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Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was born just over ten years after Goethe on 10 November 1759. Robert Burns, a genius who comes not only from another country but who seems to be from another age altogether, was born earlier in the same year. This was also the year that Voltaire wrote Candide; it was an epoch where the Enlightenment was eventually to give way to Napoleonic romanticism via the Sturm und Drang of the French Revolution. Artists born in this era straddled two mighty centuries which had entirely different priorities and characteristics; the men of Schiller’s generation were caught between being children of the old order and young men of the new. His father had been in the army of the despotic Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, and after his soldiering days were over he continued in the duke’s employ as a horticulturalist in the gardens at Ludwigsburg. The duke took it upon himself to control the smallest details of the lives of his subjects and their children; Schiller was born into intellectual serfdom as a result. His mother was of artistic bent and fond of the poetry of Uz and Gellert. The boy, already fascinated by the theatre, was destined for the priesthood as far as his parents were concerned, but the duke decided otherwise. In 1773, at the age of fourteen, Schiller was summarily enrolled into the military academy, the Karlschule, and it was decided that he was to be a lawyer. For six years he was subject to the ‘perverted discipline’ of ‘Greek, seclusion and law’. I make no apology for quoting here and elsewhere from Thomas Carlyle’s grandly resonant biography of Schiller (1825), a work which Goethe himself admired (he wrote a preface for the German translation) and in which Schiller is seen through the eyes of one of Schubert’s contemporaries.
After two years Schiller managed to change his course of study to that of medicine. Not that he had any enthusiasm for that subject but it seemed to him better at least than the servitude of the law. He eventually graduated with a medical degree which enabled him to diagnose his later maladies, only to ignore them. The only possibly useful fruit of these years was a self-preserving and rigid self-control which was to enable him to work through thick and thin. A strong head of concealed resentment boiled over with the composition of his first significant work, Die Räuber (‘The Robbers’), an explosive play about (not surprisingly) the use and abuse of power. ‘For eight years’, he wrote, ‘my enthusiasm struggled with military discipline; but the passion for poetry is vehement and fiery as a first love. What discipline was meant to extinguish, it blew into a flame—my heart sought refuge in the world of ideas, when I was as yet unacquainted with the world of realities, from which iron bars excluded me.’ Schubert’s letter home to his brother in 1812 which describes the trials of his school life seems light-hearted by comparison. Die Räuber emerged in 1781, just at the right time to make a tremendous impression on a public (especially the young) who could sense political change in the air and who had had enough of the petty tyrannies of the German princes. Schiller became rather famous overnight, but, as Carlyle says, ‘the characters of the piece, though traced in glowing colours, are outlines rather than pictures’. In this sense another comparison is evident with Schubert, whose early ballads sometimes have the same over-the-top ‘strange mixture of extravagance and true energy’ that Carlyle noted in Schiller’s youthful work.
Schiller was skating on thin ice with the duke; the livelihoods of his parents were also endangered by the sentiments of the play. The fate of Christian Schubart (the author of Die Forelle), who was imprisoned for eight years in the fortress of Apsburg for similar literary insubordination, must have been much in his mind. Schiller was reprimanded by the duke who offered his own ‘literary advice’, but the headstrong poet nevertheless went incognito to Mannheim to see the first stage production of Die Räuber and was imprisoned for a short while for his trouble. It was obvious that he had to get away, whatever the cost. In October 1782 he fled Stuttgart for neighbouring Mannheim in the company of the musician Andreas Streicher, his new play Fiesco, a Genoese tragedy, under his arm. Neither the playwright nor his new work were altogether welcome in Mannheim, at least not for the moment. He found refuge in Thuringia in the home of Henriette von Wolzogen and worked on his next play Kabale und Liebe, a tragedy of everyday life—the love story of Ferdinand for the music master’s daughter Luise. This, with its original title of Luisa Miller, was much later to find its composer in Giuseppe Verdi (1849), who was also to base his I masnadieri (1847) on Die Räuber.
