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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 24

A Goethe Schubertiad
Graham Johnson (piano)
Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: September 1994
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 1995
Total duration: 78 minutes 21 seconds

This twenty-fourth issue in The Hyperion Schubert Edition brings together twenty-seven of the numerous Goethe-settings made by Schubert in his short life. Poems by the German master—poet, playwright, artist, scientist, philosopher, politician—flooded into the creative conscience of the young composer. Included is the completion by Eugene Asti of an unfinished masterpiece, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern D705, never before recorded. Christine Schäfer (in her debut recording), John Mark Ainsley, Simon Keenlyside, Michael George and the London Schubert Chorale join the accompanist and director of this series, Graham Johnson.

All of the music on this album is also available as part of the specially priced box set The Complete Songs of Franz Schubert: ‘This is an archive of glorious Lieder singing as much as it is a definitive treasury of the greatest Lieder ever composed’ (The Guardian).


‘The whole record is priceless … renewed praise … an engrossing and invaluable addition to this series’ (Gramophone)

'La interpretación sigue la línea de excellencia de toda la colección, realizada en torno al magnifico musico que es el pianista Graham Johnson' (Scherzo, Spain)
It is impossible in anything less than several weighty tomes to do justice to the scope of Goethe's achievements as a poet, playwright, artist, scientist, philosopher – the greatest of the Germans and one of the most interesting and complex of human beings. The Hyperion Schubert Edition has already given over Volume 16 to the work of Schiller with a biographical outline in the accompanying booklet. The present disc celebrates the large and important role that Goethe's work played in Schubert's life. It admittedly contains only a representative fraction of the Schubert/Goethe song output, but it provides a key to where the other settings may be found in the series. A necessarily abbreviated biography of the poet, especially tailored to the interests of the Schubertian, is printed below. The poems set to music by our composer are highlighted in this short essay and placed within the chronological context of Goethe's life. It goes without saying that the large number of composers who have set Goethe to music (Hugo Wolf is perhaps the most distinguished of Schubert's successors in this as in other respects) would merit a very much longer essay, outside the scope of this series. The interested listener, particularly if able to read German, will find a number of essays and books on the subject – for example Goethe und die Musik (1949) by Hans Joachim Moser. A book in English devoted to Schubert and Goethe is in preparation by the distinguished Germanist Kenneth Whitton.

'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. Here is a chronological list of the poems written in those eleven Weimar years which were later to be set by Schubert: Hoffnung, Wandrers Nachtlied I, Rastlose Liebe, An den Mond, An die Entfernte, Der Fischer, Grenzen der Menscheit, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, Liebhaber in allen Gestalten, Wandrers Nachtlied II, Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, Erlkönig, Der Sänger, Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, Kennst du das Land, Erster Verlust, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.

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 (later set by Schubert) 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.

Franz Schubert was never to set any Goethe lyrics which date from after 1815. Paradoxically, just as the ageing poet had finished writing the last works that Schubert was destined to set, the composer, a seventeen-year-old boy in Vienna, was only beginning to make his contribution to the immortalisation of Goethe as a poet of rare humanity and wisdom. Goethe was to live seventeen more years. Indeed, he was to outlive Schubert by four years although he was nearly half a century older. For the purposes of this essay the Goethe story is over. The poet's friendship with Mendelssohn (the pupil of the poet's beloved friend, the composer Karl Friedrich Zelter) the conversations with Eckermann (Goethe's Boswell), the Marienbader Elegie (commemorating the last of the poet's loves, Ulrike von Levetzow), the composition of the second part of Faust and so on are not part of the Schubertian story. The late Goethe poems and writings influenced other composers of other times. Had Schubert lived longer there is every chance that he would have returned to his old mentor's work and set some of the poems of Goethe's remarkable old age.

