A Community of the Imagination: Seóirse Bodley’s Goethe Settings

Carysfort Press, 2013

How do Goethe’s characters – Mignon, the Harper and Gretchen – illuminate questions which are important for us today? And how has Bodley’s reading of Goethe filtered into his own artistic consciousness?

Challenging what is widely regarded as the distinguishing feature of Mignon and the Harper – their ineffable Romanticism – Lorraine Byrne Bodley unravels why Seóirse Bodley, like his musical forefathers, was drawn to these figures. At the centre of this attraction lies an implicit recognition of the modernity of these characters which Bodley’s prismatic song cycle enables us to view from different and unusual angles, in a new and familiar light. In other words it alienates or estranges or thinking about Mignon and the Harper, whose extraordinary songs of exile hold enormous cultural resonance and render them so central in a postmodern world.

From Goethe’s exploration of an adolescent on the brink of sexual maturity and radical reworking of the Orpheus myth in the character of ‘the Harper’, Bodley moves to a story of infanticide in the Gretchen cycle, where Goethe’s scathing criticism of the Catholic Church in the Cathedral scene and moving portrayal of Gretchen’s psychosis in her closing song, points directly to the relevance of Goethe’s texts in a postmodern world. In her identification and explication of Seóirse Bodley’s postmodern response to Goethe’s poetry, Byrne Bodley provides a new perspective on the creativity and innovation found within the Gretchen cycle, a cycle which becomes layered with meaning when paired with Seóirse Bodley’s setting of Brendan Kennelly’s A Girl, an Irish twentieth century equivalent of Goethe’s eighteenth century historical tale. This book is a nuanced defence of the modernity of Goethe’s texts as well as an invitation to apply these characters experience to our own times. For readers new to Goethe’s texts as well as those deeply familiar with them, Byrne Bodley offers lucid insights into these characters and into their continuing power to engage readers in our own times.

Although Europe figures prominently in our day-to-day discussions, the cultural dimension of Europe is increasingly neglected in public discourse. This publication, in which Seóirse Bodley, one of the most eminent contemporary Irish composers, emerges with the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the finest minds in European literature, is a fine example of cultural dialogue between Ireland and Germany. Literary and musical images are key to national constructions of identity; it is from them too, that we derive a sense of European identity.

At the heart of Lorraine Byrne Bodley’s musicological reflections is a detailed account of the poems that significantly shaped Bodley’s settings. In her reading of each cycle she examines the cultural and poetic contexts and situates confessional nuances in Goethe’s poetry with larger cultural forces at play,

The book explores very different but radical musics that can be traced back to Bodley’s Darmstadt period. Mignon and the Harper belongs to the avant-garde, the experimental, with all the challenges to which this has given rise. The more recent song cycle, Gretchen, is a fine example of how Bodley’s style continues to change and go into unexpected and unseen places. And yet while it is difficult to imagine two more contrasting pieces from one composer, both cycles compel us to experience the relationship of modernity to tradition in Goethe’s poetry and in Bodley’s musical settings.

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