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Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues.

Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues. By Lorraine Byrne Bodley. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. [xv. 585 p. ISBN 9780754655206. $89.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

In her book Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues, Lorraine Byrne Bodley is a musicologist with a mission, her goal nothing less than a revisionary understanding of Goethe's relationship with and influence on music as seen through the almost nine hundred letters that passed between the poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Berlin composer-teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter from 1799 to 1832. (Best known for his 210 lieder, seventy-five of which are settings of Goethe's poems, Zelter counted as his prize student Felix Mendelssohn, who, with an orchestra and chorus from Zelter's Singakademie, revived Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829, a key moment in Bach reception and nineteenth-century musical historicism.) For Bodley, such an overhaul is past due given that, aside from the inevitable quarrying for this or that specific purpose, scholars have failed to make the most of the Goethe and Zelter letters, almost six hundred of which, in English translation, make up her volume. Whether one agrees with that position (I think it exaggerated), endorsing it allows her to fill out twenty-eight pages justifying her book's need. She peppers that introduction with subject headers seemingly lifted from the Gothic novel or Schauerroman so popular during Goethe and Zelter's day: "A Veil of Silence," "An Eye for Innovation," "Goethe's Ear: Awakenings to a New Reality," "Goethe's Musicality Reclaimed," "Zelter's Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal," and "Epilogue: Numbered Days." After a while, all of this begins to read not so much as neglect as it does some extraordinary conspiracy.

Notwithstanding Bodley's hyperbolic bent--her frequent volleying of such words as "seminal" and "buoyed" (or variants thereof) in her acknowledgements and introduction makes for a kind of reading sea-sickness--a great deal of her contextual footing is illuminating and thought-provoking, even if it runs the risk of replacing passe heterodoxy with newly minted hagiography. Few will miss that Bodley is touchy about the "pervasive image of Goethe as a musically conservative poet" (p. 3). Yet her proposed corrective not only is reductive but also conflicted. A few lines later, she writes about "the new perceptions of historical processes which emphasized modernity"--presumably those at work during the early nineteenth century and not nowadays--and "an increasingly teleological perspective on music history" that found in "Schubertian song" an "evolutionary development, an improvement on Goethe's aesthetic theories of song." Leaving the particulars of that aesthetic hanging, she at length returns to the topic, assuring the reader (p. 15) that "nowhere in these letters can you hear the drumbeats of obsession associated with Goethe's celebration of strophic song." This last statement is misleading, for no one at the time--Schubert included--would have thought of strophic song as antithetical to "modernity," much less an "obsession" in need of being vanquished by the Darwinian march of progress. Strophic design was the norm, for Schubert as it was for Zelter and the hundreds of other lied composers of their day. What emerges as the exception is the lyric compression of a work such as Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade and which, one could argue, packs the punch it does for the very reason it both relates to and denies strophic form. Calling attention to the fact that Goethe and Zelter do not beat the form's drums is not only to tilt at windmills but also to promote an either/or approach to history.

Focusing on what the two did touch on is more rewarding and, as Bettina Hey'l engagingly argues in her Der Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Zelter: Lebenskunst und liter-arisches Projekt (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer, 1996), leads one to suspect that the correspondence, at least in part, provided the sage of Weimar with the means to shape his own autobiographical image. This is not to accuse Goethe of opportunism but merely to suggest that turning culture's leading figures into superheroes hasn't gotten us very far. Indeed, what I find most striking in these letters is the touching rapport the two men enjoyed and which, reading them chronologically, unfolds before one's eyes. Along the way, and the reason historians of all kinds ought to consult this exchange, is the scope of their shared interests. There is Zelter's 1803 report about the first run of Berlin performances of Schiller's Die Braut von Messina (The Bride of Messina), a play that, atypically for its time, resuscitates an element of ancient Greek theater, namely the striking use of chorus, and which occasions a lively discussion between the two. One cannot blame them, or Bodley, for not piecing together why, after having called his 1785 "An die Freude" a "bad poem" in 1800, Schiller included it in the edition of his poems he oversaw in 1803, the very year of Die Braut von Messina. Is it a coincidence that one of the most noteworthy aspects of Schiller's poem is the inclusion of a four-line antistrophe, specifically labeled "chorus," following each eight-line strophe? What no one could have foreseen in 1803 is how Schiller's idiosyncratic use of the chorus in his poem, the continued circulation of which meaningfully relates to his 1803 drama, would play itself out in Beethoven's 1824 Ninth Symphony, the so-called "Choral" Symphony, in which the composer realized his long-cherished notion to set Schiller's "An die Freude" to music. As the years move on the array of characters that crop up is nothing less than astonishing. Goethe, informing Zelter that he had met Beethoven on 2 September 1812, prompts from Zelter later the same month (on 14 September) a remarkable pronouncement. "What you say of Beethoven is quite natural," he writes, and "I too admire him with awe. His own works seem to cause him a secret shudder--a feeling which, in the new culture, is set aside much too lightly. His works seem to me like children, whose father might be a woman, or whose mother, a man." Perhaps someone soon will tell us what this last sentence means.

