Sound-Image Relationships in Literature

by Claudia Albert

1 Music in/as Text

2 Text in Image / Image in Text

3 Notes and Notations


In contrast to music and the visual arts, literature always has to struggle with the disadvantage that it is tied to meanings. A relationship of text, sound, and image can therefore only be established on the boundaries of the linguistic: either the structure of the text seeks to break the boundaries of the discursive with imitations of polyphony or with lyrical interludes, or it attempts to sublate but at the same time accentuate the difference between the linguistic medium and the visual or acoustic medium by quoting musical notation or including visual representations. The price is an esthetic loss that can only be recovered in endlessly repeated topoi of the inexpressible. An equality of all these levels can only result when the semantic dimension is just one dimension among others—in concrete poetry or graphic notation, for example.


1 Music in/as Text

Literature, especially in German, has found the subject of music a challenge since the late eighteenth century: music is supposed to be the better, the true, the ideal language.[1] This topos of the inexpressible was a constant companion of those artists from Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck by way of E. T. A. Hoffmann to Franz Grillparzer who not only created artists as characters and took music and dance as their subjects, but also tried to feel—and imitate—their wondrous language. Where words no longer suffice, musical notes speak. What figures cannot express, a sound paints.[2] It would be difficult to attribute that statement to a specific German-speaking author between 1790 and 1830. But the price is high: Wackenroder’s Berglinger from Herzensergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk), Tieck’s protagonist Franz Sternbald, and Hoffmann’s Kreisler had no opportunity for a successful life; social displacement, illness, or early death was planned for them. The competition between the media of painting and music also revealed potential dangers: when the painter Franz Sternbald turned away from his art—which had been identified as thoroughly German-Nurembergian by making Albrecht Dürer his teacher—he receded as an autonomous fictional character. The plot initiatives were taken over by his friend Rudolf Florestan, who appears suddenly and adds an erotic dimension with Italian songs and dances.

In his Lebensansichten des Kater Murr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr), the jurist, composer, music critic, graphic artist, and writer E. T. A. Hoffmann narrates in alternation fragments from the successful Bildungsroman (novel of education) by the philistine cat Murr and the discontinuous biography of the Kapellmeister Kreisler. The text spins between wonderful contrapuntal intricacies and the labyrinthine pathways of some fantastic park[3]; but even there it does not find a specific place. Moreover, the double structure of the novel tries to imitate musical forms such as polyphony—an ambition destined to fail, given the linear discourse of texts. It results in discontinuous writings mixing prose and poetry with no clear conclusion—which can be attributed either to the overly ambitious, early Romantic artistic program (not coincidentally, many of the advocates of the latter converted to Catholicism) or to expecting too much of literature.[4]

The French philosopher, writer, and encyclopedist Denis Diderot unsparingly depicted this idealistic and exorbitant elevation of music in his dialogue Le neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew).

These skeptical diagnoses were made even more acute by nineteenth-century authors writing in German and French, such as when Adalbert Stifter dedicated himself to painting or Honoré de Balzac tried to become a French Hoffmann with his characters Gambara and Frenhofer, who were of German origin. The style and rhetoric of an endless searching and failing to find give way to a clear, sometimes even cynical assessment. Grillparzer’s poor minstrel is simply a failure; in Balzac’s tales of artists, money, fame, and alcohol dominate as the driving forces of bourgeois society and the artists who work for it. Stifter’s protagonist Friedrich Roderer from Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) of 1864 can effortlessly abandon the landscape painting he had just been pursuing almost fanatically (a new painting of the Lüpfinger Moor every day), burn his paintings, and marry his distant relative Susanna Roderer. Together they want to create something even more Roderer like, which should be greater than anything a Roderer has ever achieved before[5]—a capitulation of the visual arts to the reproductive arts. Logically, it led Stifter to the conclusion that poetry is only the bearer of the thought, as for example the air carries the sound to our ear. Literature is therefore the purest and highest among the arts.[6] Previously, such statements could have been made of, at best, music and dance. The late nineteenth-century French painter novel presents in a particularly pitiless way the banality of failure and the increasing focus of the world of culture on economic matters.[7] The idealizing and Romantic elevation of art and the artist’s life seems to have become outdated at the moment when authors perceived the text as image, fabric, and resounding body.

