Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Romantics are not for sissies (or young people)

Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786)
by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
For those of you who were not subjected to the tortures of German romantic literature in your youth, as I was, this may not speak to you.  But if you will stick with me through this reminiscence, there’s a reward at the end for music lovers.   

I was in love with the French language in high school and fully intended to major in it in college.  When I got there, however, I soon discovered that because my German was better than my French, having learned it to a degree as a child, it would be less effort.  I still took a lot of French courses, but figured in the end I’d have less difficulty with the hurdles of a major in German.   I was wrong, but that’s another story.

I took my junior year in Munich over the protests of the head of the German department, who felt, with some justification, that I would not get the great education there I would get with him.  He was right.  I barely studied that whole year.  I lived life to the fullest, however, and left much of the small town shy 20-year old behind, creating a relationship with Germany, Europe, art, music and opera, that I now cannot imagine my life without.   

One thing I had to do if I were to go, Professor Neuse insisted, was take the courses I would be missing at Middlebury.  I would get the classic courses in Goethe and Schiller my senior year, but my junior year was supposed to be dedicated to the Romantic period in German literature.

I signed up for a course in Romantic Literature in Munich taught by a graduate student who spent one entire semester on a book called Herzenssergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of the heart by an art-loving monk).  The entire time was spent trying to figure out which lines were written by Tieck and which ones by Wackenroder.

If only somebody had told me that Wackenroder was in love with Tieck and that he never married, I might have paid more attention, but that, alas, was not in the Zeitgeist.

Some time ago, I realized that I could get hold of this book, which I threw against the wall more than once fifty years ago, for free now, with so much available on line, and with the copyright long since expired.  I started reading it and was delighted.  It’s like a visit, now, to an exotic country, moving around among such fragile and sensitive characters.  Watching young people gush with passion now almost endears them to me.  Such an antidote to present-day cynicism.

Hmm, I said to myself.  Wonder if there is any possibility I might get into Goethe’s Werther.

For those of you who didn’t ever take an exam which contained the question: “List every year of Goethe’s life from the time of his Italian journey to his death and give one major event, literary or otherwise, for each year,” you may be unfamiliar with young Werther, so allow a brief  digression:

When Goethe was only 24, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about a man named Werther, who fell in love with a woman named Charlotte.  Charlotte had just become engaged to another, and was torn between duty to her family (the marriage would save her father and motherless siblings from financial ruin) and the love she comes to return for Werther.  In the end, of course (Sturm und Drang – see below) duty wins out.  Werther cannot survive the pain and shoots himself with her husband’s gun.

Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) made him a best seller all over Europe in 1774 and started him on his path to becoming Germany’s greatest, and one of the world’s greatest ever literary figures.  The book started a new literary movement called Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), the Romantic period, with themes centered around individual emotion and passion.  Many young men would read the book and commit suicide, so powerful was the impact at the time.

I got hold of Werther and, like the “heart outpourings” of Messieurs Tieck and Wackenroder, I found it delightful.  Up to a point.  I’m only half-way through because I got distracted.

First by a not-very-good German film called, in English, Goethe in Love.  It’s actually an adaptation of Goethe's semi-autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther, and if you don’t mind the messing about with the facts of Goethe's life, it’s an entertaining escape film.

But then, purely by coincidence, I learned that Jonas Kaufmann was doing Massenet’s Werther at
Jonas Kaufmann
the MET next month and that the opera will be simulcast, so it will show in movie theaters around the country.

Now here’s the treat.  You don’t have to take to German literature at all to take to Jonas Kaufmann or to Massenet's treatment of Werther  First off, the opera’s in French, and Kaufmann is often described as the best tenor around these days.

Have a listen.  I’d suggest, to get a fix on the man, if you don’t already know him and his work, that you listen to him doing some Schubert Lieder. 

Then move on to the opera Werther.  There’s a YouTube video of Kaufmann singing what I think is the highlight aria.  (I’m biased – there are actually five well-known arias, and this is only one of them.)  It’s from the third act when he comes to see Charlotte in total despair, knowing his love for her will never be requited.  Don’t be put off, by the way, by the fact that he’s reading something.  It’s actually a popular poem of the day by Ossian, which Werther has just translated. In the original story it's this poem that makes Charlotte fall in love with him.  How could you not adore a man who translates Ossian!   The poem runs along the lines of “Why should I get up in the morning and go on living.”   The aria actually goes like this:

Original French:

Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps,
Sur mon front je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps des orages et des tristesses.
Demain, dans le vallon, viendra le voyageur
Se souvenant de ma gloire première
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendeur
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.

Poetic translation used in English version of opera:

“Why dost thou waken me
O tender breath of spring
Why must I wake again?
On my brow I feel thy caresses
Yet I know that soon
Heavy storms will be raging
And sore distresses!
Why must I wake again,
O tender breath of spring?
And when the trav’ler comes
Into this lonely vale,
Rememb’ring me in my first glory
He will search for my splendor of yore
But will fail,
For he will only find despair
And hopeless mourning!
Alas!  Why must I wake again
O tender breath of Spring?”

You’ve got to wait for the fourth act for him to off himself and for Charlotte to sob over him dying there on the stage.  Hold back the tears till then, if you can.

Or sob all the way through.  It's all right.  

Great stuff. 

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Now keep your fingers crossed I get to see the opera in March.  (You can too, of course!)

P.S.  My love for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as some of you know, knows no bounds.

Imagine what happens when he and Jonas Kaufmann get together.

Here they are in the Pearl Fishers duet.

 photo credits:



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