Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond

Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond

Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond

Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond


Franz Schubert set 80 of Goethe's poems to music; the resulting lieder are masterpieces of the song literature. Whitton discusses the cultural background of the era, describing Goethe's interest in music and musicians, and Schubert's surprisingly wide knowledge of contemporary literature. Each of the songs is treated, with translation and discussion of the background of both text and music. HARDCOVER.


In October 1814, as the great European powers met in Vienna to discuss peace for a war-torn continent, a seventeen-year-old genius began the transformation of an entire musical genre with his setting of a poem from Goethe Faust. Gretchen am Spinnrade marks Schubert's first monumental contribution to the German Lied as well as the beginning of his spiritual relationship with another genius of the era -- one of the world's great writers -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Schubert had earlier begun to express his musical gifts in several dozen songs, piano pieces, chamber works, opera, symphonies, and a Mass, but it is in Gretchen am Spinnrade that he unleashed the full measure of his powers. The musicality of Goethe's words unlocked Schubert's unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life, resulting in some eighty musical settings of Goethe texts. Yet, his most intense relationship with Goethe's works came early in Schubert's compositional life. Between 1814 and 1815, he wrote more than onethird of his Goethe songs, which then became the foundation for his exploration of other poets' words.

Although Goethe never publicly acknowledged Schubert's music, Schubert clearly felt the importance of Goethe's poetry. In a diary entry for June 1816, Schubert mentioned performing Rastlose Liebe to an enthusiastic audience and commented that "Goethe's musical poet's genius contributed much to the success." Goethe's poetry was also partly responsible for Schubert's fame after his death. Erlkönig became Schubert's most popular song in the nineteenth century and inspired other composers to use it as the basis for their creative efforts. Franz Liszt, for example, made a brilliant piano transcription of Erlkönig, which he and other performers such as Clara Schumann played to enthusiastic audiences all over Europe. Singer Adolphe Nourrit, the leading tenor at the Paris Opéra, heard Liszt play Erlkönig and instantly became a proselytizer for Schubert's music. He even made his own "translations" of Schubert's songs into French, although he did not speak any German!

Schubert composed hundreds of songs during his short life of thirty-

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