Poems such as Charles Baudelaire’s Correspondances (Correspondences; 1857) or Arthur Rimbaud’s Voyelles (Vowels; 1871/1883), in their coupling of scents, colors, and sounds, or of vowels and colors, employ synesthetic experiences that are no longer tied to real objects.[8] Symbolism’s effort to make the linguistic material absolute was aimed at a poésie pure (Stéphane Mallarmé), which was supposed to recapture for literature what it had lost to music. Using the means of rhythm and sound such as assonance, onomatopoeia, and synesthesia, words should be turned into musical sounds. Oder as Paul Verlaine put it: You must have music first of all / and for that a rhythm uneven is best, / vague in the air and soluble, / with nothing heavy and nothing at rest (Art poétique, 1874/1882).[9] The spiritual unity of all phenomena the Symbolists sought could also be experienced through drugs (Le haschisch) or religious ecstasy.[10]

2 Text in Image / Image in Text

From Greek antiquity to the Baroque, the identity of the external form of the text with the object described in it was a commonly practiced technique, known as pattern poetry or visual poetry, found in both religious and secular occasional poems. Crosses and chalices, but also crowns, hearts, and pyramids, formed part of the arsenal of an ideogrammatic esthetic, confident that objects could be depicted in texts. It was called into question somewhat in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1759) by the use of blank or marbled pages, spidery scrawling, and imaginary beauty lines.[11]

Such liberated forms of text remained marginal until well into the nineteenth century. If Romantic literature, especially, may have been said to pose a challenge to write in a musical way, the ten double-page spreads of Mallarmé’s posthumously published long poem Un coup de dés (A Throw of the Dice; first published in 1897) launched a complete reorientation of the relationship of text and image, in part in connection with music.[12] The text is intended as a complex, multidimensional range of readings; even apparently central terms such as maître (master) and naufrage (shipwreck) no longer offer any semantic security.

Surrealism, Cubism, and Dadaism took up this inspiration, at times with parodic or explicitly political tendencies. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, from 1914 and after, represent a type of depiction in which the letters form the outline of the object described but at the same time call this into question.[13] Ever since, the pattern poem—employed by Ernst Jandl and Gerhard Rühm, for example, in parallel with the sound poem—has accompanied and criticized the ambitions of ways of thinking in high culture. Therein lies its enormous potential for advertising and everyday communication as well as for (school) readers and creative writing.[14]

In the opposite direction, literary references to scenes from paintings, theater, or film have increased since the turn of the twentieth century. For Heinrich Mann and Thomas Mann and their generation, they could be used as evidence for the illusory nature of the world, in the Christian sense; its character as low comedy; or later, under the influence of film, for its potential for dramatization. It remained indisputable, however, that the nonliterary medium was supposed to be an art citation[15] or an illustration but not an intermedial provocation of the true impetus to depict.[16] The situation was different with evocations of art objects, usually in poetry, such as Rilke’s Dinggedichte (object poems), which used description to reach through to a substance that could not be experienced except through poetry. In the epiphany obtained in this way, aspects of the theory of reception and the religion of art coincide: despite occasionally extremely detailed depictions, the real objects are merely stopovers to a higher subject. Das Füllhorn (The Cornucopia) of 1926, which on first glance appears to stand in the tradition of the Baroque, outlines the Schwung und Form des gebendsten Gefäßes (curve and form of the most giving vessel) in the viewer’s act of perceiving it.[17] The poetic still life, with its attention to the quotidian and unspectacular, resembles a trend in contemporary poetry in German to affirm the materiality of the text itself.[18]

3 Notes and Notations

Although the phenomena of printing music in literary texts is restricted to a few cases in Arthur Schnitzler, Hans Henny Jahnn, and Ingeborg Bachmann, it demonstrates with particular clarity problems of changing media and esthetic self-understanding in artifacts that are themselves extremely complex. Schnitzler incorporated into the story Fräulein Else of 1926 quotations from the music of Robert Schumann’s cycle Carnaval op. 9, of 1834–1835 and thus intensified his dramaturgy of covering and revealing, and of convention and lifelong illusions in Austrian society of the late nineteenth century. The subjects carnival and masquerade, secret and play acting take on additional dimensions thanks to secondary meanings, such as those of ASCH, which is both a cipher for the names of the musical notes found in Schumann’s name—S [i.e., Es, German nomenclature for Eb], C, H [German for B], and A, and at the same time for the town of his occasional lover in Bohemia, Ernestine von Fricken. Thus, they allude to a secret love code.

In his monumental Fluss ohne Ufer (Shoreless River; from 1949 onward), Hans Henny Jahnn used quotations from music as images of the protagonist’s effort to write himself into the tradition of the old masters.

Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina of 1971 challenges the reader with more than the triangle of the protagonists Malina, Ivan, and I: the eponymous character is, despite appearances to those schooled in Latin and the Romance languages, male; his name means raspberry in a number of Slavic languages. This principle of a compound structure, in which no part should stand alone, rather all of them together should produce a whole, is also followed by the diverse mentions of music and especially citations of music in the text. Located just before the end of this very complex novel, they present visually an associative form of semiosis. Presented recognizably only on the very last pages, the citations of music illustrate graphically what Romantic texts on music evoked endlessly in language: coming closer to an alien, synthesizing medium that cannot be brought into the text and can at most be cited in it. With the well-worn musical myths of Vienna, especially Mozart and Beethoven, and the ever-present background noise from both the media industry and high culture, Bachmann creates a musical novel of disillusion, which can only end: It was murder.[19]

In the twentieth-century works of art combining images, words, and music, Jahnn’s culturally conservative impetus remained an isolated case. By contrast, the infinite material of musical notation and musical motives in the visual arts and graphic notation in New Music opened up another field for esthetic reflection. Toward the end of the twentieth century, an autonomy of the esthetic sign began to emerge that no longer felt a debt to any impulse to represent beyond its own materiality.[20] And even literature—the branch of the arts most closely tied to subject matter—has begun to pay attention to typography, not as a epiphenomenon and decoration, as was done prototypically by the Stefan George Circle, but as a medium with its own significance.[21] Thus literature’s endless search for its other is ultimately found in its very own field: writing.

all footnotes

[1] I have worked out the lines of thought presented here in greater detail in Claudia Albert, Tönende Bilderschrift: “Musik” in der deutschen und französischen Erzählprosa des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts (Heidelberg: Synchron, 2002).

[2] Franz Grillparzer, “Der Freischütze: Oper von Maria Weber,” in idem, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 3, Ausgewählte Briefe, Gespräche, Berichte, eds. Peter Frank and Karl Pörnbacher (Munich: Hanser, 1964), 885–888, esp. 887.—Trans. S. L.

[3] David Charlton, ed., E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, trans. Martyn Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 99–100.

[4] On the issues of Universal poetry cf. Gesamtkunstwerk

[5] Adalbert Stifter, Nachkommenschaften, in idem, Werke, eds. Uwe Japp and Hans-Joachim Piechotta, vol. 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1978), 377–433, esp. 433.—Trans. S. L.

[6] Adalbert Stifter, Indian Summer, trans. Wendell Frye (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), 196.

[7] Claudia Laurich, Der französische Malerroman (Salzburg: Institut für Romanistik der Universität Salzburg, 1983), and Angelica Rieger, Alter Ego: Der Maler als Schatten des Schriftstellers in der französischen Erzählliteratur von der Romantik bis zum Fin de siècle (Cologne: Böhlau, 2000).

[8] Rimbaud was alluding here to the phenomenon of neurological synesthesia, in which photisms—i.e., visual sensations—are triggered by sounds, letters, numbers, and so on. He had come across synesthesia, which at the time was usually given the more restrictive label audition colorée, (colored hearing) when studying books on medicine. The lively debate over his poem even led to more intense research on synesthesia in the years that followed. See Kevin T. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 22–26.

[9] Paul Verlaine, “Art poétique,” in French Symbolist Poetry, trans. C. F. MacIntyre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 34.

[10] Werner Ross, Baudelaire und die Moderne: Portrait einer Wendezeit (Munich: Piper, 1993).

[11] See Erika Sophie Hopmann, Die Organisation der Sinne: Wahrnehmungstheorie und Ästhetik in Laurence Sternes “Tristram Shandy” (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008); a survey by Gisbert Kranz, Das Bildgedicht: Theorie, Lexikon, Bibliografie, 2 vols. (Cologne: Böhlau, 1981); and Jeremy Adler and Ulrich Ernst, eds., Text als Figur: Visuelle Poesie von der Antike bis zur Moderne (Weinheim: Acta Humaniora, VCH, 1987).

