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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Dr. von Lyric: Two Overlapping Geniuses

Mar 15, 2016 9:08:00 AM
By BLO Staff

BLO is in the midst of performances of Massenet’s eloquent and moving opera Werther  (based, of course, on Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther), and so it would seem appropriate to listen to some of the songs that Schubert set to Goethe texts (and it doesn't take much encouragement). Schubert lied is one my favorite musical genres (and clearly, one of his…he wrote over 600 songs, 80 of which are based on Goethe poems). The lives of these two brilliant flowerings of German culture coincided; Goethe was 48 when Schubert was born and lived for four years after Schubert’s tragically premature death in 1828, at the age of 28.

But in April 1816, Goethe famously failed to acknowledge Schubert’s gift of 16 settings of his own poems. In a lecture by Richard Stokes, he muses:

“Many reasons have been adduced for [Goethe’s] failure to respond. Were they actually played for him? And, if so, was the performance adequate? Joseph von Spaun at the end of the somewhat cloying letter that accompanied the gift stressed that the pianist ‘must not lack facility or expression’. Was Goethe just too busy—he enjoyed a huge international [following] and received a daily deluge of letters and visits. Did the sycophantic tone of Spann’s letter displease him? Or was he simply in a bad mood? The most likely explanation for Goethe’s silence must be sought elsewhere. He was not unmusical, but his concept of what constituted a song was profoundly different from Schubert’s. In a letter, dated 1820, Goethe expounds his belief that the accompaniment should not illustrate the imagery of a poem.”

Not at all what Schubert was up to. And ironically, outside of the German speaking world, it is those very Schubert songs which keep the name of Goethe most alive. To say nothing of the French connection—Werther, Faust and Mignon—operas that Goethe would probably have also dismissed. (See BLO’s blog post for more on this.)

A few Schubert settings of Goethe texts…

A full operatic experience in under four minutes. Superbly orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, it is here performed at a startling level of intensity by Anne Sophie von Otter and Claudio Abbado

Two other songs from the vast and rich repertory of Goethe lied:

One of Schubert’s (and Goethe’s ) most charming exercises—innocence coupled with the utmost sophistication:

And…a completely unexpected encore:

Topics: 2015/16 Season, Dr. Von Lyric, Goethe, Schubert, Werther

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