The first series concert of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival on September 9th includes Hummel’s arrangement for flute, violin, cello and piano of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Tim Summers has written an excellent program note for that work in which he discusses the 18th/19th-century practice of making smaller chamber arrangements/transcriptions of orchestral works.
In demonstrating the respected position Hummel held among his contemporaries as much more than a minor composer-arranger, Tim mentions that Hummel was a friend of Goethe. In fact, whether prince or poet, philosopher or scientist, anyone who was anyone at this time in Europe was either a friend of Goethe or aspired to be. Well, almost anyone ....
Beethoven was never really a friend of Goethe even, or especially, after they finally met. Certainly he admired and respected Goethe immensely, set much of his poetry to music, and wrote incidental music to Egmont. For his part Goethe admired Beethoven’s peerless gifts as a composer, but found his music disturbingly untamed.
But the two kept missing opportunities to meet in person. Beethoven especially wanted this meeting so he would have a chance to convince Goethe of music’s place as the pinnacle of the arts. Their contact was held to occasional correspondence until, in 1810, a certain brash young woman took it upon herself to act as a mediator between these two giant egos. In the past some have suggested that she was Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved," but most now agree that she was not.
The following account[i] is scene one of the opening act in a drama of three generations. While several versions have circulated over the past two centuries, I’m convinced the story as told here is “roughly accurate.” The protagonists are Beethoven, Goethe and, “between” them, Bettina von Arnim née Brentano. In 1810 they are living the interplay between three generations at the crossroads of "Two Ages" – the Enlightenment and the Romantic.
Märchen, noch so wunderbar,
Dichterkünste machens wahr.[ii]
May 1810 – Spring in Vienna
She had heard one of his sonatas which had overwhelmed her.
In 1810 Beethoven was forty. His increasing deafness notwithstanding, he had just composed the “Appassionata” and “Farewell” Sonatas, the “Harp” Quartet, and the “Emperor” Concerto. He was currently writing the overture and incidental music to Goethe’s drama, Egmont. He was eager to meet and talk with Goethe face to face, but that was not to happen until the storied meeting in Teplitz two years later in 1812.
When Bettina walked into his life, Beethoven was still madly in love with Theresa Malfatti, and he was smarting from her rejection. Bettina’s unexpected appearance was to him a deliverance.
She bends over him –
In 1810 Bettina [Betty] Brentano was twenty-five and looked much younger. She was born in Frankfurt in 1785, the daughter of the beautiful Maximiliana La Roche, whom the young Goethe once loved. Her mother died when Bettina was eight, and her father when she was twelve. Educated first in a convent and then among Protestants, she had always a mystical tendency, without, however, being able to connect it with any religion. Her brilliant gifts of art, poetry and music were encouraged by one of her brothers, Clemens.
After reading Goethe in 1806 at age 21, like countless others she fell under the spell of his poetry and ideas. She succeeded at last in meeting Goethe in 1807, adding the power of his presence to his reputation. We can assume, given Goethe’s liberal sexual proclivities and the passion voiced in their correspondence, that Bettina and Goethe were physically intimate during these years, but the relationship turned “filial” after she met and married the poet Achim von Arnim[iii] and later ceased altogether (outside of occasional correspondence) after a scandalous public incident in an art gallery between Bettina and Goethe's wife Maximiliana (see pp.40-41 in the mini Book Reader below). But however it was realized, Bettina’s affection for Goethe lasted the rest of her life.
Bettina’s contemporaries called her Schwärmerin – dreamer, visionary, sentimentalist, zealot. She called herself Mignon, after the orphan girl in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.[iv]
She was immediately captivated by him.
In 1810 Goethe was sixty-one. In 1806 he had at last married Christiana, with whom he had been living for eighteen years. His son August was seventeen. Four years later (1814) he was to meet Marianna von Willemer and a new spring blossomed in his heart, immortalized in the Westöstlicher Divan.[v]
But in 1810 Goethe did not appreciate sharing Bettina's affections with Beethoven, even – or especially – intellectually and spiritually. During this period he seemed enveloped in an ironic distrust of the younger generation and the new spirit of an age that he, perhaps more than any other individual, brought into existence.
