Clavichord Perspectives from Goethe to Pound

Clavichord Perspectives from Goethe to Pound
by Joan Benson
De Clavicordio VI; Proceedings of the VI International Clavichord Symposium; September, 2003; Bruachli, Galazzo, and Moody, ed; The International Center for Clavichord Studies

In reading poems and novels for pleasure, I chanced upon five works that contain important passages about the clavichord. Arranged chronologically, these passages trace shifting attitudes toward the clavichord from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

The first, very vivid example is found in Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749, the year before J. S. Bach died. As a lad of the Empfindsamkeit period, Goethe pressed his parents into giving him clavichord lessons. Later, in his early twenties, he became a natural exponent of Sturm und Drang. Suffering from unfulfilled love, he contemplated suicide. Instead, he wrote a shocking novel about unbridled emotions. Published in 1774, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” became the rage, inflaming the youth of Europe.

In Goethe’s early life the clavichord was extremely popular, particularly as a delicate means of expressing feelings. Thus it was natural for him to use the word clavier to imply the clavichord, as a symbol of sensibility and demure innocence. As Goethe’s novel proceeds, this symbol is threatened and finally broken by uncontrollable passion.

Goethe’s story begins in June 1771. Werther, a sensitive artist, is summering in the country village of Waltheim. By chance, in traveling to a dance, he shares a carriage with lovely Lotte. He stares at her dark eyes. She says to him:

I don’t know anything to surpass dancing. And whenever I have something on my mind, I start strumming some contredanse on my clavichord (which is always out of tune) and then all goes well.*1

Werther, fascinated by Lotte, begins walking daily to her home. He discovers she is engaged to Albert, currently absent on business. The young artist seeks to control his desires through the purity of Lotte’s music.

She plays a melody on her clavichord with the touch of an angel, so simple, so ethereal! It is her favourite tune, and I am cured of all pain, confusion, and melancholy the moment she strikes the first note.

Not one word about the magic power of music in antiquity seems to me improbable when I am under the spell of her simple melody. And how well she knows when to play it, at the moment when I feel like blowing out my brains. The confusion and darkness of my soul are then dispersed, and I can breathe more freely again. *2

In July Lotte’s Albert returns. Werther knows he should stay away, but he uses the clavichord as an excuse to continue his visits.

I feel that Lotte would not like to lose me. […] I went out there to tune Lotte’s clavichord but I did not get around to this task, for the children [Lotte’s little sisters] followed me everywhere, asking to be told a fairy tale, and Lotte herself begged me to do as they wished. *3

In October Werther wistfully leaves to take a legation post at court. He finds the work boring, the aristocratic snobbery intolerable. In 1772, he returns to Waltheim to be close to Lotte again. But seeing her as a bride makes Werther miserable.

She feels how I am suffering. Today her glance went straight to my heart. I found her alone […] She took refuge at the clavichord, and her soft voice breathed out a melody to the accompaniment of her playing. Never have I seen her lips so charming; it was as if they opened thirstily, to drink in the sweet tones which welled up from the instrument; as if only a mysterious echo reverberated from her innocent mouth. […] I bowed my head and vowed: ‘Never shall I dare to kiss those lips, on which heavenly spirits hover.’ And yet – I shall – Ha! […] and then die to atone for my sin – sin? *4

By December, the once-comforting sounds of the clavichord drive Werther wild.

I cannot bear it any longer! Today I sat near her as she played the clavichord, all sorts of tunes and with so much expression! […] I bowed my head and caught sight of her wedding ring. The tears ran down my cheeks – and suddenly Lotte began to play the heavenly old melody. All at once my soul was touched by a feeling of consolation, by a memory of the past, of the other occasions when I had heard the song, of the dark intervals of vexation between, of shattered hopes, and then – I walked up and down the room, my heart almost suffocated by the rush of emotions.

