I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been like to have been a member of the audience at one of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures. “Sculpting in snow” is how Heinrich von Kleist described the art of acting in the theatre, and there is a similarly short term of life for the lecture; both the actor and the lecturer have the happiness of communication with the audience in moments of inspiration; but the lecture and the performance only exist as long as the creator is there, when he is present and speaking, when he is physically and spiritually alive.
If Steiner had lived another ten or twenty years, perhaps we would have had a recording or even some brief filmed glimpses of him – but he died in 1925, before the age of routine sound recordings, filmed newsreels etc.; so all we have are a few photographs, stenographic records of his words (“from shorthand reports unrevised by the lecturer”, as we are always told) and some recollections by people who heard him lecture.
It is from these written recollections of those who heard Steiner speak that we can gain some idea of the effect he had on his audiences. I’ve selected a few representative samples of these. Here, for instance, is Frederick William Zeylmans van Emmichoven (1893 – 1961), a Dutch psychiatrist and anthroposophist, who from 1923 until his death was chairman of the Dutch Anthroposophical Society. He recalls here1 his first experience of hearing Steiner lecture; this was in Dornach in December 1920.
“On December 17, in the evening, I was sitting in the Schreinerei (the carpentry workshop adjacent to the Goetheanum, often used for lectures and performances) with my fiancée, who was studying eurythmy in Dornach. Happy at being together again, we were waiting for Rudolf Steiner’s lecture. Outside it was bitterly cold; Dornach lay covered in snow. Suddenly the blue curtain by the side of the stage lifted, and Rudolf Steiner went to the lecture-desk. At that moment I had the direct experience of recognition. The impression was so strong that a whole series of pictures simultaneously arose before me, pointing indeterminately to earlier situations – as if I were seeing him as my teacher through ages of time. It was the most memorable experience I have ever had in all my life. For some time I sat as though carried away and did not realise until later that his lecture had already begun. It was the first of the three lectures subsequently published under the title: The Bridge between the Spirituality of the Cosmos and Physical Man….
When I came to myself again and saw Rudolf Steiner standing at the lecture-desk, I had the strange feeling that for the first time I was looking at a Man! It is not at all easy to describe this impression. I had met many well-known and famous people, among them scholars and noted artists, and had always moved in circles where a great deal was going on – it had by no means been a humdrum existence. But now I realised: this is what Man is meant to be. I began to question myself: what is the explanation for this? You have encountered many human beings – what is it that is so significant here? I said to myself first of all that it was his whole bearing, the bearing of one who is like a tree that grows freely between earth and sky. This impression was connected not only with his straight, erect figure, but above all with the poise of the head – it seemed to hover between heaven and earth. The second feeling was profoundly moving: from this beautiful, powerful voice came forth words which lived on even after they had been spoken. And thirdly, there were the thoughts. I was obliged to confess to myself that I could not always understand them, but I realised that they were not there merely to be understood intellectually, but they had another, quite different, significance as well. Listening to professors, what always mattered was whether one understood everything they said. What mattered here was not whether I actually understood – it was something different. Today I could speak of ‘ideas’, of seed-bearing impulses and the like, but at that time I could not. I knew only that different impulses were at work here.”
