Mar 14, 2015

Goethe's Reaction to Schubert's Dedication

The fact that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe neither replied to the package of Schubert Lieder that Joseph von Spaun sent him on 17 April 1816, nor to Schubert's dedication of the three songs op. 19 in June 1825, has always been taken as proof that, because Goethe's musical taste was under the influence of Zelter and Reichardt, the poet was simply unable to acknowledge Schubert's genius.

The third page of Joseph von Spaun's 1816 letter to Goethe (Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv Weimar, GSA 28/70, fol. 170v)

Time and again, the public takes pleasure in being told this story, because it gives every lover of Schubert's songs the feeling of having a better musical taste than the German prince of poets. This phenomenon became apparent again during a concert, which, on 27 March 2014, was given by the singer Julian Prégardien and some of his friends at the Hans-Huber hall of the Stadtcasino Basel. This concert was titled "Schubertiade" and presented a "Schubertiad as it actually might have been". Accordingly, it was broadcast by several radio stations as "Julian Prégardien and friends with a fictitious Schubertiad". The program included various Schubert songs, interspersed with instrumental pieces by Schubert, Matiegka and Mertz. Prégardien also recited poetry and at one point recounted the story of how Goethe ignored the music that was sent to him by Spaun and Schubert. One could almost see the audience revelling in the feeling of being true connoisseurs of Schubert's music, delightfully enjoying the fact that, unlike the evidently ignorant Goethe, they are able to appreciate Schubert's genius.

The title page of Schubert's three songs op. 19 dedicated to Goethe

Posterity has completely misjudged Goethe's silence. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the poet being too ignorant to recognize the quality of Schubert's work. The truth is that Goethe received so much mail that, very early in life, he decided not to respond at all to most of the deliveries. Otto Erich Deutsch was the first to refer to a passage in Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe where Goethe explains his seemingly impolite principle. Goethe's full statement, preserved by Eckermann, was first published in the context of Spaun's shipment and Schubert's dedication, in my article "Dokumente zur Biographie Johann Mayrhofers" in: Schubert durch die Brille 25, (Tutzing: Schneider, 2000). On January 21, 1827, during a conversation concerning the posthumous edition of Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger's letters, Goethe said the following.
Solger hat, wie ich aus diesen Briefen sehe, viel Liebe zu mir gehabt; er beklagt sich in einem derselben, daß ich ihm auf den "Sophokles", den er mir zugesendet, nicht einmal geantwortet. Lieber Gott! – Aber wie das bei mir geht! Es ist nicht zu verwundern. Ich habe große Herren gekannt, denen man viel zusendete. Diese machten sich gewisse Formulare und Redensarten, womit sie jedes erwiderten, und so schrieben sie Briefe zu Hunderten, die sich alle gleich und alle Phrase waren. In mir aber lag dieses nie. Wenn ich nicht jemandem etwas Besonderes und Gehöriges sagen konnte, wie es in der jedesmaligen Sache lag, so schrieb ich lieber gar nicht. Oberflächliche Redensarten hielt ich für unwürdig, und so ist es denn gekommen, daß ich manchem wackern Manne, dem ich gerne geschrieben hätte, nicht antworten konnte. Sie sehen ja selbst, wie das bei mir geht und welche Zusendungen von allen Ecken und Enden täglich bei mir einlaufen, und müssen gestehen, daß dazu mehr als ein Menschenleben gehören würde, wenn man alles nur flüchtig erwidern wollte. (Johann Peter Eckermann: Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, Otto Schönberger ed. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1994, 229f.)


As I see from these letters, Solger had a lot of love for me; in one of them he complains that I did not even answer him concerning the Sophokles he sent me. Dear God! – But as it happens with me! There is nothing to wonder about. I knew great men who received a lot of mail. They made themselves certain forms and expressions which they used to respond to everything and they wrote hundreds of letters which were all alike and all were empty phrase. This was never my thing. If I could not tell someone something special and appropriate, as the particular issue demanded, I preferred not to write at all. Superficial phrases I considered unworthy, and thus it came to be that I could not answer many an honest man whom I would have liked to have written. You can see for yourself what is going on at my place and what kind of shipments arrive every day from every corner of the world. And you must admit that it would need more than one human lifetime, if one wanted to respond to everything just briefly.

© Dr. Michael Lorenz 2015.

Updated: 14 March 2023

1 comment:

  1. Aus Goethes Tagebuch; 16 Juni 1825
    Sendung von Schubert aus Wien, von meinen Liedern Kompositionen....
    But did Goethe ever have these Lieder performed for him? I suppose we shall never know.