Thursday, October 4, 2018

Goethe and Music

Schubert's autograph of a simplified accompaniment to his "Erlkönig"
One of my favorite German radio programs is HR2's "Doppelkopf." A recent program featured the well-known Goetheaner Dieter Borchmeyer. Doppelkopf's mandate, according to the website, is "Interessante Zeitgenossen –– Menschen, die etwas zu sagen haben, unterhalten sich 50 Minuten lang mit einem Gastgeber über ihre Arbeit und ihr Leben." Each program also includes musical selections chosen by the guest. The Borchmeyer program began with the sounds of Schubert's setting of "Erlkönig," featuring the "Getrammel" that Goethe noted when the piece was performed for him by Maria Szymanowska in the early 1820s. As was noted, the 18-year-old Schubert had sent the piece to Goethe in 1815. It is usually reported that Goethe sent the package back unopened, but Borchmeyer contends that this should not be interpreted as rejection of the work by Goethe so much as by the fact that Goethe was simply overburdened by the large number of such requests that daily arrived in his mailbox.

Goethe heard Wilhelmina Schröder sing "Gretchen am Spinnrad," but Borchmeyer contends that Goethe was a "musical lay person" who could scarcely have got the point of a composition simply by reading the notes. And in any case he adhered to a "Liedaesthetik" that was dominant until at least the 1860s, according to which "es wurde ganz klar gesagt, daß das Lied ein Strophenform hat, die besagt, daß die Form musikalisch abgebildet werden muss." Goethe was an opponent of naturalistic imitation in music and held that the composer should develop a “Symbolik für das Ohr."

Mendelssohn serenades Goethe
Any impression that Weimar was a backwater and that Goethe lacked understanding of developments in the world of music beyond its confines was dismantled by Borchmeyer, who noted, among other things, the different musicians who arrived at Goethe's door. These included Paginini, the young Mendelssohn (as portrayed, opposite, by Moritz Oppenheim) and the young Clara Wieck, and Spontini. Goethe's contribution to productions of opera was also noted. Borchmeyer called Goethe "ein Pioneer in der Bühnenwirkung von Mozart." As for the story about Beethoven and Goethe, Borchmeyer calls Bettina “eine geniale Lügnerin” who invented a meeting that did not take place. If Beethoven was not 100 percent to Goethe's taste as a person, he recognized his artistic greatness: “Energischer, zusammengefasster, innerlicher habe er keinen Menschen erlebt.”

There was of course a discussion of the rendering of Goethe's poems and other writings, especially from Faust II, but I was particularly intrigued by what Borchmeyer said of Goethe's contribution to "Entstehung der Liebe" in literary form in the 18th century, especially on the example of Gretchen at the spinning wheel. In this connection, Borchmeyer mentioned Goethe's self-censorship concerning the wording in Faust I of the famous line: "Mein Busen drangt sich nach ihm hin." In the Urfaust, it reads, “Mein Schoss, Gott! drängt sich nach ihm hin.” Unfortunately, Schubert could not do anything about this, as he only knew Faust I, and the  “körperliche Erweckung der Leidenschaft des jungen Mädchens, das immer steigert” is weakened.

There is an excellent entry in the Goethe-Handbuch, by Günter Hartung, on Goethe and music, which covers in more detail the symbiosis between Goethe's poetry and its musicality, but Hartung dismisses the influence of Catholic church music on Goethe. Borchmeyer, however, finds that the Italian Journey is just as much a discovery of music as it was of art. He mentions in particular the effect of a piece of Renaissance music, Allegri's Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51, that Goethe heard during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Whatever Goethe may have thought about Catholicism, its liturgical music fascinated him.

I recommend going to the podcast itself for other topics covered in the discussion, including Goethe's "Tonlehre," and also reading Hartung's more detailed description. This was a project that arose, according to Hartung, in connection with increasing scientific interests on Goethe's part by the beginning of the 19th century.