He called the generation that followed unheimlich– unfamiliar, sinister. As mentioned above, he recognized Beethoven’s genius in music, but the composer’s brash, fractious nature put him off. He was still engrossed in the official order of things, and in the tenets of respectability.
She later writes to her friend Prince Pückler-Muskaux
“... just written a fine song for you”?? Beethoven is teasing. Certainly he would have immediately recognized Bettina’s family name, Brentano, when she uttered it. And surely he knew of her relationship with Goethe. That is possibly why, on this occasion, he chose to sing that particular song – one that he had composed a year before to the poem “Kennst du das Land?” – Mignon’s song from Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.[vi]
“He asked, ‘Well, how do you like it?’
Bettina’s account of Beethoven’s voice is surely on the mark – “harsh,” “far beyond cultivation.” Other accounts say his singing voice was a deep bass. But according to his friend Louis Schlösser, as he became deaf it “lost its sonority.” His laugh was a kind of yelling and his voice was proverbially the voice of a lion. It’s difficult to imagine such a “harsh bass” singing his moving setting of Mignon’s song.
Two years pass. Bettina's fondest wish was to bring her beloved Goethe together with Beethoven – for the two giants to finally meet. It just didn't happen.
Then in July of 1812 all three happened to be in the Bavarian spa town of Teplitz at the same time. The meeting was not arranged by Bettina. It was sheer coincidence. Bettina was not present when the two began to talk.
Goethe, learning that Beethoven was there, made the first move. Bettina did not realize the meeting had occured until Beethoven gave her his version of it. The result was what is now known as "The Incident at Teplitz." You can read the details according to Bettina in Romain Rolland's 1930 essay, Goethe and Beethoven, beginning on page 44 with the words, "Teplitz was then full of emperors, gorgeous archdukes and court ladies."
On pages 50-51 Rolland gives Bettina's account of the famous walk Beethoven and Goethe took together:
At this moment
"The Incident at Teplitz" by Carl Rohlig
[i] This account is a loosely rendered synopsis that freely mixes quotation and paraphrase from the 1931 English translation of Romain Rolland’s 1930 essay, Goethe et Beethoven (Open Library: https://archive.org/stream/goethebeethoven00roll#page/n7/mode/2up) and English translations of the correspondence of Bettina von Arnim from various sources. While (believe it or not) I’ve toned down the purple passages more than a little bit, I couldn’t resist keeping some of the character of Rolland’s – and especially Bettina’s – account, as it seems to me to capture the flower-child spirit of Bettina herself and, with it, a whiff of air from an age irretrievable but for its art.
[ii] “Fables, so full of wonders / Made true by the poet’s art.” Goethe. Motto from Balladen.
[iii] Achim von Arnim was a poet and novelist who, together with Bettina’s brother Clemens Brentano, edited the collection of German folk poems and songs known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Boy’s Magic Horn] which provided texts for lieder by Weber, Loewe, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, and most famously, Gustav Mahler.
[iv] There is a helpful summary by Clive Paget about the significance that the fictional Mignon had to artists and other intellectuals of the Romantic Age (Review: “Malcolm Martineau Traces 100 Years in the Life of Mignon.” Limelight, May 30, 2017). “After Wilhelm buys [Mignon’s] freedom from a brutal circus-troupe director, who had abducted her in Italy and used her as an acrobat [dressed as a boy], she devotes herself completely to her savior whom she grows to love in secret and unrequited. What shaped her reception as a larger-than-life figure is her mysterious background, her poetic existence, .…”
[v] Westöstlicher Divanis available in English translation by Edward Dowden at Open Library: https://archive.org/stream/westeasterndivan00goetuoft#page/n7/mode/2up (The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, was named after this anthology of poems by Goethe.)
[vi] After Beethoven, “Kennst du das Land?” was set to music by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wolf, and others.