“The Music of Erich Zann”: H.P.Lovecraft’s Tribute to Atonality?

It’s 100 years, since Howard Phillips (always referred to as ‘H.P.’) Lovecraft began publishing his weird tales in various American magazines. The Music of Erich Zann was among his earliest, featuring in the March 1922 edition of The National Amateur. It’s a cracker of a short story, and predates the tales of the Cthulhu mythos, for which he is best known. I got myself a copy of a commemorative edition of Lovecraft’s collected tales, entitled Necronomicon at the very start of lockdown, and am busy reworking my way through these creepy stories of the uncanny. “Zann” was always one of my favourites, and I’ve often wondered whether the writer, who actually sounds like an uber-conservative over most issues (as well as being an appalling racist) was having a go at composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, what with Zann’s “fantastic, delirious and hysterical” viola music, but which “kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius”.

Erich Zann lives in a street, the Rue D’Auseil, which is described as looking like a German expressionist nightmare film: “the houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise”. The description that Lovecraft gives us certainly conjures up The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, films that were being made at exactly the same time as Lovecraft’s early tales, 1920 and 1922 respectively. It is highly unlikely that Lovecraft would have known of these films, but the synchronicity is worth noting. Zann’s phantasmagorical sounds are to harry, torment and ultimately destroy him, and the unnamed narrator has to flee them for the sake of his own sanity: “I plunged…from the ghoulish howling of that accursed viol whose fury increased even as I plunged”. I’m reminded of the ESP Records ‘warning’ on Sun Ra’s albums for the label, “you never heard such sounds in your life!”.

I do wonder whether Lovecraft had heard The Rite of Spring, which was famously premiered in 1915 Paris. and whether he had come across Arnold Schoenberg’s work, with his post-1908 development of the 12-tone technique, with its ‘free atonality’. Serialism was to have its effects on the ‘First Generation’ of UK free improvisers, and there were certainly several members of the public who would have ‘plunged’ down the stairs of venues like The Little Theater Club, when these improvisers first started their “such sounds” experiments from 1966 onwards. I also have to cross-reference this work of Lovecraftian horror with the far more highbrow Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (who knew Schoenberg and Stravinsky), published in 1947, whose leading character, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, is doomed as a result of his own musical overreach and hubris. I love both Lovecraft and Mann, and they occupy different critical universes, but most readers will recognise the ability of challenging music to test one’s patience (at the very least) but to also offer a gateway out of ‘the normal’. The Cthulhu mythos, rendered down to its absolute essence, suggested that “there are more things in heaven and earth..than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. (A quote from Shakespeare’s tragedy, which is currently getting much attention due to the son of the Stratford magus’ early demise, and his putative influence on his father’s work.) Free improvisation has itself certainly given critics and sundry human beings something to philosophise about over the years.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.