Letters to Zelter

Letters to Zelter

Beethoven und Goethe treffen sich in Teplitz, 1812

Preliminary note

The correspondence of Goethe with his friends, especially his voluminous letters to his friend Zelter, will always be resorted to by readers who wish for intimate knowledge of the innermost processes of the great poet's mind. Zelter was himself an extraordinary man. By trade he was a stonemason, but he became a skilled musical amateur, and a most versatile and entertaining critic. To him fell the remarkable distinction of becoming the tutor of that musical genius, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, while he also acquired the glory of being "the restorer of Bach to the Germans." Like Eckermann, the other beloved friend of Goethe, he possessed the power of eliciting the great poet-philosopher's dicta on all imaginable topics. Zelter wrote to Goethe on anything and everything, trivial and otherwise, but his letters never failed to educe strains of the most illuminating comment. The "Letters to Zelter" were published in Berlin in 1833, and the following epitome is prepared from the German text.


I.--Art Greater than the Beauty of Art

Lauchstadt, September 1, 1805. As we are convinced that he who studies the intellectual world, and perceives the beauty of the true intellect, can also realise the Father of them, who is supreme above all sense, let us therefore seek as best we may to achieve insight into the beauty of the mind and of the world, and to express it for ourselves.

Suppose, then, two blocks of stone, side by side, one rough and unshaped, the other artistically shaped into a statue. To you the stone worked into a beautiful figure appears lovely not because it is stone, but because of the form which art has given it. But the material had not such a form, for this was in the mind of the artist before it reached the stone. Of course, art is greater than that which it produces. Art is greater than the beauty of art. The motive power must be greater than the result. For as the form gains extension by advancing into the material, yet by that very process it becomes weaker than that which remains whole. For that which endures removal from itself steps aside from itself--strength from strength, warmth from warmth, force from force, so also beauty from beauty.

Should anyone disparage the arts because they imitate nature, let him note that nature also imitates much besides; and, further, that the arts do not precisely imitate what we see but go back to that rational element of which nature consists, and according to which she acts.

Carlsbad, June 22, 1808. It is an extraordinary fact that man in himself, so far as he avails himself of his sound mind, is the greatest and most precise physical apparatus that can be. And it is in fact the greatest evil of the newer physics that experiments are, as it were, separated from man himself, so that nature is recognised only in what is ascertained by artificial instruments. It is exactly so with calculation. Much is true which cannot be computed, just as much can never be experimentally demonstrated.

Man, however, stands so high that that which otherwise admits of no representation is represented in him. What, then, is a string and all its mechanical division compared with the ear of the musician? Indeed, it may be said what are the elementary phenomena of nature compared with man, who must first master and modify them all in order to assimilate them to himself?

II.--Music and Musicians

Weimar, November 16, 1816. I send you a few words with reference to your proposal to write a cantata for the Reformation Jubilee. It might best be contrived after the method of Handel's "Messiah," into which you have so deeply penetrated.

As the main idea of Lutheranism rests on a very excellent foundation, it affords a fine opportunity both for poetical and also for musical treatment. Now, this basis rests on the decided contrast between the law and the Gospel, and secondly on the accommodation of these two extremes. And now, if in order to attain a higher standpoint we substitute for those two words the terms "necessity" and "freedom," with their synonyms, their remoteness and proximity, you see clearly that everything interesting to mankind is contained in this circle.

And thus Luther perceives in the Old and New Testaments the symbol of the great and ever-recurring world-order. On the one hand, the law, striving after love; on the other, love, striving back towards the law, and fulfilling it, though not of its own power and strength, but through faith; and that, too, by exclusive faith in the all-powerful Messiah proclaimed to all.

Thus, briefly, are we convinced that Lutheranism can never be united with the Papacy, but that it does not contradict pure reason, so soon as reason decides to regard the Bible as the mirror of the world; which certainly should not be difficult. To express these ideas in a poem adapted to music, I should begin with the thunder on Mount Sinai, with the Thou shalt! and conclude with the resurrection of Christ, and the Thou wilt!