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.' How could he have been expected to know that the man whose name would be bracketed with his for the rest of time had died four years earlier, having made those words immortal in a way undreamed of by Goethe or anyone else in his circle? There was a tantalising flicker of recognition from the old poet (too late, alas, for Schubert) when Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient sang Erlkönig to him in 1830 and he acknowledged the song's power. The miracle is that although the relationship was nurtured only by one-sided admiration and understanding, there is a link between Schubert and Goethe that lies too deep for words. This collaboration is a continuing source of wonder, admiration and gratitude for all music lovers.

Following the list of Schubert's Goethe settings in the context of the poet's life, the catalogue of songs printed below gives an outline of this important and productive relationship from Schubert's point of view. Lieder had already been written by countless composers, Mozart as well as Goethe's friends Zelter and Reichardt among them, but it was the collaboration between Schubert and Goethe (as unlikely a social and generational mix as could be imagined) which allowed song with piano to become an enduring and valid means of musical expression on a large emotional scale. An eager young composer came across the poems of a famous writer who for many years had sent his work into the world like bread cast on the waters, the literary nourishment of a nation. These poems landed on Schubert's desk and floated – or rather flooded – into his creative consciousness. This new and beguiling poetic voice in his life set the young composer ablaze with enthusiasm and love. Fire and water are usually inimical but fortunately Schubert did not realise that his eager attempts to establish a personal contact with the poet were to be extinguished by the great man's indifference. He embarked on his Goethe phase inflamed of course by the work rather than the man, although in October 1814 the meeting of minds seemed to have something of a personal chemistry and took on the character of a wild new passion. There was a great deal of contemporary German literature that was unavailable to the composer's countrymen; it so happened that the publication of Goethe's poetry in Austria was permitted only a few years before the composer set it. Instead of regarding the ageing poet as a well-established classic (which was his status in Germany by 1814) the young Austrian composer's discovery of the poet had all the intensity of a meeting of contemporaries – like two ardent young men who had just been introduced and fell to setting the world to rights. Far from being 'old hat', the poet was seized upon by the young composer and treated as a great modern – as indeed he deserved to be. This meeting, if so one-sided a thing might be so called, came at just the right time for the composer and must rank as one of the happiest accidents in musical history. The intensity of the fusion of music and word has probably never been equalled, let alone surpassed, although the Schumann/Heine and Wolf/Mörike partnerships show the same type of exalted ability of a composer to tune into a poet's wavelength with unerring understanding.

The last months of 1814 show the relationship exploding into life with Gretchen am Spinnrade. This was followed by various experiments – quiet strophic songs (Nachtgesang and Trost in Tränen), a modified strophic song (Schäfers Klagelied), a through-composed song of various disparate sections (Sehnsucht), and the operatic scena with chorus, Szene aus Faust. None of the later songs from this year, however, capture the raw energy and drama of Gretchen am Spinnrade.

It is 1815 of course which was the annus mirabilis – not only for song in general (for Schubert set many poets in this year) but particularly for the composer's relationship with his new-found poetic mentor. Some of the most famous songs of the period are through-composed (Rastlose Liebe, Erster Verlust, Erlkönig) but most of them are strophic, and, contrary to the modern concept of the strophic song as boring, the majority of these are highly successful creations. It is as if the composer relishes the idea of allowing each of the poet's strophes to emerge uncluttered by unnecessary musical complication for the innocent ear. In certain cases such as Nähe des Geliebten, Die Spinnerin and Heidenröslein the strophic nature of the setting immeasurably enhances the culminative effect of the music and the power of the narrative. One should also mention here Schubert's unmatched ability to take some of Goethe's single strophes and make of them brief and magical musical utterances (Wandrers Nachtlied I, Meeresstille, Wonne der Wehmuth). In terms of variety of material and the enthusiasm with which it was set, there is no doubt that 1815 was the great Goethe/Schubert year. As if composing all these songs was not enough, Schubert wrote a three-act Singspiel to the Goethe play Claudine von Villa Bella; sadly only one of the three acts originally composed has survived, but what we have of it is elegant, charming and tuneful without immediately suggesting the same natural affinity with the poet as is shown in the Lieder.

