Zelter was born in Berlin during what was called the "Seven Years' War" (which plays a role in Lessing's drama Minna von Barnhelm), went to school (the Gymasium) for a while until financial circumstances forced him to take up his father's trade as a mason and builder. The industriousness that characterized Zelter's later musical career is evident in his early years. While apprenticing as a mason, working his way to becoming a master in the trade, and finally taking over the family business on his father's death in 1787, he also traveled once a week from Berlin to Potsdam to receive instruction in composition from Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch, harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great. Not an easy journey in 1784. (Remember those stories about people walking 5 miles to school. Well, it really happened!)
In his "idle hours" he began composing music to contemporary poetry, and seven of these "Vertonungen" (musical settings) were published by Schiller in Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1797. Zelter began making his way in the musical world, becoming director of the Berlin Sing-Akademie after the death of Fasch. In his autobiography Zelter described the origins of the Sing-Akademie as a gathering of people, both men and women, for drinking tea and singing contemporary music. (Yes, people actually created their own entertainment before the advent of the electrical age!) Fasch, however, who had been a pupil of C.P.E. Bach, was also devoted to reviving music of the past. Thus, the Akademie often performed works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Baroque-era composers. The most famous of its public concerts was the performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829, directed by Moses Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Zelter's pupil. All the many aspects of Zelter's many-sided musical career can be seen in the exhibition at the Goethe-Museum.
But it was his relationship with Goethe for which Zelter is best known today. The relationship began with letters from Zelter in 1799 and 1800 that included musical arrangements of Goethe's poems. During the next 30 years Zelter composed settings for almost 100 poems. Goethe was not at all impressed with those arrangements with which most of us are familiar today (and, indeed, fond of), those by Beethoven and Schubert. Too Romantic! It was Zelter's " radical reproduction of poetic intentions" (eine radicale Reproduction der poetischen Intentionen) that Goethe approved of. Goethe reciprocated with songs for Zelter's "Liedertafel" (male chorus): "Ergo bibamus," "Gewohnt, gethan," and "Frisch! Der Wein soll reichlich fließen."
Annus mirabilis for Zelter was 1802, when he met Goethe for the first time. Besides almost 900 letters between them, there were many meetings in the following three decades, in Weimar and in Bohemian spas. Goethe never visited Berlin. By the early 19th century he was too famous for a trip to the Prussian capital, which would have involved him in endless ceremonial activities. He sent his son August and daughter-in-law Ottilie in his stead in 1819. Zelter was their host, and August's diary of that journey mentions the many personalities he met as well as hearing on May 19 Cherubini's "great Credo" at the Sing-Akademie. The diary, recently edited by Gabriele Radecke, is a rather prosaic account, recording, as Wilhelm Bode put it (Der Sohn Goethes, 1918), "the purely factual, so that with these notes in hand 'der Papa,' later in conversation [bei mündlicher Unterhaltung], could follow the journey step by step and experience it in his powerful imagination."
On learning of Goethe's death, Zelter supposedly said: "His Excellency naturally has precedence, but I will soon follow" (Exzellenz hatten natürlich den Vortritt; aber ich folge bald nach). Indeed, Zelter died a few weeks later.
Picture credit: OTA-Berlin Constituency