Werther’s lyric performance of a bardic self

The devastating aria “Pourquoi me réveiller?” in Massenet’s drame lyrique Werther (1892) portrays a poet (Werther) singing the poem of a poet (Ossian) singing (in a contest of poets).

But things are even more complicated.  “Within the opera and without, the poem is the fruit of numerous translations, ever since it was first attributed to a dwindling oral tradition” (Jason R. D’Aoust:  The Lied d’Ossian in Massenet’s Werther,” Journal of Musicological Research 36:1, 2017, p. 33).

The night before writing the third section of his last letter to his best friend Wilhelm, Werther visits his beloved Lotte, who is married to another friend.  They used to play music and sing together.  Will they ever live again such a moment?  She asks him to read to her from his translation of the medieval Gaelic elegiac Ossian, the poet who has replaced in his heart the ancient Greek heroic Homer.

In Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), at that meeting Werther reads to Lotte from four “elegiac songs sung years ago as part of a contest among bards, Ossian himself among them.  Here in ‘Songs of Selma’ Ossian sings about a gathering of poets and quotes and coordinates the songs which they sang as part of a contest” (Kathryn Edmunds: “’der Gesang soll deinen Namen erhalten’:  Ossian, Werther and Texts of/for Mourning,” Goethe Yearbook 8, 1996, 51).  These are songs of death and bereavement that Ossian learned from earlier singers, active participants in a bardic tradition and its annual celebrations.  “The songs that Werther reads are nothing but an enclosure of voices within voices, each voice recalling and rehearsing the death of voice” (David E. Wellbery:  “Morphisms of the Phantasmatic Body, in Kelly & von Mücke, eds.:  Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, 1994, 208).

In the fourth song, from the “Berrathon” poem, Werther reads lines which in the original were spoken to the gale by a beautiful flower about to wilt, lines recited by Ossian and foreshadowing his own death.  Thus in the novel Wilhelm, the editor & narrator, is quoting Werther’s letter which is quoting his recitation to Lotte where he quoted a flower quoted in a bardic song quoted by Ossian, who was invented by Macpherson, as translated by Goethe. “The intertextual reading of Werther’s Lied d’Ossian highlights the sonorous palimpsest of the aria” (D’Aoust, 54).

Young, highly sensitive, a reader, a poet, a hypochondriac, a neurotic, a melancholic, an onanist, a pantheist, a Romantic (he has been called all that, and much more), Werther is totally absorbed by his self-fashioning, specifically, his becoming a poet in literature.  “Werther is in love with the idea of becoming ‘Werther’” (Edmunds, 45), a literary hero, “the figure whose letters are read as literature (belles lettres) and whose story or fate is to be told to others (as with the warrior poets in the Song of Ossian or with Jesus in the Gospels)” (47).

In Massenet’s aria, the novelistic Werther, who has been worrying about his worth (German wert/value) and has made “frustrated attempts to become his name” (Robyn L. Schiffman: “Werther and the Epistolary Novel,” European Romantic Review 19:4, 2008, 435), can finally claim the worth promised by his name by singing in front of his beloved a bardic song, one that old poets used to sing in their contests.  By performing Ossian’s flower song, he can compete for her respect and win the contest with his inadequate self, becoming “Werther” in Lotte’s eyes.  The performativity of the aria is so effective, its artificiality so “natural,” that we the opera audience feel that it is the young poet speaking and not a flower, and through it an entire Romantic intertextual tradition.

The three repetitions of the opening question Pourquoi (with its vocal challenges for the tenor) are not pondering an answer but affirming that Werther can indeed sing the way bards used to, that he too can perform a bardic self and become the stuff of legend and literature.  When this tremendous Act III recital still does not earn him Lotte (who loves him but remains faithful to her husband), he decides to stage the ultimate last-act performance, his suicide.

Sometimes I think I am my other self’s Wilhelm, the close friend to whom Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis is always writing passionate letters about love, nature, and art.

20 November 2016

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