Charlotte to Werther
, on a text by William Frederick Collard, a partner in a London piano manufacturing firm, might have originated during Felix’s first visit to London in 1829. Collard’s poem is an imagined extension of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther
, published in 1774 when its creator was in his mid-twenties and an instant sensation: Napoleon praised it, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein found in it a mirror of his own rejection by those he loved. In letters to his friend Wilhelm, Werther describes his stay in Wahlheim, where he falls in love with the beautiful Charlotte, engaged to an older man named Albert. Towards the end, as Werther and the now-married Charlotte read the Scottish writer James Macpherson’s Ossian poems together, Werther, unable to resist any longer, kisses her; ‘trembling between love and anger’, she cried, ‘this is the last time, Werther! You shall never see me again!’. Shortly after, Werther kills himself with Albert’s pistols. The Sorrows of Young Werther
has often been described as the artistic metamorphosis of the young Goethe’s hopeless love for the nineteen-year-old Charlotte Buff in 1772, when he was living in the town of Wetzlar, but the Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle has rightly asserted that this novel has much more to do with the dilemma of a generation of sensitive souls who felt that Promethean genius was required of any artist. Unable to meet such demands, they are destroyed and rush headlong to death. The ‘Editor’, who narrates the end of Goethe’s tale, says ‘we hardly dare express in words the emotions with which Charlotte’s soul was filled during the whole of this time’, but Collard and others were only too happy to rush in where angels feared to tread. Charlotte’s reproach to the young man—‘How Werther can thy soul endure/To blight a heart so kind and pure’—is breast-beating melodrama, but Mendelssohn’s expressive lament tames the crassness into beauty.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2010