In 1783 Schiller was welcomed back to Mannheim where he became a naturalized subject of the Elector Palatine, and where he was appointed poet to the theatre. He was at last what he always wanted to be, a Man of Letters: ‘The public is now all to me, my study, my sovereign, my confidant. To the public alone I henceforth belong.’ At last Schiller had the leisure time (if any moment of his day—or night—might so be termed) to read Corneille, Racine and Voltaire. The first three acts of Don Carlos appeared in Thalia, an almanac for which he wrote between 1785 and 1794 and which was devoted to the history and philosophy of the theatre. A number of Schiller’s poems also made their first appearance in this periodical. He left Mannheim after eighteen months (in March 1785) and moved to Saxony where he stayed with has close friend Christian Gottfried Körner, the father of the poet Theodor Körner whom Schubert met in 1813. It was Körner’s advice which gave the young composer the confidence to embrace music as a profession. Perhaps they talked about Schiller, whose poems Schubert had already set to music on a number of occasions. It is possible that young Körner, born after Schiller had left Dresden, had met the poet personally in Weimar. The two families certainly kept in touch.
Don Carlos was immediately counted Schiller’s greatest success. It initiates what were to be two characteristics of his plays for the rest of his life—increasingly detailed historical research and the creative energy of blank verse (the previous works had been in prose). The fourth and fifth acts of the completed play (which was to be the basis of Verdi’s greatest Schiller creation in 1867) show a very different artist from the writer of the first three. Although Don Carlos is in many ways a masterpiece of Schiller’s maturity, Carlyle puts his finger on certain negative factors: ‘We have not those careless felicities, those varyings from high to low, that air of living freedom which Shakespeare has accustomed us, like spoiled children, to look for in every perfect work of the species. Schiller is too elevated, too regular and sustained in his elevation, to be altogether natural.’ This, mutatis mutandis, is a fair critique of some of the Schubert settings of Schiller, and it is a measure of the young composer’s ability accurately to mirror various literary sensibilities that his actual music seems to take on the characteristics, even the weaker ones, of his chosen poets. Nevertheless there was a sign in Schiller’s work that ‘the love of contemplating things as they should be began to yield to the love of knowing things as they are’. The poet was now ready for the last and greatest phase of his career.
In 1787 he first visited the Athens of the North, the undoubted literary epicentre of Germany, the town of Weimar, where he was received courteously by Johann Gottfried Herder and even more warmly by Christoph Martin Wieland. At this time Goethe was away on his famed Italian journey but, as we have seen, Schiller had made up his mind that he would have little to say to his celebrated elder colleague. Carlyle compared Shakespeare to Milton and, by analogy, Goethe to Schiller: ‘The first is endowed with an all-comprehending spirit; skilled, as if by personal experience, in all the modes of human passion and opinion; therefore tolerant of all; peaceful, collected; fighting for no class of men or principles … allowing men of every shape and hue to have their own free scope in his conception, as they have it in the world where Providence has placed them. The other is earnest, devoted; struggling with a thousand mighty projects of improvement; feeling more intensely as he feels more narrowly; rejecting vehemently, choosing vehemently, at war with the one half of things, in love with the other half; hence dissatisfied, impetuous without internal rest, and scarcely conceiving the possibility of such a state.’
