Some thoughts on The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von GoetheThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by R.D. Boylan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. Sturm und Drang, romanticism, the first emo boy, first copycat suicides, and so important to European culture. It was a real window into the past. A perfect picture of a kind of youth that still exists: sensitive, argumentative, philosophical, and desperate to die for love. I was particularly impressed with Goethe’s description of Charlotte’s state of mind after Werther has pressed his suit and kissed her. Very modern as she struggles with the question of telling her husband.

I skipped almost all the “Ossian” segments, although Goethe must have been thrilled to include his translations (I guess they were Goethe’s translations into German). I’ve always been fascinated by the impression this hoax made on all the poets of that day–how desperately they wished for a Northern equivalent of the Greek poets!

Comparing it to Massenet’s opera Werther, I’d say the librettists did a pretty good job of making a dramatic musical presentation from the material. What we learn about Werther’s character and innermost thoughts through his letters in the book can be revealed much more quickly and beautifully through music. Although I do begrudge them the two comic-relief characters stuck in who-knows-why, probably yet another “they had to for the Opera Comique” thing.

From tumblr

In an interview in Vienna last year (prior to his singing Werther there), Jonas Kaufmann discussed the difficulty in gaining the audience’s sympathy for Werther (and Don Carlos, a similar character who could be a whiner for 4 hours). Otherwise, as he said, the audience is just sitting there thinking “shoot yourself already”! I don’t know how he does it (it helps to have an excellent Charlotte) but I certainly could shed a tear by the end when this obsessed young man decides to end it all.

The thing is, it’s a story you could see tonight on a reality show or even read about online: teen (because we ‘grow up’ faster now) in love kills himself when girlfriend goes off with  someone else. Another modern touch (in the book, not in the opera) is that Werther writes “one of them had to die” (Werther, Charlotte, or Charlotte’s husband). Of course he decides on suicide, but how many times have you read where the ex-husband/boyfriend decides to kill the woman or husband instead? That Werther even considers killing his beloved obsession Charlotte or his former friend, her husband…very modern, very realistic.

And the story still impresses. Here’s an image I found on DeviantArt. Click through to see the full size version.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by stawil on DeviantArt

Apparently the story of Werther is very popular in South Korea. Here’s a poster from a play:

The thing I love about the South Korean poster is that it is the essence of the story in one image.

Finally this book jacket:

Although it’s probably a detail of an angel weeping on a grave I think it’s absolutely gorgeous as a Werther image. It led me to an old-fashioned review that I found to be very much worth reading here:

If you’re thinking about reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, I suggest taking a look at Jim Murdoch’s review first. The book is available through Project Gutenberg in a Kindle edition, which is how I read it. You can also read it online here, which includes lovely Caspar David Friedrich paintings:

The opera is available on DVD. I like to order from Presto Classical as they are a small UK company with personal service and surprisingly competitive pricing. Shipping to the US is nominal, and most of their DVDs are NTSC/Region 1 or region-free.

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One Response to Some thoughts on The Sorrows of Young Werther

  1. “The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

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