Doktor Faustus

This article is about the novel by Thomas Mann. For other uses, see Doctor Faustus.

Doctor Faustus is a German novel written by Thomas Mann, begun in 1943 and published in 1947 as Doktor Faustus. Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde ("Doctor Faustus. The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend").


The novel is a re-shaping of the Faust legend set in the context of the first half of the 20th century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. The story centers on the life and work of the (fictitious) composer Adrian Leverkühn; his extraordinary intellect and creativity as a young man mark him as destined for success, but Leverkühn desires true greatness. Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: he intentionally contracts syphilis, which deepens his artistic inspiration through madness. In a scene strongly reminiscent of Ivan Karamazov's breakdown in Dostoevsky's novel, Leverkühn is subsequently visited by a very clever devil who says, in effect, "that you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist." Leverkühn forges a deal with this Mephistophelean character: his soul, in exchange for twenty-four years of genius. His madness - his daemonic inspiration - leads to extraordinary musical creativity that parallels the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg.

Leverkühn's last creative years are increasingly occupied by his obsession with the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. Leverkühn feels the inexorable progress of his neuro-syphilitic madness leading towards complete breakdown; in self-conscious imitation of certain of the Faust legends, Leverkühn calls together his closest friends to witness his final demise: at a chamber-reading of his cantata "The Lamentation of Doctor Faust", he ravingly confesses his demonic pact before collapsing, incoherent. His madness reduces him to an infantile state in which he lives under the care of his relatives for another ten years.

The story is narrated by Leverkühn's childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom. Much like Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain, the 'serene' humanist Zeitblom and the tragical Leverkühn represent the dualism of the German character, its Apollonian (reason, democracy, progress) and Dionysian (passion, tragedy, fate) aspects. Writing in Germany between 1943 and 1946, Zeitblom describes the rise and downfall of Nazi Germany in parallel with his account of Leverkühn's life. Clearly Leverkühn's pact with the devil symbolizes Germany's "selling of its soul" to Hitler, and vice versa.

The interplay of layers between the narrator's historical situation (the demise of Nazi Germany), the progressive madness of Leverkühn, and the medieval legends with which Leverkühn self-consciously connects himself makes for an overwhelmingly rich symbolic network. The novel is not, however, mere political allegory, though readers have sometimes tried to reduce it to that; while it is doubtless a commentary on the madness of extremist politics, it is also a commentary on the artistic process, creativity, and the artistic life. Most of all, it is an extremely powerful piece of fiction whose power lies precisely in an ambiguous complexity that cannot be meaningfully reduced to a single interpretation.


The origins of the narrator and the hero in the fictitious small town of Kaisersaschern on the Saale, the name of Zeitblom's apothecary father, Wohlgemut, and the description of Adrian Leverkühn as an old-fashioned German type, with a cast of features "from a time before the Thirty Years War", evoke the old post-medieval Germany. In their respective Catholic and Lutheran origins, and theological studies, they are heirs to the German Renaissance and the world of Dürer and Bach, but sympathetic to, and admired by, the "keen-scented receptivity of Jewish circles."

They are awakened to musical knowledge by Wendell Kretzschmar, a German American lecturer and musicologist who visits Kaisersaschern. After schooling together, both boys study at Halle - Adrian studies theology; Zeitblom does not, but participates in discussions with the theological students - but Adrian becomes absorbed in musical harmony, counterpoint and polyphony as a key to metaphysics and mystic numbers, and follows Kretzschmar to Leipzig to study with him.

Zeitblom describes "with a religious shudder" Adrian's embrace with the woman, whom Adiran names "Esmeralda", who gave him syphilis, how he worked her name in note-ciphers into his compositions, and how the medics who sought to heal him were all prevented from effecting a cure by mysterious circumstances. Zeitblom begins to perceive the demonic, as Adrian develops other friendships, first with the translator Rüdiger Schildknapp, and then after his move to Munich with the handsome young violinist Rudi Schwerdtfeger, Frau Rodde and her doomed daughters Clarissa and Ines, a numismatist named Dr. Kranich, and two artists named Leo Zink and Baptist Spengler.

Zeitblom insists, however, on the unique closeness of his own relationship to Adrian, who only addresses him casually. Adrian also meets the Schweigestill family at Pfeiffering, in the country an hour from Munich, which later becomes his permanent home and retreat.

He lives at Palestrina in Italy with Schildknapp (as in reality Thomas Mann did 15 years earlier, with his brother Heinrich) in 1912, and Zeitblom visits them there. It is there that Adrian, working on music for an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, has his long dialogue with a Mephistopheles figure who appears either objectively or out of his own afflicted soul. These are the central pages of the novel, corresponding also to its central part.

Zeitblom transcribes Adrian's manuscript of the conversation, in which the demon claims Esmeralda as the instrument of his entrapment of Adrian's vainglory, ingenium and memoriam, and offers him twenty-four years of time gifted with genius,[1] a time of incubation[2] from the date of his sexual embrace, if he will now renounce the warmth of love. This dialogue reveals the anatomy of Leverkühn's thought.

