Monday, September 20, 2010

Goethe and Beethoven

I think it's time to devote some attention to Goethe again. It has been a while, but my excuse is my involvement in two projects -- the free speech volume and the GSA panel on the pre-Kantian sublime -- that have taken me away from Goethe. Still, he turns up in unexpected ways, in daily life, at least in my daily life.

Last evening during pre-prandial libations Rick was bragging that he had just purchased (through iTunes) the complete Beethoven symphonies for $6.00. The symphonies were performed by the Tblisi Symphony Orchestra. ("Tblisi is a real city," he insisted when I laughed. "It has 500,000 people." He also reminded me that Louisville, where I grew up, once had a world-class orchestra. He also reminded me that the mid-size cities of the former Soviet Union produced orchestras that do a good job on these "war horses": Kiev, Rostock, etc.)

It is well known that Goethe had conservative tastes in music. Indeed, he had an aversion to Beethoven's music, though he did value Beethoven as a person. They met in July of 1812 at the spa Teplitz, where Beethoven had gone hoping for a cure for his growing deafness. In his novel Immortality Milan Kundera has memorably recreated an incident recounted by Bettina von Arnim in which Goethe and Beethoven, out for a walk, came upon the Austrian empress Maria Ludovica and her entourage. According to Bettina, who said she had the story from Beethoven himself, Goethe doffed his hat, while Beethoven pulled his own hat deeper over his face. And then, after the royals had passed, Beethoven bawled Goethe out for his subservience.

Bettina didn't report this story until 1832, the year of Goethe's death, and it is generally felt that Bettina used Beethoven as a mouthpiece for her own liberalism. Nevertheless, it is true that Goethe was very respectful when it came to the "old political order." By 1812 he had spent almost forty years in Weimar. The French Revolution had of course undermined, but not destroyed, this order, and within two years the Congress of Vienna would thwart many of the liberal impulses that inspired Beethoven and, indeed, the Romantic generation in Germany.

According to the Goethe Handbuch, Goethe first heard an aria of Beethoven in 1807, without, however, knowing who the composer was. Until 1810, when E.T.A. Hoffmann (a composer himself as well as a writer) wrote a review of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was practically unknown in north or central Germany. Mostly he was known for his virtuoso piano artistry. He became a cult taste among professionals, however, and also among Romantic poets. It was in 1810 that Bettina forced her way into his presence in Vienna. (Kundera's novel also recreates the meeting of Beethoven and Bettina. The painting here of the young composer indicates why she might have been infatuated with him.). Beethoven, who had been studying Goethe's poetry, had just finished composing several songs as well as his Egmont score, based on Goethe's play of 1787. Bettina encouraged him to write to Goethe, which he did, and he received a polite response from Goethe. He also heard some of Beethoven's piano works, but, according to the Goethe Handbuch, was at a loss as to what to make of them.

In letters to his wife, Goethe reported of meeting Beethoven in Teplitz and of hearing him play the piano. Later he wrote to Zelter, the composer and intimate friend: "His talent astonished me; unfortunately he is a totally unconstrained personality." Goethe was indeed impressed with Beethoven as a musician and as a person. Later Egmont was performed in Weimar, as was Fidelio. Still, as the Goethe Handbuch reports, the new instrumental music was foreign to him and also sinister (unheimlich). As he wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée in 1811, "It wants to encompass everything and instead always looses itself in the elemental" (das will alles umfassen und verliert sich darüber immer ins Elementarische). This echoes his reaction to the destruction produced by the French Revolution, the descent into chaos in its attempt to recreate the world anew. During the last years of his life he often listened to Beethoven's piano music, without being able to get over his feeling of alienation from it. Felix Mendelssohn played the first movement of the Fifth Symphony for him in 1830.

Listening to the Third and the Fifth last evening I could recognize that Goethe would have been turned off by the driving impulse of the music. Just as Goethe was living on the cusp of a change in political history, so, too, was he present for this transition in music. Beethoven represented a great leap forward, not yet in the First and Second symphonies, which are very Haydn-like, but by the Third Symphony Beethoven could be said to have "become" Beethoven. According to Rick, the Third was long and hard for the public to appreciate, but it soon got the point, and, ever after, musicians were no longer like Mozart and Hayden, but were like Beethoven. Much to Goethe's chagrin.


Anonymous said...

Our (partly) conservative Holy Father holds up Mozart as number one in his book (for his tragic vision of life) and Bach apparently not far behind. The Pope's music CD, Alma Mater, mentions both as models of exceptional music. Beethoven, the liberal--not so much admired by our (partly) conservative successor to Saint Peter....Nietzsche, the (partly) conservative, certainly mentions Beethoven and admires his music at least to an extent. Clearly the revolutionary Beethoven is some kind of kindred spirit to the one who undertakes a "transvaluation of all values." But "in person" I'm told that Nietzsche was anything but "unconstrained." Indeed his reputation there is that of the typical Lutheran-clerical politeness and decency and decorum and consideration of others. Now, our Holy Father may or may not care that much for Wagner. At least, he chooses not to mention him as a favorite. Wagner is Stephen Hawkings' favorite, I read; on Sunday mornings, the great mind says he is "lazy": he reads the newspaper and listens to Wagner, who captures for him beautifully the range of human emotion (especially Lohengrin). For me, there is nothing as beautiful anywhere as Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. I'm a die-hard something or other. After that, Dvorak's New World Symphony! (Also clearly owing much to Beethoven.)

Maryo said...

So weird. Earlier tonight I was thinking about what have been my favorite pieces and what first came to mind was Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Dvorak's New World.
Then I stumble to this page, your comment that yours are the same!
(Background hum of Twilight zone theme anyone?) ....Well they are undoubtedly exceptional works. What I realized why so special for me, was the context of when I heard them. The pastoral I may been have been a 10 year old girl. And the Dvorak in high school. Both on LPs (vinyl). I loved dancing to both. (I also loved Stravinsky rite of Spring as a young girl...again the dance element...and hence indoctrinated to magnificent dissonance.)

Maryo said...

PS. Appreciated reading what you wrote about Beethoven and Goethe. Thank you.