Hermann Goetz, a lyric poet of sounds
“... his eyes shine exactly like those of Hermann Götz,” namely the eyes of Engelbert Humperdinck.
Johannes Brahms drew this comparison in a letter to Clara Schumann on 23 December 1894. At that time, Goetz, as was the actually correct spelling of his name, had already been dead 18 years and 20 days. Already during the lifetime of the colleague seven years his junior, in 1875, Brahms had entrusted music by Goetz to the care of the publisher Fritz Simrock, not necessarily his piano concerto - “... but otherwise I, and you probably as well, know lovely works by him, and the ‘Shrew’ has made his name known.” Indeed, the comic opera “The Taming of the Shrew” was for some time performed frequently after the successful premier in Mannheim in 1874 and was considered one of the best opera buffa in he German language and an original and imaginative setting of Shakespeare’s work. Another of the advocates of the piece was Gustav Mahler who conducted it often and with pleasure and staged a new production of it together with Alfred Roller at the Vienna Court Opera even in 1906. In the same manner, Mahler also supported other works of the composer who died so young. In 1877, Brahms lauded the posthumous Dante opera “Francesca da Rimini.” Goetz had even wished for the completion of the piece by Brahms, however, since he was unsure in the matter of operas, he passed it on to the musical director in Mannheim, Ernst Frank.
The eyes of Hermann Goetz truly shine in preserved photographs showing a young man seemingly rather shy and very serious. He was the son of a hard-working and wealthy brewer from Königsberg in what was then East Prussia. The family loved the arts, especially music. Already as a child, Hermann played the piano with a cousin, and from his 14th year on, he tried his hand at composing piano pieces and lieder. At about that time, he suffered from tuberculosis which could be controlled somewhat at ﬁrst. At the age of 17, he started taking lessons in earnest with the famous pianist Louis Köhler who lived in Königsberg. His mathematics studies remained a short interlude. Königsberg had an active middle-class musical life. As Goetz told it, he was “drawn into a busy amateurish life” and “different musical circles and turned into a conductor.” At not even 20 years old, he had already worked hard on “particularly Mozart’s operas in such great detail, as one can only manage when rehearsing them.” In 1860, he went to Berlin where he studied classical harmonic analysis and counterpoint at the “Stern Conservatory” and was actively supported by Hans von Bülow, the “best teacher of piano playing” there. “You are one of the few I am glad and proud to have taught,” Bülow later wrote him. For his ﬁnal examination in April 1862, he played his ﬁrst piano concerto in E-ﬂat major, which was melodious and formally a little awkwardly orientated on Liszt, and began teaching himself immediately afterwards.
Not only employment, but above all the hope for recovery in the better air of the Alps brought Goetz to Switzerland already in 1863. In Winterthur, he took over the position of organist at the protestant town church from Theodor Kirchner, who was called to Zurich. Although he was largely self-taught at the organ, he quickly became successful, founded a short-lived choral society that unfortunately suffered from a chronic lack of men, and found many tasks in the musical life of the city, which was reminiscent of the situation in Königsberg, supported mainly by enthusiastic associations and orientated very much towards the domestic.
He met his wife, Laura, during the Sunday circles in the casino.
Was this only some small happiness in the provinces? While Goetz wasn’t a keyboard great, he was a passionate performer of the music by Beethoven or Chopin, and he was a welcome guest pianist also in Zurich and Basel. He met and came to appreciate Brahms who loved Switzerland as his summer resort in 1865. In Basel, he experienced his ﬁrst truly great successes as composer with the piano trio op. 1 and the 2nd piano concerto, in which he found his own voice, more closely related to Brahms than to Liszt. In 1870, he moved to Zurich together with his wife and daughter Margarethe, yet kept his position in Winterthur for another two years before having to quit for health reasons. The alpine climate was unable to heal his illness. He threw himself into his work all the more.
A strangely poetic symphony, a lyrical violin concerto and wondrous chamber music made him famous beyond the borders of Switzerland; the Shakespeare opera was his breakthrough. The brave man never gave up, but rather worked on the Dante tragedy even in his ﬁnal days. On 3 December 1876, his life came to an end.