Early on Zelter defers to Goethe as "Your Excellency" (Ew. Hochwohlgeb.), a form of address that rapidly thaws, so much so that, by December 1812, following the suicide of Zelter's oldest stepson, Goethe begins using the familiar du instead of formal Sie. While one has little choice but to concede that Goethe is the dominant figure, Arthur Duke Coleridge, the first to translate these letters into English (1887) and the author of the "Zelter" article in the second edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: Macmillan, 1910), goes too far when he labels the composer the poet's "faithful dog" (5:594). Yet Coleridge's position does put in perspective the biggest problem I have with Bodley's introduction: if her predecessor errs on the side of undervaluing Zelter's role--Coleridge calls his publication Goethe's Letters to Zelter, With Extracts from Those of Zelter to Goethe. (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1887)--she swings the pendulum too far the other way. Bodley would have us believe she is all about establishing "equilibrium" (p. 3) between Goethe and Zelter, a goal contingent on "rebalance" (p. 28). Both she and Coleridge would have profited from taking to heart Goethe's 29 May 1801 letter in which he lays down a basic historiographic principle. "What a poor picture," he reflects, given by those necrologists, who, immediately after one's death,
  carefully balance the good and bad as perceived and applauded by the
  majority. They touch up his so-called virtues and vices with
  hypocritical righteousness, and thereby are worse than death in
  destroying a personality, which can be imagined only in the living
  union of those opposing qualities, (cited by Bodley, p. 34)

Stated differently, the historian's challenge is to find that happy balance. For a variety of reasons, the gauntlet Goethe throws down in "the living union" of "opposing qualities" eludes both writers.

It is a shame Bodley's book did not spend more time under the eye of a vigilant editor. Given that she expends a good deal of worthwhile discussion arguing for a more balanced appraisal of Goethe and Zelter, it is ironic that Ashgate unwittingly pulls the rug from beneath that hard work when, on the dust jacket, one takes in the volume's only illustrations. The handsome reproduction of Karl Begas's 1827 portrait of Zelter faces Joseph Karl Stieler's 1828 painting of Goethe, yet the latter is so shadowy as to make it all but impossible to discern whose image it is. Whatever their quality, both illustrations are in black-and-white and, for the volume's six hundred pages, there is not a single picture of any of the many subjects Goethe and Zelter mention or the many places they evoke. Errors, typographical and factual, are a bit too numerous. Christian Gottfried Korner, Schiller's friend and the first to set to music his "An die Freude" (in 1786), was not born in 1796 as given on page 293 and the index, but in 1756 (the same year as Mozart). Franz Xaver SuBmayr's surname is spelled as it is here (or Sussmayr) and not, as it is eight times by Bodley (pp. 378-90, index) "SuBmeyer." A last example: Maria Anna ("Nannerl") Mozart's birth year is not 1749 (p. 425 and index), but 1751.

When I quoted Zelter's 14 September 1812 letter on Beethoven, I did so from Coleridge's translation. Oddly, Bodley states that "these letters have never been published in English" (p. 2). While in her next sentence she mentions Coleridge's efforts, she also declares that he provides "excerpts from 250" of the letters; one can be a bit more precise--the number is 382. Using Coleridge's translation as a starting point proves instructive. For example, in the 1812 letter, of the fifty-five words I reproduce above, Bodley, verbatim, repeats fifty-one. Of the remaining letters--Bodley adds 213 beyond what Coleridge did--the resemblance of the newer volume to the older is uncanny.


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Author:Parsons, James
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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