Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

The Most Important German Literary Figure

Felix Mendelssohn (1809- 1847) playing the piano for the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, engraving
Goethe is the genius behind many famous masterpieces. De Agostini Picture

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is without a doubt the most important German literary figure of modern times and is often compared to the likes of Shakespeare or Dante. He was a poet, dramatist, director, novelist, scientist, critic, artist and statesman in what is known as the Romantic period of European arts. Even today many writers, philosophers and musicians draw on his ideas and his plays still draw big audiences in theatres. The national institute for promoting German culture worldwide even carries his name. In German speaking countries Goethe’s works are so prominent that they are referred to as “classical” since the end of the 18th century.


Goethe was born in Frankfurt (Main) but spent most of his life in the city of Weimar, where he was ennobled in 1782. He spoke many different languages and travelled great distances throughout his life. In the face of the quantity and quality of his oeuvre it is tough to compare him to other contemporary artists. Already in his lifetime he managed to become an acclaimed writer, publishing internationally bestselling novels and dramas such as “Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther/ 1774)“ or „Faust“(1808).


Goethe was already a celebrated author at the age of 25, which made explain some of the (erotic) escapades he supposedly engaged in. But erotic topics also found way into his writing, which in a time coined by rigorous views on sexuality was short of revolutionary. He furthermore was a playing an important role in the “Sturm und Drang” movement and published some acclaimed scientific work such as “The Metamorphosis of Plants” and the “Theory of Color”. Building up on Newton’s work on color, Goethe asserted, that what we see as a specific color depends on the object we see, the light and our perception. He also studied the psychological attributes of color and our subjective ways of seeing them as well as complementary colors. In that he made way for our understanding of color vision. Besides, writing, researching and practicing law, Goethe sat on several councils for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar during his time there.


As a well-travelled man, Goethe enjoyed interesting encounters and friendships with some of his contemporaries. One of those exceptional relationships was the one he shared with Friedrich Schiller. In the last 15 years of Schiller’s life, both men formed a close friendship and even worked together on some of their material. In 1812 Goethe met Beethoven, who in reference to that encounter later stated: “Goethe – he lives and wants us all to live with him. It is for that reason that he can be composed.“


Goethe in literature and music

Goethe had an enormous influence on German literature and music, which of course meant he would turn up as a fictional character in works of other authors. While he had more of an oblique impact on the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Herrmann Hesse, Thomas Mann brings Goethe to life in his novel “The Beloved returns – Lotte in Weimar” (1940). In the 1970’s German author Ulrich Plenzdorf created a very interesting take on Goethe’s works. In “The new Sorrows of Young W.” he brought Goethe’s famous Werther story to the German Democratic Republic of his own time.


Himself being very fond of music, Goethe inspired countless composers and musicians. Especially the 19th century saw many of Goethe’s poems to be turned into musical works. Composers such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Fanny Hensel or Robert and Clara Schumann set some of his poems to music.


In the light of his magnitude and influence on German literature, Goethe has of course been subject to huge amounts of research some of which aimed at demystifying him and revealing his every secret. So even today he is a very intriguing figure, who is worth a closer look.