Goethe's Legacy in Art and Opera

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FRANKFURT--As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to unveil its new production of Massenet’s Werther on February 18, I find myself in the city where the story that inspired this opera was born. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born here on August 28, 1749. The house where he was born and raised is a popular site for visitors, whether they are Germans honoring their most important writer or the millions of people around the world who have read him in translation. It was here that Werther, Faust and other important Goethe characters were born.

To a non-German speaker, it is easy to underestimate the impact that Goethe had and has on this nation’s language, cultural outlook and sense of itself and the world. He is to German what Dante Alighieri is to Italian and Cervantes is to Spanish--the fount from which all is drawn and compared.

German is quite formal and structured, presenting daunting challenges in usage. When a language imposes such rules on speech and writing, it has a way of organizing the mind to conform to them but, on occasion, to inspire the heart to rebel against them. Goethe was a master of using German grammar to its fullest expression, but he also tapped into and inspired the desire to reject conformity and to honor the deepest stirrings of the soul.

He came in the first wave of Romanticism in German-speaking lands. He was trained in law, classics, music, art, Latin and several European languages. Standing in the room at the Goethehaus where his library (or copies of the originals) is stored, one can comprehend how widely he read. Although he lived most of his life in Frankfurt and Weimar, his travels--especially to Italy--gave him a deeper sense of himself (at times Apollonian, at times Dionysian) through his adventures.

While Goethe was undeniably German, I think of him as one of the first Europeans in the way he went beyond physical and psychological borders to express the human essence by drawing from a much larger well of knowledge and inspiration. His life and views were complicated and textured, much as Europe always has been and remains today. He famously said, “dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” He influenced most German creative artists and many around Europe with his ideas. Without a doubt, Wagner would be less “Wagnerian” had he not read Goethe.

To understand the opera Werther (which has a French libretto, by the way), think of Goethe’s assertion “I love those who yearn for the impossible.” Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in a feverish six weeks in the winter of 1774. It was published in the fall of the same year and made the 25-year old an international writing sensation. It was published in foreign translations, including English in 1779. This is an epistolary novel, one in which we discover the characters in part through letters they write to one another. Not only do we follow the narrative, but readers with a deep feeling for language can understand differences in age, class and temperament in the way the letters are written.

Werther is one of those operas, such as Eugene Onegin, La Traviata and Macbeth, in which letters play a crucial role. Listen to WNYC's Sara Fishko on the subject of letters in various performing arts.

The basic plot of the book and the opera is of a young man who falls in love with Charlotte, a woman affianced to another, slightly older man. She remains true to her vows, with considerable heartbreak for all involved. It was largely autobiographical in inspiration and, indeed, Goethe loved a woman named Charlotte who married another man. That the book’s title includes the word “sorrows” is not by accident. I think this story must have influenced Rostand as he wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, about a man who expresses his love for a woman through letters written on behalf of another man. The plot is not the same, but the feelings are.

If, as Christa Ludwig says, “a song is an opera in one minute” in the way it finds the essence of the deepest emotions and experience, it should not surprise you that Goethe’s poems were the touchstone for a vast repertory of Lieder by many composers, notably Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Liszt, Carl Loewe, Otto Nicolai, Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf. I invite you to explore this magnificent treasure trove of beauty and sentiment.

Frankfurt’s relationship to letters and ideas dates back centuries. Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1395-1468) was born in nearby Mainz and was the man who developed printing with moveable type that fostered the widespread publication of books, pamphlets, documents and newspapers. With it came the prioritization of literacy and all the progress that implies. Of course, Goethe benefited from having books widely available as a boy.

Since World War Two, Frankfurt has been central to the financial administration of Europe but, unlike many centers of world business, has insisted on maintaining the centrality of words and ideas. It has more than a hundred publishing houses, though other German cities (including Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig) are just as strong. How wonderful that a country can have such a vibrant book culture at a time when it has been degraded in much of the rest of the world. This is part of Goethe’s legacy.

For anyone who cares about books, the Frankfurt Buchmesse, the world’s largest book fair, is the place to be. Publishers, authors and readers from more than a hundred nations gather every October. While a book fair has taken place in Frankfurt since almost the time of Gutenberg, the decision to make it an important international event not only of business and culture but also world fellowship has made it a magnet to Frankfurt since 1949.  In the same year, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the well-regarded center-right newspaper, was founded.

Another important element of Goethe’s legacy, though not unique to Frankfurt, is the Goethe-Institut. Created in 1951 and funded by the German government, it was established to train teachers of German in this country and abroad. It has branches on all continents and, like Goethe, has grown from being about language instruction to embracing culture, ideas and exchange. If you live in a major city in Europe or North America, you may well have a Goethe-Institut nearby. The one in New York is worth discovering. For that matter, so is Goethe himself if you only know him through operas such as Werther and Faust.