Roughly quoting Franz Grillparzer’s famous words on Franz Schubert,
Hermann Goetz left a beautiful estate, but also hopes that are just as beautiful. Hermann Goetz wasn’t a romantic idealist. He had observed Wagner and Liszt, the avantgarde of his times, with interest, yet there is almost nothing to be found of it in his musical language, which is ﬁrmly anchored in the First Viennese School and early Romanticism. And yet he found his own distinctive expression. He was a melodic composer of the purest blood. His melodies often have a seductively lyrical charm. The lied-like manner dominates, a profound atmosphere is more essential than exaggerated gestures. Fine sentiment never turns into sentimentality. A hint of the he voluptuous, of the ecstatic even, sometimes appears on the horizon like a distant dream, yet never gains the upper hand.
However well this composer had mastered the symphonic technique, he employed it just as freely - one or another phrasing surprisingly turning rhapsody-like, even vegetative. Of all the recognized masters of his generation, he would have to be placed just as much and in some ways more signiﬁcantly at the side of Edvard Grieg, the painter of lucid sounds, as at the side of the pensive artist of the variations, Brahms, despite their mutual sympathy. Listening to the oeuvre of Hermann Goetz, it might come as a surprise that it is almost never heard in a concert hall. At least it has been rediscovered and recorded time and again for decades. Perhaps the time will come for a type of music that has more of an inner glow than an outward sparkle.
The piano quartet in E major, created in the fall of 1867 and dedicated to Johannes Brahms, is considered the masterpiece of the composer. The ﬁrst movement bears the title “Quick and spirited.” The tempo is limited, the ﬁre blazes mostly in a restrained manner, yet intensely. The yearning main theme is being continuously spun on, all secondary motives are at its service. More dramatic accents of the piano are woven into the ﬂowing voices of the strings. In the second, slower movement, a melancholy minor veil drapes over the artfully set-up variations. Of course, Goetz had studied his Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn and certainly knew the early chamber music by Brahms, yet despite all following in form, he ﬁnds a unique beauty of the sound that dawns and glows and is all his own. The second of the five variations changes into a dance-like major, the third surprises the listener with playful phrases. The ﬁfth changes from great pensiveness to liberating E-ﬂat major, and in the end, the cheerful motive of the scherzo appears already, which follows without pause after a few moments of contemplation. In the trio, expressive melodic lines, often in a three-part canon, create ﬁne contrasts. The ﬁnal movement begins very slowly and meditatively with tentative questions of piano and cello, in fact, it doesn’t seem to want to change. However, the vigorous violin leads to a varied dialog between a discreetly rejoicing and a simple, lied-like theme, so that the piece comes to a positive ending in a truly “fresh and lively manner.”
“And when man in his anguish falls silent, a god told me to say what I am suffering,” Hermann Goetz wrote in 1874 as moto over his piano quintet in C minor, which was only printed after 1878 as op. 16 – the opus numbers in Goetz’s oeuvre say little about the chronology of the creation and a lot about the publishing dates. The deeply moving piece can be seen as the requiem of a highly sensitive artist for himself, even though music always also has an absolute quality. Goetz used the instrumentation of Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” for the quintet, i.e. piano and all four string instruments including double bass. Some commentators see the fact that violin and viola on the one hand and cello and bass on the other hand are often playing in octaves as a problem. However, it is precisely this which causes an alarming and dark atmosphere, which could have something to do not only with the illness of the composer, but also with his studies of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” for the opera. The stirring, fateful main theme of the passionate opening movement cannot be dispelled by the in principle
comforting, yet in the end ineffective singing second theme. The piano begins the second movement, Andante con moto, with quietly swaying notes; it is ﬁlled with tender and melancholy lyricism, against which the occasional brightening has little to no effect. The short third movement, an Allegretto moderato “quasi Menuetto,” uses an old courtly dance as digniﬁed background for serious composure into which the trio, played in the rhythm of the Ländler, shines some light. The delicate ﬁnale with its fugue exposition and masterly motive work tell of the rebellion against the inevitable.
Gottfried Franz Kasparek