It is one of the miracles of the history of world literature that at the end of the day (in 1794 to be exact) these opposites were profoundly attracted to each other, although in the first instance there is no doubt that their instinctive antipathy was great. Encouraged by Wieland and Herder, Schiller came to live in Jena, very near to Weimar, in 1789, long before he met Goethe. On the strength of a treatise on the subject of the revolt of the Dutch against the Spanish in the Netherlands (the background to Don Carlos) he was appointed professor of history at the University of Jena. He further enhanced his reputation as a serious historian by embarking in 1791 on a history of the Thirty Years’ War. This was to furnish him with the background to his greatest drama, Wallenstein. In 1790 he had married Charlotte Lengefeld, an accomplished amateur pianist. Peter Branscombe has pointed out that music could not have meant a great deal to Schiller as only five years after the marriage Charlotte’s piano-playing skills were decidedly on the wane, probably because she had no instrument on which to practise. Nevertheless, theirs was a very devoted and happy relationship (two sons and two daughters were born of the union). No doubt Charlotte had to undergo many trials in dealing with the deteriorating health of her husband and his heroic (though no doubt seemingly foolhardy) determination to work on regardless. His health problems were exacerbated by his habit of rationing his sleep and writing through the night in a garden house specially built for his solitary nocturnal toil. Carlyle’s words on the poet’s heroism under these circumstances strike me as applying also to Schubert after his death sentence of 1823, and it is in this regard that the fates of composer and poet seem connected: ‘His spirit was too vigorous and ardent to yield—he declined to dwindle into a pining valetudinarian; in the midst of his infirmities he persevered with unabated zeal in the great business of life. As he partially recovered, he returned as strenuously as ever to his intellectual occupations; and often, in the glow of poetical conception, he almost forgot his maladies—he did not lose his relish for the beautiful, the grand or the good, in any of their shapes; he loved his friends as formerly, and wrote his finest and sublimest works when his health was gone.’ The Schubertian need only apply these words to the miraculous musical productivity of the composer’s last years to feel their relevance to a man who had discovered Schiller’s poetry at the age of fourteen and felt somehow drawn to a kindred spirit.
The dark cloud of Schiller’s ill-health brought one silver lining—a large pension from aristocratic Danish admirers which released him from immediate financial worries and enabled him to embark on yet another phase in a life of relentless intellectual exploration and self-improvement. This was a study of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant which resulted, over the next eight years (1793–1801), in a series of papers on weighty philosophical and aesthetical matters. This writing met with much opposition, but even Carlyle, implacably opposed to Kant, owned that Schiller’s essays were redeemed by moments which shone like ‘bright verdant islands in the misty sea of metaphysics’ and proved that Schiller was without doubt Goethe’s intellectual equal. And this leads us back to the confrontation with Goethe. The auguries were not favourable. Goethe, long before, had written disdainfully that Die Räuber had ‘been poured in a boundless rushing flood all over the country’. The elder man was frosty and distant, the younger disinclined to play the courtier or sycophant, but chance (or clever friends) brought them together and they began to talk. The subject of their first conversation was Goethe’s theory on the metamorphosis of plants and Goethe was stunned to be quietly but firmly challenged on a number of scientific and philosophical premises. The citizens of Weimar were often later to see the two deep in conversation under the shade of a spreading tree at Triesnitz.
Goethe had recently returned from Italy and knew that one phase of his life was over and that another had to begin. He was at a loss as to how to proceed. Schiller was the midwife to one of his many artistic rebirths; indeed, in January 1829 Goethe wrote to C L F Schultz: ‘I really do not know what would have become of me without Schiller’s stimulus.’ In 1798 he had written to Schiller himself: ‘You have given me a second poetic youth.’ The younger poet’s determination and vitality, his ability to carry projects through with burning idealistic conviction, his encouragement over the matter of resuming work on Faust, rejuvenated the older man. In turn Schiller benefited from the breadth of Goethe’s perspective, his urbanity, perspicacity and encouragement. Rousseau thought that the best material for friendship was the ‘same sentiments and different opinions’, and the friendship between these two men is the best illustration of this premise. In the last years of the eighteenth century there was an exchange between Schiller and Goethe of remarkable letters, almost certainly unequalled as a colloquy between two great artists—‘probably the greatest treasures I possess’, Goethe wrote years later of these documents. Spurred on by each other, and in a spirit of friendly rivalry, they wrote a series of ballads, many of which have been set by the great song-composers. Schiller was not even as musically knowledgeable as Goethe (his tastes in this field were extremely conservative; he valued Gluck’s music and thought that Haydn’s Schöpfung was a ‘Mischmasch’) but he knew that certain poetry needed music to enable it to reach the people. He had known the composer Zumsteeg since he was a young man and valued Reichardt as a friend and correspondent, without particularly liking his music. He actually approved of Zelter’s setting of Der Taucher. The poems of this period gave rise to many of the Schiller–Schubert collaborations, and a good number of the Goethe–Schubert works too. They were first published in various editions of the Musen-Almanach or the Horen which had replaced Thalia as the means of airing Schiller’s—and now Goethe’s—thoughts. In reply to criticisms of that periodical, the two men composed the Xenien, the most famous of their public collaborations. These satirical epigrams, a type of German version of Pope’s Dunciad, attacked mean-minded critics and the general mediocrities of the age, and caused a furore. This comradeship in literary arms has forever cast Goethe and Schiller as the Castor and Pollux of German literature.
