Richard Wigmore marks the 200th anniversary of this infamous coming-together
‘How patient the great man was with me!...How happy he made me then! I would have gone to death, yes, ten times to death for Goethe,’ Beethoven told the writer and critic Friedrich Rochlitz in 1822. ‘Then, when I was in the height of my enthusiasm, I thought out my Egmont music. Goethe – he lives and wants us all to live with him. It is for that reason that he can be composed.’
Goethe’s admiration for Beethoven was more equivocal. Born in 1749, seven years before Mozart, the poet, painter and scientist dubbed by Thomas Carlyle ‘The Universal Man’ had formed his musical tastes in the Age of Reason. He was suspicious of Beethoven’s revolutionary vehemence, deeming the Fifth Symphony ‘merely astonishing and grandiose’, and disapproved of his urge to expand and develop when setting his poems. Yet he acknowledged him – how could he fail to? – as the greatest living German composer. When, in 1811, Beethoven sent Goethe a copy of the incidental music to his tragedy Egmont, the poet replied warmly, expressing the hope that they would meet.
The encounter duly took place the following summer in the fashionable Bohemian spa resort of Teplitz (now Teplice), just as Napoleon – a one-time hero of both poet and composer – was pursuing his hubristic Russian campaign. Beethoven, at work on that most boisterously subversive of symphonic comedies, No 8, was taking the waters on the advice of his doctor. Present at Teplitz, along with assorted nobility and crowned heads, was Bettina von Arnim, née Brentano, a gifted writer herself, and a friend of both Beethoven and Goethe (her sister-in-law Antonie Brentano is the most likely candidate for Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’). It was she who engineered the initial meeting.
‘That Goethe is here I have already told you. I spend some time with him every day,’ Beethoven informed his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. Goethe reacted with mingled admiration and astonishment, writing to his wife in Weimar: ‘I have never met an artist so self-contained, so energetic and so fervent.’ Two days later, July 21, the poet noted in his journal that Beethoven ‘played exquisitely [köstlich]’.
Shortly afterwards Goethe penned a more qualified verdict to his musical guru Carl Zelter: ‘His talent astounded me; nevertheless, he unfortunately has an utterly untamed personality, not completely wrong in thinking the world detestable, but hardly making it more pleasant for himself or others by his attitude. Yet he must be shown forgiveness and compassion, for he is losing his hearing, something that affects the musical part of his nature less than the social. He is naturally laconic, and even more so due to his disability.’ (In reply, Zelter confessed that he admired Beethoven’s music ‘with alarm’.)
As Bettina von Arnim must have guessed, the relationship between the urbane, worldly Goethe – Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, as well as a national cultural hero – and the composer described by Cherubini as ‘an unlicked bear’ was never going to be easy. After Beethoven left Teplitz, he told Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘Goethe delights in the court atmosphere far more than is becoming to a poet. Is there any point in talking about absurdities of virtuosos, when poets, who should be regarded as the nation’s first teachers, forget everything for the sake of this glitter?’
Goethe’s social attitudes, like his musical tastes, were shaped in a more formal age. For Beethoven, 21 years his junior, the only true aristocrats were artists. In the mythology, his disillusionment was clinched by Goethe’s behaviour when they encountered royalty in the street, as reported 20 years later by Bettina: ‘Beethoven said to Goethe: keep walking as you have until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege... They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him in friendly fashion. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: “I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too much esteem to those people.”’
Carl Rohling’s famous picture of 1887, ‘The Incident in Teplitz’, commemorates the occasion: composer haughty and bullish, poet suavely deferential, touching his heart with one hand as he swings his hat low to the ground. The incident in question may tally with Beethoven’s avowed disapproval of Goethe the courtier. But scholars agree that it almost certainly never took place. Bettina was a notorious embroiderer and fabricator, and there is no corroborative evidence.
Whatever his frustrations with aspects of Goethe the man – and his strictures have to be balanced with his reminiscences to Rochlitz a decade later – Beethoven never wavered in his admiration for Goethe the poet. Two years after the Teplitz sojourn he returned to Goethe’s verses with a choral-orchestral work that united two contrasting poems, ‘Meeresstille’ (Calm Sea) and ‘Glückliche Fahrt’ (Prosperous Voyage). The same year, 1814, Goethe realised his long-held plan of staging Egmont in Weimar with Beethoven’s incidental music. ‘Beethoven has done wonders matching music to text’, he wrote: unequivocal praise at last for a composer whose work he had more often found overblown and/or incomprehensible.