Sturm und Drang

by Dorothea

How Goethe’s poetry and prose seduced me to love the German language…

“I love those who yearn for the impossible”

GoetheJohann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

After years of battling in school trying to master German, I gave up and concentrated on English and French… How wrong I was, and how lucky to have seen the great film “Mephisto” by István Szabó with Klaus Maria Brandauer in the lead role. Based on the novel by Klaus Mann, it tells the true story of a great actor who “sells his soul to the devil” (like Faust) by staying part of the Nazi regime. The actor’s greatest role is “Faust” by Goethe..

mephistoKlaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen in the film “Mephisto

I recommend to see this film in original version (as any foreign language film). Even though I did not follow all the German at the time, I was literally swept away by the poetry and musicality of Goethe’s verse. The film won the Foreign Language Oscar in 1982.

Goethe’s poetry is often used to great effect, like in the beautiful “Alto Rhapsody” by Johannes Brahms, one of my most loved interpretations is by the great counter alto Kathleen Ferrier (click to listen), who is also one of my Top 10 Favorite Female Singers that I will post about later.

KathleenferrierCounter Alto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)

In Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody the choir sings the text of Goethe’s “Harzreise im Winter” (Winter Journey in the Harz), I defy you to not be moved, this is the translation of the last part of the poem:

If there is in Thy Psalter,
Father of love, one note
To his ear audible,
Then refresh his heart!
Open his clouded gaze
To the thousand springs
Next to the thirsting one
In the desert!

Goethe was also a great romantic, as this poem he wrote for Marianne von Willemer in 1815 will show you, he pasted two Ginkgo Biloba leafs from a tree from his garden on the page, symbolizing friendship or love…


Gingo Biloba

In my garden’s care and favour
From the East this tree’s leaf shows
Secret sense for us to savour
And uplifts the one who knows.

Is it but one being single
Which as same itself divides?
Are there two which choose to mingle
So that each as one now hides?

As the answer to such question
I have found a sense that’s true:
Is it not my songs’ suggestion
That I’m one and also two?