The influence of Goethe’s ‘Götz von Berlingen’ (3)

Damian Rees

The influence of Goethe’s Götz von Berlingen (3) - Damian Rees

Götz von Berlichingen, written in 1773, is one of Goethe’s earliest plays. It is an historical play arising from, and fitting into, the Sturm und Drang (Storm and stress) movement in Germany. The manifesto of the movement which was to an extent sparked by Goethe’s enthusiastic Rede zum Shakespeares Tag (Conversation from Shake-speare’s day) appeared after Goethe returned to Frankfurt in the summer of 1771. It has been described as continuing in the tradition of Shakespeare. TJ Reed says, "for Goethe to emulate Shakespeare was to grasp nature on a grander scale, because Shakespeare’s drama was not a way of presenting the world, it was the world"1. Certainly Goethe was recalling, or even vying with, Shakespeare in this play "for the real Götz, who died two years before Shakespeare was born, was near enough in time to represent the bustling, spacious sixteenth century, the animal vitality of which contrasted so forcibly with the strait-laced affectations of Goethe’s own day" 2.

As a context for his drama Goethe chose the autobiography of Gottfried von Berlichingen, an obscure knight of the Empire who spent much of his time fighting and taking part in crusades, before becoming implicated in the Peasant’s Revolt in 1525. The drama itself is based on the edict issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1495 effectively banning the petty conflicts that often arose among free knights. Götz von Berlichingen, himself a champion of the free knights, nevertheless persisted in fighting his acquisitive neighbours.

The action of the play may be summarised as follows: Götz captures Weislingen, a defender of the house of Bamberg, but allows him to live in his castle. After discussing their former friendship, Weislingen decides to change his allegiance to Götz. Weislingen also wins the heart of Maria, Götz’s sister and makes a firm promise to marry her.

Now the Bishop of Bamberg is very keen to win back Weislingen and he hatches a plot to do just this. He summons Weislingen to Bamberg where he will arrange for Weislingen to meet Adelaide, a beautiful widow who the Bishop hopes will be able to persuade Weislingen to stay. The plan succeeds: Weislingen soon forgets about his promise to Maria, breaks with Götz and marries Adelaide who convinces him that he will have to destroy Götz.

After violent struggles Götz is captured, only to be quickly freed by his allies. Later, Götz is wounded in an attempt to quell rebellious peasants. Weislingen then captures him for a second time but on this occasion he throws him into the dungeon. Adelaide, meanwhile, has been unfaithful to Weislingen and persuades her page that her husband must be poisoned. As he is dying Weislingen is confronted by Maria who begs him to release her brother. Götz is pardoned but, broken in spirit, he returns home to die.

The play is divided into five acts broken down into fifty-six scenes (that is almost as many scenes as there are minutes in Brian’s symphony). Goethe’s emulation of Shakespeare’s structure and style is indicative of his feeling that the values of the previous age have been lost. "In Götz, Goethe bizarrely perceived a lost world of values. Besides his fighting prowess, Götz appears as a naturally good man, an embodiment of honesty, fidelity and generosity in contrast with the cynical careerists now moving to new centres of power." (Reed, op cit) Thus, guileless and uncomprehending, Götz is brought down by the forces that are reshaping the empire. Law, administration, economics and the very ethos of society are alien and losing touch with local roots.

Götz is not so much openly defeated as out-manoeuvred, cheated. Götz tries to keep faith with himself but only the emperor supports him. When the emperor dies that is the end for Götz too. There is not a dramatic death but rather a gradual fading away which illustrates the way in which, when Götz and the emperor die, an age dies out with them.

There does seem to be an autobiographical element to this drama. Reed (op cit) comments that "Goethe himself is reflected in Götz too. When Goethe writes of his own battle with the alien abstractions that constrict German theatre, he uses the language of dungeons and towers against which, Götz-like, he must pursue a feud". Goethe himself acknowledged his closeness to Götz, even before the play was completed, when in 1772 he joined a genial local society calling themselves The Knights of the Round Table and took the title for himself Götz von Berlichingen.

It is this aspect of the drama, the artist fighting against the odds, that may well have drawn Brian to find within it the stimulus for a symphony. He often took inspiration from heroic figures anyway, especially those from the late Gothic age and valued the idea of man as a fighter, thinker and leader. More than this, perhaps, he could readily identify with Götz (and by extension Goethe) because, as a neglected composer, he strove to find his own personal expression in a world of largely hostile or indifferent critics.

n attempting a comparison of Goethe’s structure in Götz von Berlichingen and Havergal Brian’s Second Symphony, it is possible to infer that the falling tritone figure that opens the symphony represents Götz himself. The lack of harmonic clarity in the augmented fourth being a reflection of the conflict and turbulent nature within this German knight. Further, this motif is often found in combat with the musical flow. That is, in each movement other elements are seen attempting to fight down, suppress or overwhelm the original motif. Other motifs are introduced around this original idea creating disturbance and uncertainty. Additionally, this motif is the only truly stable entity in the work itself, thus representing the continuity of the character throughout the play.