This may be the place to add a few words about Catholicism. Soon after its origin and promulgation, the Christian religion, through rational and irrational heresies, lost its original purity. But as it was called on to check barbarous nations, harsh methods were needed for the service, not doctrine. The one Mediator between God and man was not enough, as we all know. Thus arose a species of pagan Judaism, sustained even to this day. This had to be revolutionised entirely in the minds of men, therefore Lutheranism depends solely on the Bible. Luther's behaviour is no secret, and now that we are going to commemorate him, we cannot do so in the right sense unless we acknowledge his merit, and represent what he accomplished for his own age and for posterity. This celebration should be so arranged that every fair-minded Catholic should be able to participate in it. The Weimar friends of art have already prepared their designs for the monument. We make no secret of the matter, and at all events hope to contribute our share.

Jena, February 16, 1818. You know Jena too little for it to mean anything to you when I say that on the right bank of the Saale, near the Camsdorf bridge, above the ice-laden water rushing through the arches, I have occupied a tower which has attracted me and my friends for years. Here I pass the happiest hours of the day, looking out on the river, bridge, gravel walks, meadows, gardens, and hills, famous in war, rising beyond. At sunset I return to town.

In observing atmospheric changes I endeavour to interweave cloud-forms and sky-tints with words and images. But as all this, except for the noise of wind and water, runs off without a sound, I really need some inner harmony to keep my ear in tune; and this is only possible by my confidence in you and in what you do and value. Therefore, I send you only a few fervent prayers as branches from my paradise. If you can but distil them in your hot element, then the beverage can be swallowed comfortably, and the heathen will be made whole. Apocalypse, last chapter, and the second verse.

Vienna, July 27. Pyrotechnical displays seem to me the only pleasure in which the Austrians are willing to dispense with their music, which here persecutes us in every direction. In Carlsbad a musician declared to me that music as a profession was a sour crust. I replied that the musicians were better off than the visitors. "How so?" asked he. Said I, "Surely they can eat without music."

The good man went away ashamed, and I felt sorry for him, though my remark was quite in place, for it is really cruel in this manner to torture patients and convalescents. I can, indeed, endure much, but when, after coming from the opera, I sit down to supper, and am annoyed instantly by the strains of a harp or a singer, jarring with what I have been hearing, it is too much; and, wretch that I am, I am forgetting that this scribble is also too much. So farewell. God bless you!

Vienna, July 29, 1819. Beethoven, whom I should have liked to see once more in this life, lives somewhere in this country, but nobody can tell me where. I wanted to write to him, but I am told he is almost unapproachable, as he is almost without hearing. Perhaps it is better that we should remain as we are, for it might make me cross to find him cross.

Much is thought of music here, and this in contrast to Italy, which reckons itself the "only saving Church." But the people here are really deeply cultured in music. It is true that they are pleased with everything, but only the best music survives. They listen gladly to a mediocre opera which is well cast; but a first-class work, even if not given in the best style, remains permanently with them.

Beethoven is extolled to the heavens, because he toils strenuously and is still alive. But it is Haydn who presents to them their national humour, like a pure fountain unmingled with any other stream, and it is he who lives among them, because he belongs to them. They seem each day to forget him, and each day he rises to life again among them.

III.--"Poetry and Truth"

Weimar, March 29, 1827. The completion of a work of art in itself is the eternal, indispensable requisite. Aristotle, who had perfection before him, must have thought of the effect. What a pity! Were I yet, in these peaceful times, possessed of my youthful energies, I would surrender myself entirely to the study of Greek, in spite of all the difficulties of which I am conscious. Nature and Aristotle would be my aim. We can form no idea of all that this man perceived, saw, noticed, observed; but certainly in his explanations he was over-hasty.

But is it not just the same with us to-day? Experience does not fail us, but we lack serenity of mind, whereby alone experience becomes clear, true, lasting, and useful. Look at the theory of light and colour as interpreted before my very eyes by Professor Fries of Jena. It is a series of superficial conclusions, such as expositors and theorists have been guilty of for more than a century. I care to say nothing more in public about this; but write it I will. Some truthful mind will one day grasp it.

Weimar, April 18, 1827. Madame Catalini has scented out a few of our extra groschen, and I begrudge her them. Too much is too much! She makes no preparation for leaving us, for she has still to ring the changes on a couple of old-new transmogrified airs, which she might just as well grind out gratis. After all, what are two thousand of our thalers, when we get "God save the King" into the bargain?

