Goethe enclosed this remarkable poem, an autobiography in miniature along the lines of ‘in my end is my beginning’, in a letter to Zelter on 16 February 1818. Of these verses he wrote to the composer: ‘If you can but distil them in your hot element I suppose the drink can be swallowed comfortably whole, and the heathen converted! Apocalypse—last chapter! Verse 2.’ This latter reference to the second strophe concerning the love affairs of Goethe’s youth seems typical of two older men discussing, in mock rueful manner, the amorous exploits of their salad days. On 1 March Zelter replied, enclosing a fair copy of his setting, and referring to the ‘Arcadia’ of the great poet’s Italian journey in the late 1780s: ‘And I was also in Arcadia, with you in Arcadia, through you in Arcadia. And I have cried with happiness that it is I who will give you this joy. You best soul in all the world … in every note a thought about you is embroidered: how you are, how you were, and how Mankind should be. I cannot do it any better than this.’ Zelter was justified in writing thus: Um Mitternacht
became, and remained, Goethe’s favourite of all the music that his poetry had inspired. And the music is far from a textbook example of the ideal lied according to the Berlin school—it contains a number of unusual touches including coloratura and a haunting jump of a tenth before the clinching ‘um Mitternacht’.
Goethe thanked Zelter for the song on 8 March, but he clearly had no means of judging it until he had heard it performed. He returned to the subject on 19 March: ‘You have been a great benefactor to me lately, for Um Mitternacht has been sung to me properly and sympathetically … you have right loyally and well set a seal on your love and regard for me. My son who is not easily moved was beside himself, and I fear out of gratitude he will ask you to stand godfather … such quantities and qualities of tone, such variety of movement, of pauses, and drawings of breath! Ever equal, ever changing.’ This last observation is perceptive: the song is both strophic and through-composed—the accompaniment and thus the harmony, remain constant for every strophe, but the vocal line for each of the verses is significantly different in terms of melody and rhythm; most unusually, this is notated in three different staves printed above the piano part. The poet’s exultant reaction to this gravely beautiful song makes us imagine what Goethe might have written had he had the chance to hear, for example, the Wandrers Nachtlieder of Franz Schubert. Um Mitternacht was published in Zelter’s Neue Liedersammlung of 1821—the year that Schubert first published songs of his own.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2006