The timpani rolls which open the work provide a prelude to the battles of the drama which are to follow. From here it is possible to draw up a direct comparison between the music and the development of the drama. It is debatable as to how closely Brian was adhering to the text since he was unlikely to have taken such a representational approach in every detail. Nevertheless, both the outline of the story and, more importantly, the characters and the themes of the play are paralleled in the development of the music.

As I have suggested, the first movement acts as a prelude to the work and, referring back to the text, we can see Götz’s capture of Weislingen represented by the first climax which leads into the Allegro assai. The otherwise curious inclusion of a few bars of a military march in the first movement reinforces this idea.

The woodwind solos that take place throughout the first two movements can similarly be taken to represent the two women in the story, especially Götz’s sister, Maria 3. The heroic figures not only do baffle but also enter a period of discussion, which is represented by the closeness of the two themes in the first movement. Further, the development of the music in this section then also includes the entanglement of Maria as the winds become more prominent.

The comparison between the music and the text goes deeper, however, than a mere representation of the figures in the drama: Brian attempts to create similar emotional responses to those initiated by Goethe. The music of the first movement ends in confusion which could possibly reflect Weislingen’s confusion when the Bishop of Bamberg makes his offer. Moreover, musically, the affection that grows between Götz and Weislingen is shown as the two themes become more alike. But at the end of the movement the conflict has returned; the situation is far from resolved.

The opening wind line can be seen to represent both the female and the love interest in the play; Brian himself admitted as much

From this we can see that Brian’s use of continual change is not arbitrary but rather it is carefully designed with a particular purpose in mind. What has sometimes been referred to as his "randomness"5 is in fact deliberately planned. The last bitter climax could thus be taken as Adelaide’s success in convincing Weislingen that Götz should be destroyed.

The third movement, which Havergal Brian referred to as the Battle Scherzo, has a direct and obvious link as an encapsulation of the battles within the play. To some extent it may well reflect the battles going on within Götz himself. However, the fact that the broader picture is closer to the composer’s intention is clear from the absence of the Götz motif, ie the tritone, from this movement only. Undeniably the sixteen horns sounding off against each other over the droning ostinati arouse strong images of a battle being fought. Further, the bi-tonal structure gives us the main protagonists: the C major can be taken as Götz and the D major/minor/modal as representing Weislingen.

The fact that the music reaches clear D major tonality on more than one occasion could indicate Götz’s capture, while the final chord cluster, a descending clash of all pitches spelt out from top to bottom, is indicative of the confusion that will arise when Götz’s values are eroded. Possibly, on a textual level there is also a reference to the fact that Weislingen has been poisoned, his death being the final, almost whimpering passage that provides such a sudden contrast to this very powerful movement. Weislingen is unworthy of the pomp and splendour of a grand funeral and he therefore fades from the drama having allowed Götz to live.

At first, the inclusion of the funeral march seems anomalous: Götz dies broken in spirit and having lost his faith in the world. "Poor wife, I leave you in a vicious world,"6 he concludes before dying. However, this is not merely a funeral march for Götz or the hero figure, the quote from Siegfried notwithstanding, but, more than this, it is a march for the funeral of an entire age. Moreover, it is the funeral of an age with which Brian had a great affinity and an idea he would express again in The vision of Cleopatra.

Certainly, the last movement does to some extent represent the death of a hero, and the re-emergence of the falling tritone, the only idée fixe in the entire work, played now by full orchestra, refers to Götz. The Wagnerian quote reflects not only Brian’s admiration for Wagner but also underlines and broadens the heroic aspect. Brian sees Götz as being on the same scale as Siegfried and, further to this, given that Götz is an extension of Goethe, Brian is marking the death of Goethe as being symbolic of the death of an era, viz the European Romantic tradition. The contact with the action of the play is nebulous at this point for there is no ceremonial funeral for Götz in the drama. This can be taken as reinforcing the point that this funeral march is more symbolic.

According to MacDonald it is these more symbolic, or archetype, figures that are at the heart of Brian’s inspiration: "all these figures (Faust, Götz, the young Goethe, the old Goethe, Agamemnon, Oedipus) could be seen as archetypes and the fact that Brian modified his original account of the Second Symphony from the anecdotal Götz, his ambitions, loves, battles and death, to the essential ‘man in his lonely cosmos’, suggests that he himself recognised them as such—as symbols of universal aspects of the human condition" (op cit).

While not arguing with Brian’s perception of the archetype, it is debatable as to whether Brian changed his mind about the piece. It seems to me that what Brian actually did was to refine his original view, placing more emphasis on the inherent values embodied by Götz which were, in fact, at the heart of his original creation. What is more, he was also recognising that within that original intention there was a link to the autobiographical elements of the play and thus, by extension, to his own situation as an artist. The last line of the play could certainly represent Havergal Brian at a time when his music was being neglected: "Woe to the posterity that fails to appreciate you" (Goethe, op cit).