‘For God’s sake’, I said, in a vehement outburst, ‘for God’s sake, stop!’ She paused and looked at me steadily. ‘Werther!’ she said, with a smile that went deep in my heart, ‘Werther, you are very sick. You dislike the things you once liked. Go! I beg you, calm yourself!’ I tore myself from her sight, and – God! You see my misery and will put an end to it!’ *5

Lotte’s husband leaves again on business, so Werther cannot visit. But Lotte misses her understanding artist-friend. Werther, trapped in the tragic triangle, decides he has to kill himself. He goes to bid Lotte a final goodbye. On his unexpected arrival, Lotte’s heart beats violently. She receives him in frantic confusion.

Werther paced up and down in the room, and she went to the clavichord and began to play a minuet, but it did not go smoothly. She recovered herself and sat down quietly beside Werther, who had taken his customary place on the sofa. *6

Since the clavichord no longer calms them, Lotte bids Werther recite some of his German translations of old Celtic tales. He chooses Songs of Selma, closing with the final hymn of Ossian. ‘The time of my fading is near’, he declaims, ‘and the gale that shall scatter my leaves! […] He that saw me in my beauty shall come. His eyes will search the field, but they will not find me.’ *7
Overcome by these words, Werther kneels and seizes Lotte’s hands.

An apprehension of his terrible intention seemed to brush against her soul. A tumult rose in her; she took his hands, pressed them against her breast and, bending toward him with a mournful gesture, their glowing cheeks touched. The world was lost to them. He clasped her in his arms […] and covered her trembling lips with a shower of passionate kisses. – ‘Werther!’ she cried with a choking voice, turning aside. He […] threw himself almost senseless on the floor at her feet. She quickly got up and said in a terrified confusion, torn between love and indignation, ‘This was the last time, Werther! You will not see me again’. And with a look full of love for the unhappy man, she rushed into the next room and locked the door behind her.*8

The next day Werther asks for Albert’s pistols, which Lotte quickly sends him. He writes her:

They are loaded – The clock strikes twelve! – So be it! Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell! *9

In The Sorrows of Young Werther, the clavichord could not halt violence. Nor was the western world inclined to avoid war. In 1774, when Goethe’s novel was first published, the American Revolution began. In 1789 the French Revolution followed, lasting until 1799, the year Alexander Pushkin was born.

The link between Goethe and Pushkin is strong, for the Russian writer worshipped the mighty German. In fact, Russia had been deeply influenced by Germanic culture since the reign of Peter the Great.

Thus the clavichord was popular in Russia in the eighteenth century, and remained so well into the nineteenth. Less expensive, more stable and portable than the new fortepiano, it remained the preferred instrument for domestic music. Russians studying abroad returned home with clavichords, and clavichord variations were composed on Russian tunes.

Two antique clavichords are on view in St. Petersburg. One was made in St. Petersburg. One was made in 1744. The other, by Gottlieb Lehrer of Pressburg (now Bratislava), has black naturals, bone-covered sharps, and a simple walnut case. Fretted, with a compass of sixty-three notes, it was built in 1816.

That same year, Alexander Pushkin graduated from boarding school. While he was a student, Hussar officers were also stationed there. They had helped force Napoleon’s army back to France, and gave glowing reports of a free Paris. This stirred up hopes of freedom among Pushkin’s colleagues, but Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I remained despots. Pushkin, disillusioned, wrote liberal articles that led to his exile in remote Kishinev. Here in 1823, he began his dramatic poem, Eugene Onegin.

This poem, which Tchaikovsky later turned into an opera, shows definite signs of Goethe. In fact, one main character – dreamy clavichord-playing Lenski – resembles a weak version of Goethe’s Werther. Teenage Lenski, however, is a rich landowner, freshly graduated from the University of Gottingen (note that here the Kramer family of Gottingen built fine clavichords well into the nineteenth century). Pushkin pokes fun at Lenski’s return from ‘misty Germany’ with ‘liberty-loving dreams.’ *10 He pictures the clavichord as a pale symbol of misplaced fragility.

Pushkin’s real hero is Eugene Onegin, whose wings have been clipped by the Czar. He is now a cynical do-nothing – one of Russia’s useless men. A conceited eccentric, he hibernates on newly-inherited castled land. His one friend is Lenski, who seems to wander ‘with a lyre on earth, under the sky of Schiller and Goethe’. *11

Onegin watches Lenski fall for flighty Olga ‘as only the mad soul of a poet is still condemned to love’. *12 Naïve Lenski becomes engaged to Olga, who permits him only to play with a curl or kiss the hem of her skirt. Out of spite and amusement, Onegin flirts with Olga at a dance. Lenski, furious this ‘worm’ would try to ‘gnaw the stalklet’ of his ‘lily’, *13 challenges Onegin to a duel.

