Sunday, 28 August 2016


A young Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe. The previously unknown
writer was only 23 when he sat to
pen The Sorrows of Young Werther.
August’s aria of the month goes to 19th century romantic composer Jules Massenet’s “Pourquoi me Réveiller” (Why do you wake me) from the Frenchman’s 1892 opera Werther, a drame lyrique loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s highly influential (and remarkably controversial at the time of publication) epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” – henceforth referred to as “Werther”), and has been selected in honor of Goethe’s 267th birthday – which is observed in literary Germany – and indeed around the globe, on this day - Sunday August 28th, 2016.

Goethe, Germany’s answer to Britain’s Shakespeare, Italy’s Dante, and Spain’s Cervantes remains a giant in the literary sphere. Most commonly identified in the English-speaking world as the author of the groundbreaking tragic play Faust,[1] it was actually through the publication of his 1774 semi-autobiographical epistolary Werther that the young German would burst onto the international literary scene, catapulting the 24 year old writer into an overnight sensation and securing his status as a leading influential cultural icon.[2]

Das Leiden des Jungen Werther, first edition, 1774.
The novel is composed in the form of a series of “letters” between the fictional Werther (whose character was in fact loosely based on Goethe himself), a young artist of meager pretensions, and his confidante, Wilhelm, in which the love struck romantic rhapsodizes and despairs over the unrequited affections of one Charlotte – a young maiden affianced to Albert – a man eleven years her senior, and the unyielding object of frustration for the novel’s protagonist - consistently driving young Werther to distraction. Both the characters and story line of Werther had roots in the real life of the works’ author: Goethe did indeed fall hopelessly in love with an attached woman – also named Charlotte (Buff) – a hopeful romance which proved most unfruitful when the object of his desire exchanged nuptials with fiancée Johann Christian Kestner, officially excising herself from the singles club. It would be from this very painful experience that the then-23 year old unknown writer would pen his frustrations in the form of art – completing Werther in a relatively short span of just six weeks.

The real Charlotte (Buff-Kestner).
It was she who was the inspiration
for Die Leiden des Jungen Werther
Werther would draw as much criticism as it would praise from Goethe's intellectual peers and the greater public – Napoleon Bonaparte would famously carry with him a copy of the novel whilst campaigning in Egypt, and had even penned a soliloquy wholly inspired by it’s author. Male readers across Europe would don themselves in attire reminiscent of the book’s nominal figure, Werther, in a bizarre display of presenting themselves before prospective mates of the female persuasion as sensitive, romantic figures (so prevalent was this new trend, it even had a name: locals dubbed the phenomenon “Werther Fever”). Goethe himself, however – would notoriously distance himself from the epic work in his later years – listing amongst his many grievances for the novel it’s cultural impact on unstable young men – many of whom acted out in real life the dramatic scenes penned by the author at the conclusion of the novel: swarms of scorned Romeos would take to Germany, committing suicide by self-inflicted gunshot to the head in what they must have believed was the grandest of romantic gestures, in a display of penance for their failed attempts at marital bliss. Goethe would also later claim much guilt for drawing unsolicited attention to the real Charlotte Buff.

The rising body count that tolled as a direct result of Goethe’s magnum opus led to Werther – and the character’s style of dress – being banned in Leipzig by 1775, with both Italy and Denmark quickly following suit.

In the video below, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, accompanied by the Munich Radio Orchestra under maestro Emerson Buckley performs Massenet’s rendition of Goethe’s Werther in the act 3 aria “Pourquoi me Réveiller,” in which the character of Werther reads to his beloved Charlotte poetry from Ossian. This is an important aria in Massenet’s opera, as it is here that Werther realizes, much to his dismay, that Charlotte does indeed share his feelings of love, but that she is forbidden to act on them due to her marriage to Albert. After an all-too-brief embrace, the two depart: Charlotte, presumably to carry on with her new station as a wife, and Werther – to begin preparations for his impending death. 

