By Christian Gerhaher
This programme of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set to music by Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm was conceived as a tribute to the eight great poetic hymns written during the poet’s Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s and 1780s. I had always regretted that Schubert had set only three of these outstanding masterworks—Prometheus, Ganymed and Kronos—and so over a period of several years I developed the idea of having contemporary composers complete the cycle. When I asked Wolfgang Rihm two years ago if he might be interested in working on some of the five remaining texts, his first reply was that he normally chooses his texts himself. Nevertheless, two weeks later I had his setting of Goethe’s Harzreise in my letterbox. This was then the core around which to build the second half of this recital. For coming recitals Gerold Huber is planning to compose the Sturmlied, and I am sure we will find a solution for Wanderer and Seefahrt, as well.
Schlafe! was willst du mehr?
Sleep! What more can you desire?
By listening to the first group of songs it is easy to understand what Schubert’s contemporaries meant when they described his new genre as being not really ‘Lieder’ in the traditional sense. They understood his way of setting poetic lines to music as creating Gesänge, i.e., ‘chants’. In this way of writing, the words no longer simply underlined more or less suitably affective music, but rather this great innovator managed to find appropriate musical equivalents for the texts of the pre-existing poems. This explains why we no longer find music laid out in balanced and symmetrical musical ‘periods’. Instead we hear phrases invented in a semantically ambitious way, following the sense and rhythm of the language, without just cheaply illustrating it.
A good example is Sehnsucht (Longing), in which two poetic themes are intertwined. On the one hand, there is the well-established theme of the distant lover who uses Nature to pass on his messages to the beloved. On the other hand, there is the loving individual who, reminiscent of Zeus, takes on different shapes in the natural environment to tell his love of his longing for her, evoking several epiphanies of being loved in her mind. A strophic solution would never have been suitable to translate this complex and lambent poem into musical meaning. Schubert’s charming, virtuous and metamorphic music, though, definitely is.
Schubert created two successful versions of An den Mond (To the Moon), a poem comprised of nine verses. In his first version, he created a song with four musical strophes of two verses each. In order to fit the poem into the musical form he had to omit one verse. The later version, performed here, once again starts with two double-verses but then resolves the problem by changing the musical form in order to include all of the remaining text. The result is one of Schubert’s most important and best-loved songs.
The following poem, Geheimes (Secret), comes from a later period in Schubert’s lieder production. He adopts here a relatively rigorous framework of musical periods, taking only minimal musical liberties in order to depict a situation from the later ‘classical’ period in Goethe’s oeuvre. Both Goethe and Schubert express themselves clearly but economically, colourfully but moderately, with humour and yet with severity. It is the language that Goethe developed under the spell of the Austrian actress and dancer Marianne von Willemer when writing The Book of Love in Der West-östliche Divan (1819), which Schubert depicted in his own modest, again utterly appropriate language.
It is perhaps understandable only with historical hindsight why Goethe did not appreciate—or perhaps could not understand—how great Schubert’s achievement was in effecting an Archimedean turnaround from baroque-affective restriction to romantic-empathetic deliverance in his vocal music settings. The poet was probably too deeply influenced by his troglodytically conservative friend, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, and possibly anguished by the might and power of Schubert’s musical language, which seemed to be able to subsume pre-existing poetry into itself, poetry which Goethe may have felt uneasy seeing become only part of a lied.
Even if I am convinced that a lied is not a mini-drama, Nachtgesang could form a subtle exception to this postulation. In five little verse-acts his conviction that her sleep is alleviated and removed from the vulgar world to a better ideal world (with a rhapsodic peripety in the third verse) must give way to the recognition that her alleged sleep (Hypnos) in reality might be its kin: death (Thanatos). Schubert used the refrain at the end of every verse as an opportunity to create a strophic song, whose parts are mystically merged by the fact that the second-last line is always the opening line of the next verse (even the fifth and last one is again the start of the poem in the first verse). With almost no words (there are only ten rhyme words in all) and the most reticent music, it is an enormous challenge to express this horrific progression in an adequately humble way.
The group is concluded by one of the most often misunderstood songs. Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s Lament) is nothing like an idyll, but is rather an expression of complete despair. The abandoned lover is not helped, but terrorized by the elements of the natural setting that surround him. The image of being wounded and helpless depicts the imaginative polar opposite to the depiction in the opening poem and song.
Six Songs from Goethe-Lieder
Zum Erstaunen bin ich da
I am here to marvel at it.
