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.

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!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Goethe and Schiller and the French Revolution

Safranski's book on the friendship between Schiller and Goethe is becoming denser. The first four chapters chart the parallel paths of the two before the important encounter in the summer of 1794, which would lead to frequent meetings and correspondence, on their works and on aesthetic matters generally. Chapter 4 concerns their reaction to the French Revolution, one that differentiated them from many of their contemporaries.

Herder, Wieland, Klopstock, Georg Forster were all early enthusiasts of the events in France. Klopstock planted an "arbré de la liberte" (modeled after the "liberty trees" of the American revolutionary period). As Safranski points out, Schiller was more reserved in his response. During the summer of the French Revolution he began his professorship at the university in Jena. His inaugural lecture was "To what purpose and to what end do we study 'universal history'?" The lecture hall was packed. Schiller, after all, was known as the poet of liberty. And, as Safranski writes, the events in France seemed to embody the dreams for personal freedom and liberty of the Marquis Posa.

For Schiller the revolution prompted him to reflect on the effect of great events on the public. He discerned among the masses in France an "experience deficit" and concluded that "the sense as well as the taste for public life must be learned." To make use of political freedom, one must first be free inwardly. By the end of 1789 he had begun work on his history of the 30 Years' War: in the mirror of the past, one might see the lineaments of the present.

The events in France led him to great philosophic reflection, and by the end of 1792 involved him in two ventures. The first was a letter to the French Chamber of Deputies asking them to spare the life of the king. A few weeks earlier, the French Chamber of Deputies had made him an honorary citizen of the new French Republic. The second was the "Kallias" letters, a theory of the beautiful, which would lead to On Grace and Dignity and Letters on Aesthetic Education.

Beauty is not merely an aesthetic experience for Schiller; it is also a moral one. Both beauty and politics must obey laws. Beauty unites two opposing human drives (Triebe). One is the sensual drive. This would be the mobs in Paris yelling for the king's head. The other is the form drive, the recognition of a higher law. The "aesthetic" encompasses both of these phenomena. It is through beauty that we are led to the aesthetic, and through "aesthetic education" we learn to harmonize the two drives. This harmony is the precondition for true political freedom. As Schiller writes: "If we are to have a practical solution to the problem of politics, we will have to approach it through the aesthetic; it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom."

If the French Revolution led Schiller to philosophical reflection and important writing, it had a different effect on Goethe. His well-known disinclination for explanations of natural phenomena that involved catastrophic or radical breaks is well known, e.g., his opposition to volcanic theory for explaining features of the earth's surface. The French Revolution represented a societal volcano. Goethe doubted that the masses were capable of political maturity and thus did not devote any time to contemplating the circumstances under which such maturity might be furthered or drawing higher philosophical and historical sense from the events. He believed that people, when energized politically, lose perspective on what is important. And Goethe was a person who did not spread his energies around. Moreover, by the end of 1793 Goethe had already experienced war at first hand. He had accompanied Duke Carl August in the wars against France and emerged, as he wrote, "from the maelstrom of history" and landed safely on the shore.

Obviously Schiller's letter on behalf of the French king arrived too late or had no effect, as the king was executed in January of 1793. An interesting footnote to this is that the proclamation making Schiller an honorary citizen did not reach him until 1798, by which time the men who had signed the document had themselves gone to the guillotine. By 1798 Goethe and Schiller were fast friends, and Goethe responded "laconically" to the arrival of the proclamation "from the realm of the dead": "I can only congratulate you insofar as it has reached you among the living."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Goethe Skates!

Last weekend we were promised snow in New York, and yesterday morning it finally arrived. I could tell it was there when I woke up, because you could hear people out shoveling, clearing the sidewalks or trying to get their cars out. Mid-morning I had to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to do some work. We live on the West side of Central Park, so I walked in the falling snow across the park to the museum. I live such an urbanized existence that I am happy to have at least this minimal contact with "the elements." Below are interspersed a few pictures I took. Kids (and adults) were out in force with their sleds on the hills of the park.

The weather here is seldom cold enough that the rivers or lakes freeze, unlike in northern Europe, but the snow yesterday reminded me that Goethe had been fond of ice skating. A Victorian-era portrait of him by Wilhelm von Kaulbach shows Goethe on the ice, at the center of a group of ladies, one of whom is about to throw a snowball at him.

