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Commentary

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
20 Dec 2005

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself as a musical hero: The case of Lehár’s Friederike

Franz Lehár was not the first to think of Goethe as an opera or operetta hero. There was the precedent of Giacomo Meyerbeer himself who in his old age wrote theatre music for a piece called La Jeunesse de Goethe. The piece was never performed.

The idea of a “Singspiel” about young Goethe arose with one of Lehár’s best librettists, Dr. Fritz Löhner (or Beda). He would tragically die in an extermination camp, hoping till his last moments that Lehár would use his influence. The composer didn’t dare to help him as his wife too was Jewish and it was only Lehár’s quick (and chancy) call to Himmler, who was in his office, that saved his wife from Löhner’s fate when two Gestapo-men appeared to arrest her.

Löhner did his utmost best to introduce historical reality, though some operetta conventions had to be respected. “Friederike” tells the story of one of young Goethe’s great loves and the inspiration she offered him. The first act takes place in an Alsatian village where the father of Salomea (20) and Friederike Brion (17) is a vicar. The fiancée of Salomea is the historically correct Friedrich Weyland, a student at Strasbourg University — Strasbourg had recently been conquered by Louis XIV but everybody still spoke German while the courses at its university were in Latin, of course. Weyland often visits his future in-laws and has brought with him his fellow students Johann Goethe (at the time without the “von”) and Jakob Lenz (another famous German poet). Goethe and Friederike are clearly in love and at the end of the act he first kisses her.

The second act takes place in Strasbourg a few months later. There is a big party going on at the place of Friederike’s aunt. She and Goethe once more declare their love and he intends to marry her and leave for Weimar where the Grand-Duke has offered him a splendid position. But the duke’s deputy tells Weyland that only an unmarried man may take it. Weyland convinces Friederike to give up her dreams and she starts to flirt outrageously with Lenz. Goethe is angry and leaves immediately for Weimar with the duke’s diplomat.

In the short third act Goethe and the Grand-Duke pass through Sesenheim eight years later. In the meantime Jakob Lenz has tried in vain for years to marry Friederike but as she explains “nobody who has ever loved Goethe can forget that experience and marry another.” During his short stay Goethe reminiscences upon his youthful love and takes his definitive farewell from Friederike before leaving for Switzerland with the Grand-Duke.

There are of course some deviations from historical reality. The first act corresponds with the real situation but in the second act operetta and opera are looking around the corner. In reality Goethe had more or less tired of Friederike whom he found utterly charming in her village but somewhat unsophisticated in his Strasbourg surroundings. Father Goethe who had heard about his son’s infatuation didn’t like an early marriage and recalled Goethe to Frankfurt. Goethe immediately obeyed his father’s wish, maybe even somewhat relieved as he didn’t even take the pains of saying a decent farewell. But in the meantime he had written some of his best poems. Friederike sacrificing herself is pure musical theatre convention as Goethe in reality only left for Weimar 4 years later. They never met again but it is true that after Goethe’s flight that other great poet Jakob Lenz tried in vain to marry Friederike. She would never marry and lived after the death of her parents with her sister Salomea and Weyland. She died in 1813, 59 years of age and a short time after Goethe had published his warm-hearted memories of her. Due to the European war at the time, she escaped attention but shortly afterwards people started to come and visit her grave on a pilgrimage. It is somewhat strange that “von Goethe” (enobled by the Grand-Duke) who thought Friederike a little bit too unsophisticated took up shop with a working class girl in 1790 who gave him a son and whom he would marry 16 years later.

The reaction in academic Germany when it became known that Lehár would compose an operetta on this topic was one of horror. Official Germany had never liked the many operas composed on themes by Goethe. Gounod’s Faust immediately got changed into “Margarethe” as it was considered a blasphemy to the original poem (Provincial theatres which perform in German still use that title). Mignon was considered sentimental nonsense, which had nothing to do in reality with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Of course, like elsewhere, the opera-loving world and the singers couldn’t care less and loved those operas so much that at a certain moment the Vienna Opera was called the “Faustspielhaus”.

Still this wasn’t on the ocean deep level of having Germany’s greatest poet singing love songs on the scene. And that young Goethe himself had written some sentimental “Singspiele” in his youth was unimportant. Lehár and Löhner didn’t let them be deterred by this adverse criticism which was often inspired by the main German Lehár-hater, Richard Strauss who was almost insanely jealous of Lehár’s (financial) success. The Singspiel (Lehár never called it an operetta) had its successful première in October 1928 and became a staple of the German operetta theatre in the decades that followed, though from 1933 till 1945 the name of the librettist was no longer printed in the theatre programme.

