Performance Friday, October 26, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Marlis Petersen
Jendrik Springer

Goethe and The Eternal-Feminine

Weill Recital Hall
Marlis Petersen is “a sterling soprano … cool, smart, centered, captivating” (Los Angeles Times). She’s triumphed in Berg’s Lulu at the Met, and in her New York recital debut—which features songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and more—she demonstrates the enduring power that Goethe’s Romantic concept of the eternal feminine has held over composers for more than two centuries.

This concert is part of Salon Encores.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program


The great writer Johann von Goethe both fell in love with various women during his long life and created unforgettable female characters in his works: mysterious adolescent waifs, Persian beauties, German village girls, actresses, even Helen of Troy herself. Inspiration was female to him; it is no wonder that his great drama Faust ends with the words, "The eternal-feminine draws us onward."

The Oriental-Exotic: Goethe's Suleika in Song

Schubert ("Was bedeutet die Bewegung?") and Fanny Mendelssohn ("Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen") both thought that the poems they chose from The Book of Suleika in the West-östlicher Divan of 1819—Persian poetry Westernized—were by Goethe himself. They were actually written by Marianne von Willemer, whom Goethe met in 1814 shortly before her wedding to the Frankfurt banker who had taken her in as an orphan. After her death in 1860 came the revelation that she was "Suleika" to Goethe's "Hatem" in this anthology. Listen to the west wind—Love's messenger—rising up in the piano introduction to Schubert's song.

Goethe's "Letter-Sonnet" in Song

As a child of 12, Mendelssohn lived for two weeks in Goethe's house in Weimar: "Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and of Werther, and every afternoon two kisses from Goethe, friend and father," he wrote to his father. Ten years later, he created this rich, warm setting of Goethe's letter-sonnet "Die Liebende schreibt." Here, a solitary woman thinks of her lover, and memory awakens longing.

Gretchen and Grief:
Wagner, Beethoven, and Sommer 

Many people know Schubert's setting of "Gretchen am Spinnrade," but very few know Wagner's version. He was a teenager in 1831, when he composed seven songs from Faust, including this one for his sister as Gretchen. Although it is a long way from this song to Isolde or Kundry, we already hear Wagner's penchant for drama.

For a poem that never progressed beyond its first line, Michelangelo wrote, "Du' occhi asciutti, e' mie, fan tristi el mondo" ("Two dry eyes, mine, make the world sad"), and Goethe says the same in "Wonne der Wehmut": tear-filled eyes see wonders while dry eyes contemplate a wasteland. The "falling tears" motif in the piano, the dark harmonies, and the occasional melodic fragmentation are just a few ingredients of this Beethoven masterpiece.

Lawyer-composer Hans Sommer helped to reform copyright law and also composed fairytale operas and songs, including "Ach neige, du Schmerzenreiche" from the scene entitled "City Wall" in Faust. Here, Gretchen, made pregnant by Faust, prays to an image of the Virgin as Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows) in a niche in the wall. This song culminates in a desperate plea to be saved from shame and death before ending with the initial quiet acclamation.

An Introduction to Medtner

Born in Russia and trained as a pianist, Nicolas Medtner was encouraged by Sergei Taneyev to turn to composition. Unsympathetic to the Revolution, he fled to Berlin in 1921, then Paris, and finally London in 1935.

Medtner won the Glinka Prize in 1909 for his Goethe songs, including "Vor Gericht." The text comes from the original version of Faust, Part I, in which the pregnant Gretchen defends herself at a hypocritical society's tribunal. Here, the piano embodies the stern court; in the postlude, we hear wordless but censorious-sounding muttering that builds to an authoritative final cadence: "Guilty."

A Return to Sommer

"Wandrers Nachtlied II" is perhaps Goethe's most famous lyric poem, and its evocation of rest and peace must have taken on added resonance in the wake of World War I, when Sommer set it to music. Delicately meandering strains in the piano tell of an evening atmosphere until the final harmony in the treble: A wistful, darker minor chord prophesies death.

Two 20th-Century Exiles and an Ultra-Romantic: Eisler, Bruch, and Krenek

With Hitler's rise to power, Hanns Eisler's music was banned and 15 years in exile began. On the title page of his "Goethe-Fragment" from 1834, we read, "Dedicated to a friend's dog because I greatly admire Goethe"; the dog in question was Bertolt Brecht's sheepdog. In stanzas two and three of "Nachklang" ("Lingering Sound") from the The Book of Suleika, a lover pleads by night for the return of the beloved's "moon-face": love is light in the darkness. The singer's initial gesture is longing made melodic, and the ending is almost thrown away, a surprise typical of Eisler's often tiny songs.

Max Bruch, best known for his G-Minor Violin Concerto, remained faithful to mid–19th-century Romanticism throughout his 82 years of life. Devoted to Goethe, he would remind his friends of the writer's birthday (August 28) each year, and two Goethe songs heralded the end of his life. "Morgenlied" sets words from Goethe's singspiel text Claudine von Villa Bella, for which Bruch had created incidental music in his youth.