Lenski makes one last visit to Olga, reminiscent of Werther’s final hours with Lotte. In both cases, the youths are silent about pistol plans. Lotte, however, fumbles at her clavichord, while Lenski attempts to play on Olga’s instrument. Unlike Goethe, Pushkin mocks his romantic impulses, so out of place in a cynical world:

All evening Lenski was distracted,
Now taciturn, now gay again;
But he who as been fostered by the Muse
Is always thus; with knitted brow
He’d sit down at the clavichord
And play but chords on it;
Or else, his gaze directing toward Olga,
He’d whisper, ‘I am happy, am I not?’
But it is late; time to depart. In him
The heart contracted, full of anguish;
As he took leave of the young maiden,
It seemed to break asunder.
She looks him in the face. ‘What is the matter with you?’
‘Nothing’. And he makes for the porch *14

Lenski stays up all night writing love poetry. Next morning at sunrise, exhausted, he meets Onegin on the meadow. He is killed by Onegin’s first shot.

Softly he lays his hand upon his breast
And falls. His misty gaze
Expresses death, not pain.
Thus, slowly, down the slope of hills,
Shining with sparkles in the sun,
A lump of snow descends. *15

Thus Pushkin paints an end of hope and innocence in Russia. The clavichord, with its airy sighs, becomes a symbol of lost saccharine dreams. In 1837, Pushkin himself was killed in a duel. He never knew the freedom-loving era that came after despotic Czar Nicholas I’s death.

The new Czar Alexander II, encouraged by Russian liberals, finally gave the serfs their freedom in 1861. That same year another Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev, finished his masterpiece, Fathers and Sons. In this novel he depicts the clash between ‘old’ Russia and the ‘new’ more practical generation. His hero, the commoner Bazarov, claims that all authorities – including religion and art – must crumble to create a scientific world. For him, all keyboard instruments are a sinful waste of energy.

By now the clavichord has been replaced by bolder sounds. Turgenev describes a drunken ‘free worman’, who taps her nails on the keys of an out-of-tune piano as she croaks out gypsy songs.

Only Bazarov’s parents, whom he scorns, suggest the gentle pasts. Turgenev describes Bazarov’s adoring mother as follows:

Arina Vlasyevna was a genuine Russian gentlewoman of the olden times; she ought to have lived two centuries before. […] She was very devout and emotional, she believed in fortune-telling charms, dreams and omens. […]

In her youth she had been pretty, had played the clavichord and spoken French a little; but in the course of many years’ wanderings with her husband, whom she had married against her will, she had grown stout and forgotten music and French. […] She was apprehensive, and constantly expecting some great misfortune, and began to weep directly she remembered anything sorrowful. […] Such women are not common nowadays. God knows whether we ought to rejoice! *16

Hence within a single century, Goethe, Pushkin and Turgenev picture the delicate clavichord as it was first loved, then tolerated, and finally disdained.

Britain’s John Galsworthy links the clavichord’s demise with its twentieth-century revival. Born fifty years after Turgenev, he uses him as a model, admiring his hatred of humbug. Galsworthy looks with a satirical eye at his own upper middle-class world. In The Forsyte Saga, starting in the 1880’s, Galsworthy needles the problems of a wealthy Victorian family. The series is such a success that he follows generations of Forsytes in subsequent novels, almost like a soap opera.

His novel The Silver Spoon opens in 1924. Privileged England is complacent and indifferent to a rapidly changing world. The setting is the salon of Soames Forsyte’s daughter, Fleur.

