A portrait of Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832)–(and tell me that isn’t the most German name you’ve ever encountered)–played an astoundingly large role in the world of German Romantic music, especially considering that he was not a musician himself. His poems were set to music by multitudes of composers, and many of these settings have become revered classics in the vocal repertoire.

But while we probably best remember settings such as Schubert’s–much has been made, for example, of the genius in his setting of Gretchen am Spinnrade when he was just 17 years old–it’s quite likely that Goethe would not have approved of Schubert’s blatant text painting. He wrote to his composer friend Zelter on May 2, 1820:

The purest and highest style of painting in music is that which you yourself also practice; the object is, to transport the listener into that frame of mind, which the poem itself suggests; the imagination will then picture to itself figures, in accordance with the text, without knowing how it comes to do so. You have given instances of this in your Johanna Sebus, Mitternacht, Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, and what not? Tell me of anyone who has accomplished this, except yourself! The painting of tones by tones–thunder, crash, splash and dash are detestable. The minimum of this is wisely used, as you also use it, as a dot over an i, in the above examples.

And in fact, Goethe did ignore Schubert multiple times: the first in 1816, when Schubert sent Goethe a bundle of songs–probably about twenty–with an introductory letter from Schubert’s good friend Joseph von Spaun. No response. The second time was when Schubert published his Op. 19–a set of three songs–in 1825 and dedicated it to Goethe. Again, no response. (Poor Franz. Don’t let the haters get to you.) The even sadder thing is that Schubert had sent the three songs to Goethe before publication, asking for permission for the dedication. Goethe mentioned the receipt of the songs in his diary, but did not reply to Schubert. (Ice cold.)

So it’s likely that Goethe failed to appreciate Schubert’s more progressive compositional style, and instead preferred the simpler, cleaner, often more strophic settings of his friend Zelter (who, incidentally, was Mendelssohn’s composition teacher). To finish off, let’s listen to two settings of the same Goethe poem by the two composers. First, Zelter’s:

And now Schubert’s (notice how the accompaniment changes to depict the river around 3:06, upon the words “Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang”–“murmur on, whispering for my song”):

Füllest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Lösest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz.Breitest über mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick,
Wie des Freundes Auge mild
Über mein Geschick.

Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz
Froh und trüber Zeit,
Wandle zwischen Freud und Schmerz
In der Einsamkeit.

Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!
Nimmer werd ich froh;
So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß,
Und die Treue so.

Ich besaß es doch einmal,
Was so köstlich ist!
Daß man doch zu seiner Qual
Nimmer es vergißt.

Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,
Ohne Rast und Ruh,
Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang
Melodien zu,

Wenn du in der Winternacht
Wütend überschwillst,
Oder um die Frühlingspracht
Junger Knospen quillst.

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt
Ohne Haß verschließt,
Einen Freund am Busen hält
Und mit dem genießt,

Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt
Oder nicht bedacht,
Durch das Labyrinth der Brust
Wandelt in der Nacht.

You fill bush and valley again
quietly with a splendid mist
and finally set loose
entirely my soul.You spread over my domain
gently your gaze,
as mildly as a friend’s eye
over my fate.

Every echo my heart feels,
of happy and troubled times;
I alternate between joy and pain
in my solitude.

Flow, flow on, dear river!
Never shall I be cheerful,
so faded away have jokes and kisses become –
and faithfulness as well.

I possessed once
something so precious,
that, to my torment,
it can never be forgotten now.

Murmur, river, beside the valley,
without rest and calm;
murmur on, whispering for my song
your melodies,

whenever you, on winter nights,
ragingly flood over,
or, in the splendor of spring,
help swell young buds.

Blissful is he who, away from the world,
locks himself without hate,
holding to his heart one friend
and enjoying with him

that which is unknown to most men
or never contemplated,
and which, through the labyrinth of the heart,
wanders in the night.


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2 thoughts on “goethe

  1. I met an American called Max Krupp years ago. Way more German! 🙂 This said, thank you for your nice text. I am declared friend of the Deutsche Romantik and it is always nice to meet like-minded people. Enjoy your day.

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