Warning – Children Are Liable for Their Parents!

John Lanchester: The Wall ISBN 978-0-571-29872-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You are familiar with the feeling: You did something wrong, you begged for pardon, pardon was granted, but the feeling of guilt lingers on, the remorse remains palpable, a barrier between you and the other. “The Wall” is about guilt and it is about us and them. Us, well, that’s us, the present generation. Them, that’s our children, people like Josef Kavanagh and Hifa. What separates us, is the fact that we were born before an irreversible climate catastrophe occurred – the one we did not prevent – while they were born after “the Change” and into a world that is not necessarily worth living in.

For Kavanagh, us refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain, living behind a heavily guarded wall built all along the coastline to protect the country from a rising sea level and refugees fleeing their submerged home countries – them. Or as they are euphemistically called in the novel: the Others. Kavanagh and Hifa are Defenders, young people doing their duty on the wall, watching out for refugees that might approach the wall from the seaside and shooting them. Kavanagh is perfectly aware that if a refugee will come through on his watch, he will be put to sea and no longer belong to what he used to call “us”, but become one of “them”.

“The Wall” is about guilt and responsibility. Lanchester’s novel is a tough one. It pitches us against our children or rather it shows us how our present choices will pitch us against our children. The moral dilemma he sketches strongly resonates with my remorse for not doing enough against climate change, which may lead to a situation where our society will kill less fortunate people so that we may live. And I have to ask myself how I will justify my lack of action in ten or 20 years when I will be challenged by my daughter. A bit like our parents may have challenged our grand-parents by asking why they hadn’t prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The wall, as a construction, isn’t perfect, neither are the people defending it. First of all, there are not enough Defenders. After the Change the incentive to reproduce has dramatically sunk. Furthermore there are traitors among the Defenders, siding with the Others. Finally, there are so many Others, many more than there are Defenders. Courage, good planning, luck, desperation – all play a part when a refugee manages to get across the wall, and as Lanchester, says “Others who get over the Wall have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea”.

Help. Help are everywhere and do the daily chores for those who are entitled to a little luxury. Help have no names, no feelings and hardly any rights. They are an anonymous mass, owned by the British government, with their only raison d’être to serve as modern slaves in all but name.

The world Lanchester shows us is a gruesome dystopia and fascinating at the same time. An intellectual experiment masterfully narrated and leading to painfully interesting ethical reflections. The world after the Change being what it is, Kavanagh reflects his situation throughout the novel and his personality evolves with each new turning point of the novel.

Exposed to solitude, monotony and bad weather while mounting the guard, his only thought is to get away from the wall as soon as possible. When his squad enjoys a well-deserved rest, it begins to dawn on him that after his two years on the wall, he has nowhere to go to. He harbours ambitious, but vague dreams, at the same time he enjoys the comradeship among the Defenders.

Once Kavanagh has experienced a life-or-death moment, his personal life takes a new trajectory, which leads to the question of responsibility turned upside-down. What kind of responsibility does Kavanagh have towards the generation following his own? Finally betrayal kicks in, and Kavanagh’s ethical considerations become absurd. In a violent society where the “greater good” is more important than basic rights, life is reduced to physical and mental survival. Or so it would seem.

Taken together, all this should be enough to wet your appetite for novel with an exciting plot. I like Lanchaster’s style, and his familiarity with the weather on the British Isles shows the multiple ways to describe cold and wet and windy. I loved that since I experienced the combination of cold and wet and windy myself many times, and yes, there are many different types of cold and wet and windy. And since the weather is what it is, here or on the wall, I recommend a cup of tea and some lovely music from an Other who made it to London before the wall had been built. In the second half of the 18th century, Jacob Kirkman wrote his lovely Sonata I in A Major:

Chamber music from a continental immigrant

I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

Books of the Past I Had Forgotten (About)

I did some digging. In my past. In my memories. As I had promised in my first post dealing with books of the past that were important to me. Funny how I had forgotten about them. Some of them were actually more important than those that sprung to my mind while I was compiling the first list. Now, if you continue reading, brace yourself. You are signing up for a couple of confessions!

