It is often useful to compare artists within certain styles and forms in order to gain a greater understanding of those artists. Judging and comparing art is a beneficial method in determining what is good and acceptable within the academic standards of music and art. Three such artists deserving of such a comparisons and evaluations compose the theme of this essay. Essentially, the purpose of this essay is to compare the musical compositions of Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf through their interpretations of the lieder, or poems of, the author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
To make this comparison of these great Classical period artists it is necessary to examine each composer's take on a series or settings of Goethe's poems. Also it is important to examine the history and context of each composer to better understand their allure to these topics and their sincere and deep attraction to Goethe. By approaching this subject from this angle, one may get a better sense for how these three artists are very similar, yet all have several impactful distinctions as well, that makes them a truly inspirational and interesting artist that carries on today through our knowledge and history of classical music.
Stokes (2008) wrote that Goethe had a significant impact on the German musical scene during his lifetime and after. He suggested that "Music was to Goethe an essential part of life, and above all, perhaps, it brought solace. It is music which saves Faust from suicide, music which soothes Werther in his bleakest moments, music which restores both Tasso and Wilhelm Meister." Heller supported this claim as well when she penned that "Goethe, a contemporary German writer of that period, did not escape the strong German musical influences. Music and literature were inseparable and vital throughout his whole life, " (p.205).
Goethe was a prolific writer of poetry and short stories that contained intense and often mysterious or mystical themes. He came from a rich and noble family and was well educated but this apparently did not distract him from achieving a true artists appeal that transcended class and culture. Goethe wrote on science, politics, society, religion, law, justice, love and romance. Anything was fair game to him as an author and this is most likely a significant reason why such composers such as Wolf, Schubert and many others of the Classical time period were so eager to take his literary works and turn them into great works of musical movements.
All in all Goethe is a literary giant and many have sung his praises and his contributions not only to German art and music, but the entire landscape of human endeavor and performance. It appeared that Goethe lived in a time in history where his influence could be most heavily felt and reverberated forward into the future for many new generations of listeners to enjoy and explore the themes that were central to his work.
While Goethe wrote about many different ideas and was published in many different forms, his poetry, is the literary styling's that both Schubert and Wolf were drawn to copy and incorporate a musical score as lieder. Emmanuel (2008) suggested that Goethe was the centerpiece to the classical era and that he was responsible for many of the philosophical and musical productions of that time period. He wrote " The Romantic era represents fundamental changes in Western thought and culture. It is an era of wars, revolutions, and political dispersion in Germany, Goethe's milieu. It is a time of origins. The rise of critical theology served to loosen the traditional, theistic hold of Protestant Christianity in Germany. Concepts such as "genius" emerge from this period, in reference chiefly to the artist." Looking at Goethe from this perspective can help interpret the music of both Schubert and Wolf and see just exactly how his writings developed into grand pieces of music that still stand the test of time today.
Schubert and Goethe
Franz Schubert was born in 1797 in Austria. He was a well schooled and trained musician who wrote hundreds of songs, operas and symphonies. He died at 31 years old, but left a massive amount of musical work that has been poured over by fans and critics alike. Schubert led an intense and mysterious life and died of syphilis at young age which aligns very much with many of the darker themes of death, that Goethe was fond of issuing.
One piece of music that really captures how Schubert used Goethe's work to his advantage was in the piece Erkling or Erkonig. Goethe's poem of this title is a story of an evil spirit or ghost that hunts down and kills young children. The grim ending to this poem is translated:
The Father shudders, he rides, swiftly,
He holds in his arms the moaning child.
He reaches the farmhouse with effort and urgency.
In his arms the child was dead.
Such morbid and scary themes should and do resonate with Schubert's musical accompany to this poem. Power (2011) described Schubert's interpretation of this poem as " Schubert makes sure that the father's words are pitched in the lower register, and makes the phrases legato and smooth as the father attempts to calm the child. Meanwhile the boy's voice is in the upper register, suggesting youth and innocence along with fear." It appeared that Schubert knew how to get the most out of this lied and use the fear to help accentuate this piano/voice composition into a well-known musical piece that still impresses many today.
For me I enjoy how Schubert uses silence and pauses in the movement. High drama and mystery surround the piece and are used effectively to maintain a sense of suspense and keep the listener aware and wanting for peace and change. Schubert appears to capture the desperate quality that is written in the poem by the sweeping changes of octave and the use of vocal vibrato and sustain. The piano part of this composition is wonderful, and could stand on its own, however the vocal performance of this song will truly give it a flavor and meaning that, if done properly, can essentially capture a similar emotional content and form that Goethe appeared to master and perpetuate.
Wolf and Goethe
Hugo Wolf was born in 1860 in Austria, well after the death of both Goethe and Schubert. Like Schubert, Wolf was adequately trained in the musical arts and showed much promise as young composer. According the NNDB, Wolf " In reality the forms of Wolf's songs vary as widely as those of the poems which he set. No less remarkable is the immense range of style at his command. But with Wolf methods of form and style are so inseparably linked with the poetical conceptions which they embody, that they can hardly be considered apart. His place among the greatest songwriters is due to the essential truth and originality of his creations, and to the vivid intensity with which he has presented them. These results depend not merely on musical gifts that are exceptional, but also upon a critical grasp of poetry of the highest order."
This demonstrates the high esteem that Wolf placed in a literary giant such as Goethe. In order to truly grasp this concept it is necessary to examine how Wolf transcribed one of Goethe's magnificent poems, Harfenspieler. Nehrlich translated this short poem:
Who never ate his bread with tears and never cried through sleepless nights he cannot know you, gods and fears.
You place us here, from Heaven's heights and then entice the poor to sin, abandoning him in his pain, all that he carries deep within.
Yet vengeance always comes again.
Goethe's dark side is quite evident in the lyrical content of the work. Mystery, the afterlife, pain and suffering…