Saturday, February 27, 2010

Goethe's Harpist Again

Last time I posted on the Harpist in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, beginning with his beautiful song "Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß." (See previous post for an English translation.) In that post I concentrated on the harp itself. Goethe's poem deserves a little attention as well.

Though the Harpist mentions "higher powers" (ihr himmlischen Mächte) in his song, the words also resound with Christian echoes, starting with Luther's Bible translation. For instance, here is Psalm 6:7:

Ich bin so müde vom Seufzen, ich schwemme mein Bette die ganze Nacht und netze mit meinen Tränen mein Lager.

(King James: Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of mine enemies.)

And here is Psalm 80:5 in Luther's translation:

Du speisest sie [dein Volk] mit Threnen brot/ Und trenckest sie mit grossem mas vol threnen.

(King James: Thou feedest them [your people] with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure.)

Goethe grew up amid pious Lutherans and was what is called "Bibelfest." He was also probably familiar with the hymns of Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), including this one, which itself echoes Luther's Psalm translations:

Wie lang, o Herr, wie lange soll/ Dein Herze mein vergessen?
Wie lange soll ich Jammers voll/ Mein Brot mit Tränen essen?
Wie lange willst du nicht/ Mir dein Angesicht
Zu schauen reichen dar? Willst du denn ganz und gar/
Dich nun von mir verbergen?

Gerhardt, in Lutheran tradition, "personalizes" the song; it is no longer simply about the people of Israel. The sentiment, however, concerns the sense of being forgotten by God, similar to the case of the Harpist, who bemoans his own sense of abandonment.

And then there is Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), a wonderful poet and, like Gerhardt, from the German Baroque period, who wrote very stark and dark religious poems, one of which includes these phrases: "Da, da war ich zu beweinen ... Da ich, einsam und elende ... Und mein brod mit thränen aß."

None of the above sources is to deny Goethe's "originality." There was never anyone like Goethe! But he "became" Goethe by drawing on a rich German tradition, literary and religious. His gift was to transform what he read and heard into something "unique," for instance, the beautiful song of the Harpist.

Coincidentally Goethezeitportal recently posted a new project: "German Songs of the Goethe period for Voice and Harp," much of it in English. (The painting at the top, by Harold Slott-Møller is from Goethezeitportal.) The Harpist is not mentioned, but there is a discussion of the hook harp, which I mentioned in my last post. And there are many listening samples.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

Recently at a funeral mass for a friend at a Dominican priory chapel--a harpist played for at least half an hour prior to the beginning of the service. How very sublime it was...