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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

born: 28 August 1749
died: 22 March 1832
country: Germany

'I was born at Frankfurt on the 28th August 1749, at midday, on the stroke of twelve. The position of the stars was favourable; the sun was in the sign of Virgo … Jupiter and Venus were friendly, Mercury not in opposition.” Thus begins Goethe's autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit ('Poetry and Truth'), although it would be dangerous for our limited purposes to allow him to continue his own tale, so embroidered and revised is truth with inevitable poetry. The grandfather was a tailor who had done well enough to enable his son, Goethe's father, to buy a civic title and a comfortable house. From his father the poet inherited a tendency to formulate and theorise, and a passion for collecting – a love of order. From his mother's side he had practical good sense and humour, and above all her sense of fantasy. Her fairy stories were part of a haphazard education which was luckily attuned to his unique gifts. Painting and drawing, experiments with a puppet theatre and the study of various languages were all to bear fruit, but cello and piano lessons were never to give him a real understanding of music. Nevertheless Goethe was proud to have seen the child prodigy Mozart perform in Frankfurt in 1763; Mozart was seven, Goethe fourteen.

At the age of sixteen Goethe was sent to Leipzig University to study law. His first poems were published anonymously in the same issue of a Leipzig newspaper which announced Telemann's death and his replacement in Hamburg by C P E Bach. It was also in Leipzig that Goethe's words were first set to music by his friend Bernhard Breitkopf. An innkeeper's daughter called Annette Schönkopf was the first of the many love affairs which were to divide his life into chapters. As Richard Capell writes, 'Goethe's career is rather like Henry VIII's, in that it is chronicled according to the brief reign of a succession of queens'. Nicholas Boyle has pointed out that for Goethe in his early life 'the fixity of a commitment was incompatible with the only poetry he could write, a poetry of continuing desire'.

In 1768 Goethe returned seriously ill to Frankfurt. During his recuperation, drawings of nudes by Boucher were removed from his room on doctor's orders. He took up alchemy and theology instead. Father Goethe was losing patience with these dilettante attitudes – little could he know that it was all these various interests which were turning his son into a visionary polymath. From this period dates the poem Am Flusse.

In 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth, Goethe was packed off to the University of Strasbourg. It was there that he met Johann Gottfried Herder who introduced him to the works of Homer, Shakespeare and Ossian – and above all to folk poetry. Herder, who was the first writer of comparable intelligence that Goethe had befriended, taunted the young poet into thinking more deeply. The famed relationship with the country pastor's daughter Friederike Brion who lived in Sesenheim some thirty miles from Frankfurt dates from this time. This gave rise to the poems Mailied and Mit einem gemalten Band set by Beethoven, as well as Heidenröslein and Wilkommen und Abschied.

The Strasbourg idyll lasted only ten months and, with what would be something of a pattern in his emotional life, the poet took flight before he became too deeply involved, leaving Friederike heart-broken. In 1772, after a short period studying at Wetzlar where he met Charlotte Buff (who was to inspire Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), Goethe returned to Frankfurt where he established his reputation as a young firebrand in the Sturm und Drang manner. From this time dates his play Götz von Berlichingen. Plays and novels about medieval knights and ladies became all the rage, but the young poet aspired to even bigger canvases; Mohammed, Socrates, Caesar, Christ were all grist to his imaginative mill. Mahomets Gesang is surprisingly contemporary with the much shyer poem Das Veilchen set by Mozart. Ganymed, Prometheus, An Schwager Kronos, Bundeslied and Wonne der Wehmuth were all written in these four Frankfurt years. Geistes-Gruss was written during a holiday journey down the Rhine in 1774 during which Goethe met the poet Jacobi, seven of whose poems were to be set by Schubert. It was also during this Frankfurt period that Goethe began to get to grips with turning the Faust legend into verse-drama. In their Ur-Faust versions the poems for Gretchen am Spinnrade, Gretchens Bitte, Der König in Thule and Szene aus Faust all date from this time – slightly less than forty years before Schubert was to set them. The love affair of this period was with Lili Schönemann to whom Goethe even became engaged. She was of high birth and her parents thought the match unsuitable; in any case he had his habitual fear of commitment. A visit to Switzerland was a temporary escape (Auf dem See was written there in 1775) but the poet knew that he had to be on the move once more. He was at the height of his creative powers, but pirated editions of his works cheated him of money and he felt the need for financial security. Princes from all over Germany were on the look-out for advisers and gifted, interesting men who would be a credit to their employers. A way out of his problems, both personal and financial, was an invitation to the court of Karl August, Duke of Weimar. Goethe arrived in Weimar in November 1775. One of the first poems he wrote there, remembering Lili Schönemann, was Jägers Abendlied.

