(Rudolph Erich Raspe, 1785)

munchausen-frozen-horn-doreI traveled post, and finding myself in a narrow lane, bid the postilion give a signal with his horn, that other travelers might not meet us in the narrow passage. He blew with all his might; but his endeavors were in vain, he could not make the horn sound, which was unaccountable, and rather unfortunate, for soon after we found ourselves in the presence of another coach coming the other way….

After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.

Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver; so that the honest fellow entertained us for some time with a variety of tunes, without putting his mouth to the horn – “The King of Prussia’s March;” “Over the Hill and over the Dale,” with many other favorite tunes. At length the thawing entertainment concluded, as I shall this short account of my Russian travels.

This horn may be standard issue, but its behavior – storing up tones in the cold, to be released when thawed – defies nature. Wildly improbable events are, indeed, the order of the day in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel, Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. The many fantastic episodes that make up the Baron’s adventures seem to have been assembled from numerous literary sources and oral traditions. The idea of frozen sounds has its earliest known mention around the 1st century AD in Plutarch’s Progress in Virtue, where a certain city’s winter is said to be so cold that all speech freezes, to be heard only in the summer thaw. The idea was most famously used by François Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532), which describes sailing along the Frozen Sea and hearing the sounds of a battle fought the previous winter. Raspe’s novel may be the first instance in which sounds freeze in a musical instrument. Even as the horn remains stubbornly silent, the cold seems to have no effect on voices or noises. And whereas the Frozen Sea releases the sounds of battle in a confused jumble, the horn releases its tones in perfect order, neatly time-shifting the postilion’s performance.
Text and image: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1865), 67-72; illustration by Gustave Doré