MacDonald (op cit) goes on to say that "Götz conforms to the archetype of the hero, the strong man of action and parallels Brian’s perennial fascination with that other man of action, Napoleon" who was himself a source of inspiration to Beethoven

Nonetheless Brian’s own remarks on the place of inspiration in composition are revealing at this point: "it has been argued that inspiration and prayer are the same. Though I am convinced that great work of any kind is impossible without inspiration, I no less hold the belief that the only practical prayer is that of the inner voice and urge such as in the old fable of Hercules and the wagonner, who, when his wagon got stuck in the mud, prayed to Hercules to come to his aid. The voice replied, ‘Man help thyself’"

Even so, it is clear that the text is much more than a starting point. For instance, even before beginning the symphony, in a letter to Granville Bantock on Nov 12 1924, he stated, "This work [the Gothic] has no programme. The next one will have a programme" (in Eastaugh, op cit).

rian’s original stimulus for this piece of programmatic music was to have been "founded on a Staffordshire legend spread over ground every inch of which I know sadly too well" [^10]. This would have been the story of Razamoff, the jealous gypsy, and the bear, which he began while living in Birmingham. He goes on to say "It has an imposing title, will require a larger orchestra than the first and I shall put your name across it".

Even though the initial stimulus, and therefore the context, was to change, Havergal Brian was planning a large-scale programmatic piece from the outset. Nor was this a new idea for him, for he confided to Bantock that, after hearing Franck’s symphony in D minor conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, he felt inspired to begin a new work [^11]. At first he considered producing the work in three movements in respect of Franck but, when he did eventually begin the work, he turned not to the Belgian master but to Berlioz whom he admired so much.

For Brian "Berlioz the man was obviously an inspiring figure of dedicated genius’ triumph over adversity" 12. In fact, if we look closely at the structure of Brian’s Second Symphony we can see many points of comparison with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Firstly, the overall structure of ambitions, love battles and death is very close to the Berlioz, where we have the ambitions of the artist in the first movement, the love in the third movement and the march to the scaffold in the fourth, this last movement was regarded by Brian as a work of pure genius.

Additionally, there are points of comparison in the orchestration. The opening timpani chords of Brian’s symphony are particularly redolent of Berlioz’s storm section of the third movement, Similarly, both pieces make extensive use of winds, Berlioz for the shepherds and core themes and Brian to characterise the love element in the second movement. In each work there is a build up to a march with pounding ostinati. We may also compare the string theme in Brian’s finale with Berlioz’s introduction to the Witches sabbath movement. As a final point of comparison we can see that, like the Götz theme in Brian’s music, Berlioz has an unchanging theme which represents the unlucky hero and which recurs throughout the piece appearing in every movement 13.

Clearly then, in his Second Symphony, Brian is not loosely allowing a slight idea to meander fitfully throughout his music but rather has a very definite structure in mind. The major difference between his structure and that of Berlioz in Symphonie fantastique is that Brian adopts a different harmonic approach. Equally, the structure of the play is central to his work, as are the characters, themes and values of Goethe’s drama. Without question Brian has not tried to represent every scene musically, but with equal certainty we can see that the influence of the text goes far deeper than merely providing the archetype.

NL157 © P Damian Rees 2001

  1. TJ Reed Goethe (OUP 1984) ↩︎

  2. Stanley Hochmann, ed Encyclopaedia of World Drama (McGraw-Hill 1984) ↩︎

  3. Cf Eastaugh Havergal Brian: the making of a composer (Harrap 1976) ↩︎

  4. Cf Holbrooke Contemporary British composers (Palmer 1925) ↩︎

  5. Goethe Collected plays translated by Charles Passage (Ungar 1980)
    [7] Cf Beethoven’s original inscription for the Eroica _ [^8] Cf Brian’s Nuremberg dream. This was a dream he had in 1905 which he recalled up to fifteen years later as part of his inspiration for the _Gothic _ 9 Havergal Brian _How the Gothic Symphony came to be written in Modern Music Dec 1938
    [10] Letter to Bantock, op cit _ [^11] It is possible that Brian had the idea of turning to Goethe after Beecham asked him in 1916 to attempt an opera based on _The tempest. He began it, for Prospero certainly fitted into the archetypes mentioned above. Possibly, however, the autobiographical elements were missing and, as Goethe looked back to Shakespeare, so Brian turned his attention to Goethe. ↩︎

  6. MacDonald The symphonies of Havergal Brian, Vol 3 (Kahn and Averill 1983) ↩︎

  7. Given Brian’s regard for Berlioz, it was particularly fitting that the first professional performance of the Second Symphony should have Berlioz’s music on the same programme. ↩︎

  8. . Thus we can perceive not only Brian’s attraction to the archetype but also his belief that the artist is inevitably bringing something of himself to his composition. This autobiographical element is at the heart of his choice of Goethe and Götz. ↩︎

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