Weimar was to be the poet's home for the rest of his life. It was not a rich state, nor a big one, but thanks to the Duke's mother, Duchess Anna Amalia (who was, among other things, a composer), foundations had been laid for a remarkably cultural court of which Goethe himself was to be the star attraction. Within six months of coming to Weimar Goethe was a privy councillor. Although he wrote poetry continually, he published nothing for the next ten years; his energies were given over to a list of administrative tasks which no ivory-tower artist could ever have contemplated and which led to his well-deserved reputation as both artist and scientist. Goethe's work on behalf of the state's mining industry, for example, was to lead to his passionate interest in geological and mineralogical studies. Charlotte von Stein, wife of the Duke's Master of Horse, was among the few at the court who almost immediately perceived Goethe's greatness. She was half Scottish by birth and was already a mature, married woman by the time she met the young poet. She was a serious woman of great decorum who deplored the rowdy side of his nature. 'Make something worthy of me', he wrote to her, and she educated, groomed and governed him. She taught him how to dance, and equipped him with the social graces needed for a life of mixing with princes. In return he put her on a pedestal; he courted her as a knight might have wooed a paragon of medieval virtue. Goethe wrote over 1700 letters to Charlotte which were as likely to be accompanied by the latest produce from his garden as by an immortal lyric written for her alone. Protected and guided by her love the fiery young poet grew up and found, for a number of years at least, a core of inner tranquillity. He became much occupied with the court theatre (a number of lyrics we know as songs are actually taken from small plays) and began work on his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre which was also to be a rich mine of song lyrics for Schubert and others.

After more than a decade in Weimar Goethe experienced what would now be termed a mid-life crisis. He had been ennobled in 1782 and was famous and respected, but he felt that his life in Germany was stultifying. Once again he needed to escape. The idealism and refinement of Charlotte von Stein had to be replaced by something more vital and earthy. Like his character Mignon he looked to the south, and there he sought rejuvenation and artistic rebirth. On 3 September 1786 he slipped away from Karlsbad where he had visited Charlotte; without telling her he left with only a knapsack and an assumed name.

Whilst in Italy (1786-1788) Goethe 'discovered himself'; some scholars even believe that he lost his virginity there and that his former exploits with women had been cerebral at the expense of physical release (judging from the Römische Elegien it would be more accurate to say that his poetry lost its virginity). This turning point in Goethe's creative and emotional life was rich in poetry inspired by classical metre, and largely unsuitable for musical setting. He was particularly busy as a playwright during this period. Egmont – from which the text 'Freudvoll und leidvoll' (Die Liebe) is taken – was completed in Italy, also the final version of his 'Schauspiel mit Gesang', Claudine von Villa Bella which Schubert and a number of other composers were to turn into opera.

