This is the 4th post of the series about "Wilhelm Meister's songs", that's to say, the songs composed upon Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. If you missed the previous posts please pull the thread here.
L'arpista - G.H. Naeke
The harper - G.H. Naeke

In the previous post we listened to the harpist singing his first song to Wilhelm and his companions, who are having lunch in a bad mood and arguing all the time. Once the harpist left they go on arguing; Wilhelm leaves the lodging in order to be alone and sits on a stone bench in front.

Philine goes after him, caresses him and asks him to stay with the group; don’t forget that one of the reasons for Wilhelm's concern is that he wants to be faithful to his promise to stay away from women, but he also feels very attracted to the girl whom he rejects with great difficulty. When she leaves upset, Melina arrives and again asks Wilhelm for a loan to buy the costumes and the set for a new theatre company. Wilhelm agrees eager to get rid of him. Also, when Friedrich frankly admits he's in love with Philine, Wilhelm realizes he's jealous. In fact, Wilhelm is as confused by his feelings as he was a few pages before.

Not even Mignon’s company calms him down so he goes for a ride. It occurs to him to visit the harpist, "hoping by his music to scare away the evil spirits that tormented him". The harpist lives in a humble public house on the outskirts of the city; when Wilhelm arrives at his front door he hears him singing, accompanied by his harp ("they were heart-moving, mournful tones, accompanied by a sad and dreary singing"). Wilhelm is moved by the sadness of the harpist, his tears make him cry and he feels relieved ("All the pains that pressed upon his soul seemed now at once to loosen from their hold"). Then he goes into the room and asks the harpist to keep on singing. In this short 13th chapter of the second book, there is one more song that we’ll comment on the next post in this series.

The first verse of the song that Wilhelm hears from the hallway, Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (Who never ate his bread in sorrow) is quite poignant, it's one of the saddest images found in a Lied. As we now meet the harpist alone we become aware of his desolation; he projects a completely different image from his first song sung in public. Why does the harpist suffer so much? We don't know much about him: he's old, he lives in a poor room furnished with just one bed, he doesn't like talking and prefers to express himself with music. We’ve also got Goethe’s description, made a couple of chapters before:

His bald crown was encircled by a few gray hairs; and a pair of large blue eyes looked out softly from beneath his long white eyebrows. To a nose of beautiful proportions was subjoined a flowing hoary beard, which did not hide the fine shape and position of his lips; and a long dark-brown garment wrapped his thin body from the neck to the feet.

We have already seen that the harpist has an appeasing effect on Wilhelm; throughout the novel we'll discover he is a quite mysterious man with a strange, even dangerous behaviour, but we'll have to wait until the final chapters to find out about his past.

Right now, though, we are listening to one of the many Lieder that have been written upon this week’s poem. I’ve chosen a Lied by Schubert, who made three versions. The first two were written in September 1816, along with two more harpist’s songs; in September 1822 he decided to publish those three songs as Gesänge des Harfners, op. 22, but he replaced Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß with the third and final version, we are listening performed by Simon Keenlyside and Julius Drake. For order-lovers, this Lied was firstly catalogued as D.480 and currently it’s D.478 no.2, so it can be found in recordings and concert programmes one way or another.

The poem has only two stanzas; Schubert repeats both, and also repeats three times the last verse, as he faithfully follows Goethe’s words: “the good old man was performing a sort of voluntary, the few stanzas of which, sometimes chanted, sometimes in recitative, were repeated more than once”. He’s also faithful to Goethe’s remarks on sadness and despair, up to the point that some authors state that this song’s distress anticipates to Winterreise's; we don't know Winterreise Wanderer's experiences but knowing what the harpist has been through, easily he might have been its main character.

Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß

Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß,
Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
Auf seinem Bette weinend saß,
Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte.

Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein,
Ihr laßt den Armen schuldig werden,
Dann überlaßt ihr ihn der Pein:
Denn alle Schuld rächt sich auf Erden.

Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the darksome hours
Weeping and watching for the morrow,
He knows ye not, ye gloomy Powers.

To earth, this weary earth, ye bring us,
To guilt ye let us heedless go,
Then leave repentance fierce to wring us:
A moment’s guilt, an age of woe!

(translation by Thomas Carlyle)

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