[1] Much like the aforementioned Shakespeare and his seminal work “Romeo and Juliet,” which borrowed it’s story outline from domestic legend, so too did Goethe’s “Faust” – in fact, the famed English playwright Christopher Marlowe had set a version of the German fable for his Elizabethan stage play "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" some two hundred years prior to Goethe’s rendering, in 1604.

So acclaimed was Goethe’s version of the legend of Faust and Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, that both writers would inadvertently become synonymous with the famous works, and are often erroneously identified as the originators of the fables.

[2] The successes of Goethe’s Werther and Faust thrust the writer not only into the exclusive realm of the literary elite, but also certified the playwright as a go-to source for libretti. His poetic verses would be interpreted well across the classical music sphere, from Beethoven to Brahms, Liszt to Schubert, Schumann to Wolf – and his famous tragic play Faust would be interpreted in many a format, from opera to oratorio under such prolific composers as Berlioz, Boito, Gounod, Mahler and the aforementioned Liszt, Schubert and Schumann. Music from Liszt’s Faust Symphony was recently used in the late 20th century in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet production Mayerling.

Did you know?

..that aside from his most gratuitous foray into the realm of authorship, the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remains a pivotal figure in the history of medicine?

Goethe, as he would have appeared around the time of his discovery.

In fact, Goethe may be considered a pioneer of the Theory of Evolution. Although current research reveals a discovery in 1779 of the ever elusive “intermaxillary bone” (a bone found in the upper jaw of amphibians, reptiles and mammals, previously thought to be absent in humans by contemporary theologians) by the French naturalist Pierre Broussonet, a perhaps unsuspecting Goethe would bring the discovery to light – a discovery he believed to have been his own – in March of 1784, writing to his confidante Johann Heinrich Merck:

“I have found neither gold nor silver, but something that unspeakably delights me—the human Os intermaxillary! I was comparing human and animal skulls…hit up the right track, and behold—Eureka! Only, I beg of you, not a word—for this must be a great secret for the present. You ought to be very much delighted too, for it is like the keystone to anthropology—and it’s there, no mistake!...”

Although Goethe took his findings to mean that there existed no distinction whatsoever between man and apes, the landmark discovery would become key evidence for leading Evolutionists around the globe.

Until Goethe made his announcement, the prevailing theory on the concept of evolution was one based on the Divine Creation Theory. When a Dutch physician – a man of science – living in the mid 18th century announced his findings that what separated man from the apes was the “missing intermaxillary bone” in man – present in almost all other species, the theory of Divine Creation had all but become law.

Although Goethe may or may not have been aware of Broussonet’s finding 5 years earlier (in an age of religion, it would certainly not be thought infeasible that the Frenchman’s findings would have found themselves suppressed by a highly influential Theocratic society), the author's ignorance of the discovery, through the ever revealing bright light of posterity, should be received with some circumspection: this was, after all, the same man who once claimed to have been in possession of the heisted skulls of Beethoven and Mozart - not to mention fellow playwright Friedrich Schiller!

The American Journal of Medical Genetics has a fascinating treatise on Goethe's "Eureka!" moment, with an in-depth analysis of the polymath's 'working' history in the study of craniology and boasts a wealth of diagrams, sketches and images on the subject. It can be found here.

Discover more (Internal Links):

Goethe’s Faust - influence (at unraveling musical myths)

Book Review: Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as translated by Walter Kaufmann at (unraveling musical myths)

Musical works inspired by other literary icons (or created by them):

(External links):

  • Read more about Goethe’s “discovery,” and the crude machinations of Merck, former confidante and proposed intermediary selected by the playwright to present his findings to the revered anatomist Petrus Camper – and discover a possible link between his foe’s duplicity and the character of the devil himself that would come to dominate the German literary scene as Faust’s ally-turned-nemesis Mephistopheles! (at US National Library of Medicine)
  • Read an English translation of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (at Project Gutenberg)


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