1977 – 1982

Jack Hambleton: Flieger überm Busch (Forest Ranger) I inherited this youth novel, published in its 3rd edition in 1956, from my dad. Bill Hanson and Bun Higgins, two friends, a young and a more experienced bush pilot, chase bandits setting Canada’s woods on fire. I loved this book. I still love it. I don’t have my dad’s copy anymore, I gave it to one of my cub scouts when I resigned as an assistant cub scout leader. I immediately regretted it and got hold of a vintage copy. I just wanted to possess it. Decades later I passed this copy to my daughter. She liked it too. She presented it to her school class. Imagine, a book published more than half a century ago! Pretty cool.


1982 – 1989

Heinrich Heine: Sämtliche Gedichte (Complete Poems) Those familiar with my music blog will know that Heine is my favourite poet. Quite a few composers have set his poems to music. I fell in love with Heine at school, despite an incompetent teacher. But incompetent teachers had stopped impressing me. It was the same teacher who made me learn part of a novel by heart as I mentioned in that earlier post. The way Heine plays with language, his irony wielded like a rapier, his political Romanticism – I just love it!

Anne Frank: Tagebuch (The Diaries of Anne Frank) I had always been fascinated by World War II. I was worried about my fascination for the German side. Hic sunt daemones… One of my teachers, a human rights activist, understood my worries. He warned me about being lured to the dark side, but he offered no rescue. I had to find it myself. Anne Frank was a revelation. Very moving, very disturbing. I understood Hitler’s idea: People like Anne have to die for Germany to live. Anne was for more sympathetic than this man with his ridiculous moustache and his bad haircut. Never mind the cool planes flown by the Luftwaffe, I knew where I stood. On Anne’s side.

Richard Bach: The Bridge Across Forever Men and women and the question of love. Meeting a soul mate and taking care of a relationship. Exploring what love can mean – for myself and the girl I was in love with. I was 17 and I had no clue about all of the above. The book helped fill a few voids not covered by the biology book. It’s still a good read. My copy is full of annotations by myself and my former girl friend. She was equally impressed. The right book at the right time. Soon afterwards we decided we were not made for each other. We were devastated, but it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t ready to take up the challenge of a true partnership. I hadn’t grown up yet. It would take many more years unfortunately.


1989 up to now

Ken Follett: The Key to Rebecca I think this was the first of many spy novels by Ken Follett that I read. It certainly was the one that fascinated me most. A World War II spy hunt in the exotic setting of Egypt, under British control, but threatened by the evil designs of a Nazi master spy. Thrilling! I like anything linked to codes and cryptology since my early childhood, when I made invisible ink from lemon juice that reveals itself only when heat is applied. I gave my copy of Follett’s novel to a fellow student in Munich and forgot to claim it back. Shame on me! That’s why I had trouble remembering some of the best books I had read. I gave them away to share the pleasure and…  bye-bye! It’s unbelievable!

Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen I must confess that it was the cover of the German edition that initially compelled me to grab this book at the bookstore. Once I had read a few lines – still in the bookstore – I had found a better reason. What a strange book, I thought. The lives of women in Japan, their hopes, their disappointments, the subject of sexuality – I never had asked myself these questions. The novel had a strange effect upon me: bewilderment, curiosity, fascination, compassion… I wonder whether it would not be a good thing to read it once more!

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings I read this breathtaking novel during my last days as a student. My flat was being painted, I stayed with a friend, I had a job contract in my pocket, but since I was to start working only a month later, I had no money at all. I checked my friend’s bookshelf, found Tolkien’s great achievement and didn’t bother to go outside for three days. I even forgot to eat. That was… unheard of.

Biljana Srbljanovic: Familiengeschichten. Belgrad (Family Stories – The Belgrade Trilogy) After having spent a week in Sarajevo in 1998, I was keen to explore not only Bosnian literature but also Serbian contemporary works. These two dramas truly shocked me. They depict dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic families, serving as an allegory for a dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic society. Srbljanovic condenses the long-term psychological effects of Tito’s dictatorship, the Balkan civil wars and the complicated history of Serbia searching for its identity in two powerful theatre pieces in a language trying to accommodate love and destruction at the same time.

