That Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1754-1832), who is to German letters what Beethoven (1770-1827) is to German music, was "unmusical" is a canard that clings tenaciously to life. The slander stems from his relationship, or lack of one, with Franz Schubert. (Goethe, it might be noted, outlived his much younger contemporaries, Beethoven and Schubert.)
The Goethe-Schubert "story" has it that Goethe failed utterly to appreciate Schubert's settings of his texts. Closer to the truth is that the music by the little-known young composer was brought to the attention of an aged, perhaps tired Goethe, preoccupied with his own writing, with his diplomatic work for the Weimar court -- and perhaps, most importantly, constantly importuned by young writers (and young composers) to exert his influence on their behalf.
Anyone who has bothered to seriously engage the matter will find that Goethe was the most musically involved of writers, who insisted that a poem, by him or anyone else, was not "complete" until it had been sung. Not that we are discussing only verse: Goethe in his plays -- we'll get to Egmont shortly -- indicates where music should complement the text or provide atmosphere. And let's not forget that for the many passages in his Faust that call for music, Goethe had in mind a composer, and only one composer, who could do his visions justice: Wolfgang Mozart. But Mozart was no longer available when Faust was completed.
Furthermore, to assert, as has frequently been done, that Goethe didn't appreciate Beethoven's music is nonsense. Temperamentally, however, they were at opposite poles, as indicated by their face-to-face meeting in 1812, by which time the composer had already written his Egmont music, although Goethe had not as yet heard it.
The meeting -- to which both famous men looked forward keenly -- took place at the Bohemian spa of Teplitz (today Teplice, in the Czech Republic). As Goethe wrote to the composer Friedrich Zelter: "I got to know Beethoven… His talent amazed me [Beethoven performed on the piano for a select audience at the spa]. But his personality is utterly lacking in self-control. He may not be wrong in thinking that the world is odious, but neither does such an attitude make it any more tolerable to himself or to others. On the other hand, he deserves to be both excused and pitied, for his hearing has almost failed him, which probably does more harm to the social part of his character than to the musical part. He, who in any case is laconic by nature, is now becoming doubly so because of his defect."
The other side of the story -- much embellished by succeeding generations of writers -- comes from Beethoven's friend and confidante Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim) in a letter to a friend of hers, Prince Herrmann von Pückler-Muskau. Bettina first relates a lengthy conversation between the poet and the composer regarding what honors were due them. Beethoven seemingly did most of the talking, which took the form of a diatribe against the aristocracy and its condescending attitude toward men of genius (not something that Goethe actually suffered). After which the two men went for a walk. "At this moment," Brentano relates, "the Empress and the dukes approached with their retinue. Now, Beethoven said [to Goethe], 'Keep your arm linked in mine. They must make room for us, not we for them. Keep your arm linked in mine.' Goethe was not of this opinion and began to feel embarrassed; he withdrew his arm and, with his hat in his hand, stood aside, while Beethoven, his arms crossed, walked straight through the crowd of dukes, only moving his hat a little, while the dukes parted and all of them greeted him kindly. At the other end, he halted and waited for Goethe, who now had let them pass while bowing deeply. Beethoven said, 'I've waited for you, because I honor and revere you as you deserve; but you have done too much honor to those others.'"
Withal, when the financial chips were down Beethoven didn't hesitate to fawn on the aristocracy and its attendants. Among these was Goethe himself, whose influence Beethoven sought, long after the encounter in Teplitz, to obtain higher fees for his compositions.
Regarding Goethe's Egmont: it was written over a period of a dozen years, its author having hit a dead end in his concept during the mid-1770s. It was not completed until 1787.
It is, as a result, two rather different works. For at least its first act, Egmont is a historical spectacle. Think Shakespeare, and his build-up (as Goethe may have done) via great crowd scenes and some interjections by "rustics" before the first appearance of the title character in his Julius Caesar. We know a good deal about him before he has made his entrance. And so it is with the first appearance of Egmont. But the drama of Egmont, the character and the play, becomes increasingly introspective, even dreamlike as it progresses.