[12] Stéphane Mallarmé, “Un coup de dés,” in idem, Œuvres complètes, ed. Bertrand Marchal, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), 365–375; Gerhard Goebel, “Kommentar,” in Stéphane Mallarmé, Gedichte: Französisch und deutsch, eds. Gerhard Goebel et al. (Gerlingen: Schneider, 1993), 423–432; Sebastian Hartwig, “Sternschnuppen auf exzentrischen Bahnen: Überlegungen zu Textbild und Textbildlichkeit in Mallarmés ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’” in Visual Culture, eds. Monika Schmitz-Emans and Gertrud Lehnert (Heidelberg: Synchron, 2008), 311–321; and Raymond Court, “Mallarmé et Debussy,” Revue des Sciences humaines 205, no. 1 (1987): 55–79; Robert Greer Cohn, ed., Mallarmé in the Twentieth Century (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1998).

[13] See, for example, La cravate et la montre, quoted in Nicole Marie Mosher, Le texte visualisé: Le calligramme de l’ époque alexandrine á l’ époque cubiste (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 164.

[14] See Dagmar Burkhart, “Sichtbares und Unsichtbares in Texten,” in Monika Schmitz-Emans and Gertrud Lehnert, eds., Visual Culture (Heidelberg: Synchron, 2007), 97–110; Michael Lentz, Lautpoesie/-musik nach 1945: Eine kritisch-dokumentarische Bestandsaufnahme, 2 vols. (Vienna: Selene, 2000).

[15] As a prototype, see Heide Eilert, Das Kunstzitat in der erzählenden Dichtung: Studien zur Literatur um 1900 (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1991).

[16] As circumstantial evidence, see Frithjof Trapp, “‘Totus mundus exercet histrionem’: Theatralität als analytische Kategorie bei Heinrich Mann,” Heinrich Mann-Jahrbuch 18 (2000): 93–114.

[17] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Das Füllhorn,” in idem, Kommentierte Ausgabe, vol. 2, Gedichte, 1920–1926, eds. Manfred Engel et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1996), 304–305, cf. Dieter Burdorf, “Gibt es poetische Stilleben?,” in Visual Culture, eds. Monika Schmitz-Emans and Gertrud Lehnert (Heidelberg: Synchron, 2007), 367–385.

[18] See the still exemplary catalog edited by Karin von Maur: Vom Klang der Bilder: Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart exhibition catalog (Munich: Prestel, 1985).

[19] Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina, trans. Philip Boehm (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990), 225.

[20] See Oliver Simons and Elisabeth Wagner, eds., Bachmanns Medien (Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2008); and the Notation exhibition, which was on view until November 16, 2008, at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and from February 14 to July 26, 2009, at the ZKM Karlsruhe. Hubertus von Amelunxen et al., eds., Notation: Kalkül und Form in den Künsten, exhibition catalog (Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 2008).

[21] See the Typografie und Literatur conference September 25–27, 2008, in Sonderforschungsbereich 626 of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft at the Freie Universität Berlin; conference report online at, accessed July 29, 2009.

List of books in this text

Alter ego: Der Maler als Schatten des Schriftstellers in der französischen Erzählliteratur von der Romantik bis zum Fin de siècle
2000, Author: Rieger, Angelica Publisher: Böhlau

Art poétique
1958, Author: Verlaine, Paul Publisher: University of California Press

Bachmanns Medien
2008, Publisher: Vorwerk 8

Baudelaire und die Moderne: Porträt einer Wendezeit
1993, Author: Ross, Werner Publisher: Piper

Bright colors falsely seen: Synaesthesia and the search for transcendental knowledge
1998, Author: Dann, Kevin T Publisher: Yale University Press

Das Bildgedicht: Theorie, Lexikon, Bibliographie
1981, Author: Kranz, Gisbert Publisher: Böhlau

Das Füllhorn
1996, Author: Rilke, Rainer Maria Publisher: Insel-Verl.

Das Kunstzitat in der erzählenden Dichtung: Studien zur Literatur um 1900
1991, Author: Eilert, Heide Publisher: Steiner

Der Freischütze: Oper von Maria Weber
1964, Author: Grillparzer, Franz Publisher: Hanser

Der arme Spielmann
1848, Author: Grillparzer, Franz

Der französische Malerroman
1983, Author: Laurich, Claudia Publisher: Institut für Romanistik der Universität Salzburg

Die Organisation der Sinne: Wahrnehmungstheorie und Ästhetik in Laurence Sternes Tristram Shandy
2008, Author: Hopmann, Erika Sophie Publisher: Königshausen & Neumann

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical writings: Kreisleriana, The poet and the composer, Music criticism
1989, Author: Hoffmann, E. T. A. Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press