The selection of late Goethe poems in six out of the twelve songs by Wolfgang Rihm shows a very different poet. While not always at his most sympathetic, he at the very least expresses himself in a playful and charming way as the great old Privy Councillor who gives advice for how to lead a reasonable life. He is uplifting, wholesome, and joyful—the latter only with restrictions. As might be expected, the musical setting is not a feast for the senses, but it represents perfectly Goethe’s Gedankenlyrik (his ‘thought-poetry’). I understand Rihm’s early Goethe-songs as a reflection on the underlying poetic thoughts of the texts, and less as independent and compelling contributions to the cause of stirring musical entertainment. The last poem is from Goethe’s late (and slightly wordy) novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1807-1821), a continuation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796), the significance of which earlier work can hardly be overestimated, especially in the influence it exercised over German vocal chamber music throughout the entire nineteenth century.
Gesänge des Harfners
Possibly the most utterly touching, but nevertheless most cryptic figure in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the Harfner, the harp-player, the tragic and incestuous father of enchanting young tomboy Mignon. The Harfner is the only character in this Bildungsroman (novel of character development) who does not evolve. He simply cannot survive the heartbreaking sorrow that overwhelms him. Especially notable is Goethe’s harsh play with and interconnection of the words Einsamkeit (solitude) and Alleinsein (aloneness), which he uses to deliberately and cynically evoke people’s compassion.
Aufwärts! Umfangend umfangen!
Aloft! Embracing embraced!
Goethe was young, radical and—in his own opinion—perfectly capable of explaining the world in a new and natively German way when he joined with other poets of his generation in the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). Not all of his fellow travellers in this literary fashion would move on to adopt a more classical style, as he and Schiller did, but the inner drive to create ambitious works, to strive for perfection in search of the absolute achievement motivated many writers of the movement. The eight hymn poems written by Goethe stand out for their sheer hilarity, their radiance, and their powerful juvenility.
In Mahomets Gesang, for example, the life of the prophet Mohammed is narrated by comparing him to a growing stream, which gathers all waters around, becoming in the end an ocean. This wonderfully meandering, but sadly unfinished song is surrounded by a brace of the most important of Schubert’s songs: Prometheus and Ganymed.
Prometheus presents the unlimited aspiration of pure Genius, with its disrespect and scorn for the Creator made proverbial in drama by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804), as well as by authors of the Sturm und Drang period, who found its themes very much in line with their own pretensions. The idea behind Prometheus is conveyed in theGoethe-coined expression Verselbstung (selfing). By contrast, Entselbstigung (de-selfing) is the ruling principle of its companion poem, Ganymed, which tells the Greek mythological story of the handsome youth taken up into heaven on a cloud to become the cupbearer of Zeus. Schubert does not represent the poem’s action in terms of a dialogue between the two characters of the drama, but I can hardly imagine a more perfect depiction of the process of euphoric emanation.
An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) bears in reality no clear relationship to actual Greek myth, but rather exemplifies how in classical thought, Nature and the world have the same meaning: reason enough for the perceptive young man of the poem to assimilate and to enter into its everlasting patterns. In this poem the aspiring young, thirsty and impatient passenger urges his coachman to go ever faster and faster (Chronos being the god of Time). He seems to hold his entire lifetime in his hands and in this overview he includes and already embraces his own death. But what a death, with important and heroic figures such as Orcus gathered in the underworld awaiting him with delirious applause. This is the young Goethe’s alluring prospect of his own life. One can hardly imagine a song more powerful and demanding than this.
Harzreise im Winter
Then comes Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey Through the Harz Mountains). Barely comprehensible at a first glance, this poem tells a story out of Goethe’s own life. The fortunate poet is leaving a hunting party and puts himself in danger by leaving the secure path at the foot of the snowy mountain known as the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz mountain range of central Germany and home of the witches’ Walpurgisnacht. He seeks the track of a sensitive young man—like Werther, the protagonist of one of his novels—who has become a despiser of the world. Here the subject of this poetic hymn becomes clear: it is Love, which has the duty to conciliate bliss and harm. The last scene ends on the summit of the Brocken in a euphoric expression of thanks. This poem is the last from this cycle, and the least radical. It evokes in me the connotation of a lucky version of the Way of the Cross and this I feel to be ideally represented by Wolfgang Rihm’s musical setting. Nearly a cantata, it wonderfully blends narrative with meditative and dramatic elements, totally in the service of the text’s meaning, but with tremendous sensuousness when compared with the first six songs.
Willkommen und Abschied
Du gingst, ich stund und sah zur Erden…
You went, and I stood looking down…
The earlier Sturm und Drang poem Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and Farewell) finally shows Goethe the young lover, who frequently left a trail of passionate women behind him in his travels. Like love-corpses, they could never after manage to overcome the impression he had made on them: including his own sister, Charlotte von Stein, and Friederike Brion, the parson’s daughter whom he met and left near Strassburg, during his idyllic time in Sesenheim in the early 1770s. The disturbing thing is the poem’s first version (quoted above) in which it is not he who is leaving but she. Perhaps it means that she was leaving the departing rider, but it could also express resistance to the young and reckless lover’s guilt.