopefuls to find a better life, far away from the oppressions and persecutions that perhaps they always had known in their own lands. And such assorted mixture of people come to meet in the same place, America. The poster says that ´All are welcome´, that ´Everyone can work in the Great Natural Theatre of Oklahoma´, no experience necessary. This is a second allusion to the prospects that, from the European point of view, one could expect to find on the other side of the Atlantic: ´great´ theatre. ´everyone can´. That is how America was, and still is, seen in general: countless opportunities for everyone. If everybody can work in the Great Theatre, it is not illogical for Karl to gradually meet, in the course of the rehearsals, persons he has already encountered during his long journey and later stay in the new land, including his lost uncle, Jacob.
The vastness of the American continent is another element in his mind. His vision of that Amerika is that of open horizons, infinite prairies, as well as towns that begin to be populous and puzzling.
Austrian, German and French marches of the period, generally pompous and imperialist, seem to shout ´Here we come, we, the unconquered, the most powerful, the greatest, our step says so, our mounts say so, our glorious colours say so; surrender and give us your respect and admiration, we expect no less´. Sousa´s marches say nothing of the sort: they speak about things like The Liberty Bell, The Washington Post, Hail to the Spirit of Freedom, The Belle of Chicago, Manhattan Beach, The Harmonica Wizard, La Flor de Sevilla, Hands Across the Ocean… even if a certain militarism or governmental quality seeps in too, something difficult to eradicate in what, after all, was the most famous band in history and that the American government did enthusiastically support. Thus The Man Behind the Gun, The Legionnaires, Globe and Eagle, Stars and Stripes Forever… But the fact is that all that music depicts the vigour and optimism of a nation in its early youth, and it abounds in joy and the celebration of a certain fraternity based on nationality, exempt from aristocracies and discriminations, more or less achieved thanks to equalitarian democracy. This is Sousa’s model. The model may appear a little rosy today, but that was the ´American Dream´. On the other hand, let us not forget that Sousa also wrote operettas (15), songs (70) and instrumental suites (11), a popular composer in the best sense of the word who knew the homage of the masses as no other before him. Sousa does not evoke scenic immensities or crowded towns, bur rather the essential spirit of optimism and confidence with which that nation faced the future. Sousa´s marches are the perfect circus marches for the Great Theatre.
Kafka saw the connection.