The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Sturm und Drang

Goethe is often cited as one of the first proponents of the Sturm und Drang movement. In essence, {Sturm und Drang] is a German literary and musical movement that emphasizes intense subjectivity. "Sturm und Drang" literally means "storm and urge," though it's often translated "storm and stress." The name captures the two main aspects of Sturm und Drang art: first, "storm" emphasizes the role of nature's sublime power in inspiring the artist; second, "urge" or "stress" emphasizes the role of the emotions or the will in expressing the turmoil present in nature.

The Sturm und Drang movement emerged in Germany as a reaction against the Enlightenment - and as such, it is an important precursor to Romanticism. Sturm und Drang artists emphasized the limits of reason, believing that while man is capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, his emotional nature may compel him to act irrationally. Instead of seeing this irrational urge as problematic, as Enlightenment thinkers tended to do, the Sturm und Drang movement sees it as the defining characteristic of a human being. A human being is most human, it holds, when she or he acts in accordance with unhindered emotions.

The term Sturm und Drang comes from the title of a play written in 1776 by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (1752-1831). However, the essence of the genre existed before Klinger's play gave it a name. German poets and philosophers such as Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737-1823), Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) were important precursors of Goethe in developing the vocabulary of Sturm und Drang. Yet it was Goethe and his friend, the playwright, poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), who brought the genre to its richest and most enduring expression. The Sorrows of Young Werther, without a doubt, is the Sturm und Drang work that most defines the genre today. In music, the minor key symphonies that Franz Joseph Haydn composed in the 1770s, such as his Symphony no. 45 ("The Farewell"), are lasting examples of the Sturm und Drang sensibility.

It is important not to collapse Sturm und Drang under the canopy of Romanticism. The former certainly influenced the latter - and might even be considered a sub-genre of the latter - but only in the same way that the minor key symphonies of Haydn and Mozart influenced the unquestionably Romantic works of Beethoven and Berlioz. In literature, Sturm und Drang is closer to the Enlightenment sensibility than its proponents may have been comfortable admitting. Werther, for instance, is a meticulously composed work that ultimately casts its protagonist's excesses in ambiguity. Goethe and Schiller both, for their parts, moved away from Sturm und Drang after visiting Italy. They ended up espousing Weimar Classicism, a rationalist aesthetic, and backing away from the passionate works of their youths. In short, one can sense Classical elements in Sturm und Drang, just as one can sense elements of Sturm und Drang in the Classical movement.