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The Goethe Harfenspieler Poems and the Pianist


Within the haze of memories of my college years a particular mentor emerges as vividly as though the last class had been held yesterday. From the Eastman years piano exams, harmonic dictation, performer certificates, artist diplomas (the ultimate) and history survey courses are all but forgotten, but not the patient Jessie Kneisel, our German professor who presented ideas and information in the context of a musician’s needs. However absorbing it is to learn about the music of Josquin des Prés or the dominant and final of the hypodorian mode, the relevant reading that Dr. Kneisel (as we would have addressed her) assigned would sustain our idealism in the years that followed when we otherwise would have watched our dreams float away on a sea of unfulfillment.

I doubt that I would have understood Beethoven’s genius in “reaching beyond his grasp” had I never read the line in Faust, “Verweile doch O Augenblick, du bist so schön,” (Stay, oh moment, you are so beautiful), signifying that Faust had been seduced to believe in a perfection on this earth beyond which it was impossible to aspire. Nor would I have appreciated the poignancy of unceasing longing that draws one to Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. I might not have put side by side C.P.E. Bach’s assertion that the player unwilling to risk shame will not move anyone with Lili Kraus’s comment that an audience that has been moved by a Beethoven sonata has experienced grace.

Although my conversance with German literature is admittedly limited, the works introduced in Jessie Kneisel’s classes became a body of thought beneath the surface of music making. Here is one of the tips of the iceberg, lines from the Goethe poem with my own translation:

HARFENSPIELER:                                                           HARP PLAYER

Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß,                                 He who has never eaten his bread in tears,

Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte                              Who has never through troubled nights

Auf seinem Bette weinend saß,                                     Sat upon his bed weeping,

Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte. Doesn’t know you, you heavenly powers.

Explaining to a man of the cloth some years ago that Op. 111 was philosophical music was met with disbelief that music could be philosophical. More surprising was a factual anecdote about members of a musicology division on a graduate committee in a major university rejecting a student’s thesis that music could have a philosophical dimension. Yet one’s naiveté should be set aside hearing broadcasts of classical repertoire the interpretation of which confirms the negligible attention accorded the composer’s subjective involvement.

“Involvement” excludes, with exceptions, the incentive for writing the piece – an extramusical scene or event that only the composer could have known. The sound of involvement, on the other hand, is embedded in the articulation and dynamic indications and rhetoric and what the pianist does with these, drawn by personal extramusical images. The young pianist who plays the first movement Allegro of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata prestissimo to the disregard of figures of musical expressiveness may have as yet never eaten his bread in tears. Without recognizing the deeply troubled sprit in this work of art, the same individual will not learn to know himself, and playing this sonata will not rise above the excitement of competing in a track meet.
Four lines from the same poem suggest another reason works of a deeply serious, even tragic, character are so often merely performed instead of unreservedly lived:

Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein,                                     You lead us into life,

Ihr laßt den Armen schuldig werden,                          You let the innocent become guilty,

Dann überlaßt ihr ihn der Pein:                                    Then you leave him to him to his pain:

Denn alle Schuld rächt sich auf Erden.                        For all guilt must be avenged on earth.

Being swept up following the composer’s soul in the notes can lead to unplanned, untraditional, even irrational treatment of the score that is unlikely to generate “critical acclaim.”

In the most idealistic sense, it is misguided to play Op. 111 if one’s innermost being doesn’t need it.


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