A different account comes from Assya Turgeniev (1890 – 1966), a Russian artist who was in close contact with Rudolf Steiner from 1912 until his death in 1925. She was married to the Russian writer, Andrei Belyi. When she and Belyi first came across the writings of Steiner in 1912, they were struggling with questions arising from some disturbing recent mystical experiences. The two books by Steiner they had read (Christianity as Mystical Fact and How to Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds) had given them the sense that they could trust Steiner to provide answers to their questions. As soon as they had come to this conclusion, they rushed to catch a train from Brussels, where they had been staying, to Cologne, where Rudolf Steiner was lecturing. They first of all tried to meet Steiner but were rebuffed by a fierce lady, whom they came to know later as Marie von Sivers (the future Frau Dr Steiner). Instead, she invited them to attend a “members only” lecture later that day. They decided to attend this lecture, with very mixed feelings after their stern reception, particularly as neither of them spoke German. Turgeniev’s account2 continues:
“A remarkable audience assembled in a longish room decorated in blue. The majority were ladies, most of them not very young. Many were wearing peculiar shirtlike dresses with straight stoles over them, and others wore necklaces or chains with strange pendants. Even among those with some pretensions one could not discern any real style. The absence of make-up was very noticeable…
Half-bored, I watched the assembling audience. But what was that? Far off on the platform, partly covered by other people, something like a gleam of light showed. Then it disappeared and returned once more. Finally the outline of a head emerged. Dr Steiner! I knew that it was he, even though I could scarcely see him. Now he steps up onto the platform…an immense seriousness, a power which is beyond words spoke through those features…we sat there, gazed into the countenance of this person and listened to his words. That was the greatest and most important thing that had ever happened to me up till then, and something which went so deep into my very being that I could no more separate myself from it. One was immersed with such intensity into the voice with its resonance and rhythms, into the gestures and the expression of the face, that one accepted it all without question; one only knew that that in which one now lived and breathed was the original source of one’s being. Only when the lecture had come to an end did one ask oneself in amazement: “What has happened here? I did not understand one word of what was said and yet, in listening to it, I had such a deep experience, as though I had understood each word.”
Friedrich Hiebel (1903-1989) was a personal student of Rudolf Steiner and a teacher at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. Later in life he became a professor of German Literature and in 1963, he became a member of the Vorstand in Dornach. He attended seventy of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures. The following account3 is a description of the first lecture he ever heard, at the congress in Stuttgart in 1921, on the topic of Agnosticism – the Destroyer of Genuine Human Nature (not available online):
“…all eyes turned to the tall figure of the man in black tails who slowly walked from backstage to the centre and then let his eyes wander over the audience.
Slowly, Rudolf Steiner walked over to the lectern. The way he walked revealed something of the balance between a soaring freedom from the body and the permeation of earth substance with will. Indeed, Rudolf Steiner’s gait was like that of a young man. His face was framed by black hair, which still showed no trace of gray at the age of sixty. Lines on the forehead and furrows around the chin and the corners of the mouth bore witness to the spiritual battles of the quest for knowledge, and in their dignity contrasted strangely with the youthful agility of his limbs…
None of the many carefully taken photographs…can fully convey the essence of his stature. For even the best pictures remain silent, and it was only in his word that the essence of his being was revealed…
Rudolf Steiner’s word now resounded in the great hall, speaking to the almost two thousand listeners. The contrast between the delicate features of his spiritualised physique and the deep resonance of his speech, resulting from breathing deeply with the diaphragm, was surprising. The deep tone of his speech rested in the larynx, vibrated in the chest, and was permeated with the warmth of the heart…
During the introductory sentences of his lecture, he seemed to keep his eyes almost completely closed, and his glance directed downwards. His posture was that of a man listening inwardly. He remained in this inwardly listening stance, gathering himself with all his will forces, for the duration of several long sentences. Then came a clearly discernible breakthrough: he opened his eyes, looked directly at the listeners, and began to reinforce his talk with a forceful and diverse language of gestures…
Here, a man stood before me who taught first how to comprehend consciously and in freedom with the head, then knew how to reach people from heart to heart, and finally was able to enter into the depths of the will…Those who were gripped by these lectures were lifted out of themselves, as it were. They received an inkling of the future image of the human being that was exemplified and fought for by the founder of anthroposophy.”
But what about those people who heard Steiner but did not have that sudden shock of recognition or the sense that something very important had just happened to them? Here is one such example4, this time from England. In 1922, Steiner visited England to lecture at a conference on ‘Drama and Education’, which was taking place in Stratford-on–Avon. The Times Educational Supplement carried a front-page article ‘from a correspondent’, headed ‘Anthroposophy’.
