A Sonata for Goethe, Lotte and Werther

© Charles Thibo

What kind of music did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe listen to? I knew he was interested in music, since he wrote about music and poetry, but were there any composer he cherished? He was a friend of Carl Friedrich Zelter, the teacher of the Mendelssohns’, who has set to music several of Goethe’s poems, but apart from Zelter anyone else? A little research on the internet taught me that he was impressed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and had hoped Mozart would set his drama “Faust” to music. It did not happen. He was impressed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas and he liked a few German composer who barely achieved regional fame.

I found out furthermore that he did not like Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as he was in general very reluctant to embrace new, revolutionary ideas. Strange, isn’t it, at least for someone who wrote a sensational and highly controversial novel like “The Sorrows of Young Werther”? What about Georg Philipp Telemann? If he liked Bach, he might have appreciated one of the other great Baroque composers of Germany. But I found no proof.

As a matter of fact, when I was about to write this post about Telemann’s Trio Sonata for Flute, Bass Viol and Basso Continuo (TWV 42:H4), I had just finished reading “The Sorrows of Young Werther” a second time. Goethe’s coloured descriptions of nature, the innocence of the first encounters between Werther and Lotte, the way the young people enjoy themselves at a hunting lodge, where Lotte dances the “third contre-danse” with Werther, the inconspicuous beginning of the novel – Telemann’s trio sonata seemed to fit the subject.

The trio sonata saw the light when Telemann hold the position of  cantor and music director in Hamburg, at the same time he wrote the Sonata in A major for Two Bass Viols, that I have presented in an earlier post. Telemann followed the Italian fashion and especially the forms that Arcangelo Corelli had cast. No other composer ever published so many trio sonatas, and the musicologist Siegbert Rampe qualifies him as the most important German composer of trio sonatas. Telemann apparently himself said that his contemporaries valued these works more than anything else he had written.

Actually, I find it quite unbelievable that Goethe should not have been familiar with Telemann’s music. Telemann had been Kapellmeister at the court in Eisenach from 1708 until 1712. Some 50 years later Goethe moved to Weimar, which is not far from Eisenach, and I find it inconceivable that Telemann’s music would not have been performed at the court of Duchess Anna Amalia, a great music lover. Furthermore Zelter wrote about Telemann’s sacred music in at least one letter to Goethe in March 1824. Anyway, if Goethe did not come across this sonata, he missed a lot. And Werther in love would have loved it too.

The Trio Sonata for Flute, Bass Viol and Basso Continuo has been recorded by Claire Bracher.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.