Elias Khoury: La porte du soleil (Gate of the Sun) My dream was to work as a political editor for a newspaper and I was able to make this dream come true. The Middle East was one of my traditional fields of interest, and Khoury’s novel, set in Lebanon during its disastrous civil war, opened my eyes to the plight of refugees and the religious and ethnic plurality of this country. A sad excursion into a fascinating society.

William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Imagine a spring morning in central Scotland. The sun just had gone up, it was cold and I stood at a bus stop. I felt miserable. I felt lonesome. I had hardly any money left (I have an issue with money, it would seem!!!). I wanted to stay in Scotland and I longed for home. I had fallen in love with a girl and she had left. I had hung around with another girl who had left too. I had had a wild night with a third girl whom I had left once I was sober again. I desperately looked for a kind illusion. I had it in my backpack. Once I had started to read at the bus stop, the cold air, the empty belly, the lack of funds and the broken heart were forgotten. Thank you, William!

Final remarks

What I take away from this post – a real intellectual effort started today way past midnight and finished on a morning bus – is two-fold: First, exploring foreign cultures like Serbia, Japan or Lebanon somehow seems important to me. My cosmopolitan side, I guess. Second, the perspective of female authors intruded into my life. Well, it’s never to late, is it? And finally, reflecting this second selection, I realized that books reconcile me partly with this world. Just as music does. That fills me with joy.

Behind the book and inside the story

A fellow blogger, Uwe Kalkowski, who likes to sit in a Kaffeehaus, gave me the idea: A post about books that have had a lasting impact on me, books that shook me and prevented from a good night’s sleep. Books that stirred intense emotions, both good and bad. Now, wouldn’t it be fun to compile a list and see what books I would include and why? Here we go, the books of my life, organized in three sections corresponding roughly to my childhood years, youth and adulthood. All deserve ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️!

1977-1982

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Rudyard Kipling: Das Dschungelbuch (The Jungle Book) German is the first foreign language I learned at school, and accordingly, the first books I read were either German books or translations into German. Being a cub and later a boy scout, the Jungle Book exerted a huge fascination upon my mind and became one of my ethical reference points. It served me well then and it still serves now.

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Enid Blyton: See der Abenteuer (Sea of Adventure) I inherited this novel from my mother and, after having read it, I was craving for more from Enid Blyton. Of all her books, I liked the adventure series with Philip, Dinah, Jack, Lucy and the parrot Kiki best. And this specific novel had a powerful impact upon my fantasy – it painted a picture of a  wild landscape, beaten by winds and the sea, a landscape I later found in reality, on the Scottish Orkney Islands. Ultimate happiness!

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Erich Kästner: Das fliegende Klassenzimmmer (The Flying Classroom) Being lonely at school, being lonely in life, even if surrounded by people, was a feeling I experienced from early childhood on. Being the odd boy out never felt very good. Kästner experienced something similar in his childhood, and this generally amusing children’s novel has its dark moments that made me cry silently when I read it.


1982-1989

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Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny  I suspect this book was the first of many that touched a subject that keeps haunting me: men and the identity of men. William S. Keith is a young, well-educated and spoiled man from a rich US family who joins the US Navy during World War II. He is confronted with autocratic superiors, lazy subordinates, the dull routine of any military system, a typhoon, a court-martial and a kamikaze attack. The novel retraces how a boy becomes a man. The “Caine Mutiny” was also the first novel I read showing in detail how things between men and women go wrong and why. A lot to digest for a 15-year-old. I read this book at least 20 times since then.

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Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse) This novel was compulsory reading at high school, and I remember the book very warmly. I had to learn parts of it by heart as a disciplinary sanction, but I had my revenge on the teacher in a test, when I stole a couple of ideas from the editor’s afterword to answer a question. It was the first time I read an editor’s note about a novel. It was actually the first time I understood symbolism in literature. The experience unlocked a door to a world I haven’t left since.