It is truly a pity. What a voice! A golden dish with common mushrooms in it! And we--one almost swears at oneself--to admire what is execrable! It is incredible! An unreasoning beast would mourn at it. It is an actually impossible state of things. An Italian turkey-hen comes to Germany, where are academies and high schools, and old students and young professors sit listening while she sings in English the airs of the German Handel. What a disgrace if that is to be reckoned an honour! In the heart of Germany, too!

Weimar, December 25, 1829. Lately by accident I fell in with "The Vicar of Wakefield" and felt constrained to read it again from beginning to end, impelled not a little by the lively consciousness of all that I have owed to the author for the last seventy years. It would not be possible to estimate the influence of Goldsmith and Sterne, exercised on me just at the chief point of my development. This high, benevolent irony, this gentleness to all opposition, this equanimity under every change, and whatever else all the kindred virtues may be called--such things were a most admirable training for me, and surely these are the sentiments which, in the end, lead us back from all the mistaken paths of life. By the way, it is strange that Yorick should incline rather to that which has no form, while Goldsmith is all form, as I myself aspired to be when the worthy Germans had convinced themselves that the peculiarity of true humour is to have no form.

Weimar, February 15, 1830. As to the title, "Poetry and Truth," of my autobiography, it is certainly somewhat paradoxical. I adopted it because the public always cherishes doubt as to the truth of such biographical attempts. My sincere effort was to express the genuine truth which had prevailed throughout my life. Does not the most ordinary chronicle necessarily embody something of the spirit of the time in which it was written? Will not the fourteenth century hand down the tradition of a comet more ominously than the nineteenth? Nay, in the same town you will hear one version of an incident in the morning, and another in the evening.

All that belongs to the narrator and the narrative I included under the word Dichtung (poetry), so that I could for my own purpose avail myself of the truth of which I was conscious. In every history, even if it be diplomatically written, we always see the nation, the party of the writer, peering through. How different is the accent in which the French describe English history from that of the English themselves!

Remember that with every breath we draw, an ethereal stream of Lethe runs through our whole being, so that we have but a partial recollection of our joys, and scarcely any of our sorrows. I have always known how to value, and use, this gift of God.

IV.--The Birth of "Iphigenia"

Weimar, March 31, 1831. I have received a delightful letter from Mendelssohn, dated Rome, March 5, which gives the most transparent picture of that rare young man. About him we need cherish no further care. The fine swimming-jacket of his genius will carry him safely through the waves and surf of the dreaded barbarism.

Now, you well remember that I have always passionately adopted the cause of the minor third, and was angry that you theoretical cheap-jacks would not allow it to be a donum naturæ. Certainly a wire or piece of cat-gut is not so precious that nature should exclusively confide to it her harmonies. Man is worth more, and nature has given him the minor third, to enable him to express with cordial delight to himself that which he cannot name, and that for which he longs.

Weimar, November 23, 1831. To begin with, let me tell you that I have retreated into my cloister cell, where the sun, which is just now rising, shines horizontally into my room, and does not leave me till he sets, so that he is often uncomfortably importunate--so much so that for a time I really have to shut him out.

Further, I have to mention that a new edition of the "Iphigenia in Aulis" of Euripides has once more turned my attention to that incomparable Greek poet. Of course, his great and unique talent excited my admiration as of old, but what has now mainly attracted me is the element, as boundless as it is potent, in which he moves.

Among the Greek localities and their mass of primeval, mythological legends, he sails and swims, like a cannon-ball on a quick-silver sea, and cannot sink, even if he wished. Everything is ready to his hand--subject matter, contents, circumstances, relations. He has only to set to work in order to bring forward his subjects and characters in the simplest way, or to render the most complicated limitations even more complex, and then finally and symmetrically, to our complete satisfaction, either to unravel or cut the knot.

I shall not quit him all this winter. We have translations enough which will warrant our presumption in looking into the original. When the sun shines into my warm room, and I am aided by the stores of knowledge acquired in days long gone by, I shall, at any rate, fare better than I should, at this moment, among the newly discovered ruins of Messene and Megalopolis.