The room was painted in panels of a sub-golden hue, with a silver-coloured ceiling. A clavichord, little golden ghost of piano, stood at one end. Glass lustres, pictures of flowers and of a silvery-necked lady swinging a skirt and her golden slippers, adorned the walls. *17

Fleur is giving one of her weekly parties to foster her husband Michael’s new career in Parliament. The young smart set is invited, along with leftist Blythe, editor of “The Outpost”, who has ‘a passion for listening to the clavichord’. *18

At the party, Soames Forsyte overhears a young noble lady whisper that his daughter Fleur is a snob and a nobody without a personality or wit. Outraged, Soames makes a scene and forces the lady out the door. Fleur, very pale, tries to ignore them. She smiles, waves her hand, and announces: ‘Madame Carelli’s going to play’. *19

Fleur was standing near the clavichord, as if nothing had happened. But Michael could see her fingers crisping at her dress; and his heart felt sore. He waited, quivering, for the last chord.

Soames had gone upstairs. […]

The thin strumming of the clavichord came up to him out on the landing, waiting to climb to his room […] He passed on up […] And, shutting his door on the strumming of the clavichord, Soames closed his eyes again as best he could. *20

Old Soames had no care for the clavichord. Actually England had neglected this instrument for over a century. By 1924, however, it had regained some fashion. Its soft sound as pictured in The Silver Spoon seemed refreshing to a certain few.

The man who did the most to spark this revival was Arnold Dolmetsch, who settled in England from the continent in 1883. To breathe new life into old music, he began restoring forgotten instruments and teaching himself and others how to play them. Encouraged by George Bernard Shaw and Sir George Grove, Dolmetsch bought a small, elegantly costumed ensemble onto the stage. By the turn of the century, his intimate concerts were in fashion among the British elite.

As early 1889, Dolmetsch bought and restored an eighteenth-century Hoffman clavichord for his presentations. Among the first to request a copy was London’s Royal College of Music. After 1900, he performed on the Hoffman in concerts as far away as America. He built clavichords for Chickering in Boston and Gaveau in Paris, and finally opened his own shop in England in 1914.

Within a year Ezra Pound, a young American poet living in London, became captivated by Dolmetsch’s expressive clavichord performances. The sound reminded him of clear amber. Pound visited Dolmetsch and asked to buy one of his clavichords. The maker, in grand style, sold him the very instrument he was playing.

Pound kept his clavichord all his life. During World War I in London, he entertained with his instrument. In 1917, he made an attempt to blend clavichord tones with his translation of troubadour verse. That same year he published the first of his Cantos, which would later extend into one of his finest works.

In general Pound’s Cantos, unlike Galsworthy’s easy read, are filled with overwhelming complexities. Pound leaps quickly from time-space to time-space, from culture to culture, from language to language. He warns not to seek too much in the first reading, but to let the sound of the words sweep by. Details can be selected and tasted, like exquisite, momentary bites. The overall effect is profound.

By 1923 Pound became an expatriate in Italy, taking his clavichord with him. By the 1940’s, he trusted Mussolini’s wish to aid the common Italian people. Pound’s series of anti-war broadcasts to America, however, made him appear a traitor. After Mussolini’s execution in 1945, Pound awaited his own death sentence in Pisa. He was placed in a solitary steel pen and then moved to less severe quarters, where he had access to a typewriter and a few books. Writing mainly from memory, he began his Pisan Cantos. Months later he was escorted to Washington, D.C., and deemed medically unfit for trial. The Pisan Cantos were published during his twelve years in a hospital for the criminally insane.

Of all the Cantos, these are the most personal and meditative. Pound contrasts Italy’s and his own dark loss with pleasant memories and the paradise of nature.

In Pisan Canto LXXVII, Pound offers a fresh twentieth-century perception of the clavichord. Avoiding a stale sentimentality, he presents a piquant insight into the delight of its clarity in a dismal world.

And Margherita’s voice was clear as the notes of a clavichord ‘tending her rabbit hutch’.*21

Margherita, abandoned as a baby, lived with the same Tyrolean family as Pound’s daughter Mary. The poet remembers this peasant girl’s lovely pure voice as she combs angora rabbits in their hutch by a crocus-topped dung heap. Pound juxtapositions this memory with that of his precious clavichord, still held for him in Italy.

In Canto LXXX – the situation actually happened. Pound wondered if Dolmetsch would discover what Dulac, the French designer, had done!

