Werther: a sentimental journey

Article by Robert Thicknesse

Thackeray wrote his little burlesque of Goethe’s short epistolary novel in 1853, some 80 years after The Sorrows of Young Werther saw the light of day and 40 before Massenet turned it into an opera. If little else, it shows what a lasting impact the book had. But that is nothing to the sensation it created on its publication in 1774: Werther fever swept across Europe, and it became quite the thing for romantically-inclined young men to affect Werther’s dress (English style: blue frock-coat, buff leather waistcoat and breeches), indulge in sentimental and hopeless love-affairs with unavailable young women, to sleep with daggers or pistols under the pillow ready for that small-hours crisis, and even, in extremity, to use them. If reports of a suicide epidemic are exaggerated, it seems that there was at least a smattering of cases, and in 1775 Goethe found it necessary to add a little poem to the reprint urging readers not to follow the hero’s example.

What makes Werther such an epochal book is that it not only describes a moment of high drama in the author’s own life, but captures a crisis of European culture. In 1772 Goethe (aged 22) came to Wetzlar, forty miles from his hometown of Frankfurt, ostensibly to look for a post as a lawyer. Instead of doing that he seems to have lounged about reading Homer and chatting with his friends, including one Karl Jerusalem. One June night, at a ball in nearby Volpertshausen, he met a girl with the rather Carry On name of Lotte Buff, 19 years old, second-eldest of 11 children, whose mother had died the previous year, and who was unofficially betrothed to Christian Kestner.

Goethe fell for Lotte like a ton of bricks, but managed to develop a civilised three-way friendship: the three of them would go rambling in the country and indulge in other 18th-century pastimes, though neither Goethe nor Kestner was very happy to leave the other alone with Lotte. In August Lotte told Goethe not to have high hopes of her, and in September, after a gloomy chat about the possibilities of a post-death reunion, the young writer abruptly left Wetzlar for Koblenz, where he quickly transferred his affections to 16-year-old Maximiliane von La Roche. But he stayed in contact with his Wetzlar friends and in October received the surprising news from them that Karl Jerusalem had shot himself.

Jerusalem, a couple of years older than Goethe, had fallen in love with a married woman, Elisabeth Herd, and on being shown the door by her had politely asked Kestner for the loan of his pistols. Kestner had no idea what was going on and readily supplied the guns. That night, alone in his room, Jerusalem shot himself. He was discovered the next morning, still just about alive, but died later. The next year Lotte married Kestner, and in 1774 Maximiliane also got married. Goethe sat down to write, and within four weeks had produced The Sorrows of Young Werther, a nice little conflation of his own experience with Jerusalem’s.

Werther is one of the first examples of the literary genre that came to be known as Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), a German phenomenon that took its name from the alternative title of a play by F. M. Klinger called Wirrwarr (Chaos). Since the appearance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse in 1761, a tide of nature heavy sentimentalism had taken over Europe, relying on the notion that the meaning of life is to be found away from the urbanity of the court-based Enlightenment and that, reconciled with the natural world, mankind might get back in touch with his emotions and lead a life of “pity, tenderness and benevolence”. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility of 1797 is a typically clear-eyed satire of the phenomenon; in Germany it is typified by the outpourings of the poet Klopstock, who gets couple of enigmatic mentions in Massenet’s opera.

The bedrock of sentimentalism was the elevation of the life of the emotions, a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Throughout the 18th century sex and marriage had been more matters of business transaction than of love, and this was about to change. It was not yet a matter of full-blown Romantic passion: these effusions still had to exist in the rigidly-ordered world of pre-Revolutionary Europe, governed by right-thinking standards of decency, propriety and common sense; still, indulgence in high-flown sentiments, melancholy and fine feelings was a reasonably harmless and unthreatening substitute for the torrid emotions which were to be unleashed within a decade or two. The heart would rule the head, up to a point, and the creative life would be prized more than the reflective powers of the mind.

Sturm und Drang was a rather different kettle of fish, though undoubtedly a variant of sentimentalism. Strangely enough, and contrary to the usual way of things, it appeared in music before its literary manifestations: the normally placid likes of Christian Bach and Haydn were overtaken in the late 1760s by an urge to write wildly subjective and emotional music, often in a minor key, full of unexpected silences and rushing semiquavers, suggesting extreme weather conditions as well as the turbulent condition of their own souls. In literature its models were the more barbaric parts of Shakespeare, its avowed aims were to frighten and perturb, to take the life of the heart to whatever extreme it could support – not unlike opera, really.

You can see the transition from sentimentalism to Sturm und Drang at work in the character of Werther himself. Goethe’s book is written in two parts, the first based largely on his experiences with Lotte Buff, the second on Jerusalem’s with Elisabeth Herd, and consisting almost entirely of letters from Werther (we never learn his Christian name) to his friend Wilhelm. Werther comes to the country to recover from various unspecified unpleasantnesses, and immediately plunges himself into the civilising balm of nature: “When the vapours rise about me in this lovely valley, and the sun shines high on the surface of the impenetrable darkness of my forest, and only single rays steal into the inner sanctum, and I lie in the long grass by the tumbling brook, and lower down, close to the earth, I am alerted to the thousand various little grasses…”. (And here, perhaps, we see the essential problem with this person, his unmistakable relationship to a great English fictional character: “…aktually it is only fotherington-tomas you kno he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature…”.)

