Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues

Ashgate, 2009, pbk 2016

Goethe and Zelter spent a staggering 33 years corresponding or in the case of each artist, over two thirds of their lives. Goethe’s letters offer a chronicle of his musical development, from the time of his journey to Italy to the final months of his life. Zelter’s letters retrace his path from stonemason to Professor of Music in Berlin. The 891 letters that passed between these artists provide an important musical record of the music performed by the Sing-Akademie in public concerts in Berlin, and in the private and semi-public soirées of the Weimar court. Their letters are those of men actively engaged in the musical developments of their time. The legacy contains a wide spectrum of letters, casual and thoughtfully composed, spontaneous and written for publication, rich with the details of Goethe’s and Zelter’s musical lives. Through Zelter, Goethe gained access to the professional music world he craved and became acquainted with the prodigious talent of Felix Mendelssohn. A single letter from Zelter might bear a letter from Felix Mendelssohn to another recipient of the same family, reflecting a certain community in the Mendelssohn household where letters were not considered private but shared with others in a circle of friends or family. Goethe recognized the value of such correspondence: he complains when his friend is slow to send letters in return for those written to him by the poet, a complaint common in this written culture where letters provided news, introductions, literary and musical works. This famous correspondence contains a medley of many issues in literature, art, and science; but the main focus of this translation is the music dialogues of these artists.

“The Goethe-Zelter correspondence belongs among the richest and most illuminating document of German cultural history in the early nineteenth century. Lorraine Byrne Bodley’s fine translation, expert annotation, and contextual discussion of this 35-year-long dialogue between a literary hero and one of the leading, most seminal, yet much misunderestimated musical figures of the time brings to life a fascinating and colorful period of musical life and thought that helped shape the future.”

Professor ChristophWolff,
Adams University Professor of Music,
Harvard University

“Bodley offers an excellent translation, and discussion, of Goethe and composer Carl Friedrich Zelter’s correspondence about music, and in so doing makes a major contribution to understanding both men. Their collaboration lasted from 1796 to 1832, and Bodley divides the letters into three sections – the early, middle and late periods. Revealing a wealth of information about the exchange of musical and poetic compositions and theories, the book shows the collaboration to have been educative for both men and the correspondence to have served in the practical production of many musical events. The letters provide information about gala productions, star performers, composers, noble families, publishers, and cultural leaders during this complex time in German cultural history. Equally fascinating are glimpses into the daily lives of these illustrious men, who were genuine friends. In particular, the letters reveal significant information about Goethe’s letter-writing activities and his interest in music as it related to his poetry: he respected Zelter as a tireless composer, teacher, theorist, and arbiter of taste. Bodley’s rich, far-reaching documentation includes details about their few personal encounters. Opening new avenues to scholars of music and the humanities, this title will certainly stimulate further research.”

Prof. E. Wickersham, Rosemont College

“Lorraine Byrne Bodley provides for the first time the complete musical correspondence between Goethe and Zelter. Hitherto there has never been a published monograph on the musical dialogues between the poet and man of letters in Weimar and the composer and pedagogue in Berlin, neither in English nor in German. The correspondence now shows us a wider picture of their moving friendship and of their sensitive thinking and imaginative observations on music. The quality of the translation is remarkable. To borrow from the German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic reflections on language: ‘there is actually no translation but replacement’. From this standpoint the ‘translator’ becomes an interpreter who is to elucidate the meanings of the texts. Particularly in discussions on technical musical details this hermeneutical claim has been convincingly achieved.”

Prof. Claus Canisius,
Author of Goethe und die Musik 


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