But Dolmetsch died without ever knowing that
Dulac had broken and mended the support to the lid
[…] of one of his clavichords, Dolmetsch’s own clavichords
painted and toned with that special sacred vermilion. *22

The Pisan Cantos offer music in memory only. Pound heard little of it in his incarcerated years. Finally in 1958, released from the asylum at age seventy-two, he returned to Italy to live with his daughter Mary. There was a celebration at her castle. In town, his favourite belongings, including the clavichord, were placed on display.
Pound wrote to Dolmetsch’s son, Carl,

“I have at last got back to my clavicord [sic] after interruptions of a more or less drastic nature […] BUT the strings have been almost entirely liberated by the enemies of gawd […]. Not sure that the local zither fixer can deal with the whole problem. I suppose he cd/tune it IF he can get the strings. I think your father used to import ‘em from Germany, in which case it would […] probably [be] simpler for me to get ‘em direct from over the alps […]

A. Dolmetsch hammered it into MY head that the principle of the clavicord WAS that there are two strings for every note, slightly out of tune with each other. […] At any rate mine had ‘em until the war ‘liberated’ ‘em. It was the small size, black, […] about a meter long, say 42 inches. Not the big six footer. *23

After the strings were put in place, Pound wrote, ‘Clavicord now in order, and with a little playing will get back tone – despite 15 years stillness’. *24

Pound kept his Dolmetsch clavichord until he died in 1972. His daughter still cherishes the instrument in her castle. The words inscribed on its under-lid – ‘PLUS FAIT DOUCEUR QUE VIOLENCE’ – are as important today as they were for Arnold Dolmetsch and Ezra Pound.


1) 16 June 1771. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Transl. by Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 25 [All further English quotations of Goethe are from this same edition]. Original text: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, Hamburger Ausgabe, Goethes Werke, Band VI, 12. Auslage, hrsg Erich Trunz (Munich: Verlag C.H.Beck, 1989), p23 [All further original quotations for Goethe are from this edition]:

2) 16 July. Mayer and Bogan, p. 47/ Hamburger Ausgabe, p. 39

3) 15 August. Mayer and Bogan, p. 63/ Hamburger Ausgabe, p 56

4) 24 November. Mayer and Bogan, p. 188/ Hamburger Ausgabe, pp 87-88

5) 4 December. Mayer and Bogan, pp. 123-124/Hamburger Ausgabe, pp. 91-92

6) Mayer and Bogan, p. 145/ Hamburger Ausgabe, p. 107

7) Berrathon, A Poem. The Poems of Ossian. Translatede by James Macpherson. New York: Edward Kearny, 1883. p. 483.

8) Mayer and Bogan, p. 153/Hamburger Ausgabe, p. 115

9) Mayer and Bogan, p. 154/ Hamburger Ausgabe, p. 123

10) Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov, (New York; Bollingen Foundation, Chap. 2, VI, p. 132.)

11) Ibid., Chap. 2, IX, p. 133

12) Ibid., Chap. 2, XX, p. 139

13) Ibid., Chap. 6, XVII, p. 243

14) Ibid, Chap. 6, XIX, p.244/ A. S. Pushkin, Evgenii Onegin, Glava shestaia [1828 g.] Polmoe Sobranie Sochinenii, t. 6, AN SSR 1937, pp. 124-125

15) Ibid, Chap. 6

16) Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. Transl. by Constance Garnett (New York: The Heritage Reprints, 1941-43) pp. 138-139/I.S. Turgenev, Ottsy I Deti, gl. XX [1862 g.] Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii I Pisem, t. 9, M.-L.; AN, 1964, pp. 316-317

17) John Galsworthy, The Silver Spoon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), p. 4.

18) Ibid., p. 11

19) Ibid., p. 47

20) Ibid., pp. 47-48

21) Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos. Copyright 1948 by Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Books), p. 49.

22) Ibid., p. 82

23) Ibid., p. 463

24) Ibid., p. 464

“Clavichord Perspectives from Goethe to Pound”
by Joan Benson

Available in:
De Clavicordio VI; Proceedings of the VI International Clavichord Symposium; September, 2003; Bruachli, Galazzo, and Moody, ed; The International Center for Clavichord Studies

Comments are closed.