Gambara: A Parable for Composers?


by Nathan Cornelius

In Honoré de Balzac’s 1837 short story Gambara, an exiled Italian nobleman finds himself following—nowadays one would say “stalking”—a mysterious woman through the streets of Paris. By the time the count learns the lovely Marianna is in fact unhappily married to the eccentric and reputedly insane composer Gambara, he is hopelessly smitten. Aiming to prove Gambara’s insanity definitively so Marianna can obtain a divorce and run off with him, the count embarks on a vigorous dialogue with the composer about all things musical.

His general mental confusion notwithstanding, Gambara’s opinions about music are trenchant. When his interlocutor proffers the Romantic ideal that “music exists independently of its execution,” Gambara retorts, “Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven are nothing at all without an orchestra.”[1] Like most composers, he believes he has superseded even the masterpieces of previous eras, with the singular exception of Don Giovanni, which he praises as “the only musical work in which harmony and melody are in exactly equal proportions.”[2] (Of course, he says this to a wandering Italian nobleman who is trying to seduce his wife…)

It eventually becomes apparent that Gambara spends most of his working hours doing experiments in acoustics and physics, modifying musical instruments in outlandish ways to further his research. His most infamous project is the “Panharmonicon,” a jury-rigged keyboard which can supposedly imitate the sound of any instrument or voice—much to his neighbors’ dread. Gambara’s ultimate goal is to discover “new laws [which] would arm the composer with new powers, offering him instruments superior to those he has now, and perhaps a more wondrous harmony compared to the one which governs music today.”[3] Indeed, Gambara’s harmonic experiments seem far ahead of his time; his opera (with a libretto by the composer based on, of all things, the life of Muhammad) attempts such wild tonal acrobatics that the count only perceives “a jumble of discordant sounds flung out at random.”[4] (Perhaps Gambara’s music would have fared better had he been born a century later.)

After several evenings of lively discussion at a seedy Italian restaurant, the count discovers that Gambara’s verbal and musical abilities approach something like coherence only after he has imbibed liberally. He decides to test Gambara’s mental powers by taking him to a new grand opéra by Meyerbeer, with drinks before and after. However, he has also become genuinely concerned for Gambara’s future as well as Marianna’s and hopes to divert the composer’s brilliant but unstable mind into some other pursuit where he might actually be able to make a living. In the story’s climactic scene, after the night at the opera, the count is on the verge of persuading the tipsy Gambara to give up composing and become a poet, or at least a music critic, when the composer passes out and has to be carried back to his apartment. When he finally comes to the next morning, Gambara wants nothing to do with the count’s plans and refuses to see him anymore.

The satirical yet tragic figure of Gambara strikes me as a compelling image of the pitfalls of being a composer. In a sense, Gambara’s plans fall victim to his overblown ambition: he declares, “My music’s goal is to offer a representation of the life of nations conceived from the loftiest perspective,”[5] but to his listeners, he fails to capture a coherent representation of anything. Like Gambara, many composers aspire to be researchers, discovering universal laws of sound, designing unique instruments, and developing innovative quasi-scientific theories to explain their results. But in reality, Balzac seems to be saying, the best composers can hope for is just to be poets.

Music is, in other words, fundamentally not a science. It cannot, by its very nature, convey universal truths about the world, whether of sine waves or human souls. Any artist who sets music-as-science as his or her ultimate goal is bound to be disappointed. Poets, by contrast, rarely strive for the universal, the all-encompassing grand statement. Instead, poetry typically depicts some limited, personal, and deeply meaningful corner of the world as experienced by a particular individual (often, but not necessarily, the poet).

Science aims to populate an exhaustive catalog of birdsongs (and some composers have tried); poetry revels in the song of a lone hermit thrush in the northwoods. Science expounds a theory of the atmosphere; poetry paints the color of the sun’s first rays hitting a mountainside through layers of lowland haze and smog. Science strives to treat human relationships in general (in which guise it is often known as psychology or sociology); poetry describes the moment when two people who secretly like each other make eye contact and are momentarily struck dumb. Science (calling itself theology or philosophy) claims to depict a comprehensive spiritual worldview; poetry tells the story of the sufferer who experiences divine comfort in the valley of the shadow of death.

The paradox is that any art, by becoming more personal, also becomes more universal. The more the artist depicts what is unique to him or her, the more evident its relevance to the lives of others, as, in Gambara’s words, “each individual existence is drawn to it by the memory of its own experience.”[6] This doesn’t mean musicians can’t be researchers. Their research, however, is not an end in itself, but a means toward poetic expression. Articulating these glimpses of transcendence demands all the resources an artist can muster, and they do well to cast a wide net for new ways of doing it.

This was, I think, why I became a composer in the first place, before I became lost in the thicket of research. I wanted to respond to such transcendent moments in a creative act that could be shared with others. Lacking the inclination (or the discipline) to practice the craft of a poet, novelist, or painter (and so on) enough to be able to capture these moments, I chose music as my medium of expression—or maybe it chose me. And so Gambara’s struggle against distraction, criticism, hubris, and confusion is my own struggle as well. Will I succumb to the temptation to strive for a universalizing masterpiece that promises more than music can possibly deliver? Or will I allow my works to be unique and beautiful in their limited state, each a witness to an aspect of truth compact enough to be grasped in a single glimpse?

[1] Honoré de Balzac, “Gambara,” in The Unknown Masterpiece, translated by Richard Howard (New York: New York Review Books, 2001), 69-70.

[2] Ibid., 114.

[3] Ibid., 78.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 125.


One thought on “Gambara: A Parable for Composers?

  1. Pingback: Is New Music Possible? | deformingprisms

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