This unnamed correspondent, who refers to himself in the third person throughout the following extract, first of all described in a semi-ironical way the development of anthroposophy out of theosophy and its vast ambitions in all areas of knowledge, its philosophical approach to the occult and the building of the Goetheanum. He then described his responses after listening to Steiner’s lectures:
“It is interesting to note the effect of all this on a typical English public school and old university man who spent a strenuous fortnight in listening to lectures and demonstrations on education. His impression of the man Steiner is noteworthy. It appears that the philosopher has an imposing presence, and exercises a remarkable effect upon his audience. Our English schoolmaster found this personal influence exhausting. At first he sat immediately in front, under the speaker’s eye. But after a day or two he found the strain more than he could bear, and retreated to a seat in the background. With quite a laudable mixture of scepticism and fair-mindedness the schoolmaster gave the lecturer every chance, but remained unconvinced. He says that the lectures appeared to him to be nearly nonsense, but delivered in a fascinating way and marked by all the appearance of sturdy common sense. From any other person the hearer said he would not for an instant have tolerated the startling things set forth by the lecturer, but from him they seemed somehow or other to be at the same time entirely plausible, not to say reasonable.”
There you have a good example of solid, stolid British middle-class common sense and conservatism in the face of something strange and disturbing – yet almost in spite of himself, the correspondent noted the fascinating way in which the lecture was delivered and “the appearance of sturdy common sense”, which rendered the startling content somehow or other to be “entirely plausible, not to say reasonable.”
I will finish with some recollections5 by George Adams. He was a most remarkable man – an anthroposophist, mathematician, scientist and translator – who translated over one hundred of Steiner’s lectures, and translated for Steiner whenever he came to England. The arrangements he describes for these translations sound absolutely hair-raising: the lecture was divided into three parts by Steiner, who then spoke for 20-25 minutes, during which time Adams scribbled furiously, using his own system (he never learned shorthand) of invented signs, symbolic logic, abbreviations and capital letters. Steiner would then sit down, while Adams gave his translation. Then Steiner would give part 2 of the lecture, speaking for another 20 minutes, and so on. To the very end of his life, Steiner was unable to lecture in any language other than German.
In a 1957 essay, Rudolf Steiner in England, George Adams recalled his impressions of Steiner:
“My impression … was, so to speak, of many Rudolf Steiners. There was the simple, friendly gentleman…Then there was Dr Steiner lecturing – deeply impressive and stern, vivid in characterisation, then often moving into anecdote, good-natured satire, rollicking fun and humour… there was Dr Steiner speaking in a more esoteric meeting … the initiate from timeless realms. Moreover, there was Dr Steiner as you might see him during a personal interview, when you told him of your life’s difficulties and ideals and he answered your questions – the deep, silent look in his eyes, the warm kindness and encouragement at some moments, and at others the absolute quiet, so that it was left entirely to you to come out with what you had to say, with seemingly no help from him, but silent waiting. And then again there was Dr Steiner as I saw him at the large public gatherings in Germany in 1921-22, often with audiences of two or three thousand, partly indifferent or merely curious or even hostile – the way he held them, the firmness and buoyancy of his carriage, the utter lack of compromise or any attempt to influence them. He rather put them through the mill, building up the ground of spiritual science or the stages of higher cognition with closely knit trains of thought, speaking for two hours or more and yet holding his audience completely.”
1 From ‘Rudolf Steiner in Holland’, an essay included in Rudolf Steiner, Recollections by some of his pupils. Translated from the German and published in a special issue of The Golden Blade edited by Arnold Freeman and Charles Waterman, in London, November 1957.
2 From Reminiscences of Rudolf Steiner and Work on the First Goetheanum by Assya Turgeniev. Translated from German by John and Margaret Wood. Published by Temple Lodge, 2003.
3 From Time of Decision with Rudolf Steiner by Friedrich Hiebel. Translated from the German by Maria St. Goar. Published by Anthroposophic Press, 1989.
4 Quoted on page 704 of Volume II (1922 – 1925) of Rudolf Steiner in Britain by Crispian Villeneuve. Published by Temple Lodge, 2004
5 From ‘Rudolf Steiner in England’, an essay included in Rudolf Steiner, Recollections by some of his pupils. Published in a special issue of The Golden Blade edited by Arnold Freeman and Charles Waterman, in London, November 1957.