Adrian then moves permanently to Pfeiffering, and in conversations with Zeitblom reveals a darker view of life than his. Figures of a demonic type appear, such as Dr. Chaim Breisacher, to cast down the idols of the older generation.

In 1915, Ines Rodde marries, but forms an adulterous love for Rudi Schwerdtfeger. Adrian begins to experience illnesses of retching, headaches and migraines, but is producing new and finer music, preparing the way for his great work Apocalypsis cum figuris. Schwerdtfeger woos himself into Adrian's solitude, asking for a violin concerto that would be like the offspring of their platonic union.

By August 1919 Adrian has completed the sketch of Apocalypse. There is also a new circle of intellectual friends, including Sextus Kridwiß, the art-expert; Chaim Breisacher; Dr. Egon Unruhe, the palaeozoologist; Georg Vogler, a literary historian; Dr. Holzschuher, a Dürer scholar; and the saturnine poet Daniel zur Höhe. In their discussions they declare the need for the renunciation of bourgeois softness and a preparation for an age of pre-medieval harshness. Adrian writes to Zeitblom that collectivism is the true antithesis of Bourgeois culture; Zeitblom observes that aestheticism is the herald of barbarism.

Apocalypse is performed in Frankfurt in 1926 under Otto Klemperer with Erbe (an allusion to Karl Erb, the famous Evangelist of Bach's St Matthew Passion) as the St. John narrator. Zeitblom describes the work as filled with longing without hope, with hellish laughter transposed and transfigured even into the searing tones of spheres and angels.

Adrian attempts to obtain a wife by employing Rudi, who gets his concerto, as the messenger of his love, but she prefers Rudi himself, and not Adrian. Soon afterwards Rudi is shot dead in a tram by Ines out of jealousy. As Adrian begins to plan the second oratorio The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, in 1928, his sister's child Nepomuk is sent to live with him. The boy, who calls himself "Echo", is beloved by all.

As the work of gigantic dimensions develops in Adrian's mind, the child falls ill and dies, and Adrian, despairing, believes that by gazing at him with love, in violation of his contract, he has killed him with poisonous and hellish influences.

The score of the Lamentation is completed in 1930, Adrian summons his friends and guests, and instead of playing the music he relates the story of his infernal contract, and descends into the brain disease which lasts until his death ten years later.

Zeitblom visits him occasionally, and survives to witness the collapse of Germany's "dissolute triumphs" as he tells the story of his friend.

Allusions and sources

Doctor Faustus is constructed in richly allusive and symbolic terms. H.T. Lowe-Porter refers to the three strands of the book:

'the German scene from within, and its broader, its universal origins; the depiction of an art not German alone but vital to our whole civilization; music as one instance of the arts and the state in which the arts find themselves today [sc. 1949]; and, finally, the invocation of the daemonic.' (Translator's note, vi.)

Mann wrote a book about the writing of this novel, 'The Genesis of Doctor Faustus' (1949).

Models for the composer-legend

In naming Leverkühn's projected work The Lamentation of Dr Faustus, Mann was echoing Ernst Krenek's Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae, an oratorio of 1941-1942 which combines the Schoenbergian twelve-tone technique with modal counterpoint.

Although Leverkühn's visit to Palestrina with Schildknapp fully evokes the great early polyphonist named for this birthplace, (and Adrian's absorption in polyphonic theory), it also alludes to the opera Palestrina, premiered at Munich in 1917, and written by Hans Pfitzner. That opera is (outwardly) precisely about polyphonic music in relation to political environment, and Palestrina's attempt to hold together the diverging worlds of the Reformation epoch. Mann described Erb's 1917 debut as Palestrina in almost exactly the terms used for 'Erbe' in Apocalypse. Mann therefore also had Pfitzner in mind.

Palestrina is one of three characteristic German-language operas of the early 20th century, outside the main stream of opera, which deal with the isolation of the creative individual,[3] two others being Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (about Matthias Grünewald), completed 1935,[4] and the Berlin-based Ferruccio Busoni's Doktor Faust, which was left unfinished in 1924. All are concerned with the German Protestant Reformation, as the root point leading to the ethical, spiritual and artistic crises confronting early 20th century creativity. Mann's Doctor Faustus strongly reflects this theme in German musical theatre.

Allusive naming; title

Names are important throughout. Serenus Zeitblom's father's forename Wohlgemut echoes the artist Michael Wohlgemuth, teacher of Albrecht Dürer. The name of Wendell Kretzschmar is probably borrowed from that of Hermann Kretzschmar, a founder of interpretative musical analysis, whose essays 'Guides to the Concert Hall' were widely read. Kretzschmar is half-American to indicate the world-historic context of musical culture. The names of other key characters reflect their roles, as in a morality play like Everyman, a mannerism suited to the Faust genre and its allegorical purposes.

The doomed child's name Nepomuk, in the 19th century quite popular in Austria and southern Germany and middle name of the composer Hummel and the playwright Johann Nestroy, can be seen as an allusion to the high rococo, the 're-echoing of movement', in the St John Nepomuk Church architecture by the Asam brothers in Munich (as described and interpreted by Heinrich Wölfflin[5]).

