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  • Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues
  • James Parsons
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 passé 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 [End Page 121] 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 literarisches Projekt (Tübingen: 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...


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