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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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