Back Goldfinch looking backwards

Goethe/Schubert—An den Mond

This fine poem and its relationship to art in several ways, including a Lied by Schubert, are the subjects of Scott’s blog this day. First, though, he gives us this painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

romantic sunset near dark from beach 2 women one man seated foreground

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by Sea (1822)

Horton brings our attention to two treatments of the poem by Franz Schubert:

Schubert realized the musical potential of the work very early, and had a long engagement with it. There are two settings of this poem. The first, DV 259, is charming and quite simple. It’s plain that Schubert was not satisfied with this effort, which fails to probe the dark and pathos-laden side of Goethe’s poem. But just where the first effort fell short, the second, composed the same year, succeeds brilliantly. Fischer-Dieskau, who must be reckoned the definitive interpreter of this work, says that it assumes a mood “between happiness and pain” for its coloration. The notes flow like the lethal waters of the river Ilm, they are filled with sadness and longing and surrounded by a note of the demonic. The effect is complex, brimming with loss and heartbreak. But the image of the river is essential both to the music and the poem. It strikes the note of continuity, it rages and floods, but ultimately comes to a peaceful merger with the sea. The river has become a metaphor for a life of passion, torment, betrayal. Death is presented as rest and reconciliation.

This reflection turns his attention to the place of music generally in life as we understand it, and he gives us first some Schopenhauer and then his reflection on that:

In the deepest notes of the harmony, in the ground bass, the will begins to objectify itself, I recognize the mass of the planet and inorganic nature. All the higher notes, easily mobile and sounding more quickly, are to be understood as emerging from the repercussions of the deep notes of the ground bass… This is to be understood as parallel to the fact that all bodies and organizations of nature must be viewed as arising through the development of the substance of the planet, step by step: as its bearer, so its source, and the same relationship can be established between the higher notes and the bass notes… And further in all the array of steps that follow the ripieno voices which produce a harmony, between the bass and the leading voice which carries the melody I recognize the full series of ideas in which the will objectifies itself. Those which stand closer to the bass are the first such steps, which are not yet organic, but are in a multiplicity of external forms: the higher notes represent to me the world of plants and animals… And lastly in the melody, in the high, singing, integral principal voice, which reflects an uninterrupted, meaningful connection of a thought progressing from the beginning to the end, I recognize the highest stage of objectification of the will, the contemplative life and strivings of the human.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol i, bk iii, sec 52 (1819)(S.H. transl.) in Schopenhauers sämmtliche Werke in fünf Bänden, vol i, pp. 346-48 (E. Grisebach ed. 1922).

His commentary (my underscoring):

In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, music is given a role apart from all other arts in that it alone is capable of direct interaction with the will. Other arts constitute ideas which may objectify the will indirectly. But music exists apart from humankind and its world; it is primordial. Schopenhauer is embracing the Platonic-Pythagorean view of music, and adapting it as an important pillar of his philosophical system. But he connects this with the evolution of music and the preeminent art form of his own age.

“Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintescence. Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i.e., to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, and finally of the opera, the text of which should therefore never forsake that subordinate position in order to make itself the chief thing and the music the mere means of expressing it, which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity; for music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, and never these themselves, and therefore their differences do not always affect it. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, together with the greatest determinateness, that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. Thus if music is too closely united to words, and tries to form itself according to the events, it is striving to speak a language which is not its own.”

Here is Horton’s last comment for this day:

The opening (Einleitung) of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, op. 30 (1896) can be understood as an effort to compose the vision Schopenhauer presents above. Strauss commences the piece with a sustained double low C, 32′ pitch, on double basses, contrabassoon and organ–the “deepest notes of the ground bass”–the sound heard before the dawn of humanity. Strauss, of course, draws inspiration from Nietzsche’s work, and in their brilliant 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick use Strauss’s music and Nietzsche’s ideas to great effect, evoking the philosophical evolution of humankind. But it is too often forgotten that Nietzsche, in turn, drew on the discussion of the role of music found at the end of book three of the first volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

This 6th stanza marks the turn from her persona to Goethe's — in the ambiguity of "my song."

This is Goethe's description of the girl, who without hate holds to her breast the river in her plunge to death, and we feel her pain and relief flow in that river now. But it also describes many another lover with her friend in the night. So we realize that we are all joined in savoring the penetration and pathos of the last stanza. And we feel a more generalized mystery and darkness in this powerful river rolling through the bucolic night of its valley, a sense of expanded identity and union with nature in simultaneous sadness and mellow release — here is where poetry too goes beyond mere ideas. (See discussion below.)

I’ve taken much of this from Scott Horton’s blog at Harper’s Magazine of February 21, 2010.

What is his and what is mine should be clear. The marginal notes are all mine. He provided the paintings and the comments that I quote in italics.

Friedrich was a contemporary of Goethe’s. He epitomizes German Romanticism. I don’t know how that fits with the spirit of the Enlightenment, Goethe’s style, but for me the spirit of this painting and the poem Horton chooses to look at are essentially the same. Here is a good site for quickly going through the Friedrich oeuvre.

