Sunday, February 21, 2010

Goethe's Harpist

Who never wept to eat his bread,
Who never sat through grievous hours
Of night in tears upon his bed,
He knows you not, you higher powers.

You lead us into life, to stray
Into our destined guilt, and then
Leave us to suffer and to pay
The debt all guilts exact from mortal men.

The above poem by Goethe (in David Luke's translation) -- "Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß" in German -- is sung by the mysterious and melancholy figure of the Harpist in the novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. I thought of this figure the other day, when I saw the instrument to the left at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a hooked harp, made in the 18th century in Austria. Harp music for the Classical period was written for the more advanced pedal harp.

I asked Herbert Heyde, curator in the Musical Instruments department at the Met, whether the Met's hook harp might have been the type played by Goethe's Harpist. He thought not, and indeed the Met's instrument is quite elaborate, as can be seen by the fine finial with the figure of a man wearing a Tyrolean hat. (Click image for larger view.)

One of the most famous harpists in history was David. King Saul, the first king of Israel, was often afflicted with depression and would call on David to sooth him with his music. Most of the Hebrew psalms begin, "A song of David." (See Robert Alter's translation of the psalms into English.)

Franz Schubert, in his Winterreise, includes a song entitled "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man" (Der Leiermann). (For the German with English translations, see here.) It is reported that Schubert was in a "deeply melancholy frame of mind" in 1827, when he composed the song cycle. Interestingly, he compares himself to Goethe's Harpist at this time. He wrote to his friend Eduard von Bauernfeld: "You achieve honors and recognition as a comic dramatist, but, as for myself, I despair of my future. Will I spend my old age like Goethe's harpist, dragging myself from door to door, begging for my bread?" [Irony of ironies: who stands in higher acclaim today, Bauernfeld or Schubert?] Schubert's music and Wilhelm Muller's words certainly capture the melancholy of Goethe's Harpist.

Schubert also composed "Gesänge des Harfners," using the words to "Who never wept to eat his bread." A lovely version here.

Herbert Heyde also drew my attention to a painting by Adrian Ludwig Richter, entitled Heimkehrender Harfner (The Harpist Returns Home). This painting, in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, really captures Goethe's figure. The landscape in Richter's painting seems to resemble that described by Mignon in her famous song, especially the last verse (in Coleridge's 19th-century version):

Know'st thou the hill where clouds obscure the way,
Where mules amongs its fogs wander astray!
Deep in those caves the dragon guards his brood,
The cliffside plunges down and then the flood!

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