In 1928, Ernst Krenek, famous for his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Plays On), made a turn to what he called "Neoromantic music" influenced by Schubert. In "Monolog der Stella," Krenek sets an excerpt from Goethe's tragedy Stella, whose title character has been seduced and abandoned by Fernando in the past and now encounters him once more. At first, she recalls her earlier longing for death and then celebrates, in virtuosic music, renewed vitality born of his reappearance. Hearing this music, you would never guess that she kills herself at the end.

Mignon in Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Holland, Russia, Austria, and Germany

In Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the enigmatic adolescent waif Mignon sings four songs that were an irresistible magnet for 19th-century composers. Mignon is the equally mysterious Harper's child by his sister Sperata, raised apart from him.

Alphons Diepenbrock, a Dutch composer and classicist who first read Goethe's poems at age 15, was influenced by Renaissance sacred music and Richard Wagner. His quotation of the "Tristan chord" (the colorful harmony at the start of Wagner's opera) for Mignon's repeated questions, "Do you know the land?" in "Kennst du das Land" is one instance of the Wagnerian intoxication that began when Diepenbrock was 20.

Tchaikovsky's best-known song is "Net, tol'ko tot, kto znal," to Lev Mei's 1857 translation of "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt," or "None but the Lonely Heart" in the English version by Arthur Westbrook. The 19th-century singer Pauline Viardot, beloved of Ivan Turgenev, sang itat a concert to raise money for a Russian library in Paris, and Turgenev made it the climax of his story, "Clara Milich" ("After Death"). Near the end, the piano is given the famous tune to sound against the singer's counter-melody.

Hugo Wolf placed his Wilhelm Meister songs at the beginning of his volume of 51 Goethe songs in defiance of all those settings before him. In Goethe's novel, the actress Philine sings "Singet nicht in Trauertönen" as a rebuttal to too much rehearsal time spent on Hamlet. For this flirtatious song, Wolf underscores the praise of love-making with his signature harmonic shifts into more seductive territory.

"Heiß mich nicht reden" is introduced in Book V, Chapter VI, of Wilhelm Meister as "a poem Mignon had recited once or twice with great expressiveness." Wolf sets Mignon's oath never to speak of her past in his characteristic post-Wagnerian harmonic idiom, expressing both depths of despair and heights of desperate longing. 

The year 1849 was the centenary of Goethe's birth, and Schumann, disappointed in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, turned to Goethe settings for consolation. Mignon sings "So laßt mich scheinen" at a birthday party where she is dressed as an angel. Schumann imitates the zither with which Mignon accompanies herself and makes transcendence and transformation audible when she sings of "the transfigured body" she will soon have.

Klärchen and Egmont

Walter Braunfels is perhaps best known for his opera Die Vögel (1920). His numerous songs include "Die Trommel gerühret" for Klärchen in the drama Egmont, whose title character is a famous Dutch warrior in the 16th-century conflict with Spain. Here, his mistress Klärchen sings in high excitement of her desire to be a man and follow him into battle.

Liszt first set "Clärchens Lied," or "Freudvoll und leidvoll," to music in 1844 and revised it for a new publication of his songs in 1860. His later versions are always more economical than earlier ones; here, the difference between "rejoicing to high heaven" and "troubled by death" is pared down to a few gestures.

It is a cliché to say that Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied II" is one of the greatest masterpieces of German verse—but it is. Written in 1780 on the wall of a mountain hut near Ilmenau, the poem first evokes the onset of night and then transforms "evening" into the imminent end of life. In Medtner's setting, we hear a combination of softly ceremonial strains in his distinctive late-Romantic idiom, and figures that suggest the breath of nature/life, growing softer and dying away at the end.

Adam and Eve, Helen of Troy, and
Young Men in Love

Hermann Reutter taught music in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and composed more than 200 songs. Goethe's words for "Es ist gut" explains all love as an echo of Adam and Eve's God-given love. Nocturnal, heaven-sent ecstasy is audible in the moonlit chords of the beginning.

Goethe sought to fuse the worlds of classical antiquity and his own Germany. He was driven his entire life by Eros as the life force above all others, so Helen of Troy was an inevitable subject: For three millennia, she has been the embodiment of absolute female beauty and its often terrible power. Daughter of Zeus and Leda, husband to the Greek Menelaus, instigator of the Trojan War when she eloped with the Trojan prince Paris, Helen appears in Goethe's Faust (Part II, Act 3), marries Faust, and has a son by him. For "Bewundert viel und viel gescholten," the flutist-composer Manfred Trojahn combined fragments from Goethe with music that harkens back to the past, as part of Trojahn's mission to combat Hermeticism in avant-garde music.

We end with another song by Braunfels: "Rastlose Liebe" (many will know Schubert's setting). The 1776 poem was born of the young Goethe's fraught love for the married Charlotte von Stein, who taught him real erotic torment for the first time. And yet, for all the protestations of anguish, we understand from these words and this music that such rapturous desire is the ultimate marvelous adventure.

-Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of brian mirror esync test.

Part of