Werther’s first meeting with Charlotte (Goethe gave his heroine his inamorata’s own name) is pretty much as itemised by Thackeray. He has already been told (unlike in the opera) that she is promised to another, but he is still bowled over by his first sight of her in earth-mother mode, surrounded by the brood of her siblings. They go to a local ball, where, since they are the only decent dancers, they spend some time together, then they watch a thunderstorm out of the window (which handily echoes Werther’s feelings on being told about Charlotte’s intended, Albert). Werther is convinced his immediate, overwhelming ardour is reciprocated, and Charlotte does little to disabuse him. They spend a demure month in each other’s company before the return of the dreaded Albert.

After this the wheels come off for poor old Werther: not even nature (which has now become a Gothick horror of yawning chasms, immense mountains and rushing torrents) can console him, and he notes: “I see no end to my misery but the grave”. He leaves, much as Goethe left Wetzlar, and spends an unhappy few months working as an embassy functionary. But he cannot constrain himself from writing to Lotte, and learns shortly that she and Albert have married. He endures social humiliation at court, resigns, thinks about becoming a soldier, but eventually returns to be close to Lotte. After a disastrous and gloomy few weeks of this he kills himself just as Karl Jerusalem had done.

Despite Goethe’s subsequent misgivings about his hero and his book (“It presents weakness as though it were strength”, he wrote; “if there are fools who take harm from reading it, dammit! – so much the worse for them”), Werther is a type who became a significant feature of literature – particularly the Russian variety – in the 19th century: the over-educated man without a role, whose lack of occupation leads him into an excess of inwardness and all manner of trouble. Pushkin’s Onegin is one, followed by all the heroes of Turgenev, ending with the tortured Karamazovs and Raskolnikovs of Dostoyevsky.

As an operatic hero he is rather more remarkable: generally it is women, not men, who die of love in opera. Massenet was possessed of the idea to write the opera following the obligatory pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1886 to see Parsifal. On the way back his publisher, Georges Hartmann, a man with a plan, took him to Wetzlar, showed him the house where Goethe had written the book, and sent him off to the pub with a copy of Werther. Massenet was captivated, immediately forgot his plans to write something based on Henri Murger’s La vie de bohème, and set to work.

The resulting opera was perfectly suited to the Victorian tastes of Third Republic France – darling children, virtuous women, all the outward signs of middle-class propriety and nothing to scare the horses: in fact a kind of return to the sentimentality of the mid-18th century. Massenet suffered even in his lifetime from the sobriquet “Gounod’s daughter”, and has attracted plenty of flak ever since, but was wildly popular until the Second World War, when his polite style of French Romanticism fell out of favour. But he undoubtedly does some things very well indeed. The most obvious difference between book and opera is that we no longer see everything from the hero’s point of view: instead of being immersed in the logic of Werther’s own fervid imagination we see him from the outside, and it isn’t always a pretty sight. Goethe’s triumph is to portray self-indulgence on Werther’s terrific scale in a sympathetic way: the reader shares his outrage at social injustice, rejoices and suffers along with him in his triumphs and disasters.

But opera is a blunt instrument, and with the filleting of the book Werther loses many of his attractions: his outbursts about the glories of nature and the many charms of children are less calculated to melt the stony hearts of the 21st century. The major compensation for this is the portrayal of Charlotte, in the book inevitably seen exclusively through the hero’s eyes and more a projection of his own romantic fever than a living woman. Along with Manon, she is one of Massenet’s loveliest creations, in her scenes with Werther and her sister Sophie (another felicitous fleshing-out of a minor character) a lovingly-painted picture of a troubled soul striving to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming emotion. Charlotte’s letter scene, the downfall of many an auditioning mezzo, is justly one of the best-known of all operatic arias.

Werther floats along on a stream of delightful, short-breathed melodies, it is uniformly beautifully orchestrated (note particularly the moonlight scene in Act 1), and provides a decent proportion of the emotional anguish that we expect from our operas. The final scene, where Charlotte rushes to be beside the dying Werther, is Massenet’s own invention and a suitably torrid end to the affair (though the Werther of opera is a considerably better shot than his original, who took 12 hours to die). Massenet had one overwhelming aim, the desire to please his audience, and was the most assiduous of musicians – a failing that many subsequent composers have found hard to forgive. In its quiet way, Werther is a perfect two hours in the opera house: our Victorian ancestors certainly thought so. And yet this understated work, with its rationed drama (what really happens in it?) and lack of hysteria, was rejected by the director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris: too gloomy, he said, it’ll never play.

The next day his theatre burned to the ground. By comparison with many of Opera Holland Park’s red-blooded offerings of this and other seasons Werther might seem mild meat. But we don’t always need to be challenged: sometimes, gentle charm is quite enough to be going on with.