German poets from Klopstock to Novalis and Jean Paul have celebrated ice skating in poetry and prose. Friedrich Klopstock's "Der Eislauf" seems to have inaugurated enthusiasm for the sport among poets. In Poetry and Truth Goethe recalled his fondness for ice skating back in Frankfurt. That would have been in 1773/1774, when he was enamored of Maximiliane von La Roche (later Brentano). According to a later report of that period by his own mother, Goethe was like a young god on the ice ("Da fährt er hin wie ein Göttersohn auf dem Eiß") which is probably what Kaulbach's image memorializes. Goethe brought ice skating to Weimar when he went there in 1775. A letter from Goethe to Lavater mentions a visit to Wieland after a day of skating ("Nach Mittag mit Wieland ... ziemlich müde und ausgelüfftet von der Eisfahrt").

Goethe induced many from the court to skate, including Herder, who commemorated the experience in poetry as well ("Wir schweben, wir wallen auf hallendem Meer,/ Auf Silberkrystallen dahin und daher"). Charlotte von Stein, someone wrote, was a somewhat "ridiculous figure" on the ice.

Goethe wrote a beautiful poem cycle, entitled Four Seasons, which appeared in 1800. It contains 100 distichs. "Winter" (distichs 84-99), which according to my copy of Metzler's Goethe-Lexikon, can be read as "an allegory of the journey through life," opens with a lovely image of skating, First in German, then in my rather miserable translation of the first two distichs:

Wasser ist Körper, und Boden der Fluss. Das neueste Theater
Tut in der Sonne Glanz zwischen den Ufern sich auf.

Wahrlich, es scheint nur ein Traum! Bedeutende Bilder des Lebens
Schweben lieblich und ernst über die Fläche dahin.

(Water is the body, and the river the ground. The newest theater
Premiers between the banks in the brilliant sun.

In truth, it seems to be only a dream! Meaningful pictures of life
Float with charm and gravity back and forth over the surface.)

To make up for my own lack of translation ability, I include here distichs 30-33 and 35 of David Luke's beautiful translation of "Summer" from Four Seasons:

Do you know the splendid poison of unsatisfied love? It burns and refreshes, devours the marrow and renews it.

Do you know the splendid effects of love at last satisfied? It ties bodies with a beautiful bond, and sets spirits free.

True love is that which remains for ever the smae whether all that it asks is granted or all refused.

I should like to have everything that I might share everything with her; I would surrender everything if she, who is all I love, were mind.

Beauty asked: "Why must I perish, oh Zeus?" "Why, I gave beauty," answered the god, "only to perishable things."

Picture credit: eBay

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Goethe-Schiller Friendship (2)

In my last post I gave some details from the first two chapters of Rüdiger Safranski's book on the friendship between Goethe and Schiller. In the early chapters, where there is no friendship as yet, but only a one-sided admiration for the other (on Schiller's part) or disapproval (of Goethe toward Schiller, when he became aware of his existence at all), Safranski portrays common aspects of their lives and pursuits that will make it possible for them to become friends in the 1790s.

Besides the effect on both of them of "court" culture, both men were intensely occupied with the concept of "nature." For Goethe, his essays on Gothic architecture and Shakespeare from the early 1770s had nature as their theme. These essays had an immense impact on Schiller and his cohort.
"Nature" is of course a very big concept, one that has occupied thinkers from the pre-Socratics onward, but for most of history it was probably not one that occupied ordinary folks, for whom the natural world and their own individual nature were part of a larger plan of a world for which they had been created by an omniscient God. In the 17th century, however, with discoveries in astronomy and in the workings of the human body, the certainty about man's individual destiny in God's creation was put in doubt.

In the face of growing philosophical materialism in the 18th century, thinkers and artists struggled to replace the lost dignity of the human person. What can be the importance of humans within a universe with billions of stars? (What would even Isaac Newton have made of the spectacular cluster globular cluster Omega Centauri, one of the biggest and most massive of 200 globular clusters orbiting the Milky Way, glittering with 10 million stars?)

Goethe's "organic" concept of nature was one in which humans were an integral part of the same organicism that produced the growth of the flowers and all that was growing and vital on the earth. In turn, works of art reflected this organicism, having been created by an artist responding to the promptings of his own nature. Anything that limited or deformed this natural facility was therefore "unnatural." We are all familiar with the terminology, from Rousseau on, and young men in Schiller's generation were in particular opposed to all the supposed "unnatural" influences represented by society, including social conventions. At the same time, Goethe's concept of nature was an ambivalent one: after all, nature has two sides, one constructive, another destructive.