The title of the novel connects it of course with the most famous work, Faust I and Faust II, of the German poet Goethe, generally considered the absolute, unsurpassable climax of all German literature and the most deep and most true exploration and depiction of the German character. The relation with this work is indirect, mainly the Faustian character of Adrian Leverkühn, Faustian through his abnormal ambition. Moreover, the abnormality of Adrian Leverkühn is related to that of the German culture in view of Nazism.

Other composite elements

Mann's characters are composites, not specific counterparts to individuals. Where names do seem to allude to real persons (such as Spengler, to Oswald Spengler, or Kridwiß, to Ernst Kris) Mann is echoing in their names the philosophies and intellectual standpoints of their time (of which he was a part) without intending portraits or impersonations of the real persons. The homoerotic character of the violinist Rudi Schwerdtfeger is modelled on Paul Ehrenberg of Dresden, an admired friend of Thomas Mann's.

In preparation for the work, Mann studied musicology and biographies of major composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. He communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg (see below), and Hanns Eisler. He also made a study of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose career including the supposed contracting of syphilis followed by complete mental collapse in 1889 at the height of his creative life prophesying the 'Anti-Christ', and his death in 1900, do present a pattern imitated in Leverkühn. The illnesses of Delius and Wolf also resonate here. In the death of the child there is an echo (appropriately) of the death of Mahler's daughter, after he had (in Alma's opinion) tempted fate by setting the Kindertotenlieder.

In Chapter XXII Leverkühn develops the twelve-tone technique or row system, which was actually invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg lived near Mann in Los Angeles as the novel was being written. He was very annoyed by this appropriation without his consent, and later editions of the novel included an Author's Note at the end acknowledging that the technique was Schoenberg's intellectual property, and that passages of the book dealing with musical theory are indebted in many details to Schoenberg's Harmonielehre.[6]


A most important and direct contribution came from the philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno, who acted as Mann's adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann also read chapters to groups of invited friends (a method also used by Kafka) to test the effect of the text. He wrote, "Zeitblom is a parody of myself. Adrian's mood is closer to my own than one might – and ought to – think."


As a re-telling of the Faust myth, the novel is concerned with themes such as pride, temptation, the cost of greatness, loss of humanity and so on. Another concern is with the intellectual fall of Germany in the time leading up to World War II. Leverkühn's own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany's intellectual life in the 1930s. Leverkühn becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, ridden by syphilis and insanity. In the novel, all of these thematic threads – Germany's intellectual fall, Leverkühn's spiritual fall, and the physical corruption of his body – directly correspond to the national disaster of fascist Germany. In Mann's published version of his 1938 United States lecture tour, The Coming Victory of Democracy, he said, "I must regretfully own that in my younger years I shared that dangerous German habit of thought which regards life and intellect, art and politics as totally separate worlds." He now realised that they were inseparable. In Doktor Faustus, Leverkühn's personal history, his artistic development, and the shifting German political climate are tied together by the narrator Zeitblom as he feels out and worries over the moral health of his nation (just as he had worried over the spiritual health of his friend, Leverkühn).


  • Franz Seitz’s 1982 adaptation of the novel for West German television starred Jon Finch as Adrian Leverkühn.

English translations

  • H. T. Lowe-Porter translated many of Mann's works, including Doctor Faustus, almost contemporaneously with their composition. Mann completed Doctor Faustus in 1947, and in 1948 Alfred A. Knopf published Lowe-Porter's English translation. The translator in her note remarked 'Grievous difficulties do indeed confront anyone essaying the role of copyist to this vast canvas, this cathedral of a book, this woven tapestry of symbolism.' She described her translation as 'a version which cannot lay claim to being beautiful, though in every intent it is deeply faithful.' She found a linguistic spirit comparable to Mann's intended authorial 'voice', and employed medieval English vocabulary and phrasing to correspond with those sections of the text in which characters speak in Early New High German.
  • John E. Woods' translation of 1997 is in a more modern vein, and does not attempt to mirror the original in this way.

See also

Novels portal
  • Best German Novels of the 20th century



  1. Giordano, Diego. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and the twelve-tone technique. From the Myth to the Alienation, in Calixtilia (n.3), Lampi di Stampa, 2010. ISBN 9-788848-811507.
  2. Mann, Thomas. Doktor Faustus. Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn erzählt von einem Freunde (S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1947).
  3. Mann, Thomas; translation by Lowe-Porter, H.T. (Helen Tracy). Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. ISBN 0-679-60042-6.
  4. Mann, Thomas. The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus (Alfred Knopf, New York 1961).
  5. Mann, Thomas; translation by Woods, John E. (John Edwin). Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. ISBN 0-375-40054-0.
  6. Reed, T.J. (Terence James). Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. Oxford University Press, 1974. ISBN 0-19-815742-8 (cased). ISBN 0-19-815747-9 (paperback).

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