In 1816, the year in which the composer first attempted to contact the poet and make him aware of the existence of his music, the Goethe list is much smaller. There are two marvellously intense and compact strophic songs (Der König in Thule and Jägers Abendlied) as well as a thundering masterpiece (An Schwager Kronos) in the Erlkönig manner, but it is the lyrics from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister which seem to have fascinated the composer most, and most tested him. Two of the three celebrated Gesänge des Harfners were composed, but not without earlier attempts (recorded on this disc) to find exactly the right tone for the Harper's lyric Wer nur sein Brot. For the first time Schubert applied himself to Goethe's Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, and came to the conclusion that this philosophical poem needed a choral rather than solo setting.

It is then that something changes in the composer's relationship with the poet. Schubert's desire to conquer the world with Goethe at his side (or so we feel with the 1815 output) seems to die for lack of nourishment. After having taken the trouble to write out a book of songs for the poet (with a covering letter from Schubert's friend Josef von Spaun outlining an ambitious scheme of song publication with the Goethe songs as the high point of the projected series), it must have been hurtful in the extreme to have it returned without a word of acknowledgement. We can imagine the brave rationalisations ('He must be very busy') but Schubert's idol had feet of clay – or so it must have seemed to a young man with a sense of the worth of his own creations. A second volume of twelve Goethe settings had been assiduously prepared by the composer but this was never sent. The poet's silence may not have killed Schubert's enthusiasm but it certainly must have modified it. It is no surprise therefore that 1817 is very much more selective as far as Goethe is concerned. This was the year when the composer warmed to the classically-inspired work of his Viennese friend Mayrhofer – perhaps the most important Goethe setting of the year tackles a mythological subject (Ganymed) which Mayrhofer may have brought to the composer's attention. There are also tiny humorous songs, a setting of a remarkable autobiographical poem from one of the poet's Swiss holiday when he was on the run from emotional commitment (Auf dem See) and two substantial fragments relating to larger-than-life characters – Mohammed and Gretchen, the latter no longer at the spinning-wheel but on her knees before a statue of the Madonna. Perhaps significantly, both of these songs on the broadest of emotional and poetic canvases were left unfinished.

The year 1818 (much less productive of songs in any case than other years) is Goethe-free. By 1819 it is clear that the composer no longer regards the poet as 'his' Goethe, his own passionate discovery, but simply as a great writer whose work claims his attention alongside the work of other writers such as Friedrich von Schlegel and Novalis. There are five Goethe settings from this year including a poem revisited with miraculous and moving success (An den Mond), a choral setting of the famous Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, a blockbuster on a classical theme (Prometheus), and a delightfully feminine setting of Die Liebende schreibt. The only Goethe setting of 1820 comes right at the end of the year – another attempt at the Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, this time for chorus with piano accompaniment, left as a fragment which is completed for performance for the first time on this disc.

Schubert's enthusiasm was given a new lease of life by access to a new series of Goethe poems published in 1815, poems which were being written more or less at the same time that Gretchen am Spinnrade was composed. The new volume opened the whole exotic world of the West-östlicher Divan to the composer – Geheimes, Versunken, the Suleika poems. He grappled with a text which he probably had known for a long time and made of it a musical masterpiece – Grenzen der Menscheit. Dating from this year there is also a second version of Mahomets Gesang (left incomplete, as was the ballad Johanna Sebus) as well as further inconclusive attempts to solve the problem of the Mignon lyrics. Despite a number of songs not brought to fruition, the years 1821 and 1822 find Schubert back to the best Goethian form since 1815. Two of the Gesänge des Harfners were slightly revised from 1816 and brought together for publication with a newly composed middle song in the set of three. Some of the best-loved masterpieces date from this period, including Der Musensohn and Wilkommen und Abschied, not to mention the sublime Wandrers Nachtlied II. An important setting from early 1821 lies outside the scope of this series – Gesang der Geister über den Wassern for men's chorus and low strings. This Goethe renaissance was not to last. 1823 is the year of Die schöne Müllerin (Wilhelm Müller was to be the favoured poetic companion of Schubert's later life) and, unless Suleika II was written to order and dates from 1824 as John Reed conjectures, there were no new Goethe works written for three years.

