Janet Baker commanding the operatic stage. Image: Erich Auerbach / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Goethe’s glorious persistence

His literature has inspired and underpinned so much—from Disney and Marx to one of the great British singers
October 4, 2023

The mezzo-soprano Janet Baker turned 90 in August, and the realisation set me on a freestyle cascade of thought through all sorts of things that I have been doing and pondering over the past few months. 

Dame Janet was without a doubt the greatest British classical singer of the 20th century. I remember going to Berlin in the early 1990s to interview the iconic German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for an episode of The South Bank Show that never happened. I asked him which other Lieder singers, singers of Schubert and Schumann and Brahms and Wolf, he truly admired. He paused a moment and, in his gentle, thoughtful English—“Dame Janet, of course.”

On Desert Island Discs, Sir David Attenborough memorably described listening to her peerless recording of Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’—lying in a boat in the Galapagos Islands, looking up to the stars and the shooting stars, surrounded by the glow of green phosphorescence and the splashes of cavorting sea lions, dead to the hurly burly of the world.

Dame Janet gave sold-out recitals at Carnegie Hall promoted by the legendary impresario Sol Hurok. Benjamin Britten wrote his last masterpiece, a setting of Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre, for her. She excelled in opera, sometimes in English translation, as Handel’s Julius Caesar, as Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, as Berlioz’s Dido. She appeared on primetime TV—Stars on Sunday—and wrote a bestselling memoir of her last year on the operatic stage. That was in 1982; her last recital was in 1989. 

I could go on (and on), but she looms large in my own memory because, aged 12, I played one of her brothers in a production of Massenet’s Werther at the English National Opera. We children sang a Christmas carol and, a little later, our thanks to Charlotte (Dame Janet) who cut us slices of bread and jam. I had no ambitions to be a serious singer at the time, but being somehow connected to her is a sort of post hoc legitimation of my career choice.

Much as the poetic persona of Werther appealed to me (though we couldn’t help pronouncing his name like the much-advertised sweets), I never returned to that opera. It’s a big Romantic piece and definitely not my bag, even if the eponymous hero is really a Lieder singer manqué, full of Sehnsucht and Weltschmerz. It is a lyrical dramatic masterpiece, performed at Covent Garden earlier this year with a thrilling debut from the young Russian mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina, as Charlotte.

Goethe’s version of the Faust myth is one of the founding texts of modern culture

Werther was also my introduction to that colossus of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I’d been aware of him before the opera only in a vague and garbled way—assuming that his name was the root of the word “Gothic” (to be fair, his description of Strasbourg Cathedral is actually one of the key sources for the revival in appreciation of the Gothic). His poetry has been a central part of my life for 30 years, particularly as set by Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf. The epistolary novel on which Massenet’s opera was based, The Sorrows of Young Werther, made him world famous, igniting a fashion for buff breeches, blue tailcoats and anxieties about copycat suicide.

Goethe’s version of the Faust myth, written over a period of nearly half a century, is one of the founding texts of modern culture, an inspiration for creative artists and an anticipation of much subsequent social and economic thought. Not only Walt Disney (in Fantasia) but also Marx and Engels have drawn on Goethe’s vision of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—“modern bourgeois society,” as they have it in The Communist Manifesto, “is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the underworld that he has called up by his spells.” One of Goethe’s greatest poems, Grenzen der Menschheit (“Limits of mankind”), was transformed by Hugo Wolf into one of the greatest musical invocations of the mysterious metaphysical, impossible to translate but nevertheless here we go: “What distinguishes gods from men? Many waves, an everlasting stream, proceed from them; while we are lifted and engulfed by those same waves: we sink beneath them.”

In June, I sang Schubert’s Winterreise in Schloss Ettersburg, just outside Weimar, where Goethe spent most of his life as a ducal counsellor. Not far away is the site of Buchenwald (literally “beech forest”). I’ve just been reading Jeremy Eichler’s rewarding study Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust and the Music of Remembrance. Apparently, the Buchenwald camp was, in an act of perverse, desecratory remembrance, built around one remaining tree, an oak tree, a favourite of Goethe’s, under which he had reportedly sat and thought. “Here a person feels great and free, the way he should always be.”

Travelling as much as I do in Germany, and despite political travails and populist adventurism, it is always moving to witness how Goethe’s critical, liberal and universal vision has, despite everything, weathered the storm.