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Théophile Gautier: Le Capitaine Fracasse An alternative role model to the sailor William S. Keith: An impoverished French nobleman joins a theatre troop to give his life a meaning. He is gifted and loyal to his new friends, and, romantisme oblige, there are a lot of occasions for heroic duels and Romantic love. Gautier’s detailed and evoking descriptions, his amazing command of the French language – a true delight! I loved it then, I love it now.


1989 up to now

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Hermann Hesse: Der Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf. A novel) “Steppenwold” was an almost traumatic experience that marked the culminating point of my first identity crisis. I must have been 22 or so. Men and the identity of men once more. Ugh. Men and their relationship with women. Ugh-ugh. Men and their selfishness. Nooooooo! I passed several bad nights after having read this book, I felt sick and nauseated. I cried and I was desperate. I never took up the book again. It’s an excellent book, but I had become afraid of… a text.

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Sören Kierkegaard: Entweder – Oder (Either/Or) No other writer has stimulated me so much during my studies as the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. I explored both the Bible and French existentialism having Kierkegaard within reach. His works, and most importantly “Either/Or”, triggered some of my most intense reflections about religion, about giving life a meaning, about leading a good life. In a few years I will schedule a second exploration of his numerous works as I am sure I have missed 95% of what Kierkegaard meant to say.

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Mikhail Sholokhov: And Quiet Flows the Don I read this  book when I lived in the former GDR, where Sholokhov was well-known. It helped me connect with the East Germans I worked with, lived with and discussed with on long evenings in their homes or in a pub. The novel narrates the story of a Cossack soldier during  World War I and the Russian Revolution and presents an amazing sketch of the transition from Czarist to Communist Russia. The Soviet author was rewarded by a Nobel prize; but Sholokhov most likely did not write the novel himself. The publication of the book was a Soviet propaganda effort orchestrated by intelligence agents. Still, I remember the book as a real page-turner and I am tempted to pick it up once more.

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Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost Four narrators, for versions of a turbulent story taking place at the University of Oxford, steeped in intrigues and rivalries. The setting, the plot, the philosophical ideas – Medieval metaphysics versus scientific methodology – and of course Pears wonderful way to tell a story made me buy a second copy after I had given the first to a friend – just in case I felt like reading it a second time. It is waiting for me on the shelf and time will come…

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J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Stranded in a Beijing hotel room, without money (not my fault!) and 72 hours to kill before I was due to head home… Harry Potter was a lot of value for little money and one of the greatest literary pleasures I had. I loved all seven volumes, and during those 72 hours I read the first three. I didn’t mind the dull hotel room, the icy winds on Tiananmen Square and the fast food I had to rely upon. I had Harry Potter and he saved my stay in China!

Iran

Christopher de Bellaigue: In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs De Bellaigue’s book was the beginning of a deep interest in Iran, its glorious history, its difficult and ambiguous modernity, its culture and its people. Such a promising nation, kept prisoner by religious zealots, welded together by hardship, traumatized by a civil war, uncertain of its future. May others demonize Iran – they don’t know what they are talking about. If ever a Middle Eastern Muslim country has been ripe for a free and democratic state, based on the rule of law, high-level education and a sense of destiny, it is Iran.

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Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) I read it twice and I am looking forward to read it a third time. There is so much in it. Philosophy, poetry, psychology and the German language, oh the German language! Mann was, is and always will be a master story-teller, never mind the impossibly long, entwined sentences with the utmost complex grammatical constructions ever to be written by man (Mann!). The first time I didn’t understand much, the second time was an exploratory tour and the third time will be an exquisite, five-star literary dinner with champagne before, after and in-between.

Final remarks

I was amused and surprised about a few choices myself and I am still at loss to explain why there is a huge lack of relevant books for a period of almost 15 years, my journalist years. I read a lot during that time, I spent most of my salary on books, mostly non-fiction, books about politics, military strategy, globalism, terrorism, Islam, but I did read novels too, didn’t I? Strange. I needed to do a little more hard thinking to come up with something, and for once, my ordering history with a global online bookseller was of some use. Now that I order books mainly at a real bookstore, retracing past orders will become more difficult.

Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness