Saturday, January 24, 2015

Goethe and Matthias Claudius

Matthias Claudius (b. 1740) died 200 hundreds years ago this past week. A new biography of Claudius has just appeared, by the German musicologist Martin Geck, who has written numerous musical biographies, including one of Richard Wagner, which appeared in English translation by Stewart Spencer in 2012. Geck is also editor of Wagner’s complete works. The subtitle of Matthias Claudius is Biographie eines Unzeitgemäßen. (Here is a review.) Claudius is not a figure with whom many Goethe scholars, much less Germanists, are familiar, although all of us who concentrated on the 18th century in our studies recognize the name "Der Wandsbecker Bote," the small newspaper of which Claudius was editor from 1770 to 1775.

Besides Claudius's own contributions to the newspaper, he published on its fourth page reviews and literary notices as well as the writings of some of the most famous writers of the time, including Johann Heinrich Voß, Heinrich Christian Boie, Herder, Goethe, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, Hamann, Lessing, and  Wieland. The Goethe poems were folk songs Goethe had collected in the Alsace and revised (e.g., "Das Lied vom Herrn von Falckenstein," "Das Lied vom verkleideten Grafen") as well as the short poems "Es hatt' ein Knab eine Taube zart" and "Ein Gleichniß" ("Uber die Wiese, den Bach herab."). That was in 1773. Claudius also reviewed Die Leiden des jungen Werthers when it appeared. "Weiß nicht," he wrote, "obs ’n Geschicht oder ’n Gedicht ist."

Besides this journalistic activity, Claudius was also a poet, most famous today for a poem that is supposedly known to all Germans, "Abendlied." It begins, ""Der Mond ist aufgegangen,/ Die goldnen Sternlein prangen/ Am Himmel hell und klar;/ Der Wald steht schwarz und schweiget,/ Und aus den Wiesen steiget/ Der weiße Nebel wunderbar" Here is a link to a musical version.

Claudius evoked divided opinion. Herder, who published "Abendlied" in Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, called him "das größte Genie," with a heart that burned "wie Steinkohle." Goethe referred to him in Italienische Reise as a "Narr, der voll Einfaltsprätentionen steckt." Schiller passed on to Goethe Wilhelm von Humboldt's opinion, namely, that Claudis was "eine völlige Null." Those seem very harsh opinions. Was it because of Claudius's Christian piety? Although Geck writes that Goethe and Claudius first met while riding in a coach and discussing Spinoza, Claudius also had lifelong associations with Lavater and Hamann.

Goethes Handschrift im Kickelhahn-Häuschen (Das Goethezeitportal)
I listened to a German radio podcast of an interview with Martin Geck. In discussing the subtitle of the Claudius biography, he said that he was also alluding to himself. He is a Christian and grew up in a Christian family that sang songs every evening, including those of Claudius. Geck makes a nice contrast between the last words of Goethe's "Über allen Gipfeln" and "Abendlied." Both end with the single syllable "auch," but Claudius's verse has a much different emphasis:

So legt euch denn, ihr Brüder,
In Gottes Namen nieder;
Kalt ist der Abendhauch.
Verschon uns, Gott! mit Strafen,
Und laß uns ruhig schlafen!
Und unsern kranken Nachbarn auch!


Professor Geck said that he sits down before dinner every evening and plays "Abendlied" on the piano.

If you go to the site MartinInBroda and enter "Matthias Claudius" in the search bar, you will find some nice posts on Claudius, including poems with English translations.

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