Fibich’s Songs to Texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe attracted countless European composers all through the long 19th century. While the influence of his poems on the output of composers outside this country has been copiously explored by present-day musicologists, the impact of his work on Czech music, on a scale reaching beyond the widely known settings by Václav Jan Tomášek, is yet to be fully assessed. Still largely uncharted in this respect are the vocal compositions of Zdeněk Fibich to Goethe’s texts, including fifteen songs for solo voice, three duets, two choral works, and incidental music for a drama. Of these, the ten surviving solo songs from the composer’s student years (1869–1871) were first published in 2018. There, the song An den Mond, along with a series of songs to texts from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, document Fibich’s evolution from purely strophic songs to early attempts at through-composed vocal compositions.
The present study's introductory part deals with the song tradition in the Czech lands set in a broader cultural and political context. The ubiquity of German-language songs, equally neglected by the scholarly literature of then and now, is demonstrated here by a list of composers who produced settings of Goethe's texts. The following part of this text is focused on Fibich’s relationship to literature and music, with special regard to his settings of Goethe’s verse. Towards the end of his studies and on the cusp of his mature compositional work, Fibich wrote a collection of songs using texts from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. This quasi-cycle is notable for several features occurring there for the first time in Fibich’s career. Namely, this was the first time he chose to use in a composition a series of thematically interlinked texts, a decision marking his passage from strophic to through-composed treatment. At the same time, his setting of the harpist’s song, Was hör’ ich draußen vor dem Tor?, already features elements of the balladic approach he would go on to develop in subsequent years.
In its final section, this study points to so far untackled specific and general aspects offering themselves for further research, including Fibich’s further German-language song output, notably his songs to texts by Heinrich Heine, and analysis comparing these works with the composer’s Czech songs. A deeper insight into Fibich’s song output would contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of the abundant song production in the Czech lands during the second half of the 19th century.
Keywords: 19th century songs, Zdeněk Fibich, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe