Beethoven and Goethe

20 December 2017 / News

Earlier this month we collaborated with the Goethe-Institut in Wellington to present a concert of Beethoven quartets for their subscribers, students and supporters. The Goethe-Institut is Germany’s cultural institute, known worldwide for promoting the study of German language abroad and encouraging international cultural exchange. Ludwig van Beethoven and the institute's namesake, Johann von Goethe, were contemporaries (Goethe was 21 years older than Beethoven and outlived him by five years) and each greatly admired the other's art.  Goethe's influence on Beethoven is apparent in the incidental music he wrote to Goethe's 1788 drama Egmont as well as in several songs he set to Goethe’s verse. The two artists wrote enthusiastically to each other in 1812 and agreed to meet up in in the spa town of Teplitz later that year, but it seems they didn't hit it off quite as well as hoped and they never met again.

As well as the obvious connection through the quartets of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, each of us has a personal connection with Germany: Helene's parents are both German (though she was born in the US), both Helene and Gillian studied at the Musikhochschule in Cologne, Rolf played for a time with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and Monique's maternal grandmother is German.

For our audience at the Goethe-Institut we played two Beethoven quartets: one of his earliest quartets, opus 18 no 2 in G (published in 1801), and a quartet from his so-called 'middle period', the Quartet in E minor, opus 59 no 2. The E minor quartet is one of the 'Rasumovsky Quartets', written in 1805–06 for the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Andreas Rasumovsky. 

A couple of weeks after the concert, we received one of the best compliments we can possibly imagine in the form of a poem, inspired by our performance. The poet is Michael Radich, Associate Professor and Programme Director of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where he teaches mainly Asian Religions and Buddhism. Michael is a polyglot and accomplished musician as well, but it's this response to our Beethoven performance that completely bowled us over. Michael has kindly agreed to allow us to publish it here:


second movement


We bob in our chairs like lifeboats, adrift, suspended.
With a wave, the bow parts the string’s clear sea,
and out of the dark and the mist,
like an aural Mary Celeste,
Beethoven heaves full-rigged into view. 


And this hulk may seem unmanned, like you,
but it is not unmanned, and nor is he;
so truly is he captain of his ship, he is his ship;
and he bears a full complement of hands.

Time itself,  that was lost and silent, is made
a body now, sounding, woody, reedy; a hull
that wondrously floats, and defies the depths of death;
riddled by f-holes or portholes or loopholes in time;
a vessel, perhaps a hollow shell, but full,
as sails fill with wind,
with a song that recalls the cry of our first sea, being.

The music is, as it ever was, and will be;
but fades for now; and the ghostly vehicle,
unwonted as unhindered, needless ever of land,
to a last glimpse shrouded in shadow, and stern, slips back
into the dark and silence whence it came. 


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