goethe

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:

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goethe and the young mendelssohn

“The young Mendelssohn with Goethe,” by D√∂pler.

When one thinks of prodigies among the classical composers, Mozart is the first to come to mind. He’s the one whose name everyone knows, that cheeky little pigtailed genius who allegedly started composing at age 3. (Sure, but was he potty-trained?) So in Mozart’s shadow, Mendelssohn rarely gets the credit he deserves for being a¬†wunderkind. Interestingly enough, it is because of Goethe (yes, that Goethe, who affected so much of the musical world without being a musician himself) that we know exactly how far-reaching the boy Mendelssohn’s talents were.

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