Gibt es poetische Stilleben?
2008, Author: Burdorf, Dieter Publisher: Synchron

Indian summer
1985, Author: Stifter, Adalbert Publisher: Lang

1993, Author: Goebel, Gerhard Publisher: Schneider

Kreisleriana 4: Beethovens Instrumentalmusik
1982, Author: Hoffmann, E. T. A. Publisher: Aufbau-Verl

Lautpoesie/-musik nach 1945: Eine kritisch-dokumentarische Bestandsaufnahme
2000, Author: Lentz, Michael Publisher: Ed. Selene

Le texte visualisé: Le calligramme de l’époque alexandrine à l’epoque cubiste
1990, Publisher: Lang

Malina: A novel
1990, Author: Bachmann, Ingeborg Publisher: Holmes & Meier

Mallarmé et Debussy
1987, Author: Court, Raymond

Mallarmé in the twentieth century
1998, Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press [u.a.]

1978, Author: Stifter, Adalbert Publisher: Insel-Verl.

Notation: Kalkül und Form in den Künsten ; [… anlässlich der Ausstellung »Notation. Kalkül und Form in den Künsten«, 20. September bis 16. November 2008, Akademie der Künste, Berlin ; 14. Februar bis 26. Juli 2009, ZKM, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe]
2008, Publisher: Akad. der Künste and ZKM

Sichtbares und Unsichtbares in Texten
2008, Author: Burkhard, Dagmar Publisher: Synchron

Sternschnuppen auf exzentrischen Bahnen: Überlegungen zu Textbild und Textbildlichkeit in Mallarmés ›Un coup de dés jamais n’ abolira le hasard‹
2008, Author: Hartwig, Sebastian Publisher: Synchron

Text als Figur: Visuelle Poesie von der Antike bis zur Moderne ; [Ausstellung im Zeughaus der Herzog-August-Bibliothek vom 1. September 1987 - 17. April 1988]
1987, Publisher: Acta humaniora VCH

Tönende Bilderschrift: »Musik« in der deutschen und französischen Erzählprosa des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts
2002, Author: Albert, Claudia Publisher: Synchron Wiss.-Verl. der Autoren

Un coup de dés
1998, Author: Mallarmé, Stéphane Publisher: Gallimard

Vom Klang der Bilder: D. Musik in d. Kunst d. 20. Jh. ; [anläßl. d. Ausstellung Vom Klang d. Bilder, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 6. Juli bis 22. Sept. 1985]
1985, Publisher: Prestel

›Totus mundus exercet histrionem.‹ Theatralität als analytische Kategorie bei Heinrich Mann
2000, Author: Trapp, Frithjof

see aswell

  • Guillaume Apollinaire
  • Ingeborg Bachmann
  • Honoré de Balzac
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Joseph Berglinger
  • Denis Diderot
  • Albrecht Dürer
  • Rudolf Florestan
  • Frenhofer
  • Ernestine von Fricken
  • Gambara
  • Franz Grillparzer
  • E. T. A. Hoffmann
  • Hans Henny Jahnn
  • Ernst Jandl
  • Johannes Kreisler
  • Stéphane Mallarmé
  • Heinrich Mann
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Arthur Rimbaud
  • Friedrich Roderer
  • Susanne Roderer
  • Gerhard Rühm
  • Arthur Schnitzler
  • Robert Schumann
  • Franz Sternbald
  • Laurence Sterne
  • Adalbert Stifter
  • Ludwig Tieck
  • Paul Verlaine
  • Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder
  • Works
  • Art poétique
  • Calligrammes
  • Carnaval
  • Correspondances
  • Das Füllhorn
  • Fluss ohne Ufer
  • Fräulein Else
  • Herzensergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders
  • Malina
  • Nachkommenschaften
  • Rameau’s Nephew
  • The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr
  • Tristram Shandy
  • Un coup de dés
  • Voyelles

  • Timelines
    1600 until today

    All Keywords
  • Bewußtseinserweiterung (Chap. 1)
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 1, 2)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 2, 3)
  • Materialität (Chap. 2, 3)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 1)
  • notation (Chap. 3)
  • polyphony (Chap. 1)
  • synthesis (Chap. 3)
  • universalism (Chap. 1)

  • Socialbodies
  • Akademie der Bildenden Künste München
  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG)
  • Freie Universität Berlin (FU Berlin)
  • George-Kreis (Stefan-George-Kreis, George-Circle)
  • Typografie und Literatur (Typographie and Literature)
  • Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe