Hermann Goetz – Nenie op. 10 for choir and orchestra
(b. Königsberg, 7 December 1840 – d. Hottingen near Zirich 3 December 1876)
The fact that the Prussian composer Hermann Goetz is hardly known today can be attributed to two facts. First, it must be remembered that the frequently ailing composer died at the young age of 35, a few days before his 36th birthday. This circumstance leads to a relatively small list of works, even though Goetz began composing own works in his youth. The second reason may be the tonal language of the Königsberg-born composer, which, although technically mature, seems less spectacular and more backward-looking than that of most of his contemporaries. In Goetz’s compositions one hears much influence from Schumann and Mendelssohn Bartholdy, less from Brahms or even Wagner. It was probably due to this adherence to past styles and genres that many of his compositions were not published until after his death, despite being of a high standard. One exception is the four-act comic opera Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew), which enjoyed great and long-lasting popularity with audiences after its premiere in Leipzig in 1874.
It was only a matter of time, that Hermann Goetz would sooner or later turn his attention to setting a Schiller poem to music. As can be seen from the biography published in 1916, Goetz was already enthusiastic about Friedrich Schiller’s literary work as a child. Nevertheless, among his vocal compositions, namely his choral works and songs, there are no creations based on a Schiller poem. It was not until 1874, two years before his early death, that Goetz, by then residing in Winterthur, devoted himself to Friedrich Schiller’s poem Nänie from 1799. The complex and cryptic poem, which – as will be shown later – bursts with mythological allusions, seemed suitable to Goetz as a basis for a composition (despite the hexameters, which are difficult to set to music). A letter from the composer reveals that he had known the poem for some time and held it in high esteem. Presumably, the idea of setting it to music had also been maturing in him for some time. Goetz finally decided to begin the composition for mixed choir and orchestra in the spring of 1874. He worked out the concept in May and June, and due to his worsening tuberculosis, he spent the summer in Richisau, Switzerland, on medical advice, where he had already stayed for health issues in 1865/66. Goetz later wrote a letter to his friend, composer and conductor Friedrich Hegar, in which he shared his thoughts with him: “You know how I was doing then regarding my health, and all of a sudden the thought came to me, this [the Nenie] is my Requiem, and it will be just for me like it was for Mozart, I won’t even be able to finish it”. Soon after his arrival in Richisau, however, Goetz’s health improved considerably due to the fresh Alpine air, so that he completed his Nenie op. 10 after only three working weeks, during which, according to his own statements, he did not have to work very hard at composing. The spelling of the Nenie with an “e” instead of an “ä” is due to the advice of a befriended writer, Josef Viktor Widmann, who pointed out to the composer that while “Nänie” was more common, “Nenie” was more correct in view of the Greek origin of the word. Goetz sent the score to Hegar in the fall with the request to show it to their mutual friend Johannes Brahms. According to Hegar, the latter was immediately enthusiastic about Goetz’s composition and interested in setting Schiller’s text to music himself. Nevertheless, Brahms waited until 1880 to realize this project, and Goetz dedicated his Nenie to Hegar, who performed the work for the first time on 31 January 1875. Finally, in April 1875, it was acquired, together with the Symphony in F major op. 9, by the publisher Friedrich Kistner in Leipzig for 300 Marks and published in December of the same year.
Schiller’s Nänie (the word denoted a public praise in ancient Greece, but a funeral or mourning song in ancient Rome) is divided into seven elegiac distichs, in other words seven unrhymed double verses composed of hexameters and pentameters. The poem is, as already indicated, quite cryptic, and the content is at first glance accessible only to those versed in Greek mythology and history. It represents a lament about beauty and perfection, in which tragic legends from Greek mythology are taken up. Thus, the second distich refers to Orpheus, who descends in vain to the underworld in order to bring his beloved Eurydice back to the realm of the living with the help of beautiful Lyra playing and singing. The double verse that follows tells of the goddess of love Aphrodite, who mourns her beloved Adonis, who was killed by the jealous god of war Ares who took the form of a boar. The fourth distich, in turn, is about the inability of the sea nymph Thetis to save her son Achilles from death. He famously dies at the Scaean gate in Troy by an arrow guided by Apollo from the hand of the Trojan prince Paris. What is striking about these short episodes, however, is that the names of the people who are the subject of the individual verses are not mentioned. For example, Hades, ruler of the underworld and the river Styx, is also referred to as “Stygian Zeus” in the first distich. The reason for this is Schiller’s intention to draw attention to the abstract beauty, not to the Greek heroes. The reference to Achilles, in contrast to the shorter mentions of Orpheus and Adonis, extends even further through the next two double verses, which deal with the lament of Thetis, who, together with the daughters of the sea god Nereus (hence the Nereids, the sea nymphs) and the goddesses and gods of Olympus, mourns the death of her son. In the seventh and last distich, Schiller sums up the death of beauty, saying that it can live on “on the lips of loved ones” and thus outlast time by being artfully handed down as a work of art beyond death. In doing so, Schiller creates two levels of meaning of the Nänie: on the one hand, he writes poetry about the salvation of the perfectly beautiful through art; on the other hand, he demonstrates this salvation by means of his own poem.
Since Hermann Goetz’s Nenie op. 10 has been studied and compared in the past primarily with respect to Johannes Brahms’s Nänie op. 82, a description of Brahms’s work will be omitted here. It seems appropriate to mention, however, that Brahms did not view his composition as an “improvement” of Goetz’s work, but as a parallel piece to it. Respect for his friend and his choral work was probably partly the reason why Brahms waited to compose his Nänie until some years after Goetz’s death. The fundamentally different approaches of the two composers to the realization of the setting are already clearly recognizable in the first bars: while Goetz first takes a dramatic and lamenting path in his composition and only at the end sounds of conciliatory and transfiguration are heard, Brahms’s work emits a certain contemplative calm at the beginning.
The Nenie begins with a dramatic, intensifying orchestral introduction marked by sweeps in the strings. Finally, the first words of the chorus are proclaimed a capella and homophonically, making them particularly plaintive and oppressive. In this, Goetz also differs from Brahms, who lets the chorus begin sequentially and polyphonically. After the chorus repeats the exclamation in Goetz’ work, a polyphonic section begins here as well, in which the first distich is recited. Again the plaintive words of the opening are exclaimed before a slower epic section begins in which the three legends of the Greek heroes are sung one after the other. It is noteworthy that Goetz assigned roles to the chorus here: thus the double verse about Orpheus and Eurydice is sung by the tenors and the episode about Adonis and Aphrodite by the altos. The basses, in turn, take over the verses about Thetis and Achilles. These sections are accompanied by the winds and the strings, which harmonically support the voices as in a recitative with unobtrusive recumbent sounds. This form justifies the assertion that the Nenie bears features of an oratorio or a cantata. Brahms’s Nänie, on the other hand, also has several sections of musical expression, but its form is more reminiscent of an ode or hymn. The next section (Goetz has already reached the fifth distich) is introduced by flowing motions of the high strings, tracing the waves of the sea. After all, at this point Thetis rises from the sea with the Nereids and mourns her dead son. The chorus now acts as one again, and the music intensifies above the words “And they rise a lament” only to repeat once more the words that introduced the section. The sixth distich now returns to a minor key after the lament of the sea nymphs in a major key. At the end of this sixth double verse, the orchestra pauses while the chorus repeats the words once again a capella. The final distich, Schiller’s declaration of the immortality of the beautiful, provides a bridge to the beginning as the chorus picks up the comforting woodwind theme from the orchestral introduction. The mood changes once again when the Orcus (the underworld) is mentioned, and a descending scale is heard in the vocal parts. Instead of letting the work end here, Goetz repeats the penultimate verse about the immortality of beauty and finally concludes his Nenie in a major key with the transfiguring repetition of the words “is glorious”.
Matthias Guschelbauer, 2021.
For performance material please contact Kistner & Siegel, Brühl.