In the seventies, Friederike gradually disappeared from the repertoire as did most operettas; a real loss as it is a masterpiece. For the moment there are some selections available and one complete recording on EMI with Austrian (actually Italian, as Italy was allowed to conquer a piece of purely Austrian land) tenor Adolf Dallapozza and Texas soprano Helen Donath as Goethe and Friederike. The 1981 recording is a very good one.

Yes, I love Friederike and if I had to take one Lehár show to the legendary desert island that would be the one. That is not to say it is perfect as there are three flaws in it. The first one is of course Löhner’s doing: the reality of Goethe tiring of his love and leaving without a word or even a small letter probably suits our jaded cynical time far better than the flirting nonsense Löhner concocted. But the public of the twenties and thirties wouldn’t have accepted such callous behaviour from the hero and loved that kind of sacrifice by the poor heroine. The second flaw is Lehár’s. He purposely did away with some of the clichés of operetta. There is no second couple that takes care of our comic relief and has some pop melodies to sing in contrast to the more operatic fare of the tenor and soprano. But even here Lehár cannot do without the obligatory short third act where nothing of musical substance happens. And the third flaw is nobody’s fault. The first Goethe was Richard Tauber (“I don’t sing operetta, I sing Lehár”) and he often co-composed his arias together with the man he called his brother without the blood tie. They are so well-tailored to Tauber’s voice and the tenor himself was such a giant of belcanto that it is almost impossible to follow in his tracks. Some of these melodies are so etched in our memory with Tauber’s voice that even the best of his successors sound a little bit out of place when they try to sing Friederike.

Still there is almost an embarrassment of melodic ideas in the score. In the first act there is the wonderful first aria of Friederike (“Gott gab einen schönen Tag” (God gave a beautiful day)) celebrating springtime. Then the students enter and with them the real Goethe as they sing his poem “Mit Mädchen sich vertragen” (Meeting girls), already composed by Van Beethoven, though less lustily. Then the theatre Goethe makes his appearance as by that time the original public was probably already clamouring for Richard Tauber. He too has a fine and inspired slow waltz to sing “O so schön, wie wunderschön” (Ah, how beautiful), which is an ode to nature and the idyllic surroundings of Sesenheim (Werther’s entrance aria “O nature” in Massenet’s opera tells the same story).

Then there is a short love duet between tenor and soprano inspired by another of the great German’s poems. But the great challenge for Lehár was the composition, word for word, of the famous Goethe-poem Heideröslein. Every educated German knew by heart the famous rendition of Franz Schubert. But Lehár succeeds triumphantly in finding authentic melodic inspiration which can easily compete with Schubert’s. It is no co-incidence that this second aria for Tauber was picked up for recording by other tenors as well. After some introductory music it is time for the big moment in every second act of Lehár’s later output: the Tauberlied (the famous “You are my heart’s delight”) often composed in narrow collaboration with the tenor himself. This “O mädchen, my mädchen” (Oh maiden, my maiden) is one of Lehár’s very best: an unforgettable memorable tune in 6/8 without any cheap tricks and the leitmotiv of the work. Tauber’s famous record is unsurpassed; but the melody is so irresistible that many a great tenor (Konya, Wunderlich among others) have recorded it and failed honourably. Moreover the text is derived from an authentic love song for Friederike Brion: the sixth strophe of Goethe’s “Mailied” (Maysong). But the soprano has her big moment, too, with the magnificent (operatic) aria “Warum hast du mich wachgeküsst” (Why did you kiss me awake). Of the many recordings none can compare in beauty and passion with Lucia Popp’s 1988 version. The lover’s quarrel starts with a broken E-major chord and the duet goes over in yet another Tauber aria “Liebe seliger traum” (Love, wonderful dream) that ends in despair with “Oh! Geh nicht von mir” (Don’t leave me).

The third act has a short solo for Friederike, a lovely duet between Lenz and Salomea and a few sentences by Goethe. I’ve always regretted that Lehár didn’t keep that moving second tenor aria in the second act for the final of Friederike. Now the piece ends with a violin slowly repeating “O Mädchen, mein Mädchen” before the curtain falls on a fortissimo chord in C-major.

Jan Neckers

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