Götz von Berlichingen and Brian’s second symphony

Graham Saxby

»Götz von Berlichingen« and Brian’s second symphony - Graham Saxby

Before beginning work on his second symphony Brian had been reading Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen, and had been much impressed by it. He intended to model the four movements respectively on Götz’s ambitions, loves, battles and death. After the symphony was completed, however, he denied that it was in any sense programmatic, and later discounted its literary origins entirely. At the time I was preparing my study of the Second Symphony (which appeared in Newsletters 33—35) I was not well acquainted with the play which inspired the symphony, and felt — as I still do — that a symphony should stand or fall in terms of music alone. However, I have recently had the opportunity to study Götz von Berlichingen to some depth, both in the original and in the excellent translation by Charles Passage, and it now seems to me to be worthwhile looking for any light the character of Götz can throw on the symphony, particularly the problematical final movement.

In contrast to the real Götz, an archetypal robber-baron who, after a lifetime of pillage, died peacefully in his bed, Goethe’s depiction of him (drawn from Goethe’s imagination and Götz’s own memoirs) is something like a conflation of Sir Lancelot and Robin Hood. In the play, Götz’s ambition is to overthrow the corrupt princelings and clergy and to reestablish the rule of law and justice, the barons to be directly responsible to the Emperor for keeping the land peaceful. There is, of course, no obvious attempt at a direct portrayal of this, though Götz’s impetuous nature may be reflected in the first main group of themes (ex 2 in the study). A very similar type of writing is to be found in the more boisterous sections of Elgar’s Falstaff, a frankly programmatic work. Again, it is possible that the passionate outburst (ex 7) near the end of the movement has something to do with Götz’s rage and despair at the frustration of his noble aspirations, particularly in view of the way it reappears in subsequent movements.

The connections with the music of the second movement are more tenuous. As Götz (in the play) is a happily married man, the term ‘loves’ must imply - in addition to his wife - his sister Maria, his two closest friends Selbitz and Sickingen, his squire Georg, and the false friend Weislingen. Perhaps the glittering climax (ex 14) has something to do with Götz’s elation at the loyalty of Sickingen, who, when Götz is on trial before the corrupt Imperial Councillors, marches in with his forces and rescues him; but the lonely atmosphere which characterizes the opening theme and is never far away, perhaps symbolizes Götz’s certainty that sooner or later all these passionate friendships will be lost to him. Indeed, by the end of the play all of his dearest friends are either imprisoned or dead; his world is disintegrating, and the news of the death of Georg finally kills him. The desolate end of the movement may well be connected with this.

There are several battles in the play, the most dramatically important being that in Act Three, between Götz and the Imperial forces sent on Weislingen’s instructions to capture him. In the many scenes that comprise this, Goethe (no doubt influenced by Shakespeare) switches us from place to place in rapid succession in a way that almost anticipates the editing techniques of action films. Likewise, in the music we switch rapidly between the four spatially separated groups of horns, which are gradually brought together as the tumultuous climax approaches. On the other hand, apart from the use of horns themselves, there is in no sense any explicit musical battle (as, for example, there is in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), rather a headlong whirling dance; indeed, in the play no fighting actually takes place on stage — just a whirl of scenes, some of which are of a few lines only.

In the play, Götz dies in captivity. The oppressed peasants have revolted, and in order to stop the looting and sacking that is going on, he agrees to take command of them. But he has been tricked; he is unable to control them, and is made the scapegoat for their crimes. The Emperor’s troops are called out, and he is wounded and imprisoned for treason. Twice betrayed by his childhood friend, judged a traitor by the Emperor he has served all his life, this noble and generous knight dies of a broken heart. It seems to me that the two concepts of nobility and betrayal are the key to the thematic construction of the final movement of the symphony. The nobility is manifest in the funeral music; indeed, it twice becomes explicit with the quotation of the two ff chords from Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung: the ‘noblest hero of them all’, too, was betrayed by a false friend, tricked into breaking an oath, and slaughtered for it. Betrayal is represented by the sinuous unison figure (ex 20) which continually interrupts and mocks the noble music of the funeral.

In the end, for both Götz and the symphony it is the betrayal that triumphs. Perhaps the clue to the whole outlook of the enigmatic finale is to be found in the two final lines of the play, spoken after Götz’s death (and considerably more elegant in the original German) by Maria and Lerse respectively:

"Noble man! Woe to the age that rejected you."
"Woe to the posterity that fails to appreciate you!"

In spite of Brian’s discounting of the literary origins of the symphony, I feel that the knowledge of the aspirations of the protagonist, and of their frustration, genuinely helps towards a full appreciation of this final movement, and helps to justify its waywardness when considered in purely musical terms. As ‘pure music’ I still find the movement less than completely satisfactory. David J Brown, in a private communication, disagrees, considering the movement’s musical and dramatic content indissoluble, and goes on to point out that far from ex 20’s being a musically unsatisfactory phrase, it was precisely what was required from a structural point of view. Also, Brian even made musical capital out of this sinuous motif by never repeating it exactly. I cannot deny that Brian clearly knew precisely what he was doing. Indeed, I think that this symphony is fully the equal of Elgar’s second, which in so many ways it resembles; and I wish it could be recorded commercially… [Graham was writing in 1981; we had to wait seventeen years for the first commercial recording to be issued.]

NL 36 © 1981 by Graham Saxby

Newsletter, NL 36, 1981