Schiller had imbibed these insights, especially the implications of determinism. Because of his medical studies he also no doubt came face to face with the issue of materialism. Safranski mentions that he attended a dissection of a corpse, for which he wrote a report. The description is rather revolting -- the deceased must have been horribly diseased -- and it ends as follows: "The head was not opened." From this early time, it became a preoccupation for Schiller to discover some principle that explained why humans were free agents. His play The Robbers thematizes the issue: both Franz and Karl Moor seem determined by their basic natures to be bad or good, respectively. In the end, however, Karl makes a choice that establishes his freedom, even though it means he will go to prison.

Schiller, unable to accept a purely materialist explanation of human behavior, was at this stage already seeking to carve out a realm of freedom for man, which would be represented in his late essays. In the first (and only surviving) chapter of his medical thesis, from 1781, he introduced what Safranksi calls a "Mittelkraft" -- a mediating power -- into the "Körperwelt" (physiology) that bridges the gap between body and soul, spirit and reason. At his point, according to Safranski, this power was love.

Interestingly, not many years after Schiller's dissection of human bodies, Goethe began his own studies in natural sciences, which included examination of rhino horns and elephant skulls. In 1784, he obtained the "skull of an embryo" in which he discovered a mediating element, namely, the intermaxillary bone (pictured here in his own drawings). This bone, though found in other mammals, had always appeared to be absent in humans. There has been controversy about whether Goethe was actually responsible for this discovery or, indeed, whether it was an important discovery at all, but for Goethe it established that humans were not sui generis but were connected with, well, apes and other mammals. Some people have concluded from this that Goethe was a Darwinist, avant la lettre. Robert Richards comes pretty close to that conclusion, though other scholars of the history of science are more nuanced.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Goethe-Schiller Friendship

I have begun reading Goethe & Schiller: Geschichte einer Freundschaft (yes, the "&" is in the German title) by the eminent German man of letters, Rüdiger Safranski, which looks like it will be a delight. In the first two chapters Safranksi shows the two writers moving along parallel paths, with only a single cursory encounter before 1787. This was on December 11, 1779, when Schiller was 20 and a student at the elite military academy in Stuttgart that had been founded by Karl Eugen, the duke of Wurttemberg. Schiller, portrayed below when he was studying medicine at the academy, was already filled with a burning desire to be a writer. Within two years his play The Robbers would make him famous.

Goethe's arrival at the military school in late 1779 coincided with the visit to Karl Eugen in the company of Carl August of Weimar, with whom Goethe was returning from a trip to Switzerland. The students at Karl Eugen's academy, including Schiller, revered Goethe, the author of Götz von Berlichingen and The Sorrows of Young Werther. As Safranski writes, Goethe's reputation was a symptom of the transformation of literary life in this period: "Writing, reading, and living had moved closer together. Readers wanted to encounter their own life in literature and to find it enhanced [aufgewertet]. They wanted to see themselves [in the books they read], but also the author, whose life had become of interest." Sounds like the beginnings of celebrity culture.

By 1779, however, the transformation of literary life that Götz and Werther represented was in the process of being rejected by the one who had written those works, i.e., Goethe himself.

Goethe had gone to Weimar in 1775, and though at first it appeared that he would bring some life to the court there, it was he who was changed. He left his Sturm und Drang enthusiasms behind, and indeed Schiller's The Robbers would be an uncomfortably reminder of those enthusiasms. By then he was more and more devoted to administrative work for the duchy. In turn, his poetic work suffered, and, as was noted by his friends in Weimar, he was in the process of becoming stiff and reserved. But just as Goethe was being trapped by the life at the court, Schiller was making plans to leave the court of Karl Eugen behind, in particular the plans for a medical career for which the duke intended him. As The Robbers was being performed to great acclaim in Mannheim -- it was The Rite of Spring of its day -- he literally escaped from Stuttgart. The date was September 22, 1782 when, according to Safranski, half of Stuttgart was occupied with festivities that had been arranged to honor the visiting Russian Grand Princess. Karl Eugen's castle "Solitude" was illumined for the occasion, and fireworks filled the night sky as Schiller left.

For the next several years Schiller would seek to craft the independent life of a writer and thinker, which was not easy for a man of such a modest background. Goethe, by contrast, seemed to have it easy, but, by 1786, he would also respond to his need to escape from the life of the court and head for Italy. Stay tuned for further installments in the history of this friendship.

Picture credits: Joachim Frank; Anatomy Lesson