The return to Weimar in 1788 (very much on the poet's terms with a much lightened work load at court) marked the end of Goethe's relationship with Charlotte who was not unnaturally mortified that the Italian adventure was planned without her knowledge. This intellectual relationship was replaced by something utterly different: the poet set up house with a 23-year-old girl (he was nearly sixteen years older) named Christiane Vulpius. She was scarcely literate, but her simple joyful earthiness provided Goethe with the background he needed to work calmly and productively. The after-effects of the French Revolution meant that the poet was forced to visit the battlefield in the Duke's entourage from time to time (Der Rattenfänger and Die Spinnerin were written during this period) but this did not really interrupt Goethe's re-awakened interest in scientific research. Indeed most of this phase of his life (1788-1793) was given over to it. He took particular issue with Newton's laws and had his own very different (and misguided) theories about the nature of light. At more or less the same time he met the poet Schiller who had moved to Jena some time before. What might have been a relationship of deadly rivalry turned into the most fruitful collaborative friendship in Goethe's life; it was just what he needed to return his energies to poetry. Schiller galvanised Goethe into finishing such works as Wilhelm Meister, and it was also thanks to Schiller that work on Faust was resumed. In return Goethe encouraged Schiller in his writing of Wallenstein and Wilhelm Tell. They soon saw each other as ideal colleagues, fighting for the same lofty ideals of classicism in art. After the tell-it-all style of the Venetian Epigrams a new mood of Arcadian euphemism can be found in Goethe's writing. The two poets collaborated together on various collections (notably the Musenalmanach – Almanac of the Muses – of 1797 and 1798) where new poems, ballads and epigrams regularly appeared, some of them ideally suited for musical setting. Dramatic or barnstorming poems now appear less often than lyrics of antique poise and pastoral delight. The following is a chronological list of poems which were written in the 'Schiller years' between 1794 and 1805: Meeresstille, Heiss mich nicht reden, An die Türen will ich schleichen, Nähe des Geliebten, Wer kauft Liebesgötter?, So lasst mich scheinen, Der Schatzgräber, An Mignon, Der Gott und die Bajadere, Der Musensohn, Tischlied, Schäfers Klagelied, Nachtgesang, Sehnsucht, Trost in Thränen.

The sudden death of Schiller in 1895 robbed Goethe of his greatest colleague, the only man whom the poet regarded as an equal. In 1806 the Napoleonic wars made themselves felt in Weimar. After the defeat of Prussian troops at Jena, marauding French troops broke into Goethe's house and threatened him. Christiane bravely repelled them, and in gratitude Goethe married her after sixteen years of life together. By this time the poet was a celebrity and visitors came from all over the world to pay him court: he met Napoleon twice, as befitted a man of his renown. He was pursued by the pushy Bettina von Arnim who wished to have his child. Christiane was determined to be the only mother of the poet's children, but Bettina, summarily put in her place by Frau Goethe, managed to engineer a famous, if not entirely successful, meeting between Goethe and Beethoven in Teplitz. Song texts from this period are: Die Liebende schreibt, Der Goldschmiedsgesell, Johanna Sebus and Schweizerlied.

Goethe was now to turn his gaze towards the east. Soldiers from Weimar had been stationed in Spain and brought back exquisite examples of Arabic calligraphy. A Russian regiment of Bashkirs was stationed in Weimar and the hall of the Protestant grammar school resounded with the Koran. The newly translated works of Hafiz inspired the poet to enter into the spirit of oriental love poetry. He invented a new persona for himself – the sage and potentate, Hatem. In this game of oriental symbolism Goethe cast Marianne von Willemer, a young woman who lived outside Frankfurt with an older husband, as his Suleika. Marianne was probably the most gifted of the poet's lovers (it is very possible that their relationship was purely literary) and she wrote poetry in reply to his which was so skilful, so much like Goethe's own, that he absorbed it unacknowledged into his own writings. Schubert was never to know of the part that Marianne had played in the poetry of the West-östlicher Divan as it was only revealed after the composer's death. The poems written in 1814 and 1815 in the eastern manner were the last of Goethe's poems, in terms of the chronology of the poet's life, that Schubert was to set. They were: Versunken, Im Gegenwärtigen Vergangenes, Geheimes and the two Suleika songs.

The poet spent his last birthday, his eighty-second, in August 1831, with his grandchildren in Ilmenau. In the fir-woods of that mountainous region there was a lonely wooden hut. On the wall of the hut fifty-one years before (in September 1780) he had written the following poem:

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, (Over all the peaks there is peace;)
In allen Wipfeln spürest du (in all the tree-tops you feel)
Kaum einen Hauch; (Scarcely a breath of air;)
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde. (The little birds in the forest are silent.)
Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch. (Wait! Soon you too will be at rest.)

We are told that Goethe read these few lines and tears ran down his cheeks. He slowly drew his snow-white handkerchief from the pocket of his coat, dried his eyes and said in a sad and gentle voice: 'Yes: wait, you too shall rest before long.'

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


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