Gift from Frido Mann: Thomas Mann’s wing back Los Angeles

“My children’s room,” says the guest of honor, pointing from the terrace to the first floor, “was up here.” The guest of honor is Frido Mann, born in Monterey, California in 1940, Thomas Mann’s favorite grandson. He meets at the late Saturday afternoon Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles. Today not just as a grandchild, but as a giver. Because Mann bequeathed the grand piano that his grandfather once played here to the Mann House. The good piece has been standing in the former living room of the magician for a year. Delayed due to the pandemic, the ceremony is only now rising. Around a hundred vaccinated guests came.

The bright southern California sun is shining on this October day. “I spent a third of my life here from 1942 to 1949,” says Frido Mann, “I even went to school from here in early 1949.” It was a cold winter. Even with snow! And that in LA! “Grandfather read to me on the sofa.” While man strolls through his grandparents’ former estate, striving for the grand piano, he explains, warns of too much authenticity illusion. “There was no fireplace back then, there was the gramophone.”

On the other hand, they set up the grand piano where it stood from when it was purchased in 1944 to when Mann moved to Switzerland in 1952. In front of the window front, behind which the palm trees soar into the sky like in TM’s time. The day before the grand piano – walnut, built by Wheelock in New York – was tuned, now it is waiting for its first use.

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What is not all behind this instrument! Michael Mann, Frido’s father, had chosen the piano for his father at the end of the Second World War. Thomas Mann’s known and unknown guests played him. Among them Bruno Walter and Theodor Adorno. “My grandfather improvised Wagner’s Tristan chord, I remember that,” says Frido Mann. Thomas Mann took the grand piano with him to Kilchberg near Zurich, his wife Katia bequeathed it to the grandson – and former music student – Frido on her death in 1980.

The official name of the Mann-Haus is to serve the “cultural exchange” between Germany and the USA. In November 2016, the very month that Donald Trump was elected President, the federal government bought the property in the posh Pacific Palisades neighborhood. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who promoted the purchase as Foreign Minister, inaugurated it in 2018.

„Tuchfühlung with everywhere“

Anyone who is concerned about the relationship between Germany and the USA today should attend an event in the Mann House and listen to the conversations. Both countries are connected by more than just a “relationship”, a “relationship”, they are more than “trading partners”. Germany and the USA are related to each other. In the Mann House they talk in English about Hölderlin, the North American Goethe Society, Günter Grass in New York, the Adorno Institute. Particularly nice: the combination of the German-English language, here and now “close contact with everywhere”, as one says.

Thomas Mann, who moved from Princeton to Pacific Palisades, mastered this sort of thing because he was more attracted to the “movie rabble”, ie actors and filmmakers, than the world of science. Man the movie fanatic. “The palm trees reminded him of Sanary-sur-mer in the south of France, the first stop in his exile,” says his biographer Hans Rudolf Vaget.

“If only the grand piano could speak!” Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State in the Federal Foreign Office, recalls musicians and philosophers who played the grand piano or listened to music. And of course to “Doctor Faustus”, which the man wrote a few meters away in the neighboring study. The shelves here are still original, as is the Goethe Complete Edition.

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Kurt Wolff in 1926 with his first wife Elisabeth Merck

The gift is a “wonderful gesture of affection”, says Müntefering. The donation was legally tricky. When does the Federal Republic of Germany get a gift, even abroad, with an ivory keyboard?

Both Müntefering and Mann give political speeches, rail against nationalism and narrow-mindedness. Trump haunts the room without his name being mentioned. Man admires the internationally successful Berlin pianist Igor Levit. That is why Levit inaugurates the refurbished grand piano, including Beethoven’s last piano sonata 32, Opus 111 – which, hardly by chance, appears several times in the “Doctor Faustus” written here.

It is quiet in the warmly lit, former Mannschen living room, while Levit begins to play passionately. Only the chirping of the crickets in the now dark garden can be heard. With force, then slowly, quietly, in a whisper, he brings the piano to life in its new, old place. Man thanks the pianist (“it was a thunderstorm”) and presented him with a special gift: his grandfather’s metronome, built in 1930. “I love metronomes,” says Levit touched and drapes him on the grand piano, gift after gift. His encore: Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Kind im Asleep and The Poet Speaks.

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Action scenes from world literature

After the concert, a few hours before he will fly back to Munich, Frido Mann rubs his hand over the grand piano that he himself has played for so many years. He still has to tell about a concert! In Kilchberg, he was 14 years old, played four hands, with his father, in front of his grandfather. “My father was sweating with excitement,” says Mann, “and I was completely relaxed.”

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