Horton introduces the poem to us this way:

Goethe’s poem To the Moon is an introspective love offering born of tragic events. On January 17, 1778, Christel von Lassberg, the young daughter of an army officer, had committed suicide by throwing herself in the icy waters of the Ilm river. She acted out of despair over unrequited love. The incident occurred but a short distance from Goethe’s garden cottage in Weimar, and it apparently brought him great pain. He took the young woman’s death as the subject for an exceptionally moving poem he composed for his paramour, Charlotte von Stein. The poem is written in the voice of the departed Christel. She addresses herself simultaneously to the river and to her beloved, the two fuse in the cold embrace of death. It is a typical early Romantic work inspired by the voice of nature, in which tragedy and love blend with acceptance of fate and of unfathomable mysteries.

I have provided a fairly literal translation alongside the German, avoiding any attempt at reproducing the rhyme of the original. And I take the poem from this German site.

         An den Mond

Füllest wieder Busch und Tal

Still mit Nebelglanz,

Lösest endlich auch einmal

Meine Seele ganz;

Breitest über mein Gefild

Lindernd deinen Blick,

Wie des Freundes Auge mild

Über mein Geschick.

Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz

Froh- und trüber Zeit,

Wandle zwischen Freud' und Schmerz

In der Einsamkeit.

Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!

Nimmer werd' ich froh;

So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß

Und die Treue so.

Ich besaß es doch einmal,

was so köstlich ist!

Daß man doch zu seiner Qual

Nimmer es vergißt!

Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,

Ohne Rast und Ruh,

Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang

Melodien zu!

Wenn du in der Winternacht

Wütend überschwillst

Oder um die Frühlingspracht

Junger Knospen quillst.

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt

Ohne Haß verschließt,

Einen Freund am Busen hält

Und mit dem genießt,

Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt

Oder nicht bedacht,

Durch das Labyrinth der Brust

Wandelt in der Nacht.

      To the Moon

Valley and bush again you fill

With the still gleam of fog.

Once again and finally, too,

You release my soul entire.

Spreading across my fields

Your calming gaze,

The gentle eyes of a friend

Watching over my fate.

My heart feels every echo

Of happy times and sad,

Turning between joy and pain

Along the path of loneliness.

Flow on, dear river!

No more joy for me;

So faded playful kisses,

And faithfulness as well.

Oh, I had that once,

What so precious is ...

Though memory torture,

One never forgets.

Rush, river, along the valley,

Without pause or peace,

Rush, whispering to my song

Your melodies,

When in the winter night,

Raging, you flood,

Or in the pride of spring

Swell the buds of youth.

Happy she who without hate

Locks out the world,

Holds a friend to her breast

And with him savors

What, unknown to men

Or unremarked,

Through the labyrinth of the heart

Wanders in the night.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’m very thankful for Scott Horton’s bringing the music into this blog of his. And I’m very appreciative of his frequent adversion to poetry in his otherwise very political, power-aversive blog.

My own sensitivities run more to poetry and visual art than to music, so I am challenged by this call to examine the musical treatment. I find the Schubert interpretations easily at, but I do not easily equate or even just identify the poem with the Lied.  For one thing, I think Schubert’s Lied is entirely within the psyche of the desolate girl. And I am strongly conscious of the fact that Goethe moves back from poor Christel to take a brooding overview of her situation, placing her somehow happy in her hate-free embrace of the powerful river, her atonement in it. And we find the much-valued literary multi-layering too when we imagine Goethe intending his poem also for his partner, who with him in the poem contemplates “What, unknown to men / Or unremarked, / Through the labyrinth of the heart / Wanders in the night” and drives promising young men and women to suicide. As for Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach,” this reflection on the dark flow of nature behind its easy beauty unites the couple in  a somber mood. And the reader, too, is drawn in.

I’m no philosopher, but I know this idea appeals to me – of something primordial, unformed, unperceived and all-pervasive that manifests itself progressively and partially in what we find around us, in ourselves, our thinking and our feeling. Schopenhauer famously calls it will. I think of it as mind. Mind would be, for me, the ground of emptiness (in the Buddhist sense), the source of the coming into being of all the interdependent interrelatedness that is manifest to us, including ourselves.

Note the applicability of the last comment in Horton’s commentary to Schubert’s An den Mond. I have no ax to grind there, however. More interesting to me is the idea very clearly expressed here that there is a primordial and inexpressible aspect to music. I feel this about visual art as well. There are many ways in which music and visual art just ARE, ways that defy verbalization. But at the same time people themselves appear to need to put words to their appreciation of music and art. And at some point, for some or even many or most of them, the words may substitute for the art.

It must be because I was just watching the documentary My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, director) that this rings such a solid bell with me. As a lover of paintings of all kinds, when I saw what 4-year old Marla Olmstead was doing at the opening of the film, I was immediately persuaded that this girl was a prodigy. No doubt in my mind that her paintings were terrific, and not just “for a four-year-old.”

There is much that is troubling as the film develops – I never finished it, the family situation had become so painful to me – but the part that shows the public turning on the child’s work in terms of its lack of artistic maturity, that part is just a sad commentary on our own inability simply to perceive, see, love and understand visual beauty. And I suppose that lack is trained into us by some aspect of our socialization process.

My first thought there would be that it is exactly our need to find words for making strong statements of personal belief that is the culprit. It’s the Isys thing. By setting ourselves up to be such independent, self-important and self-realized entities, we turn off our awareness to so much that depends on letting go and opening up to what is about us.

If the reader follows the link above for February 21, 2010, s/he will find that the whole discussion of Schopenhauer and music that follows below, is missing. Don’t know why. Maybe I missed a link somewhere.