There now followed an astonishing outburst of activity as Schiller returned at last to his homeland, the theatre. If he did not exactly rage against the dying of the light, he used all the hours of darkness to enable him to write a major play in almost each of the years of the new century which were left to him. The success of the triptych of Wallenstein plays (based on Schiller’s own painstaking historical researches) was immense and worldwide. Samuel Taylor Coleridge made a remarkable translation of it, a highly suitable example of implacable intellectual English energy to parallel Schiller’s industry in translating Macbeth, Gozzi’s Turandot, and Racine’s Phèdre. Then followed in quick succession Maria Stuart (on which was based the later Donizetti opera) and Die Jungfrau von Orleans (Tchaikovsky, 1879) which was greeted by cries of ‘Long live Schiller’ and the success of which led to his ennoblement. The last of the historical dramas to be completed was Wilhelm Tell in 1804 (also, interestingly, Rossini’s last opera, 1829). At the time of the poet’s death (on 9 May 1805, at the age of forty-six) he was working on a play about Dmitri of Russia and another about Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne of Henry VII.
The poet’s work, unreasonably elevated and stilted though it can sometimes appear to our jaded and cynical ears, was a major influence on the young men of Schubert’s age. Schiller had written: ‘We would be ashamed if people were to say that things shaped us and not we them.’ It is not hard to find those of Schubert’s contemporaries who took this to heart. The composer’s friend, the poet Johann Senn worked bravely (and in vain) for Tyrolean independence, almost certainly with William Tell’s words ringing in his ears. For Schiller, in Carlyle’s words, ‘genuine Literature includes the essence of philosophy, religion, art; whatever speaks to the immortal part of man’. For Schubert, music was also about everything in life, an omnium gatherum—a phrase Coleridge coined which may be used to describe Goethe’s eclectic search for knowledge as well as Schiller’s efforts to make sense of the great issues of life by making them part of a structured plan. We can hear Schubert’s search for a musical translation of this in some of his settings of this poet, an appropriately heroic (and sometimes fruitless) attempt to find the musical equivalent of Schiller’s imposing ground plan. We may argue that other writers inspired Schubert to greater music, but Schiller’s was the spirit who showed him that his musical energy could be marshalled to be a force for the good; indeed that in its own way it had the power to change the world.
A list of all Schubert’s Schiller settings, in chronological order of their composition, may be found in the book accompanying the boxed set Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40—all of Schubert’s songs re-mastered from the original recordings of The Hyperion Schubert Edition into chronological order of composition and three ‘bonus’ discs of songs by Schubert’s ‘Friends and Contemporaries’). Alongside comprehensive indexes, this book contains full song texts and translations, an introduction to the recordings and chronologies of Schubert’s life; it is available separately as BKS44201/40. In Volume 16 of The Hyperion Schubert Edition the programme is arranged more or less in the chronological order of the composition of the poems rather than of the musical settings.
The poetry of Schiller seems to have made Schubert feel part of a German tradition where control and industry, the ethical unimpeachability of the great and good were valued. This was certainly true of the rigorous moral values of the composer's father. The recital begins with a poem which related to a father, and as I suggest, Schubert's father in particular. If we never feel that our hero was as close to Schiller as to Goethe, or indeed to Mayrhofer, it is perhaps because Schiller represented the guiding ideals of a type of literary parental authority. The invitation to escape into new expressive pastures of sensuality and innovation came from other poets, and the composer had to leave home to achieve his full potential. But Schubert loved his father whatever their difficulties. I believe, on the evidence of the quality of much of the music, and because he kept on returning to the poet, that he loved Schiller too. It cannot be denied, however, that other relationships in his life, both personal and literary, were easier.
Graham Johnson © 1993