The historical background is as follows: Brussels, in the second half of the 16th century. The Low Countries are subjects of Spain and its emperor, Philip II, who has abolished civil rights and brought in the Inquisition to crush Protestantism. Lamoral of Egmont [or Egmond] is Philip's most honored Flemish general, a hero to his people and the obvious candidate to become Regent of the Netherlands. But Philip chose instead his own half-sister, Margaret, Duchess of Parma, who presses the persecution of the Protestants. Egmont, although himself a Catholic, goes to Madrid to plead for clemency for the Protestants. He is received with honors by Philip and leaves feeling that he has accomplished his mission. But after Egmont's return to his homeland, the Duke of Alva is sent to Brussels with the aim of putting down all resistance to Spain's will. Egmont is imprisoned and eventually executed for treason, his martyr's death sounding the cry for rebellion and the Netherlanders' eventual expulsion of their Spanish overlords.
In 1775, the 25-year-old Goethe took the bare bones of the Egmont history and wove his own story around it, shaving 20 years off Egmont's age (he died at 47) and supplying him not with a wife and eight children, but making him a dashing bachelor with an exquisitely sensitive mistress, Klärchen (Claire), who literally dies for him. Furthermore, history's decisive leader is transformed by Goethe into a brooding Romantic archetype rather than a man of action. Goethe's Egmont goes to his death -- for which Beethoven provides his most heroic, defiant music -- with a stirring speech in which he is transformed from the man of reason cum dreamer of the earlier portions of the play into a rabble-rousing warrior.
As was previously suggested, Goethe demanded music -- for Klärchen's two songs, of course, and in the concluding "Siegessymphonie" (Victory Symphony). But there is no record of who supplied it for the initial production, which took place in Mainz in 1789. There is speculation that it was Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814), one of the first composers to set Goethe's verses.
Beethoven does not appear on the Egmont scene until 1809, when he was commissioned to compose incidental music for the Vienna premiere of the play by the director of that city's Burgtheater. As with its first production, there is no record of what transpired at the unveiling in the following year. Beethoven's only surviving words concerning Egmont are contained in a few peevish letters to his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, concerning printing errors and finances. Goethe's correspondence, however, indicates that he was pleased with Beethoven's music.
After 1810, Egmont went through several revisions, by hands other than Goethe's. Friedrich Schiller made an adaptation -- a "shorter, more cohesive, and better motivated" version. And yet another distinguished writer, the Austrian Franz Grillparzer devised a text -- in large part using his own words, with Goethe's for Klärchen's songs and the finale -- for an "oratorio" version, i.e., the entire drama encapsulated, with spoken texts between the Beethoven numbers. It is this version that Goethe must have heard at Weimar in 1821, when he wrote, "Beethoven has done wonders in matching music to text… It was a happy notion to set out the music to Egmont by means of short linking speech in such a way that it can be performed as an oratorio." And, in reference to the stirring finale, "Beethoven has followed my intentions with admirable genius."
This oratorio version, however, did not find general favor either, although Goethe himself was honored rather than offended at having his creation made "practicable."
Since 1810, the Beethoven tail has wagged Goethe's dog, so to speak. Even Schiller, in his much-shortened version, retained most of Beethoven's music. And on those relatively rare occasions, even in the German-speaking world, when the drama is staged, it is unthinkable to do so without Beethoven's music. It is therefore a rather expensive proposition, which accounts for Egmont being a festival piece rather than a repertory work.
The present Los Angeles Philharmonic performances of the complete Egmont score employ Goethe's words to convey the gist of the drama by means of Egmont's five key monologues, whereas in most concert readings the texts we hear are only those of Klärchen's songs and those in the final spoken "melodrama," i.e., spoken text over music, crowned by the "Siegessymphonie," whose first notes sound immediately after Egmont's final words.
Beethoven composed ten musical numbers for Egmont, beginning with the thunderous overture, a staple of the concert repertory, whose coda returns for the "Siegessymphonie." The other numbers are four entr'actes, mood-setting bridges; the two songs of Klärchen, in the first of which she envisions herself as a soldier, bravely accompanying Egmont into battle, and the second a reflection on the vacillating moods of the lover. With the final notes of Klärchen's (purely orchestral) death scene, the "melodrama" music begins. Egmont envisions Klärchen as the symbol of liberty. His sorrow gives way to defiance, ending with an exultant call to his people to overthrow their oppressors: "Defend your land! And to liberate your loved ones, give yourselves joyously, as I do now, for you!"
-- Note by Herbert Glass