Goethe-Briefe, cantata for baritone, mixed choir and orchestra (1970)

Goethe-Briefe /fragment/

Performers: Andrzej Hiolski – baritone, Orkiestra Symfoniczna PR w Krakowie, Jacek Kaspszyk – conductor "Warsaw Autumn" 22 IX 1976, Polish Composers' Union


PWM Edition Edition Peters

Goethe's Letters, fragment of a rehearsal during the 1976 Warsaw Autumn Festival (fragment from a television programme, "A music lover's Tuesday", 1976); performers: Andrzej Hiolski - baritone, Polish Radio and Television Orchestra in Kraków, Chorus of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Jacek Kasprzyk - conductor

The cantata was commissioned by the Dresden Philharmonic to celebrate its centenary. It is scored for baritone solo, mixed choir and large symphony orchestra. The literary basis of the work was love correspondence of a pair of lovers: Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Charlotte von Stein. Choosing relevant fragments from four volumes of correspondence (about 900 letters), Baird composed

a tragedy of love between a man and a woman, from its birth until its inevitable end, through all the stages from the initial fascination, passion, happiness overshadowed by the anxiety of the ever-present threat of loss, to jealousy and distrust, disappointment, indifference, bitterness of failure and separation.


Goethe's Letters, Tadeusz Baird talking to Grzegorz Michalski (fragment from a television programme, "A music lover's Tuesday", 1976)

This work, too, has an autobiographical context. As he was writing it, Tadeusz Baird was struggling with profound dejection caused by personal problems. Although the piece has three language versions – Polish, English and German – it is the German version that is the closest to Baird’s intention. Only this version reflects the right emotions and, consequently, pure image of the work.

The four stages of an emotional drama (falling in love, jealousy, parting and longing, farewell) became the basis for the four main fragments of the work preceded by a brief, dramatic and emphatic orchestral introduction, crowned with an equally concise coda. The most important fragments of the text are entrusted to the narrator (baritone), while the choir serves the role of a collective commentator. The uniformity of the sound material – including a recitative-like, ballad-like and archaising motif – guarantees the formal-dramatic uniformity of the work.

An instrumental introduction (bars 1-10) begins with a brutal orchestral tutti, heralding the beginning of a great “drama in four acts”.

The first movement (bars 11-52) consists of two parts – solo and choral – supported by the orchestra. The solo presentation is a dramatic confession of love:

I’m sending a flower through snow and cold, as if I were sending my love through ice and storms of life. I’m happy and calm and I feel I love you [...].

These feelings are reflected in a just as dramatic – initially quiet and cantilena-like and at times more dynamic – musical layer.

Chorus 1 expresses Charlotte’s feelings: 

Is what I feel not worthy, should I suffer for a sin so dear [...].

The woman’s emotional dilemmas are expressed by a very violent, dynamically and colourfully varied music.

The second movement (bards 53-87) is also made up of two presentations. The soloist sings: 

I long for you in secret, denying it even to myself. [...] There is no life away from my beloved.

The initial, uneasy and dramatic emotions are emphasised by means of the Sprechgesang technique and are accompanied by the percussion, while the final baritone cantilena is accompanied by an ironic sound of the clarinet. In an archaising polyphonic texture Chorus 2 quietens down the narrative: 

The presence, when one needs someone, determines everything, soothes everything, strengthens everything. What help is it for me, if you are there somewhere in this world, if you think about me.

In the third movement (bars 87-115), the baritone confesses solo: 

When the night falls, I feel worse and worse, and now the bugle is playing the sunset, which I used to listen to at your side, and my desire to see you becomes painful. I’m yours, all yours. 

This longing is commented on by the chorus:

The highest good a man can experience is sympathy and love that has survived so long. 

The solo part is very ascetic in its instrumentation. The chorus’ comment is emphasised by a subtle sound layer.

The fourth movement (bars 115-147) is entirely taken up by the soloist:

[...] Therefore, I must decide to say good-bye to you in writing. I haven’t found any greater happiness than trusting You. [...] Farewell. 

Musically, this is a restless fragment, supported by dynamic strikes of the percussion as well as internally quivering sound planes. The whole work ends with an instrumental coda (bards 147-157) with a dialogue of the brass gradually fading until niente.

The way to achieve the right dramatic effect throughout the composition was to employ sound planes referred to by Baird as “dissonant” and “consonant” fragments:

[...] after a very simple harmonic structure, brutally and brightly orchestrated, even the most complicated cluster given in a delicate, veiled orchestral form will be soothing and distracting. Of course, dynamic clashes may be used for the same purpose. The list could be expanded and I try to use whatever I can to avoid a monotonous sound “magma”, devoid of contrasts – i.e. also tension (though “commendably” uniform and “consistent”) so often, unfortunately, encountered in more modern music. [...] just for the sake of an illustration of these [...] reflections, let me draw your attention to the chord that ends Goethe’s Letters (the last four bars): this seemingly rather complex harmonic structure sounds, in fact, in a way that is intentionally similar to the E minor chord; it even has the emotional colour that used to be associated with this “elegiac” key, and this naturally stems equally from the structure of the chord and from its orchestration (at the same time it was supposed to suggest – and I think it does – a very quiet and delicate strike of a huge funeral bell).

Goethe’s Letters is a composition characteristic of Baird’s interest in sound. It is also a manifestation of the composer’s dramatic (in the sense of stage drama) interests as well as his archaising inclinations. This is how Baird talked about the groundbreaking significance of the work:

I seems to me that Goether’s Letters [...] alongside my Symphony No. 3, is a kind of summing up of twelve years (1958-1970) of my life and work, a result of various reflections and experiences, a work that closes a certain chapter. Writing these two works I realised clearly that their content and form were no longer enough for me, that the time had come to move at least one step further.

Here is Jerzy Artysz’s recollection concerning his collaboration with the composer during the first Polish performance of the piece:

[...] I learned from him that he [Baird] [...] had gone through nearly all Goethe’s letters to Charlotte von Stein. Goethe wrote an incredible number of these letters, while Stein lived just 200 away from his house [...]. His [Baird’s] knowledge of German was excellent, so he could afford to do that [...]. When I understood the origins of these letters more broadly, I immediately had a different understanding of it [...]. I had to transmit honestly what I had in the notes. [...] In any case, the atmosphere was warm as we were working on it.



Goethe's Letters, fragment of a concert during the 1976 Warsaw Autumn Festival (fragment from a television programme, "A music lover's Tuesday", 1976); performers: Andrzej Hiolski - baritone, Polish Radio and Television Orchestra in Kraków, Chorus of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Jacek Kasprzyk - conductor


  • T. Baird, Listy Goethego [Goethe’s Letters], the author’s comments (manuscript), May 1973, pp. 4, 7 and 12-13.
  • K. Tarnawska-Kaczorowska, Świat liryki wokalno-instrumentalnej Tadeusza Bairda [The World of Tadeusz Baird’s Vocal-Instrumental Lyrical Works], Kraków 1982, p. 111.