Schubert made one more attempt at personal contact with Goethe. He had been nineteen when Spaun wrote to the poet on his behalf, but in 1825 at the age of twenty-eight he was not unknown; indeed he stood on the threshold of the renown which he would have lived to see if he had only been given another decade. Schubert's note to the great man (he no longer needs his friend Spaun as an intermediary) consists of one long, ornate sentence where formality of language scarcely masks the depth of feeling: 'If I should succeed in giving evidence of my unbounded veneration of Your Excellency by the dedication of these compositions of your poems, and possibly in gaining some recognition of my insignificant self ['meine Unbedeutenheit'], I should regard the favourable fulfilment of this wish as the fairest event of my life.' But this was no longer a schoolboy writing, and it was no longer a schoolboy musical crush which prompted his enthusiasm. Instead of a hand-written volume, Schubert was able to send Goethe printed songs in June 1825 which were dedicated to the poet and published as Op 19. Two special presentation copies with gold lettering on satined paper were specially ordered from the printer, and almost certainly at the composer's expense. The songs were An Schwager Kronos, An Mignon and Ganymed. Despite the fact that he had every reason to hope that such a handsome parcel would receive some acknowledgement, we can somehow feel that the composer fully expected to be ignored again, and he was right. This time Goethe kept the volume in his library and noted its receipt in his diary but did not bother to send even an acknowledgment. Schubert's songs had the misfortune to arrive in the same post as a consignment of quartets from the young Felix Mendelssohn by whom the old poet was greatly charmed. In any case Schubert was on holiday in Upper Austria with Vogl and was taken up with setting Walter Scott.

The last Goethe settings are a result of unfinished business brought triumphantly to a close. Once Schubert had embarked on the texts from Wilhelm Meister he worried at them until they were right. He had definitively set the Harper's songs and published them in 1822 (it had taken him from 1815 to get them to his satisfaction) but he was still not happy with the three great lyrics of Mignon. In 1826 Schubert no longer had the burning enthusiasm of the youth who had first discovered Goethe; instead there was the mature understanding of a human being who, in his own way, had been through as much pain as Goethe's waif. The Op 62 songs published in 1827 begin and end with settings of Nur wer die Sehnsucht (the first for tenor and soprano duet) which are summits of Schubert's achievement with this poet. The man who composed the final version of Heiss mich nicht reden and So lasst mich scheinen was a sadder and more experienced individual than the boy who had written Erlkönig. At the beginning of the story of two artists, one young and passionate, the other well-established and venerable, we feel that the composer is in the poet's debt, that he has been raised to a higher musical power by the words. (Schubert admitted as much himself: on 14 June 1816 he noted in his diary, 'I sang Goethe's Rastlose Liebe and Schiller's Amalia. Unanimous applause for the former, less for the latter. Although I myself think that my Rastlose Liebe is better than Amalia, I cannot deny that Goethe's musical poet's genius ['musikalisches Dichter-Genie'] contributed much to the success.') By the time the last Mignon songs were written the composer's debt to the poet is fully repaid. Schubert, we feel, should now be thanked for the reverence in which Goethe's name is held in a million musical hearts. Of all the many types of fame which Goethe received, this would have been for him the most surprising. Whatever his formidable (and sometimes marmoreal) reputation in the non-German-speaking world as a sage, philosopher and man of great culture, in whatever high respect he is held by English-speaking writers and dramatists, it is we musicians who, despite the fact that German is not our mother tongue, are lucky enough to be able to love Goethe. Thanks to Schubert.

Graham Johnson © 1995

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